Issue No. 5, Summer 2013

Potemkin
Rebecca Kuensting

Elizabeth’s village was getting a new post office today, and she was thrilled.  She walked to the table where the Mayor’s house stood, a white-brick structure powdered with glistening cellophane snow.

“Oh, Mister Mayor,” she whispered, “won’t your wife be pleased?  She can finally send letters to her sisters out on the frontier.”

Elizabeth spoke to the villagers, but only when all of the windows and curtains of her house were closed.  She knew that the immaculate buildings weren’t inhabited, that the rosy-faced plastic children that traced definite tracks on the Plexiglass ice rink didn’t have chests of drawers or summer clothes or mothers to go home to.  She knew, when she ordered 1/12 scale trees and newspapers and streetlamps from Miniatures.com, that she wasn’t a mother buying gifts for children, or a god springing new resources on an experimental populace, but a single woman, easing into her forties, babbling about tiny imaginary lives that were, even in their falseness, richer than hers.

The doorbell rang.

“Hello, Elizabeth.  Funny weather today.  Signature, please.”

“Is it funny? Thanks, I’ll use my own pen.”

“Sun and then snow and then a little bit of rain.  They’re saying be careful of icicles tomorrow.”

“I’ll do that.”

“You have a good day, now.”

Elizabeth watched the postman take the steps down from the porch two at a time.  He touched his cap and turned toward her neighbor’s house. It was the dark navy fur on the collar of his jacket, she decided, that made his blue eyes seem so bright.

Elizabeth settled in front of the television with her brown paper package, and flipped to the History Channel before ripping off the tape and placing parts of the plastic-wrapped post office one by one on the coffee table.  These things always required a bit of assembly – usually a little glue and paint.  She liked the noise of the television, the measured voices of men in cargo vests extending arms in front of battlefields.

“Crimea,” the announcer said.  The camera chased a swarm of sheep across a field. Cut to craggy sea coasts, stone castles perched on rocky pinnacles, a map flashing red and green and yellow, tracing battles and empires across a long-contested landscape.  Finally, a man in gumboots, stepping toward the camera from across a marshy field.

“In 1787, Empress Catherine II of Russia arrived in Crimea. Military leader Grigory Potemkin, hoping to impress the Empress with the value of the conquest, ordered false facades constructed over many of the small farming villages in the area, to make them appear, from a distance, like affluent cities.  By night, Potemkin ordered fires lit in entirely uninhabited places, to fool the empress. According to legend, the farce worked, and Potemkin became a great favorite of Catherine the Great. The word ‘Potemkin’ has since taken on a pejorative connotation, and refers to propaganda and delusion.”

A herd of sheep flooded around the speaker, who raised his arms to gesture at a small cluster of houses in the distant hills of the landscape.

At the coffee table, Elizabeth’s post office was coming together nicely.  It was a snap-together kit, no glue needed.  She would have to supply her own glitter, it seemed, as this post office, though perfect in scale, wasn’t crafted specifically for a winter scene.  She could fog up the windows, and use a cotton swab to touch the tiny shingles with frost.

She tried the unfinished post office next to the Mayor’s house for a moment, and smiled to herself.  The Mayor’s wife wouldn’t have to worry about icicles.


Rebecca Kuensting is a 24-year-old writer and teacher. She has just completed her MFA in fiction at Penn State university, and is planning to spend the next year revising her first novel and travelling.

Issue No. 5, Summer 2013

The First Beautiful Girl I Ever Saw
Gerry Mark Norton

Look up at the stars; look up at the unvisible stars. Robotic sun and cancer vapour. Lesions aground; levitating leviathan marbles abound. But in a shroud of boiled tumescence. Wafting, precum. Tail; prawn = my mother’s name for my infant cock. Ah! I see a star…no, it’s a plane. Sky-ferrying pale morons somewhere they can get swarthy (that’s livin’).

Saw that girl when I was fourteen, radiant on the lawn of some tilting tower. Symmetrical replicant face, pale Latina complexion. Comely ‘til comely. Sextet minus the organ solo. Absorption; the sun became a bitch, a matchhead, a snowman. Combusting eyes of eternal return…then we walked off.

Drew an atheist cross when she sat in the same restaurant. Had to squeeze past when we left, didn’t realise it was her chair I grabbed till I looked in from out. She gazed out at us, then spoke to her mother in Argentinean Spanish (I’ve always assumed): Look at those orange-haired people! Doesn’t it shine beautifully in the sunlight? We weren’t a freak show like at the fountain in Genoa. Maybe though, but politely.

Is she now worshipped? Is her form the (bemusing?) muse for quatorzains and empyrean tears? Do they smack her up, does she not know any different, does she spend days with her riparian sorrow, disenchanted, hopeless, lost, so so sad? Why am I typing as a solitary man when such words spill out? Is that not beautiful too? Should someone – does someone want to? surely not – worship me? Don’t I deserve to be rescued like anyone else? Moles make hills of mountains, I a proper geyser.


Gerry Mark Norton was born in London, England in 1989. He has self-released one book of poems, Sick Roses, and two albums of music, A Momentary Lapse in Lethargy and Feasting, Dancing & Revelry. He has been published in Quail Bell, Misfits’ Miscellany, Eskimo Pie, Red Ochre Literature, The Rusty Nail, Danse Macabre, and Circa Review, and has work forthcoming in Eunoia, The Vehicle, and The Toucan.

Issue No. 5, Summer 2013

The Cursed Princess
Laura Chitlon

“Da, who lives up there?”

The woodcutter split another block of wood with his ax before looking from beneath his straw hat at where his son was pointing.

“Ah,” the woodcutter said, his smile grim. “Up there, son, lives the cursed princess.” He lowered his voice at the two significant words.
“The cursed princess?” The woodcutter’s son perched on a log and looked up at the woodcutter with wide eyes. “Who is she?”

“She is the princess who cannot marry, or she will die. It is the curse put on her many a year ago.”

“Who put it on her, da?” The woodcutter’s son frowned in intense curiosity.

“No one know, son , just that she was cursed and has lived alone in that tower since. People avoid it like a lion’s den. Even I don’t chop wood too near it, which is why you have not noticed it until now.”

They were gazing up at the distant treetops on a forest hill. In their midst was the top of a narrow tower made of shining emerald bricks. A thin wisp of smoke curled from its point.

“People ought to go see her sometimes,” said the woodcutter’s son stoutly.

“They daren’t. It is said that the princess must have done a wicked deed to deserve such a curse. Best left alone, I expect. Take a load, son,” said the woodcutter.

They piled wood into their arms and carried it to their hut in a clearing of the forest. The woodcutter’s son looked back at the tower several times as they went.

Later, at the darkest hour of night, the woodcutter’s son lay awake in bed, staring up at the low ceiling of the hut. The only sound to be heard was the woodcutter’s loud snoring.

The woodcutter’s son could not stop thinking about the cursed princess in her tower. She must be lonely up there, and terribly bored with nothing to think of but the curse that kept her there.

Perhaps the princess was locked in the tower against her will. Whatever the reason for her isolation, she should be out, out in the open air and living in a splendid castle among others. There was no reason to be hidden just because she could not marry; no reason, unless she really had done a wicked deed.

These wonderings whirled around and around the woodcutter’s son’s head until all drowsiness fled and there was no chance of sleeping.

“I shall go to see her. I shall go to see the cursed princess,” he whispered aloud. Then he threw his blankets aside, wrapped a ragged cloak around himself, and slipped from the hut into the dark clearing.

There was no moonlight to guide him, but the woodcutter’s son thought he could find the place where he and the woodcutter had been earlier that day. He walked eastward straight through the trees. Their branches brushed against him and rustled as he passed between them.

The woodcutter’s son held his breath and listened for any sounds in the forest. All was unnaturally still, so that he felt that his presence was not unknown. He had never been out alone in the forest by night, for the woodcutter had forbidden him, warning many times of the beasts that prowled its wild reaches. But he must get to the tower!
The woodcutter’s son met nothing on his long way. At last he reached the hill where the tower stood. He climbed up to it and paused at its tall door.

What would the cursed princess look like? Lovely, most likely, despite the curse. But suppose she was wicked, as people said? He might never get back to the hut if he entered the tower. The woodcutter’s son shivered and drew the cloak tighter around him as he looked up at it. Suddenly he smiled. It had such a friendly glow about it.

The door opened easily when he pushed it. Fear of the curse kept unwanted visitors away better than a lock, it seemed.

Inside the door was a single curving staircase that led up out of sight. The woodcutter’s son began to climb it, his bare feet making no noise. “I want to surprise her,” he said to himself. “And if she is asleep, I shall just peep in at her face.”

The cursed princess was not asleep, however. The woodcutter’s son reached the top of the tower and stopped. He was in a small cozy room with a low fire burning in the hearth. Above it on the mantle was a silver vase decorated with purple jewels. The bed opposite the hearth had an embroidered satin quilt, but it was empty. At the arched window, through which could be seen a twinkling star in an amber patch of sky, sat the princess.

She would not have known anyone was there behind her had it not been for the cat. Long and golden-haired, he lay stretched across the window sill. When the woodcutter’s son appeared in the doorway the cat opened his eyes and blinked them coolly at him. At this signal the princess turned.

She was lovely, as the woodcutter’s son had expected. Her chestnut hair touched the floor over her magenta gown, and her eyes were as emerald as the tower walls that surrounded her. They had a very wistful expression.

The cursed princess gazed at the woodcutter’s son for a moment before speaking. “Perhaps I have been married to my prince all this time, and you are my son,” she mused.

The woodcutter’s son looked down at himself: at the torn, dusty breeches and calloused toes. “I’m only a woodcutter’s son,” he said. He stepped forward and bowed low to the princess. It was such a clumsy bow that it sent him rolling over onto the hearth-rug.

The princess laughed and bent to help him into a sitting position. The woodcutter’s son caught his breath at the merriment in her voice and eyes. She was meant to look this way instead of sad, he thought. He was sure that she could never be wicked.

The princess became sober again. “You are my only visitor in the four years that this tower has been my lonely home.”

“Is it true that you are cursed?” asked the woodcutter’s son.

“Yes,” said the cursed princess. “If you care to hear it I shall tell you the whole tale.”
The woodcutter’s on nodded fervently.

“The castle where I was born lies on the eastern end of this forest,” the princess began. “One day when I was a little girl, I slipped away from my waiting maids to go exploring in the trees. I came to a large standing stone. Hidden in a side of it was the entrance to a tunnel. I followed the tunnel, passing great caves full of gleaming treasures. In one of them I saw a vase.” She pointed to the one on the mantel. “That very one. Its beauty so drew me that I took it down from its shelf to examine it.

“Immediately, a dwarf appeared beside me. He saw that I held the precious vase. He raised his hand and said, “By all the dwarfs I lay a curse on you, for you have stolen from their treasure. The curse I lay on you is this: if you ever marry, you shall die. Take your plunder and go.’

“I tried to give back the vase, but he would not take it,” said the princess ruefully.

“Well, he ought to have!” said the woodcutter’s son indignantly. “It would only have been just. You were only looking at the vase.”

The cursed princess shook her head. “Underground dwarfs are very stubborn and protective of their fine possessions, woodcutter’s son, as I discovered to my disadvantage. The only justice they know is to punish those who meddle with their treasure. To touch it is to steal it in their eyes.”

The princess turned her head to the window. The golden cat leaped lightly from the sill to her lap, purring as she stroked his fur.
“What happened next?” asked the woodcutter’s son a little impatiently.

The princess returned her eyes to his. “I left the caverns by the tunnel, carrying the vase. When I was in the forest again I saw that my hand had an X on it, marking the dwarf’s curse.” She held up her palm to show the large X inscribed upon it.

“I went home to my parents, the King and Queen, and told them what had happened. I expected them to be sympathetic, but they were so angry that they banished me in disgrace from the castle. Since I could not marry, they would have no heir, since I was and remain their only child.”

“They don’t deserve an heir!” said the woodcutter’s son, striking the rug with his fist. The cursed princess’s sad smile and gentle manner had entirely won him over. He was deeply moved by her story, as much as if it was his own.

“I must confess that I felt the same way when I left their house,” said the princess. “I hoped to find work in the village and start a new life. But the news of my curse spread. Everyone I approached recognized the sign of it on my hand and turned me away, afraid that my presence would harm them, too.

“Finally I came back to this forest to live. It wasn’t long before I found the tower and used it to sleep in. But during the day I roamed beneath the trees.”

“And that was how you  met your prince,” guessed the woodcutter’s son.

The cursed princess nodded. “Yes, I met him here, in a clearing. He and his father the king were visiting my parents’ castle. The prince was alone in these woods when he came upon me. He had heard of me and my plight and guessed who I was right away. Word had spread that I was living in the forest.”

The cursed princess twisted her thin white fingers together in remorse. “I should have sent him away at once, but I couldn’t—I liked him too well. He was so sympathetic, never speaking of what I had done as a girl unless I did. We loved one another from the first, and we met in the clearing nearly every day.”

“But you couldn’t marry,” said the woodcutter’s son quietly.

“No, we could not,” affirmed the princess. “My prince was desperate to find a way around the curse. He went to the dwarfs and reasoned with them, but they would not break it. They told him that the only thing to gain their favor would be a piece of treasure equal to the vase on my mantel, untouched by human hands.” The princess smiled grimly. Her emerald eyes turned cold and hard. “Such treasure can only be found in the underground caverns, and it is not given willingly. There is no hope of relief.”

“Yes there is,” nodded the woodcutter’s son with grave certainty. “But what happened to your prince?”

The cursed princess sighed. “His visit at my parents’ castle ended, and he had to depart with his father the king. But the two of us had already decided that, since we could not wed, it would be best to say farewell. So, my prince left, after giving me gifts—this gown and my golden cat. In four years’ time I have met no human, though each day when I wake there is food, drink, and firewood laid for me in my room. I rarely leave the tower in daylight and think often of my prince and the life I have lost. And that,  dear woodcutter’s son, is my tale.”

“I wish none of it were true,” said the woodcutter’s son. “I wish you were happily married to your prince.”

“So do I,” said the cursed princess, looking out the window again. “Perhaps I should have married him, though it would bring my death. But perhaps it is not so bad. At least I have the knowledge that I was loved by him.” She stood and looked down at the woodcutter’s son with a brave smile. How many different smiles she had! “I thank you for hearing my tale. It does me good to speak of it to such a willing ear.”

The woodcutter’s son stood, too, and gripped the cursed princess’ hands in his. “I will find the way to break the dwarf’s curse,” he told her, each word ringing with determination. “I will free you and your prince from it!”

“Do not trouble yourself with it, though your valorous offer is well taken,” said the princess gently.

“I must go now, before my da wakes,” said the woodcutter’s son. “But I will free you.” He swung his cloak around his shoulders.

“My golden cat will light you down the stairs,” said the princess. “Goodbye, dear woodcutter’s son. Fare thee well.”

At her words, the golden cat curled himself around the legs of the woodcutter’s son and led the way from the room. The woodcutter’s son followed. He looked back at the cursed princess. She stood bathed in the warm light of the fire. In her face mingled despair and resignation.

As the woodcutter’s son descended the stairs, his steps were lit by the glow from the golden cat’s fur. The cat waited until the woodcutter’s son left through the door at the bottom before returning to his mistress.

A soft wind had crept into the retreating night, ruffling the boy’s hair and cloak.

“I must go to the dwarfs,” he said to himself. “I must free the cursed-”

He stopped. While he stood there, the wind had carried a sound to him, a sound that was unmistakably human. It was a sigh.

The woodcutter’s son went a little way into the trees and saw the silhouette of a man sitting on a stone. His head was bowed, and he sighed again.

A delighted tingle ran through the woodcutter’s son. The man was the cursed princess’ prince! He had come back to her from his far country.

But the woodcutter’s son did not reveal his conviction. “Sir?” he said, stepping closer to him.

The man turned in surprise. He had a high, noble brow and a royal emblem in the shape of a swan on his scarlet tunic. “Greetings, lad of the forest. Dawn approaches. Have you just risen?”

“No. I’ve been awake all night,” said the woodcutter’s son. “Why are you here?”

“Visiting the tower of my lady,” answered the man frankly.
“The cursed princess,” said the woodcutter’s son.

“Yes. Everyone knows of her curse in these parts. But none regret it as I do, for I am her prince. But we cannot wed.”

I regret it. Can nothing be done for her?”

The prince shook his head. “Nothing. I have tried every way I could think of, but each was futile. Only the dwarfs have the power to remove the curse.”

“I’m sure the princess would like to see you anyway,” said the woodcutter’s son.

The prince smiled. “Staunch lad, how you cling to hope! I cannot show myself to her. It would only cause her deep pain. But I shall be the one to leave wood and food at her door tonight, whilst she sleeps. Lad, you had best go home.”

The woodcutter’s son nodded and yawned. He was suddenly very weary. But he smiled to himself as he thought of the joy the prince would have when he, a little woodcutter’s son, lifted the curse so he could be wed to the cursed princess. “I shall go to the dwarfs today, after I help da,” he thought, leaving the prince on his stone.

But the woodcutter’s son was not to close his eyes in sleep that night. On his way home he passed a spring just in time to see a domed hat sink beneath its surface. Without hesitating the woodcutter’s son flung his cloak away and dived into the water. His groping hands found a small stout body. A moment later both lay gasping on the grassy bank.

“You didn’t trouble yourself to save my hat, I see,” said a creaky voice.

The woodcutter’ son looked at the little man beside him. He was a dwarf! The woodcutter’ son had saved a dwarf! His face lit up. Here was his chance.

“I’ve never seen a dwarf from the underground caves,” he said.

“That is because they usually do not leave them. And I am not an underland dwarf, I’m an overland dwarf,” snapped the little man, grumpily wringing out his beard. “You are very impertinent to suggest that I am a part of that bibbling, black-bearded race.”

Disappointment filled the woodcutter’s son. “Then you aren’t related to the dwarf who cursed the princess in the tower.”

The dwarf glared at him with his beady yellow eyes. “Not all dwarfs have the power to lay curses on people, and not all use it. It’s only the cave ones who hoard treasure. Why, do you know how many kinds of dwarfs there are, ignorant boy? There are tree dwarfs, sea dwarfs, field dwarfs, meadow dwarfs, garden dwarfs, kitchen dwarfs, weaving dwarfs, spinning dwarfs, menagerie dwarfs—and, of course, under and overland.” The dwarf paused, quite out of breath.

“Are they all grumpy, like you?” asked the woodcutter’s son. “With no gratitude? I did save your life, overland dwarf.”
The dwarf’s glance was shrewd. “Sorry you saved me, eh? Since I’m not a treasure dwarf and know nothing of curses?”

The woodcutter’s son hung his head. “Then you really can’t help me free the princess.”

“Your ears must be full of water,” grunted the dwarf. “I did not say I could not help you. Let it be known the gracious gratitude of overland dwarfs aided by humans—even when their hats are lost.” The dwarf hesitated. “I may as well tell you that I am rather prone to accidents, not frequent ones, but they are always close to fatal. You pulled me from the water just after I slipped into it while taking a drink. I was terribly thirsty after my walk to the tower.”

The woodcutter’s on widened his eyes.

“Yes, boy, I take supplies to the princess every night before dawn. Her prince arranged it before he returned home, after freeing me from a hunter’s trap I had stepped into. So I’ve been doing it since, without a single accident until this moment. Now then, what is your price for saving my life? What service can I offer you? Only one thing I shall not do under any circumstances: reason with the underland dwarfs on behalf of the cursed princess. They wouldn’t listen to me—probably set my beard on fire.” He tugged at the white hair that reached his belt.

“Do you have anything I could give them to make up for the vase the cursed princess touched?” asked the woodcutter’s son hopefully.

“I told you we overlanders care nothing for treasure. Name your price, boy! I don’t have all day to wait for it!” The dwarf made to stand. The folds of his cloak shifted, and something from inside it glinted in the light of the rising sun.
“What do you have there?” The woodcutter’s son darted forward and seized it. The dwarf tried desperately to grasp it, but he was too late.

The woodcutter’s son held up the object to the light. It was a vase, a golden one set with emeralds.

“You’ll spoil it!” shrieked the dwarf in dismay.

But the woodcutter’s son had pulled the dwarf’s cloak off with the vase, and the cloth kept his skin from touching the vase.

“It’s the twin of the one on the princess’s mantle,” breathed the woodcutter’s son. He lowered the vase to frown at the shrinking dwarf. “You’ve had it all along! Why didn’t you give it to the prince? He and the princess could have been married years ago! She told me that to lift the curse the underland dwarfs wanted an equal to the vase she touched.”

“The prince did not ask for an object,” blustered the dwarf, his face going a blotchy red. “He only asked that I see to the princess’s needs. Besides, I didn’t have the vase with me then. It is only recently that I started carrying it around.”

“I believe you are as greedy and tight-fisted as the underland dwarfs,” said the woodcutter’s son sternly.

“It’s a family heirloom!” exploded the dwarf, his eyes popping. “Did you expect me to willingly hand it over to help a princess who put her grubby little fingers on its twin? The vase you have seized from me was a wedding gift from my father to my mother. He brought it from the caves for her when they–”

“Aha,” said the woodcutter’s son. “So you are only part overlander. Your father was an underland dwarf. And here you have been pretending to be better than they.”

The dwarf hopped on the spot in fury. “I wish you had left me to drown in the stream! I wish you had never come along! I wish–”

“I can easily arrange to have you thrown back in for all the trouble you’ve caused by your selfishness,” interrupted the woodcutter’s son. Then he laughed at the dwarf’s terrified expression and silent open mouth. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t do such a thing,” he added. “But my price for saving you is this: you will give this vase to me, and I shall give it to the princess. She shall take it to the underland dwarfs and they will lift the curse, and she can at last wed her prince.” He joyfully wrapped up the golden vase in the cloak, slung the protesting dwarf onto his shoulders, and ran back to the tower of the cursed princess.

She was alarmed when he breathlessly emerged from the staircase, dragging the dwarf. Evidently she had not slept that night, either, but the dwarf had managed to leave firewood and food without alerting her notice.

“Take this!” The woodcutter’s son thrust the bundle into her hands. “But don’t let it touch your skin or it won’t work. It matches the vase on your mantel. You must take it down to the caves so the dwafs will free you!”

“But where did you get it?” asked the astonished princess.

“This dwarf gave it to me after I saved him from drowning,” explained the woodcutter’s son.

“I didn’t give-” spluttered the dwarf. The cursed princess’ glance silenced him, but he refused to look her.

“I can hardly dare believe it will appease them at last, but I must try!” the princess cried.

The woodcutter’s son nodded eagerly. “Yes, try, and hurry, before your prince leaves!”

The princess stopped in the doorway. “My prince!” she exclaimed.

“Never mind—go, go!” urged the woodcutter’s son. She shook her head in wonder and vanished with a swish of her magenta gown.

“You have no trouble ordering royalty about as well as poor hardworking dwarfs, I see,” said the dwarf in a sour tone.

“On my shoulders again,” the woodcutter’s son told him. “We must find the prince!”

The prince was now pacing around the stone he had been sitting on earlier. He looked up.

“Dwarf Dunkin—forest lad!”

“Sir, the princess!” gasped the woodcutter’s son as the disgruntled dwarf clambered down from his shoulders. “The cursed princess! She has gone to the underland dwarfs with a vase to trade for her freedom from the curse!”

“How–”

“Please, sir. Don’t ask me to explain. Just come!”

The prince nodded and brought his great horse from behind a tree.

“If sir and boy will kindly allow me to return home,” began the dwarf.

“No, you will come with us,” said the woodcutter’s son. “We may need you.”

The three of them climbed onto the horse, the dwarf very grudgingly, and galloped for the rock that held the entrance to the treasure caverns. They dismounted and gathered around it. After a while, during which the dawn steadily grew and they heard not a sound, the prince became restless.

“I will follow my princess into the tunnel,” he said, grasping his sword hilt. “They may have seized and harmed her, in which case I shall slay every one of them.”

“No sir, wait.” The woodcutter’s son held the prince’s arm. “Wait for her to come. He looked up at the prince. He looked terribly strong and grim. “You wouldn’t really kill them, would you?”

The prince’s anxious face relaxed a little as he looked down at the woodcutter’s son. “I spoke in haste, forest lad. I take no pleasure in bloodshed. If not with their lives, they shall be punished if they harm my princess.”

“I suppose I will be included in the punishment,” grumbled the dwarf. He tried to sit on a nearby stone without looking at it, overbalancing and landing upon his back with a grunt on the other side.

There was another long wait. For the first time the woodcutter’s son doubted that the cursed princess really would be freed. Suppose the underland dwarfs hadn’t accepted the twin vase after all? Maybe they did not consider it a fair trade for the original silver one. The woodcutter’s son himself liked the silver one better.
At that moment, when they were despairing that the cursed princess would return, there was a rush of air and someone came flying out through the tunnel entrance, hair and gown billowing. It was the cursed princess. She was laughing and holding her hand to her eyes, her hand that had been wiped clean of the X on its palm. She was cursed no more.

She saw the woodcutter’s son first. She knelt down before him and took his hands. “Dear woodcutter’s son, it is you who have freed me! No words of mind can ever express the enormity of what you have done for me. The dwarfs accepted the gold vase and lifted the curse from me at last.” Her eyes shone in emerald radiance.

The woodcutter’s son grinned, then stepped aside so the prince could take his place. The prince gazed into the eyes of the princess.

“My princess!” he said, and drew her up to him. They embraced, reunited just as the dawn turned rosy.

“I’ve done it—I’ve done it!” the woodcutter’s son said to himself in triumph. “I have freed the cursed princess. But I couldn’t have done it without da and the dwarf.”

Dunkin the overland dwarf was peering over the stone at the happy lovers. Remorseful tears poured down his cheeks and into his beard.
“I ought to be decapitated and hurled into the depths of the sea!” he said. “But it has all come right after all.”

The woodcutter’s son said nothing. Exhausted, he had collapsed onto the grass and was sound asleep with his head pillowed on his cloak. The princess and her prince stood close together, framed by the golden sky. All around their feet bloomed flowers of spring.

 

The prince and princess were married the very next day. As soon as the woodcutter’s son woke the next morning after a well-earned good sleep, they all met at the emerald tower and departed for the castle at the forest’s eastern edge. The prince and princess rode on the prince’s mighty horse while the woodcutter’s son, the woodcutter, Dunkin the dwarf, and the golden cat walked on the ground beside them. They took their time, enjoying the morning forest and talking with one another. The whole story was told to the woodcutter, and he readily joined the small procession, glad that he had had a part in the happy ending, however small.

The princess’s parents received their daughter and her prince when they arrived at the castle and related how the curse was lifted. The prince and princess insisted that it was due to the woodcutter’s son, and the woodcutter’s son insisted that his da the woodcutter and Dunkin the overland dwarf had as much to do with it as he did. The king and queen were rather sheepish at the return of their daughter whom they had cruelly banished, but she gave them her forgiveness at once.

Then the prince and princess were married by the great glistening fountain behind the castle. There wasn’t enough time to invite a lot of guests, but it did not matter overmuch. Everyone was too happy to care. And so the woodcutter’s son, the woodcutter, Dunkin the overland dwarf, and the golden cat were the only witnesses of the royal marriage. The woodcutter and his son beamed through the whole ceremony, while Dunkin cleared his throat many times to hid his emotion. The king and queen smiled at each other and sighed. The prince’s gaze barely left that of the princess. The golden cat purred.

It was soon made known in the land that the princess was no longer cursed, and that those who had once turned her away would not be punished. The princess and her prince stayed at the castle and had many children and before long were king and queen. The emerald tower was left deserted and locked up except for their vacation retreats, during which they stayed there. The royal emblem became a golden ax, and Dunkin the overland dwarf was made prime minister. His first action as such was to close up the forest entrance to the underland dwarf caverns. Never, he declared, should anyone wander into it again and be cursed for touching an alluring piece of treasure. If the underland dwarfs wanted to come up, well, they would just have to fight their way through, the scoundrels.

As for the woodcutter and the woodcutter’s son, after the wedding of the princess and her prince, they were given richly embroidered clothes and named royal counselors. The woodcutter and his son, however, requested that they might work in the castle gardens. And so they did until the end of their days, remaining very good friends with the prince and his once-cursed princess.


Laura Chitlon has always loved to write, particularly stories inspired by sentimental fiction and fairy tales.

Issue No. 5, Summer 2013

The Princess and the Dragon
James Stutz

The rain had all but stopped, leaving Sir Rorik to contend with only a light drizzle as he rode down the rocky hillside path that led to the village below. For a man soaked through and through, he was in unusually high spirits, for he knew that the object of his quest was now in sight.

The village itself was nothing that would have stood out anywhere in the kingdom; a small cluster of rough stone houses, surrounded by wattle-and-daub huts that were rougher still, and those in turn surrounded by farmland dotted here and there with simple barns and grainstores. The smell of wood smoke and farm animals mixed with that of wet vegetation as he entered the village, and all was silent but for the pattering of intermittent raindrops, punctuated by the lowing of cattle somewhere in the distance. He could see the dim glow of candles and hearthfires in the homes that he passed, and though no one came out to meet him, he felt that he was being watched.

Presently, he arrived at what passed as the town square, a simple stone well surrounded by those houses that seemed least likely to blow over in a high wind. Dismounting and tying his horse’s reins to the well’s winch handle, he approached the largest house, knocking at the door. At first, he heard nothing in response. Then, after a minute or so, a soft shuffling was followed by a muttered curse, and the door opened but a crack. The face on the other side was round and soft, the nose almost spherical, the piggish eyes a watery blue.

“Yes?”

“A fine afternoon to you, goodman,” replied Rorik, mustering as much cheer as he could, given the weather. “Do you know where I might find the master of this village?”

“If you’re looking for the mercenaries, they’ve already passed through, heading south.”

“No, my business is not with them,” said Rorik.

“We’ve already paid our monthly taxes to the Palatine, then.”

“No, you misunderstand me,” said Rorik, his smile now starting to fade somewhat. “I wish to speak with the village master, regarding the castle to the west.”

The door closed, and Rorik could hear another soft curse. Then it reopened, wider this time, to admit Rorik into the house. The short hallway on the other side of the door was dark, lit only by a guttering candle set on a small table.

As Rorik entered, the man spoke. “I am Hakon, the burgomeister. If I may, I’d ask you stay here, in the hall, as I don’t want my house any wetter than it already is.”

“Fair enough, Master Hakon,” replied Rorik.

“Now,” said Hakon, “what’s this about the castle?”

“Well, I recently heard a tale of it…”

“You’re here for her, then,” said Hakon. He looked Rorik up and down, slowly. Rorik had left his mail wrapped in oiled leather on his horse, rather than wearing it, in order to keep it from the worst of the weather, but he still sported his swordbelt. “A knight?”

“Yes,” replied Rorik, “a free rider, Rorik by name.”

“A shame,” said Hakon, “you’ll have no one to pay for your funeral should you go to that castle. We certainly can’t afford the expense.”

“What’s there?”

“What did your tale say was there?” asked Hakon.

“A woman. A princess, actually, the daughter of the man who once ruled there. The story said that she’s been there for a hundred years or more, eternally young, but trapped by the castle somehow.”

“The story didn’t say what kept her there, then?” A phlegmy laugh rumbled in Hakon’s throat.

“No,” replied Rorik, “but I assume it’s some sort of curse.”

“Indeed it is, boy, indeed it is,” said Hakon, again punctuating his words with his rumbling laugh.

“Can you tell me anything about it, then? What it is? How to get past it?”

“The best and only advice I can give you, lad, is this: Find another wife. There is a beast that guards that place, and if you try its patience, it’ll snap you like a rotten branch, and make a meal of what’s left.”

“There is no animal, no monster, that doesn’t have some sort of weakness,” said Rorik, a stern look of resolution coming into his eyes. “I’ll face it in combat, I’ll find that weakness, and I’ll free that girl from her imprisonment.”

“The most I can offer, then, lad, is a kind word at the next Mass.”

“So be it,” said Rorik. “I thank you for at least taking the time to speak to me on the subject. Might I ask if there is a place here in this village that I might spend the night, the better to face tomorrow well-rested?”

“There is a barn behind my house, with room enough for you and your horse. I offer it freely, for it may be the last comfort you experience.”

“Thank you again, Hakon Burgomeister,” said Rorik. “Your generosity will be remembered once I have won my princess, and my kingdom.”

A look of sadness flitted across Hakon’s face. “And I will remember your bravery, Sir Rorik, as best as I can.”

*    *    *

The next morning dawned brighter than the last, though a light fog still clung to the lowlands. Hakon gave Rorik some hot food to supplement his breakfast of dried beef and bread, and volunteered to help the knight prepare his horse for the ride.

“Are you sure that there’s no way for me to talk you out of this, Sir Rorik?” asked Hakon, as Rorik swung himself into the saddle.

“No, Master Hakon,” Rorik replied with a smile.

“Farewell, then,” said Hakon, waving as Rorik left the square.

Rorik’s route took him away from the roads, and into the fields and heaths that spread west of the village. As the morning sun burned away the last of the mist, he could see the landscape spread before him. Flat and rocky for the most part, Rorik would occasionally pass a stand of trees; as often as not, these trees would be gnarled and burned, as though a fire had raged through them, though there were no scorch marks on the ground leading away. Lightning, perhaps, thought Rorik, as he rode with the sun warming his back. His mind was preoccupied with the task ahead of him. Hakon had told him that some sort of monster lurked within the ruins of the castle, both guarding the princess and preventing her from leaving that place. Rorik was no stranger to battle: He had ridden at the front of a dozen cavalry charges, fought his way out of a besieged fortress, and had even killed a troll that had menaced a small fishing village near the place of his birth.

This was different, though. In each of the previous cases, Rorik had known what he was going into, what would be at stake. Now, he certainly had an idea of the reward, but what exactly was the risk? He wished that Hakon had been able to tell him more.

After an hour’s ride, Rorik stopped at the base of a hill. The hill rose gently to the northwest, and at its top Rorik could see the shattered remains of a keep, a single tower seeming to be the only building still standing. Dismounting, he now went to his saddle bags and, after donning his mail and shield, rechecked his sword and knife before tying his horse to a tree and venturing up the hill on foot.

The sounds of birds and insects had stopped now, leaving only an uncomfortable silence hanging in the air. A scent of fire—of burning wood, and burning flesh—crept into Rorik’s nostrils. As he came to the summit of the hill, he could see that, though the fallen gates blocked the entryway proper, a great rift had appeared in one of the fifteen-foot stone walls, and it was through this that Rorik entered the courtyard.

The damage only seemed worse from this side. Any wooden buildings that had been here had been reduced to ash long ago, and those made of stone looked as though, at any minute, they might crumble to dust. Here and there lay charred corpses, of deer, of cattle, and, yes, of men, still dressed in their armor, exposed skin scorched black to the bone. Rorik knelt and ran his hand lightly across a flagstone; four great furrows had been carved, side-by-side, into its surface. Whatever made them, he surmised, had exceptionally large claws…

Gingerly, he picked his way through the rubble toward a set of stairs that curled up the outside of the tower. In contrast to every other building here, it seemed to be in good shape, and bore very few scorch marks.

“Hello?” called Rorik, looking toward a window that opened onto the courtyard. “Is anyone there?” He reasoned that, as he had not been slain yet, the beast had not become aware of his presence, and was perhaps even away from the castle.

“Hello!” he called again, a bit closer to the stairs now. “My name is Sir Rorik. Is there anyone up there?”

In a flash, the face of a young woman appeared in the window. An oval face of milky skin, wide grey eyes, and full lips, all surrounded by a cascade of coal-black hair. Rorik was, for a moment, taken aback; after seeing the devastation of the castle yard, a small part of him refused to believe that anything could still be living here.

Quickly, he composed himself. “My lady, my name is Sir Rorik. I am here to—”

“You must leave now!” the girl shouted, “before it comes!”

“Princess, the beast is gone, but I know not for how long! If you hurry, we can leave this place, but you must come with me now!”

“You are too late! It comes for you!” At that, the girl disappeared from the window.

At that point, Rorik heard a loud hiss behind him, as though a red-hot iron ingot had been dropped into a pond. Turning slowly, he beheld the beast emerging from the ruins of the great hall. A full forty feet in length, its reptilian hide was covered in thick, black scales, its tail thrashed restlessly from side to side, and its jaws dripped with molten flame. It was a dragon, then, that guarded the princess.

The monster wasted no time, and charged at Rorik, its jaws opened wide to close around the knight. Rorik, seeing an opening, lunged forward, wedging his shield between the monster’s teeth, preventing it from closing its mouth. Instantly, he could hear the cracking of wood as the shield started to buckle, and in one smooth motion, he drew his sword and aimed a wide swing at the dragon’s head. The blade connected, tearing a gash along the soft skin of the monster’s cheek. The dragon screamed its rage, then, and with a violent twist, wrenched the shield from Rorik’s arm. As it went, Rorik could hear a loud popping sound in his elbow, and an incredible pain shot up his arm.

The two combatants circled one another, slowly, and Rorik tried as best he could to inch his way toward the cleft in the wall. If he could reach the open country, he might be able to put some space between the beast and himself.

Like a bolt of lightning, the dragon threw itself at Rorik again. Rorik managed to narrowly avoid the snapping jaws, but the monster’s shoulder smashed into him, pinning him against the keep’s outer wall and driving the air from his lungs. His sword flew from his hand, clattering to the flagstones a good ten feet away. He wrapped his right arm about the beast’s jaws, trying to keep them closed and avoid being burned alive. Simultaneously, his wounded left arm clawed at the knife at his belt, desperately attempting to unsheathe the blade and bring it up. As the monster wriggled free of his grasp, he flailed out at the beast’s head with the knife, and was rewarded with the sight of the blade striking home, lodging itself in the dragon’s right eye. It screamed and backed away, and Rorik wasted no time running for the broken wall. As he reached the cleft, he could hear the dragon’s footsteps behind him, and as he turned to confront it, the beast’s massive skull struck his chest with full force, jarring every bone in his body and knocking him through the rift. For a split second he flew through the air, and then he was tumbling down the hill side. As his head struck a rock embedded in the hard earth, everything went black.

*    *    *

     Rorik’s eyes slowly opened. He tried to sit up, but the intense pain that shot through his body as he did so made him think better of it, and so he simply laid still. Looking around as best he could, he saw that he had been placed on a straw-stuffed mattress, in a wattle-and-daub hut. Around him were various roots and herbs, tied and bundled, hanging from the supports of the house. The smell of wood smoke reached him, and he instinctively recoiled.

“H … Hello?” he called out faintly. “Is anyone here?”

After a moment, he heard footsteps, and delicately turning his head, saw a young woman approaching his bedside. She appeared to be no more than nineteen or twenty, dressed in woolen homespuns, her curly blonde hair pulled into a ponytail.

“Ah, you’re awake! The best sign we can hope for, aside from a heartbeat and breath.”

“Who are you?” asked Rorik.

“I am Jutta,” she replied, gently unwrapping the bandages that encased his left arm. “I’m a midwife here, and the one that people come to see when they’re sick or injured.”

“I don’t understand. Where am I?”

“You don’t remember?”

“No, I’m sorry.”

“We heard the beast’s screams all the way here, in the village. Hakon thought that you might have gotten the better of it, and worked up the courage to ride out, to see if he could find you. And find you he did, though not in the best of conditions.”

“I’m at the village, then?” Rorik smiled faintly.

“Of course,” replied Jutta, now rubbing some sort of foul-smelling salve across Rorik’s arm. “A lucky thing, too. Your chest is one big bruise, and you’re lucky that you were wearing your coif when your head struck that stone. Your arm is, of course, the worst of it; I think that it will heal fully, given time, but that time will come slowly, and I would advise against using it any time soon.”

Rorik groaned at this, closing his eyes again.

“What do you have to complain about?” asked Jutta, smiling, “You killed the beast! Hakon said that it was nowhere to be found when he arrived, and thinks that it must have crawled back into the ruins to die, otherwise, it would’ve eaten you.”

“No, not dead,” replied Rorik, “though as badly injured as me, I think.”

Jutta’s smile faded. “That’s it, then. You tried your best and, honestly, coming away from the attempt with your life means that you’ve fared better than any that have come before you. Were I in your place, I’d call it a victory, of sorts.”

“No,” said Rorik, “I have to try again. When will I be able to use this arm?”

“I couldn’t say,” said Jutta, wrapping fresh bandages about his arm. “And even with two good arms, I fear that your brains have been jarred hard enough to put you in no good position for a fight, especially against a foe that came so close to killing you the first time.”

“Then what am I to do?”

“Give up,” said Jutta, standing. “There’s no shame in what you’ve done. You’ve faced an enemy that has killed all who have gone before you, and lived. Accept that you’ve won a victory, even if it doesn’t come with the prize that you had hoped for.”

“Jutta, there has to be a way. Please, help me.”

A look of consternation came over Jutta. She seemed to hesitate for a moment, and then retook her seat by Rorik’s bed.

“Hakon wouldn’t want me to tell you this. He fears her.”

“Who?”

“There is a witch who lives not far from here, in the wood to the north,” said Jutta, her eyes now wide. “They say that she has lived for over a hundred years. That she knows the true history of the princess, and the beast.”

“Why does Hakon fear her?”

“I don’t know. Superstition, I suppose. She comes here once a year or so, for those things that she cannot make herself, metalwork and the like. She barely speaks to anyone. She’s never seemed angry, only distant.”

“Jutta, be honest with me,” said Rorik, now using all of his strength to rise to a sitting position. “Do you truly believe that she can help me?”

“I don’t know,” said Jutta, standing once more. “She is wise, though, that much I do know. And I would rather see you go to seek her council, than return to the castle to what would most assuredly be your death.”

“Then I will rest here for today, and tomorrow I will ride to seek her out.”

“As you wish,” replied Jutta, almost in a whisper, as she turned to leave the room.

*    *    *

It was, in fact, two more days before Rorik felt well enough to ride. During that time, Jutta tended to his injuries almost wordlessly, and Rorik, for his part, was just as silent.

On the dawn of the third day, Rorik thanked Jutta profusely for her help. He then went to see Hakon, who had recovered the knight’s horse shortly after he found Rorik, and who had been keeping the animal in his barn. With Hakon’s help, he climbed slowly into the saddle, and was soon headed north, the horse’s every step sending a shiver of pain through his skull.

The northern wood was closer than he had realized, and even riding slowly to avoid aggravating his wounds, he reached its edge shortly before the sun rose to its highest point in the sky. He had studied maps of the area before coming here, in order to locate the castle, and he remembered seeing the wood on those maps. He also remembered that it was not very large, a mile across at most, and figured that he would be able to find the witch’s house before the sun set. Coming to the treeline, he could see now that it was old growth, tangled with brush and brambles, and that he would not be able to take his horse with him. He dismounted, then, tying the animal to a convenient tree branch, and started in, heading in the direction of what he believed to be the wood’s center.

As soon as stepped inside the forest, the sunlight grew noticeably dimmer. Looking up, he could only make out patches of sunlight through the tangle of branches and vines, and knew that it would be hard to tell the time; he would have to move quickly to avoid being caught here after sundown. As he walked, his left arm clutched tight to his stomach, he could hear movement in the leaves and undergrowth, the croaking of ravens in the trees, the rustling of dead leaves as wind blew through the trees. It was cold here, colder than in the surrounding lands, and it felt as though autumn had come early to this place. Rorik did not think it a natural thing, and the thought only made him more determined to find the witch’s house.

He felt as though he had walked for hours when he first stopped to sit. He didn’t understand it; he should have reached the other side of the wood by now, even if he hadn’t found the house. He knew that it would be virtually impossible to retrace his steps. He was no woodsman, and there was no way to navigate by the position of the sun. He recognized no landmarks, and so believed that he had not been walking in circles, but he admitted that one tree looked much the same as any other to him. Taking a drink of water from the skin he had brought with him, he stood, and once again resumed his march.

He only stopped again when the sun had grown red and dim on the horizon, and still he had seen neither the witch’s house, nor the other side of the forest. It would be dark very soon now, and a sense of panic started to creep over him. He had become thoroughly turned around, with no way to even retreat from this place. His waterskin was almost empty, and he had seen no stream that he could either fill it from, or follow to leave this place.

“Hello? Hello out there!” he called to no one in particular. The only answer he got was the flapping of raven’s wings, as one of the birds launched itself from a nearby branch and went winging into the wood.

The trip here had been for nothing, then. As the last rays of the sun extinguished themselves, the forest grew truly dark, and soon a chorus of insects, and less identifiable things, had started to sing in the black around him. Hakon had been unable to retrieve his sword from the castle ruins, but he had kept his grip on his knife as he fell, and this he now grasped, to make sure that it was still in its sheath. In a blind fit, he started to run, every footstep a shock to his arm, tripping over fallen logs and narrowly avoiding collisions with trees in the blackness. His breath came heavily, and soon he was forced to stop his flight, no closer to his objective or to freedom.

Finally, he sat, and tried to compose himself.

“No sense in killing yourself, idiot,” he said to himself. “She’ll be there in the morning, and you’ve slept through worse. So we didn’t find her tonight. No one said that this would be easy. Have a little patience.”

Rorik was wrapping his cloak about himself, trying as best he could to get comfortable in a pile of fallen leaves, when through the darkness he spied a dim light. He remained perfectly still and silent now, until he could verify that the light was neither coming closer nor moving away, and when he did, he stood slowly, and started toward it.

No more than thirty feet away, he could see that the light was, in fact, leaking from around the door of a small cottage, one that he would have sworn wasn’t there before. Saying silent thanks, he approached the door, pounding at it with his fist.

“Hello? Please! Is there anyone there?”

The door swung wide, and standing before him was a woman. She was old, certainly older than Rorik, but still beautiful. Slight marks about her eyes were the only signs of age on her face, and her steel-grey hair, pulled back, matched the color of her eyes. She wore a simple dress and smock, but in any other clothes, Rorik would have guessed her a queen.

“And who would you be?” she asked, her voice clear and commanding.

“I … I am … are you the witch?” was the best reply Rorik could muster.

“I’ve been called worse, but my name is Matilda,” she said, frowning slightly.

“I was told, in the village, that I would find you here. I need your help.”

“Come inside, then,” said Matilda, standing aside of the doorway.

“Thank you,” replied Rorik, stepping into the cottage. Once inside, he could see that it looked quite like Jutta’s, with various plants, and less identifiable things, hanging about the rafters. It was warm, almost too warm, owing to the stone fire pit in the center of the room, and the smell of something delicious drifted through the air.

“You want help with your wounds, then?” Matilda said, turning away from him to stir the bubbling pot. “I have to say, they look well cared-for. I doubt that I could have done much better myself. Who is responsible?”

“Jutta, the midwife in the village,” replied Rorik. “That’s where I’m from. Rather, that’s where I’ve come from.”

Matilda turned back now, staring Rorik in the eye.

“Are you nervous, lad?”

“No … no, it’s just that…”

“It’s just that the people in the village told you that I was a witch, and that makes you nervous.”

“Yes, sort of,” gasped Rorik, find himself unable to lie to her. “I mean, I’ve never met someone like you before.”

“What, a woman who cooks and dries herbs?” Matilda smiled now.

“No, a … a wise woman. I’ve come to ask you about something. About the castle.”

Matilda’s smile faded then. “Then you’ve come to the wrong place,” she said, going back to her cook pot. “And I’m sorry that you’ve come so far to hear that.”

“But they said that you would know!”

“And I do know,” said Matilda, sitting now on rough chair made from unpeeled wood, “but that doesn’t mean that it’s something that I intend to share.”

“But you must help me! Please! You’re my last hope to rescue her.”

“Then she has no hope,” Matilda replied, “for I’ll not help you kill yourself over that girl.”

“Why not?” asked Rorik.”

“Because she doesn’t deserve to be saved.”

“Why NOT?” asked Rorik, his voice now raised.

“Because I put her there!” spat back Matilda. “Yes, I am a witch, and she owes her current circumstance to me.”

“I don’t understand. Why would you do such a thing?”

“Do you truly want to know why? Or are you just asking, in the hope that indulging an old woman will make her more inclined to give you the help you seek?”

Rorik sat. “I … I think that I would like to know, truly.”

“Well, then, the first thing that you should know is that I wasn’t always … quite as old as you see me now. Once, I had youth, like you, and beauty, like her. And for as long as I have existed, I have had knowledge of … things.

“So it was, then, that one day I was summoned by the king, the father of the girl that you now pine over. He had heard of my talents, and hoped to gain my favor, that I might grant wisdom to him that would help him in the governance of his kingdom. He was a wise man, a just man … a handsome man. It was not long before I had gone beyond merely being his soothsayer, and had become his lover.

“It was affection that his daughter could not bear to see him lavish upon me. Since the death of her mother, she had been the only woman to whom he had paid any attention, and she had grown spoiled with the privilege. One night, half a year after I had begun living at the keep, a man came to me in the night, telling me that the princess wanted to see me in the courtyard, and that it was a matter of some urgency. I made my way there, only to find her in the company of three men, each one holding a club. They beat me, then, as she watched, and when they were done with that, they dragged me to the sally port and tossed me down the hill, telling me that worse was in store for me should I return to that place.

“It took me a month to recover from my wounds, and when I did, I began the casting of the spell that resulted in the princess’s predicament.”

“Why? Why would you do that to the king, to the man you loved?” asked Rorik.

“Because,” replied Matilda, shaking her head as though to clear the memories, “youth is a garden for impatience, and impetuousness, and hotheadedness. Now that I am older, I see the folly in vengeance, and wish that I had never acted so rashly. Perhaps, then, that is my curse in all of this.”

“I am sorry for you, truly. It was an unjust thing that was done to you, and you deserved a redress for your grievance, but unless I am mistaken, I can also hear regret in your voice. Help me, and I can undo what you have done, and offer both you and her some end to all of this.”

“What’s done is done, boy,” said Matilda, rising from her chair to ladle some of the pot’s contents into a small wooden bowl. “There is no end aside from what we have now. Some things simply can’t be undone.”

“This can be undone,” replied Rorik, now himself rising. “I can slay the dragon, and rescue the princess. I can bring an end to this.”

“Have you not heard a thing that I have said to you? Rash action is what brought all of this about; it can’t be fixed with more of the same.”

“My actions are not rash. I can fix this! And I will find a way to kill that beast, whether you will help me or not.”

“I believe that,” replied Matilda, quietly. “I will help you, then.”

For a moment, Rorik was struck speechless.

“Wonderful!” he finally managed. “I cannot begin to know how to repay your kindness.”

“Think not of repaying me until the deed is done,” replied Matilda.

“What must I do?”

“Take off your shirt,” said Matilda, rummaging about in a large wooden chest that sat in one corner.

After a moment of hesitation, Rorik did as he was told. As he wrestled the shirt over his wounded arm, Matilda approached him with a small brush and a jar full of a brown-black paste.

“I will mark you with this,” said Matilda, holding up the jar, “and it will render you silent and invisible to the beast. It will not even be able to smell you. Take the opportunity to retrieve the girl and to leave that place as quickly as you can. Do not think to engage the dragon, for though it cannot detect you, it will be as strong and as vicious as ever, and in its thrashings, it may yet strike you dead.”

Rorik nodded, and Matilda gestured for him to sit. Leaning over him, she began to paint upon his chest runes like those he had seen carved into ancient stones in the north. When his chest and stomach were full of these, she moved on to his sides, and his back, and finally to his uninjured arm, all the way to the wrist.

“A final word of warning,” she said, as she stood to survey her handiwork, “these will only last until the next sundown. After that, they will fade, and your protection with them.”

Rorik simply nodded silently.

“It is done, then. You have your help. There is venison in the pot should you be hungry, and an empty corner for you to sleep in. I would suggest that you take up the offer, as the wood is not kind to those who try wandering it in the dark.”

“Thank you, Matilda,” Rorik managed at last. “With this, you and I will be able to rectify any wrong you feel you might have done.”

“That remains to be seen, young knight,” she replied, “that remains to be seen.

*    *    *

In the morning, Rorik barely took the time to bolt down a bowl of porridge that Matilda offered him, and then, shouting his well-wishes, set off to find his horse. He was in high spirits, and eager to take up with the dragon where they had left off.

Unfortunately, the forest surrounding Matilda’s house had other ideas. Again, it seemed to close around him, feeling dark and damp even in the light of morning, and the more Rorik tried to push it aside in his thoughts, the denser and more difficult to navigate it became. After several hours, he had managed to become lost again, and had to force himself to sit, to remain calm, and to consider the idea that he might not make it out of the forest in time.

“I must be patient,” he said to himself, peering up at the sky in an attempt to see the sun. “If I simply thrash about as I did last night, I’ll find myself in the same predicament. Surely Matilda will help me again should I find my way back to her home. All good things come in due time.”

It was then, as though by some magic, that he heard a faint nickering, and, walking no more than a few yards, broke through the brambles and bushes to find himself standing once again at the edge of the wood, his horse a mere ten feet away. He removed its tack, then, knowing that it would barely carry him half the way without his giving it something to eat and doing his best to brush off the morning’s dew. More time wasted, he thought; pulling his sleeve back, he could see that the sigils that Matilda had given him were gradually growing lighter.

Once he was sure that his horse would bear him to the castle, he wasted no time in resaddling it, moving clumsily as his wounded arm did not afford him the opportunity for speed, and Hakon was not here to help him now. As the sun reached its zenith, he climbed astride the horse and set off, again going slowly as the horse’s movement jogged both his arm and his head. His confidence was tempered with patience, now; move forward as best you can, he said to himself, and you will arrive with time to spare.

The straightest path eluded him, as he was forced to find his way around a rocky ravine, and again around a low hill that his horse refused to cross over. So it was that he came upon the castle as the sun was sinking low in the sky, and he knew that time was short.

Now, he wasted no time in trying to find a place to tie up his horse. He took his mail from his saddle bags and, gingerly slipping his hauberk over his left arm, checked his belt once more to ensure that his knife was still there. He knew that it would be a paltry weapon against the beast, but he hoped that he would not have to use it.

Stepping into the cleft in the wall, he surveyed the courtyard. He could see the signs of his previous battle with the beast, blood spattered across the flagstones, the ruins of his shield, the great furrows the dragon’s claws had cut into the ground. Stepping quietly toward the corpse of one of the monster’s victims, he delicately pried the sword from its grasp, his own weapon being nowhere in sight. As he swung the sword once to test its weight, he heard the hiss, the sound that heralded the dragon’s coming, and saw the beast, emerging once again from the remains of the hall. It looked as though it had fared no better than Rorik in their last encounter; the gash in its cheek had not healed, and its left eye was a ruin. The beast sniffed the air, casting its good eye about the courtyard, and then moved to the tower, coiling itself up at the base of the stairs.

Rorik stood perfectly still, barely breathing, for what seemed to him like forever. He briefly considered some ruse, some trick to lure the dragon away from its roosting place, but ultimately decided against it, as he was not sure of the limitations of Matilda’s spell, and did not wish to be caught outside of them. So it was that, as the sun’s edge touched the horizon, he began to inch closer to the stairs, determined to ascend them, even if it meant climbing over the beast to do so.

As he moved to within thirty feet of the stairs, the beast shifted, now turning its blind eye toward the courtyard. Now is my chance, thought Rorik, and I will not get another. Slowly, he stepped over the dragon’s tail, and mounted the first step of the stairway.

Rorik could not believe his luck; it was working! Slowly, very slowly, he now crept up each step. The dragon raised its head as he passed the halfway point, and Rorik stopped, frozen in place. Delicately, the beast sniffed about it again, its tongue flicking out of its mouth in the manner of a serpent, and Rorik knew that Matilda’s spell had run its course. Instinct followed panic and, not thinking, he reversed his grip on the sword he held and jumped from the stairway, plunging the blade into the back of the dragon’s neck.

The beast reared while Rorik still sat astride it, blood welling from the wound in its neck. It thrashed violently, and managed to toss the young knight from its back. Rorik landed hard, slamming his wounded arm against the flagstones as he did. The pain was excruciating now, and his vision swam as he saw the beast, the sword still lodged in its neck, start toward him. Half a dozen staggering steps and the monster was practically on top of him, but he could see that the life was rapidly draining from its good eye, and even as it opened its jaws to crush him, it collapsed, choking its life’s blood onto the ground. Soon, the monster laid still. It was dead, and Rorik, as he has once promised, had been its slayer.

Now Rorik wasted no time in bounding up the stairs, the pain of his arm temporarily forgotten.

“Princess!” he shouted. “Princess, I’ve returned! The dragon is dead, and you can leave this place with me!”

No reply. He came to the landing, and tried the door; it was locked, or barred. He threw his shoulder into it, once, twice, and on the third try it gave, flying open to admit him to the room.

He could see now the princess lying on the floor. Kneeling beside her, he brushed her dark hair from her face, and startled, reared back. Across her right cheek was a long, jagged gash, and her left eye was nought but a ruined socket. A hole pierced her neck, and through it, her life’s blood was rapidly draining.

“Princess, I don’t understand…” started, taking her in his arms.

“Thank you, brave knight, for freeing—“ Her body seized, and then relaxed, as her last breath escaped her lips.

Numb, unsure of what to do next, Rorik picked up her body, leaving the room. He stopped at the landing outside of the door, glimpsing someone standing in the courtyard. As he descended the stairs, he could see in the rays of the dying sun that it was Matilda.

“Foolish boy. Foolish, rash boy! You’ve ruined it!”

“I … I don’t…” Rorik could barely speak as he gently laid the princess’s body at his feet.

“Of course you don’t understand,” shot back Matilda. “I told you not to kill the beast, simply to slip around it. But in your impatience, you did exactly the opposite. You slew it, and you slew her as well.”

“Tell me what happened. What did I do wrong?” Rorik now sank to his knees, pain and confusion clouding his vision.

“She was the dragon, and it was her,” said Matilda. “My spell … separated them. I thought that I could cast out her bad side, the selfish, envious, evil side. The side that had me beaten and sent away from my love. I never wanted this.”

Rorik searched for words, but found none.

“When you killed the beast, you killed the princess,” continued Matilda. “Don’t you see? She couldn’t live as half a person, no one can. There is good and bad in all of us, kindness and cruelty, rashness and sound judgment. It takes both to live. I had hoped that you would take her away from this place, take her somewhere that the beast could not find her. But you did not, and my one chance to make amends for my cruelty is now gone.”

Dumbstruck, Rorik looked up at Matilda. “What do I do now?” he managed.

“Live, I suppose,” replied Matilda, now sounding as though she were truly a century old. “Live, and take this lesson with you.”

She turned to leave, and the clouds that had gathered in the absence of sunlight opened, to once again rain on Rorik the knight.


James Stutz resides in Arlington, VA, where he is a tech writer by day, and a wannabe-fiction writer by night.

Issue No. 5, Summer 2013

The Night You Showed Me Ambaglass
Graham Tugwell

Because there are things you won’t remember.

 

We held hands and ran through reeds.

Tipped in cigarillos of fluff, they cracked like whips against our thighs.

We screamed.

(You a little louder.)

And the overcast glowed orange— swabs of cotton soaked in tea— the streetlights working themselves up to shine.

Fireworks in the distance gently broke like bones, the sky too bright to see them; we were still days before Hallowe’en

Down by your house a shallow stream: the water curdling brown with dirt, carried from fields, eddies foaming with effluent. We fell down its shallow slopes and, filthy, kicked water at each other.

We squealed.

A bridge crossed the stream, taking your road so straight for miles you could see where it hit the horizon. And cars at speed would hit the humpback, sending heads to thump their roofs— they droned overhead as we scissor-walked our way beneath the bridge.

You were tall enough; you could place a foot on either side and straddle the stream.

But me, too short, I’d shuffle along the ledge on one side, my back hunched up against the curve of stone; a slow and precarious job.

And beyond the ditch, the stream, the bridge: a pocket of quiet and dark, plucked out of the earth, a nest of thorns and brambles, a hollow hidden beneath the trees.

Our low and secret place.

You remember?

Shauna, you remember, don’t you?

That night, you showed me Ambaglass.

That was the night it began.

We knelt in half light above the stream and slowly the smile deserted your face. Something bright and heavy weighed your eyes and when you spoke it was with a hesitance I’d never known from you before.

I watched your fingers curl in grass to rip from clay. “We trust each other, don’t we?” you said.

I nodded, leaving my shoes half-laced. “Of course.”

Your eyes, weighed as they were, slipped under lashes.

“Kevin,” you said, “I have to show you something.”

“Can I do that?”

You looked at me. And who was this shy and timid girl? No-one I knew.

“Will you let me do that?”

Mutely, I nodded again.

With your eyes on me you removed your jacket, folded it carefully, lay it on the bank.

“Here,” you said, turning to show the small of your back, a thumb tracing the crease of spine. You pulled your ponytail to one side and took your t-shirt in your hands.

I watched the material rumple and sway as you brought it up one side, then the other.

The light was dim in our bower of green and you curved to show me something in the dark.

I looked at what you had for me.

“Lower,” you said. “Look lower.”

And that word, the way you said it…

“Lower,” you said, “This morning, I felt it, a roughness in the shower…”

And lower I looked and saw… there was something at the base of your spine, a scaly patch of wrinkled skin, paler than that surrounding.

I moved closer on hands and knees.

“I’m scared to touch it again,” you said.

“What if it cracks?”

“What if it comes away in my hand?”

And in that space, made dark with leaves, there came the drone of cars and the bump as they struck the bridge and left the roadway for a beat.

And fireworks, softly bursting, far away.

“Kevin?”

“Tell me.”

“What is it?”

And closer I brought my face to the rough— my eyes going down the notches of your spine and I held my breath lest you felt it.

And I was scared to touch it too.

But we trusted each other, didn’t we?

I reached out.

My fingers touched and traced: I heard your breath catch softly, saw the skin between your hips for a second flexing.

What I felt was coarse and warm and as my fingers ran its length a slight wax gummed my fingertips.

“It’s…Shauna… The way the wrinkles are around the mole. It could… it could almost be a… face…”

“Shut up,” you said, disgusted, and arched yourself away. “That isn’t funny, Kevin.” You let your t-shirt fall and combed out your hair with peevish nails.

But I wasn’t trying to make a joke.

“I’m going home,” you said and I sat on the bank and watched you work your way back under the bridge.

I thought about calling to you.

I thought about apologising.

But only for moments.

There was that gum on my fingertips.

There was that thing on your back.

I wasn’t trying to make a joke.

 

You remember Shauna, three nights later?

You threw a stone up at my bedroom window.

And I opened it and looked out.

And you were standing on the lawn, looking up.

Like we were in a film.

I pulled on a dressing gown and stumbled groggy down the stairs.

The clock said half four in the morning and everything was painted in navy and bone.

I came into the garden and you were pale and a hair away from panic.

You took my arms and dug in nails and words couldn’t come from you quick enough.

“I was half asleep,” you said.

“I turned on my side.”

“It opened.”

“I felt it— A sucking feeling. A gap.”

Your nails were close to breaking skin.

“Kevin, it spoke.”

And my response…

My response was shameful inadequacy: “What did it say?”

“Words,” you said, turning your face away, “Just words. Just…”

You closed your hands softly over your mouth.

And I stood there dumb and offered no comfort.

Just stood there and looked at you as you shook with the cold and the horror.

There was nothing on your feet, I remember that, and you wore your brother’s jacket, because in the rush you couldn’t find your own. And underneath, nothing but the nightdress you were growing too tall to fit.

I took you by the hand and led you inside, it was all I could do.

In the kitchen you sat on the counter and showed me the strangeness again.

And you were right—the wrinkles had grown and parted—two uneven slits above and a longer one in a curve below and the moles between grown even bigger.

And there was nothing in the kitchen except the clock ticking its way towards five and our breaths.

(Yours a little louder.)

And as I placed my fingers as gently as I could I felt it part and open further.

A wordless something trickled out and sent me reeling in my chair—

Huuuuuuu.

It hung in the air forever.

“Kevin,” you whispered, “what’ll we do?”

Night surrounded us in shades of bone and navy, cloths of unwarmth.

“What’ll we do?”

Never heard you speak like that before.

That was the horror for me.

We stood in my kitchen and shook with the cold.

That night we knew.

Ambaglass was growing.

 

The next day your father let me up the stairs and into your room.

He smiled the way he always smiled.

Sad and gentle since the stroke.

And here was another dark hollow—the curtains closed, all light banished, and you, curled away among pillows and sheets. We sat on your bed in silence.

We must have sat there for half an hour at least, before you spoke.

“There are… times, Kevin. I don’t remember.”

“I have missing hours,” you said, “I have missing days.”

Slowly you unravelled your foot from the sheets.

Look.”

And I saw:

Muck on the sole.

A rim of blood around a broken nail, dark and crusted.

“I wake up in fields. I wake up walking miles from home on roads I’ve never walked before.”

“Kevin, where do I go? What do I do?”

Your hand came out and searched for mine.

“I’m scared,” you said, and it seemed you were shrinking upon yourself, taking the strength of your voice with you.

“I don’t want to sleep.”

“I don’t want to close my eyes.”

“Who knows what will happen?”

I tried to comfort you, stroking your hand, mumbling soft and meaningless things, repeating words I’d heard in films:

You’ll be all right.

We’ll get through this together.

I’m here for you.

Those words weren’t meant for the likes of me.

There was no consoling you.

But suddenly you gripped my wrist, almost fit to snap it.

“Lock me in.”

“Lock me in,” you said, and your face was set in stone and there was an edge to your voice.

“Promise me.”

You dragged me down, the weight of you.

“Don’t let me wander. Don’t let me be taken away again.”

Who would argue with those words?

There was a lock on the bathroom door and the window too small for you to get out and we put blankets and pillows on the tiles. You made your nest afresh in there.

I looked in on you. Hands wrapped around your shins, your chin resting upon your knees.

They’d lit the bonfire out on the green; flame and shadow fought in the window.

You were lit, you were shadowed, you were lit.

“Good night,” I said, “I’ll be right here.”

“Nothing will happen to you.”

“I won’t let it.”

And then, Shauna, I shut you in.

I settled into a chair and tried to get comfortable. Noises made their way up the stairs.

The front door, hammered by trick and treaters.

The snap and sizzle of fireworks, the howls of terrified dogs.

And you, tossing and turning and finally falling asleep.

And curled in that chair in the hallway I followed you down.

I dreamt.

We held hands and ran through reeds, hurried under endless bridges.

And what sent us running so far and so fast?

A voice, high and cracked.

I dreamt that voice was calling me and woke to find it was.

The cold stiff of my body—wakening an agony—

And it said “Kevin…”

“Kevin…”

“You made a mistake…”

“There are sharp things in here.”

“You left me with them.”

“Left me free to maim.”

The voice, Shauna. The voice wasn’t yours.

Nothing should sound like that.

“Open the door, Kevin… Open the door.”

Twisted painful in the chair and the words that drained all heat remaining:

“Open it or I’ll put her through it.”

And I was something boneless flung against wood, fumbling with the lock.

“Don’t— Don’t—” were dumb fragments of word.

An eternity to unlock the door.

And slowly you came.

Walking backwards out of the room.

It was like…

(Do you remember, Shauna, the time we saw that lorry strike a calf?

And how it tried to stand.

How it bled from its mouth and tried to walk.

A ruined thing. Struggling, desperate to live.)

Your hands jerked, sought in vain to bend the right way— I could see muscles straining— hands crossed and took hold of material under your shoulder blades.

As if you were showing me how to do it, in one long slow motion you tore apart your nightie: A long and ragged tear down the centre of you, shoulderblades hinting, showing the curve of your spine to the dark, revealing the thing that had grown at its base.

A face, smudged and blurred.

Opening.

Blinking white eyes and moving blue lips.

I stared.

(That time we went to see the body taken from the reservoir, that’s what it looked like; something drowned, something water had worked upon.)

“Kevin,” it said, “look what I’ve learned to do,” and it smiled. with perfect teeth.

And I dropped the first thing that fell into my mouth—“What are you?”

“Ambaglass,” it said, lips and jaws savouring syllables:

“Aaaaaaam…”

“Baaaaaaaa…”

“Glaaaassss…”

The backs of hands prodded and worked the crusted lump, squeezed an eye to bulge, snail-like.

“Aren’t I a clever boy, to do what I’ve done?”

I watched as he jinked your hip to show a swell of flesh through cloth.

A whisper came from me:

“Get out. Leave her.”

And Ambaglass laughed, “No… no… you’re going to help me get stronger, Kevin.”

Hands ran over you.

Indecent.

“You want rewards, Kevin?”

He sent you a step towards me, bent your neck until it cracked.

“She likes to be licked beneath her ear.”

Your fingers rose to touch the place.

“Or she will, when it happens.”

Softly he puckered his lips— Mwah.

I felt sick.

And… other things.

“We’ll call your cowardice gallantry, hah?”

He ground your head around in a swing of matted hair.

“You just want to see her safe, isn’t that it?”

He drove your jaw into the doorframe.

“Should I give her bruises?” he shouted, “In places you’d never expect? Terrible places? Should I let her wake to find them?”

He started screeching: “Kevin? What happened? Why am I..? What did you do to me?”

Shauna…

It was your voice. He was using your voice.

I couldn’t let him hurt you, Shauna.

I couldn’t.

I let him out of your house.

I went with him.

 

Shauna, I know you don’t remember this.

I know we’re running out of memories we share.

But I want to make you understand.

I followed Ambaglass down the centre of the road, the rags of your nightdress opening like a flower.

I followed him as he went under the bridge.

To the place that was ours.

I could see your face, bruised and crack-angled, your mouth and eyes open, half-hidden by hair.

No light in them. Dead spaces, staring back.

We sat together in the hollow, you and me and Ambaglass.

And the way he had you sitting, nightgown riding up your haunches.

I shouldn’t have stared. Shouldn’t have followed the hem as it rose.

“Claw the dirt,” he said, “Claw the dirt.”

Bending, I tore the grass and broke cold soil and filthied my fingers—

“Make me stronger,” he said, “make me stronger.”

And in the dead of night I sat and fed the face on your body worms.

He held my hand to guide them in, lips rubber cold on fingers, breath a stink of coloured air that set me retching.

I fed him for an hour.

Finally, the last worm went in.

Fireworks broke and spattered over town, in instants you were blue and red and green and every splash of colour showed me something different—

What was I looking at?

You, the girl I…

Or this other thing, old and twisted, your body cracked and bent out of recognition.

I don’t know.

But Ambaglass caught me staring and smiled.

“Kevin,” he said, “I think I’m in…”

“Loooooove.”

Worms between his smiling teeth.

I broke.

I fled.

I left your body with Ambaglass.

 

The sun had not come up the sky when you phoned me the next morning.

“Where were you?” you said.

“I woke in the bathroom.”

“The door was unlocked.”

“My feet and hands were filthy.”

“What did you let me do?”

And when I said nothing, when only silence came down the line, you whispered:

“I was sick.”

“Worms…”

“Kevin…”

“I vomited worms.”

And when I said nothing the receiver came down with the softest of clicks.

 

I stayed away for days. Hid when you came to the house, told my mother to say I was out. I left the phone to ring and ring…

Knowing that you needed me.

If I was to say I’m sorry, would you forgive me?

If I was to say I made the wrong choice would you understand?

Would it mean anything to you if I said I’m ashamed, Shauna?

I abandoned you. Did nothing even when I heard things, heard people talking:

Saying they’d seen… something… on the roads.

Saying livestock had gone missing, only to turn up hollowed and dry.

I did nothing even when you left that message on my phone:

Blood on my hands.

Blood in my mouth.

Where are you?

I need you.

Ambaglass growing stronger, you growing weaker, but I couldn’t do anything.

I told myself I couldn’t do anything.

And then, the thing in shame I’d hoped for most…

You stopped calling.

You stopped phoning.

Nothing for a day.

And terror seized me, flung me across the town at daybreak, saw me hammering on your door, the pain of each blow doing nothing to assuage my guilt.

And I called and I called for you.

And deep inside the house you and Ambaglass were screaming.

(You a little louder.)

Something final was happening.

 

That was this morning.

That was hours ago.

And the things I’ve seen…

He didn’t suffer, Shauna, I want you to know that.

Your father…

It was…

Ambaglass made it quick.

Shauna?

Do you know where we are?

We’re in the hollow again. We’ve gone to the place beyond the bridge.

Shauna, it’s important that you listen to me.

There’s been a…

There’s been a change.

It’s why you can’t see.

Why you can’t speak.

Ambaglass tells me you can hear…

(Shauna, he’s watching us, using your face, looking down at us over your shoulder. He’s trying to use your face to smile.)

Stronger, he said, why should he be consigned to the second face?

Oh, I know. I know Shauna, but don’t—don’t panic—

We’ve come to an arrangement.

I’ve made him change his mind.

He won’t gouge you out.

Won’t cut you away.

You’re just…

You’re just going to go to sleep for a while.

Remember, that night you showed me Ambaglass?

A wrinkle of skin, a couple of moles…

But enough to grow back.

And Shauna, I’m going with him. That was his price. Wherever he goes, whatever he needs. But I’ll be close. I’ll keep you safe.  I’ll be waiting for you when he lets you come through.

And I’ll make this right.

But now…

Try and forget.

Forget and go.

Just let it happen.

Think of it as going home.

But we’ll hold hands again.

We’ll run through reeds.

We’ll go back to our special place.

I promise.

I promise.

 

(I love you).


Graham Tugwell is an Irish writer and performer. The recipient of the College Green Literary Prize 2010, his work has appeared in over fifty journals, including Anobium, The Quotable, Pyrta, THIS Literary Magazine and L’Allure Des Mots. He has lived his whole life in the village where his stories take place. He loves it with a very special kind of hate. His website is grahamtugwell.com.

Issue No. 5, Summer 2013

Kill Me with Chocolate
Frank Scozzari

“How do I know you really love me?” she asked, standing tall on the hotel bed with both hands on her hips.

Nick stopped unbuttoning his shirt and looked up at her. The way she stood there beneath the ceiling light, scantly clad in French lingerie, she resembled a burlesque stripper on the Rue de Lac.

“You know I love you,” he said.

“Do I?”

“Yes.”

“I am not positive of it.”

“Come on…”

“Like I said… how do I know?”

Nick paused. “Well…”

“You must prove your love for me,” she said, interrupting. And raising her arm she pointed at the door in a commanding fashion: “Bring me chocolate!”

Nick turned and looked back at the door. It remained dead-bolted; the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign still hanging on the outside knob.

“Chocolate?” It is some kind of Lover’s game, he thought.

“Yes, CHOCOLATE!” she said sternly. “And I don’t mean any kind of chocolate. Something like Barettini or Lindt.”

Nick looked at his watch. It was nearly midnight. “I think everything’s closed.”

The woman’s posture began to contort.

“Can we sleep on it? I’ll get you all the chocolate you want in the morning.”

Her body twisted into sharper angles. Nick remained wisely silent.

“I need chocolate, and I need it now! If you really love me, you will go now and will not return until you have chocolate!”

Nick took a deep breath. It was one of those moments, he knew, that happens in every relationship. What he would say or do now would determine his fate for the evening. You can be right and be alone, he thought, or you can be warm in bed with the one you love.

“Okay,” he said.

He buttoned up his shirt, tucked his wallet in his pants, and took his coat from the armoire.

The woman smiled and dropped her hands to her side. “Bring me chocolate and you’ll be my hero…. you’ll be my prince.”

“Chocolate it will be,” Nick said, and he opened the door.

“Don’t come back until you have some.”

“I won’t.”

Ganache would be okay too,” she said.

“Okay, I’ll see if I can find some.”

Nick exited, leaving the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign hanging on the outside. It reminded him of a romantic night that was not to be.

The night clerk was startled at the sound of the elevator bell. The hour was late, the hotel was nearly empty, and he had already settled in for the night. Nick strode out of the elevator cage confidently, greeting him with a “Bonsoir.”

“Bonsoir, how can I help you?” the clerk said.

“I need chocolate,” Nick said bluntly.

“Chocolate?”

“Yes, some high quality stuff, Swiss or Belgium.” He caught himself. “Of course, French will do also.”

The clerk frowned. “It is late, Monsieur.”

“I know. The chocolate is not for me. It is for my fiancée.”

“Is it possible to wait until the morning?”

“She wants it now.”

“Well Monsieur, it may be hopeless this time of night and all….”

“I must find chocolate,” Nick replied, “…or another hotel room. She will not let me back in unless I bring her chocolate.”

The clerk glared at the elevator door, as if trying to visualize the woman who made this irrational request. “The Mademoiselle desires chocolate and will not let you back in the room without it?”

“Yes.”

“She cannot wait until morning?”

“No.”

“It is a desperate situation! C’est vraiment des conneries!” The clerk glanced at the elevator door again. “It is Cannes. It is October. It is midnight! It is impossible…”

“I tried to explain to her…”

“We do not have Seven-Elevens here… Everything is closed now.”

“Nevertheless I must try.” Nick paused thoughtfully. “…unless you have another room available?”

“It is a big problem for you.”

“Yes – Qui.”

The clerk tapped his fingers on the counter and glanced skyward. “There are some fine shops along the Boulevard Croisette.”

“Okay.”

“You can also try the large hotels along the Croisette… but Monsieur, I’m sorry to say, I know this town very well and I don’t think you will find gourmet chocolate at this hour.”

“It’s not negotiable. She wants chocolate and wants it now,” Nick said.

The clerk’s eyebrows furled. Then he shrugged his shoulders.

“Thanks for the help,” Nick said.

Bonne nuit,” the clerk replied.

Nick left, heading down the alleyways to the waterfront where the major hotels lined the Boulevard del la Croisette. Along the way he saw the lights were out in the many boutiques and restaurants that had been open and filled with people earlier in the evening. He was glad to see the palm-lined Boulevard Croisette was still lit by street lamps. Down the coastline were several large luxury hotels, among them the Cannes Intercontinental Carlton, considered one of the finest hotels on the Cote A’zur. Nick headed directly for it.

He climbed the steps to the entrance corridor where he was immediately greeted by a young door-guard dressed in a colorful renaissance suit.

“Can I help you, Monsieur,” the young man asked.

“I am looking for chocolate,” Nicked replied.

“Perhaps we can help.”

Nick hesitated. “I am just looking for a chocolate shop. Do you have one?”

“Yes, perhaps we can help you with that.”

The door-guard motioned into the entrance lobby with his hand. Simultaneously, from within, came a handsome young bellhop in a black tuxedo and top hat.

“He needs chocolate,” the door-guard declared, confidently.

“Excellent,” the bellhop replied in perfect English. “This way, Monsieur.

Nick paused but followed.

He was led across marble floors through the spacious entrance lobby to the concierge desk, there to be greeted by another young man dressed in a vintage, white tuxedo.

“Yes Monsieur, how can I help you?”

“He needs chocolate,” the bellhop informed.

“Chocolate?”

“Yes, do you have a chocolate shop here in the hotel?”

“No Monsieur, we haven’t a shop in our hotel but I think we can help you with this.”

“I don’t want to inconvenience you.”

The Concierge’s eyes lit up. “Monsieur, it is not an inconvenience. It is my pleasure!”

Nick looked over at the Bellhop who seemed equally gleeful. Then he realized they believed he was a guest there at the Carlton Hotel.

“It must be gourmet chocolates,” Nick said quickly.

“Of course.”

The Concierge pulled out a thick phone book and paged through to the French word ‘chocolat. Listed there were several shops on the Rue d’Antibes. He pulled the countertop telephone close to his chest, placed a ruler beneath the first number, and began dialing. But each time he dialed, waiting patiently, he eventually depressed the receiver and dialed again. Slowly, the ruler made its way down the list of chocolate shops.

C’est pas grave. No worries Monsieur,” the Concierge assured. “It is not a problem.”

“It is my fiancée,” Nick explained. “She will not let me back into the room unless I bring her chocolate.”

The Concierge looked up quickly.

“Yeah, I know it sounds ridiculous.” Nick said. “But it’s true. She won’t let me back in the hotel room without chocolates.”

Mon Dieu! It can’t be true!” the Concierge said.

“Really. She will not let me back in.”

“Not to worry, Monsieur. We will find you something.”

With fingers dialing more frantically now, but still without success, the Concierge’s gleeful expression began to fade. After five minutes, two additional men were summoned, each likewise dressed in vintage, white tuxedos.

“My name is Pierre,” one said.  “I am Chief Concierge.”

“He needs chocolate,” the bellhop promptly informed.

“Chocolate?”

“Yes, chocolate.”

“His fiancée will not let him back in their room without chocolate,” the first Concierge explained.

“It must be gourmet chocolate,” the bellhop clarified.

“Gourmet?”

“Oui.”

“For his fiancée?”

“Qui.”

“Quel désastre!”the third Concierge cried.

The information desk quickly became a buzz of activity.  Three men, all dressed in vintage, white tuxedos, plus the boyish bellhop with his black top hat, working the telephones, checking a handheld GPS device, and Pierre flashing through screens on a laptop computer.

“Try Villeneuve-Loubet,” Pierre said.

“And Nice?” one asked.

“Yes, and Nice,” Pierre said brightly.

“What is it with these women, anyway?” the first Concierge said. “We must climb mountains and cross oceans for them…”

“Buy flowers and order the proper bottle of wine…,” the third Concierge said.

“Remember the day we met them,” Pierre chimed in.

“And try to find chocolate in the middle of the night,” Nick added.

“Oui!” the first Concierge exclaimed. “And we are kept waiting, constantly!”

The young bellhop shrugged his shoulders and said, “It is what we must do.” His words brought a collective sigh to the group.

Finally it was done. They had scoured the entire Cote A’zur and found no chocolate in the south of France. It was Two O’clock in the morning. Pierre looked beat.

“Surely she will let you back in,” he said.

“She must! She can’t expect you to sleep on the streets!” the first Concierge said.

Il est injuste. It is not fair!” the bellhop cried, shaking his head.

Pierre took a pen and notepad. “If you provide your room number we can have chocolate delivered to your room first thing in the morning.”

“Thank you,” Nick said nervously. “A list of the shops will do.”

Pierre scribbled down the names and addresses of the best three shops and handed it to Nick. The bellhop removed some flowers from a vase in the lobby.

“Maybe these will help?”

Nick kindly waved him away. “It’s chocolate tonight or nothing, friends.” He tucked the list of chocolate shops into his shirt pocket, gave his thanks again, and bid them all a farewell.

Feeling exhausted and beaten, he returned to the streets, walking for several blocks with his head down. Ironically, he passed a chocolate shop, shut for the night. It was all dark inside. He pressed his face to the window and peered in. There was a small interior nightlight revealing several glass display cases. Within were rows of chocolates and truffles. The sign above the door read: ‘Chocolatier Cupid.’

It is torture, Nick thought, for past sins.

Hanging inside the door was a small sign listing the shop’s hours: 10:00 to 18:00. It was only half past two.

Nick marched on, not lifting his eyes for several minutes. When he did, he saw the red neon light of a Tobac shop half a mile down. It was still illuminated inside. He headed straight for it.

He stepped inside to find two men conversing in French. The shopkeeper, who stood behind the counter, was a tall thirty-something man with dark hair. The other man, middle-aged and gruff-looking, sat on a stool smoking a cigar. He flicked ashes on the floor as Nick stepped in.

“Excuse me. Do you have chocolate?” Nick asked.

The shopkeeper looked a little annoyed that Nick had interrupted their conversation. He motioned downward with his head to the counter beneath the cash register. There Nick saw the usual assortment of commercial candy bars: Three Musketeers, Mars, Snickers, and Almond Joy.

“I’m looking for gourmet chocolate,” Nick said.

Pardon, our chocolate is not good enough?”

“I need fine chocolates.”

“It’s American…” the man on the stool said harshly.

“It’s not for me,” Nick explained. “It is for my fiancée. She desires something European.”

The two Frenchmen exchanged glances.

“Your fiancée sent you to find chocolate?” the shopkeeper asked, disbelieving.

“At 2:00 a.m.?” the other one added.

“Yes.”

“Why doesn’t she get her own chocolate?” the shopkeeper said quickly.

“Is it for sex?” the man on the stool asked.

“No! No! It one of those woman things… you know what I mean. She just wants to know I appreciate her.”

The shopkeeper’s face contorted. “Merde! It is the problem with you Americans… you don’t understand woman.”

Elle tourne du chapeau!” the man on the stool grunted out.

“Only an American would be fool enough to wonder through the night in search of chocolate for a woman,” the shopkeeper said. “You are slaves to women. You do not understand them. You have everything in reverse.”

“Ce me fait chier!” the man on the stool said. “You must deny them to receive their devotion.”

“Qui, it is true!” the shopkeeper said. “The less you give, the more you’ll take!”

“Otherwise, she will leave you for another man,” the man on the stool said.

“Really, she should be out looking for chocolat for you,” the shopkeeper said fiercely.

“It doesn’t work that way,” Nick said.

“Sure it does.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

The man on the stool mumbled out the word, “Salope!

“Call it want you want,” Nick replied.

“There is no need to cower to your woman,” the shopkeeper counseled. “If she doesn’t like it, there are plenty of other women out there.”

Nick paused. “Where are your women?” he asked.

“Oh! Monsieur! I have plenty of women! I am on holiday from women!”

“You are worn out, Jacque? Not enough to go around?”

“Qui! Qui! Even I have my limits. Twenty, thirty women a month… it’s too much for any man!”

The men laughed.

“You guys are very funny,” Nick said.

“Better to be comedians than a fool!”

The laughter roared again. “Okay guys,” Nick said. “Thanks for the wisdom.”

The two men continued to laugh.

“I am glad I was able to provide you with some comic relief,” Nick said. “You guys have a nice night.”

Nick stepped out of the shop disgusted. As he walked away he could hear the laugher continue for quite a distance down the Croisette. It was a mocking testament, he thought, to this strange request that he had been strapped with by the woman he loved.

Maybe they’re right? he thought. Am I the prince or the fool? He looked up into the glistening stars but found no answer.

He continued west, strolling along with his head down. The streets were desolate. It was 3:00 a.m. The only sounds were the waves lapping against the seawall and the distant bark of a dog.

Then came a female voice, “Bonjour!

On the side street was an old Peugeot with the window down. Inside was a forty-something-looking blonde.

Nick walked over.  “Hello.”

The woman had on heavy blue mascara and thick sangria lipstick and her blouse was unbuttoned to mid-chest, revealing perfectly-shaped, half-moon breasts.

“You are English?” she asked.

“No, American.”

“I like Americans,” the woman said quickly. “Are you looking for company?”

“I’m looking for chocolate.”

Chocolat?” The woman’s large, doe-like eyes flashed thoughtfully.

“Yes, chocolate.”

“You want a black woman?”

Nick stepped back. “No, I need chocolate… candy. Barettini, Lindt. It’s not for me. It’s for my fiancée…”

“Your fiancée?”

“Yes.”

Que voe?

“It’s a long story and I’m really tired…”

“Please tell me.”

“It’s complicated…”

“Come on. I must know. It must be romantic, no?”

“Something like that…”

The woman turned and glanced thoughtfully out her front windshield. “Really? It is early morning and you are searching for chocolate for your fiancée?”

“It’s the truth.”

The woman’s large eyes flashed again. “Really, it is romantic.”

“Becoming less so by the minute.”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

She paused. “Well, I require no chocolate.”

I imagine not, Nick thought. “Thanks, but I really must go.”

“There is a room nearby,” the woman said.

“It’s a nice offer,” Nick said nervously.

“We can go there now.”

“No Thanks.”

“Come on.”

“I must go.”

“It is right there,” she said, pointing to a light on the second floor of a building down the alleyway. “No need to walk the streets alone.”

“Goodnight and good luck,” Nick said with finality and he quickly walked away.

“She is a lucky girl,” the woman yelled from her window as Nick ducked around the corner.

Nick marched rapidly east, back to the ‘Chocolatier Cupid.’ There was nothing more to do, he thought, but to go back there and wait. When he reached the chocolate shop, he stepped into the little alcove and pressed his face against the window once more. Seemingly now, with more detail than before, he could see deep into the display cases, to the hundreds, maybe thousands, of mouth-watering chocolates; varieties of all kinds, white and dark, some with colorful toppings, others plain, some beautifully wrapped. They were all calling him, haunting him. He could feel himself salivating. He grabbed the doorknob and twisted it but it was locked. He checked the windows too, locked also. He considered breaking in, but quickly dismissed the idea. The “closed” sign hanging inside the door reminded him of his situation. The shop would not re-open until 10:00 am, and now it was only 4:00 am. The insignia on the sign was that of a little cupid with an arrow.

“Thanks Dude,” Nick said.

Nick shrank to the floor with his back against the door. He rested his head back against the glass and closed his eyes. He could smell the sweet aroma of chocolate coming through the door jam. He is evil, he thought, referring to the cupid… he is torturing me!

***

Time stood still. His eyelids grew heavy. There was that semi-state of peaceful unconsciousness, then slumber. Then there was a noise.

And a foot kicking him.

Nick looked up and saw an old man with a sparse, grey goatee and long grey lochs standing over him, yelling at him in French.

Congé ! Leave!”

The man kicked Nick again and Nick tried to scoot away.

“Laissez-vous l’homme fithy. Sortez! Trouvez un autre endroit pour dormer!” the old man cried as he pursued Nick with his foot. “Get out you filthy one! Find another place to sleep!”

But the foot was fast and it came against Nick’s thigh again. Nick raised his arm in self-defense, simultaneously trying to explain himself. “I’m sorry! I just wanted to buy some chocolate. I feel asleep.”

The old man was agile for his age and pursued relentlessly with his foot as Nick scrambled away.

“I’m sorry,” Nick repeated. “I just needed to buy chocolate.”

The old man stopped abruptly.

“You are English?” he said with a heavy accent.

“American.”

Nick remained curled up in a ball with his knees at his chest and his arms up protecting his face.

The old man looked down thoughtfully. “You want to buy chocolate?”

“I cannot leave without chocolate,” Nick said.

“Then you must return at Ten O’clock.”

“It’s my fiancée,” Nick explained.

The old man remained silent.

“She will not let me back in our hotel room until I bring her chocolate.”

Ce qui?” Your fiancée requires chocolate?”

Oui – Yes. She requires only the best chocolate.”

The old man’s posture eased and his blue eyes lit up like the Cote A’zur. He reached into his pocket and brought out the shop keys.

“Come, follow me,” he said. “I have the best chocolate in the South of France.

He unlocked the door and Nick followed him inside.

“You are a lucky man,” the old man said. “I came in early today. Only today. To do inventory and bookkeeping. Normally it is another three more hours before I arrive.”

The old man handed Nick a bag, and in a short time, with Nick holding the bag and the shopkeeper filling it with his best recommendations, Nick soon possessed a hefty assortment of to-die-for chocolates. Nick paid the man, thanked him, apologized again for sleeping on his steps, and was on his way.

***

Nick staggered back to his hotel in the morning sunlight and was greeted there by the day reception clerk.

“Bonjour!”

“Bonjour,” Nick replied.

He stumbled into the elevator cage, pressed the button, rode the elevator back up the two floors, and wobbled down the hallway. The Do Not Disturb sign was still hanging on the door. He quietly stepped inside.

There she lay, as she had been now for several hours, quietly asleep on the bed. Her arm was outstretched to the empty space beside her and there was a note in her hand. Nick hung his jacket in the armoire, set the bag of chocolates on the nightstand, and quietly reached across the bed for the note. It was simple, composed of only four words: “Never leave me again.”

Nick stared at the note, not knowing what to make of it. It was she who had asked him to leave? Maybe it was the wine, he thought.

It is strange how one remembers things long after an event, even after everything else has faded from memory and turned to dust. It is the subtle and inconsequential that often remains etched in one’s mind. It was these words that stuck with Nick and followed him on through his life.

Nick peeled off his shirt and pants and climbed in the bed next to her. He set the bag of chocolates at the end of her extended hand where the note had been. Then he propped a pillow under his head, turned, and gazed at her. Her face was calm and forgiving.

“I will never leave again,” Nick said in a whisper.

Then he closed his eyes and slept.


The fiction of Frank Scozzari has previously appeared in various literary magazines, including The Kenyon Review, South Dakota Review, The Nassau Review, Folio, Roanoke Review, Pacific Review, Reed Magazine, Ellipsis Magazine, Sycamore Review, Eureka Literary Magazine, The MacGuffin, Foliate Oak Literary Journal, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Chrysalis Reader, and many others. Writing awards include Winner of the National Writer’s Association Short Story Contest and three publisher nominations for the Pushcart Prize of Short Stories.

Issue No. 5, Summer 2013

The Veiled Princess
Xanthe Elliott

In a time long ago there lived a benevolent king and his beautiful queen. As generous and gentle-natured as she was fair of face, the queen was beloved by all in the kingdom, but especially by her husband, the king. Her smile was to him like the sun, and her every word, a song. The queen bore him six daughters, favored by fortune with comely looks and cheerful dispositions, but never did she bear a son. Many years passed. Their daughters thrived and each in her turn married and left her childhood home. The king missed his daughters, but still he was glad, for the presence of his beloved wife sustained him.

Now it came to pass that the queen in her fortieth year conceived a child, and there was great rejoicing. The king dared hope that at long last they would be blessed with a son. Ever attentive, he remained always by her side. Never was a wife so pampered and coddled, but even the king’s fervent ministrations could not change the fact that the child within her grew while the queen herself faded with each passing day. The hour of her delivery approached and the midwife’s placid countenance soon grew pinched with worry.

“Your Highness, you must leave the bedchamber,” she declared grimly, one hand on each side of the queen’s distended belly. “The labor is hard; the babe struggles to leave the womb but I fear Her Majesty lacks the strength to birth this child. A man has no place here – your presence distracts her from the task. Go now, for time is pressing.”

The king held tight to the hand of his wife. “I will not leave her,” he whispered furiously. “I will not leave her even though she bade me go. Could I labor for her, I would. Her every breath is my breath; her life is my life. We are as one. I will not go.”

“Send him away,” the midwife urged the fading queen. “You must focus on the child. The child, Highness!”

The queen squeezed her husband’s hand weakly. “Stay…”

The midwife hummed with displeasure, but it was not her place to correct the royal pair. “So be it,” she snapped, turning back to her charge and the baby fighting to enter the world.

The queen struggled to draw breath as the pains overtook her, her cries dissolving into muted whimpers; the king hovered anxiously at her side. “Hold on my love, hold on.” A shudder convulsed her and a great gasp escaped. Her eyes fluttered shut and did not open, even as the angry squall of the newborn babe echoed through the chamber.

An anguished plea from the king burst forth -– “Do not leave me! You cannot leave me!” Alas, it was too late, for the queen breathed no more.

The midwife whispered a prayer and turned away, continuing her duties in silence. When the child had been washed and swaddled, she approached the king with caution. He had a crazed look about him, tearing at his hair and mumbling to himself as he clutched the queen to his breast in despair. “Sire, I would present the babe to you. I am sorely grieved by the loss of its mother, yet must you look upon the infant forthwith and call it a name, thereby to ward off the spirits that would claim it, unnamed.”

Raising his eyes reluctantly, the king looked upon the face of the child. His features twisted and with a primal cry, he turned violently away. “Remove it from my presence! I will tear out mine own eyes ere I look upon it again!”

“Sire,” the midwife persisted. “You must give it a name!”

“Ask its sisters,” the king replied dully. “They are come to tend their mother and must mourn her instead. Let them look upon it, if they will, and its name shall be what they call it.”

The midwife withdrew at once in search of the king’s daughters and finding them assembled all six together, she approached the eldest and offered the infant up. “My Lady, I am grieved to impart the ill tidings that Her Majesty did not survive the birth. The king has commanded me to present the child to you, and I beg of you to call it a name.”

The princess looked upon the infant and turned away with a pained cry. “I shall not look upon it,” she declared tearfully.

The midwife next approached the second, repeating her plea. Peering at the swaddled babe, the princess shuddered and turned away. “Neither shall I look upon it.”

The third, fourth, and fifth daughters rebuffed her in turn, and in quiet desperation the midwife turned to the youngest, herself a new mother with a babe at the breast. “My Lady, please, do you have it in your heart to look upon this child, your own kin, and call it a name? Surely you can bear no malice towards this helpless infant.”

Having seen her sisters renounce the child one after another, it was with some trepidation that the youngest looked upon the slumbering infant. “Oh my,” she breathed, biting her lip and averting her eyes. “Oh my.”

“Please, Highness, a name?”

And the princess took pity on the child, with trembling voice pronouncing “It shall be called Zillah, for it is a shadow, and has cast a shadow over us.”

The midwife bowed her head in relief. “May you be blessed, Highness, truly you are beneficent. Will you now take this child called Zillah? I fear the king is lost in his grief and unable to provide for its care.” Indeed, the king’s keening echoed through the castle and his daughters hastened towards the door.

The young princess shook her head, moving to join her sisters. “A name I have given it; I can do no more. Our father is unwell and we must harken to him.”

“But Princess –”

“I cannot,” she repeated, casting anxious glances at her sisters. “You must take it to Dame Fronia in the Dark Wood, she who once was mistress of our schoolroom. Her years are advanced and her eyes dim; she will be not dismayed by the babe’s visage. Only there can Zillah grow in peace, for I know my father; his heart has been torn from his breast and there is no room for the love of this one.” Scurrying after her elder siblings, the young princess clutched her own child tightly and did not look back.

Kenning that protest was futile, the midwife did not linger, but made her way directly to the modest cottage of the elderly schoolmarm. “Dame Fronia,” she called out loudly, knocking briskly upon the door. “Dame Fronia, I come from the king!” Now this was not strictly true, but still and all, a fair statement. Zillah stirred in her arms and she knocked again, louder still.

“Patience, patience,” a reedy voice called. “I cannot move as quickly as once I did.” The door opened and the midwife entered, anxious to discharge her burden.

Squinting myopically, Dame Fronia greeted her courteously, “Goodwife, what brings you so far from the village?”

“Good e’en, Dame Fronia. I have this day delivered the queen of a healthy infant; alas, Her Majesty did not live to see it draw breath. The queen’s passing has dealt the king a near mortal blow, and he has declared that he will not look upon the child, which is called Zillah. His daughters have likewise renounced it, and indeed as I traveled here, the crier read forth a proclamation decreeing that all in the kingdom are forbidden to look upon it. Of its sisters, only the youngest had pity for it and bade me seek you out, that you might provide such nurture and care as it requires.”

“Ah, for shame! No more good-hearted woman was to be found than our queen, and for the wee one to be shunned? How it would grieve her! Aye, it shall remain here, and in time I shall instruct it in the manner of princesses. Mayhap the king will outlive his grief and call his child home.”

The women nodded deferentially to each other as the child was passed between them, and the midwife disappeared into the night.

The years passed and Zillah grew in the solitude of the Dark Wood. Hidden behind a veil and confined to the small cottage where visitors were few, she passed much time in the garden studying such things as it was deemed important for princesses to know, and many things that were not. A clever and curious child, Zillah yearned to know more about the working of the world. She watched the flying birds and wondered about the places they had been, and as they chirped and twittered, cawed and hooted one to another, she listened. Day in and day out she listened, and she trilled back to them. In time, as you — immersed, might learn a foreign tongue, so did Zillah come to speak the language of the birds.

Always Zillah listened to the birds, and one day it came to pass that a great commotion erupted amongst them. Following them to a place where the brush was trampled and evidence of a struggle lay all about, she found there a gentleman weeping bitter tears. Across his lap lay a brindled hound; its breathing labored, it gazed at its master with pain-filled eyes. Although the man bled from a great gash in his arm, he paid it no mind, so intent was he upon the wounded beast.

“Good Sir, what has happened here?”

The stranger startled in surprise. “Young Miss, this place is not safe! I have only just been set upon by brigands. In the melee my fine mare stepped into a pitfall and broke its leg; I have had to put it down. Having unhorsed me, the villains made off with all my possessions, all but my signet ring – this here that they would wrest from my finger were they not well thwarted by my loyal hound, lying here sore wounded. Indeed, I must escort you at once away from this place, ere they return. Have you a home nearby?”

Zillah gazed upon the suffering hound and her eyes filled with tears. “Nay, Good Sir, the brigands are well away. The birds of the forest espy all that happens here and most certain are they that the evil men have departed. Please, return with me to my Godmother’s cottage and I will tend you both.”

“You are most kind, Young Miss, yet I have no way to repay you and will not presume upon your hospitality. If you will point me towards the nearest village, I shall make my way there and –“ The words died upon his lips as the hound whimpered softly. Zillah reached for it at once, patting it gently and crooning a simple tune. Thumping its tail weakly, the hound licked her hand and she dashed away a tear.

“Truly Sir, the poor beast is in a bad way, and that arm wants tending ere ill humors take hold. Come, rest awhile, for I cannot idle knowing that I left you suffer.”

Zillah flung her arms wide and trilled a melodic tune. Soon three rooks came to rest upon her shoulders. One cocked its head and stared at the stranger, unblinking, before breaking into an excited chatter of clicks and wheezes. All three took wing and disappeared into the depths of the wood. “I have told them of your plight and they have agreed to help you.”

The stranger viewed her curiously. “The birds have told you this? How is it that their chattering is within your ken?”

“Does not every soul understand them?” Zillah asked in puzzlement. “I listen to them as I listen to you. The birds are my sole companions; I care for them, and they tell me tales of far places they have seen.”

“How came you to be in this forsaken place all alone? Have you no mother? No father?” the stranger asked curiously, struggling to his feet, the hound cradled tenderly in his arms.

“Nay, Good Sir, I am quite alone, my dear Godmother having departed this life some six months past,” Zillah began sadly. “My mother likewise is gone to the angels, and my father I have never seen, for as I have heard it told, my countenance so repulsed him that he did threaten to tear out his eyes ere looking upon me again. “ She turned away and set a path through the ancient trees.

“What father could renounce his daughter such?” he wondered, limping behind her.

“Surely that cannot be so, for true beauty comes from within, and it shines about you brightly. Why then do you hide your face behind a veil?”

“For my father has decreed that none shall look upon me.”

“Forgive me Miss, but that is madness! Madness to suggest that a daughter hide herself from the world, and madness to believe a mere man could constrain such a thing!”

They walked some ways in silence before she answered, standing upon the threshold of a tidy cottage. “No mere man is my father,” she declared quietly, ushering him in, “but king of this land.”

He gazed upon her with astonishment. “King of this land? Then My Lady, you must forgive me, for ne’er did I think to find a princess in the forest, and I have surely forgotten my manners.” He took her hand, bowing low over it, and her eyes fastened upon his ring. “Pray tell me, what is your name?”

“Perhaps My Lord, you should tell me yours, for though I have never seen it, Godmother instructed me well in the ways of the court, and that is surely the mark of a noble born.”

“Your eye is sharp, Highness. I am called Conroy, fourth son of Malcolm the Just. I left my father’s court to find my own way in the world, for I have three brothers before me and shall never be king.”

“Prince Conroy, you are welcome here. I am called Zillah.”

There came a sharp tapping at the window, and Zillah rushed to open it. There stood the rooks, each clasping in its beak a sprig of something green and pungent. Warbling thanks, she paused to listen to their clicking response. She nodded her head and moved to hang a pot upon the fire. “So Princess, what say the rooks? Can you save my faithful hound?”

“Far they have traveled, and their kith farther still, to places where the healing arts are prized above all others. From one to another the question was passed, how best to tend your wound, and those of your loyal hound. These have come back with an answer, and I shall begin at once, lest the ill humors overcome you.” For indeed the prince had begun to flush with fever, and his arm to swell alarmingly.

For four days she tended them, man and beast, and on the fifth day the prince rose from the sickbed, restored. He called at once for the hound, anxious lest it had passed while he slept, unawares. Zillah sighed with relief. “At last you wake! Fear not, for the hound has been your constant companion and sleeps peacefully now by the fire. It will be some days before it is recovered, but it will live.” Hearing its master’s voice, the beast awoke and barked with some energy, wagging its tail with joy. The prince laid his hand upon its head with a smile. “Be well, my faithful friend!”

“Princess, what you have done cannot be repaid, for this beast has traveled many miles with me and is my dearest friend. Truly are you generous of spirit and kind of heart; never have I met a maiden such, noble born but also of the world, and not above it.” Dropping to one knee he clasped her hand and asked most earnestly, “If you will have me, I would be your husband.”

With trembling voice she answered him, “A great honor is bestowed upon me, and my heart longs to accept you, yet I could not bear it were we to wed, then to find you could not abide the sight of me. For though none have looked upon my face since I lay swaddled in the midwife’s arms, mine own father and six royal sisters did turn painfully away. I ken thereby that I am loathsome, and not fit to be a wife.”

“Princess, I have had my fill of those whose beauty is skin deep, who care only for what a title brings, or look with ill will upon my brothers, praying that some misfortune shall befall them. Such qualities a wife should have, you have in abundance, and we could make our own way in the world together. What say you, dearest Zillah? Will you have me?”

With tears in her eyes, Zillah whispered, “I will.”

Joyfully Conroy embraced her, declaring, “I would give you for a wedding gift, that which you most desire.”

“Oh no, my dearest,” she demurred, “there is nothing that I require, for your love will sustain me.”

“Surely, darling Zillah, there is something? For you are deserving of more than I can ever give.”

“There is nothing,” she affirmed, “other than your presence by my side.”

“Ah, yet I think there is one thing…” he mused, “So let us make ready. Be it in my power, you shall have it. I will hasten now to the village to inquire after it.”

“Travel safely beloved; I shall send the hawk to guide your path.”

And so Conroy made his way to the village and beyond, reaching the castle of the king. Approaching the gates, he announced himself and was led inside. Ushering him into the king’s presence, the squire withdrew and Conroy bowed respectfully.

“Good morrow, young prince,” the aging king pronounced. “You are come far from your father’s court. Be welcome here.”

“With gratitude I accept your hospitality, good king. I am come to bid you grant me one favor ere I depart this fair kingdom.”

“Be it in my power, you shall have it. What might you require?”

“Majesty, I am humbled to have earned the love of a most worthy maiden, who this day has honored me by agreeing to be my wife. Alas, this maiden is alone in the world and it would please her greatly if you would look upon her and bless our union.”

The king nodded graciously. “I shall be happy to grant you this favor. Fetch the maiden at your leisure, and my blessing you shall have.”

“I thank you, Majesty.” The prince withdrew, returning on winged feet to the Dark Wood.

Some days later, the pair traveled the path together, the hound trotting happily between them. As they drew near the castle, Zillah stopped in dismay. “Beloved, surely you know this is the home of my father, the king?”

“Aye, ‘tis fitting that a visiting prince pays his respects. Fret not, my love; we shall soon enough be on our way.”

Reaching the gates, Conroy announced himself and the two were led before the king. Zillah trembled beside him and did not speak as she dipped into a low curtsey.

“Good king, I have returned with my intended bride, a young lady of your kingdom. Being all alone in the world, it is her greatest wish that you look upon her and bless our union. This you have promised to do.”

“Aye,” the king agreed amiably. “Come hither young prince, and bring the lass forth.”

Zillah moved as in a trance, kneeling beside Conroy at the feet of her father.

“Dearest,” Conroy whispered, “no longer must you wear the veil; with your own ears you have heard it.”

Her hands trembled as she lifted the veil away, and a collective gasp rippled through the chamber. In tears, Zillah turned her head away, burying her face in the fur of the whimpering hound.
The king rose creakily from his seat, taking an uncertain step. “Look at me child,” he commanded in a quavering voice. “Tell me, what name are you called?”

She raised her head slowly, choking back sobs. Conroy gazed at her in wonder, looking first upon her face, and then upon the portrait of the departed queen that hung in a place of honor upon the wall.
“Majesty,” the prince interjected, “her name is called Zillah, and aptly so, for in her shade I have found rest.” Whispers raced through the gallery, and some called her a ghost.

The king took another tottering step, almost collapsing before reaching her. “Zillah…” rheumy-eyed, he gestured towards the portrait behind him. “For one moment I thought you my wife, gone these sixteen years. You so resemble her… When first I looked upon you, a swaddled babe, indeed I thought you a ghost come to haunt me, that I let her go.” The king shook his head. “Gentle folk, no ghosts linger here, but those we conjure in our minds. My dear child, what wrong I have done you…” And tears flowed down his wrinkled cheeks as he raised her up and at long last clasped her in his arms. “Would that you could find it in your heart to forgive a broken old man, I would die content.”

“Father,” Zillah’s tears mingled with the king’s as she clutched him tightly. “My heart sings, and I can do naught but forgive you, for the love of my mother made you blind, while Conroy’s love for me has made you see. He vowed to give me that which I most desired, and though I myself knew it not, so he has done.”

The elderly king placed his hands upon the heads of Zillah and Conroy, and blessed them. “Gentle folk, ‘tis true that my years are advanced and I am weary. As I have no heir, let it be known that on the occasion of their marriage, the kingdom shall pass to my daughter Zillah, and her husband Conroy, fourth son of King Malcolm the Just. May they reign in peace and prosperity ever after.”

And on that day there was much rejoicing, for the new queen’s smile was like the sun, and her every word, a song. As generous and gentle-natured as she was fair of face, the queen was beloved by all in the kingdom, but especially by her husband, the king, and a faithful brindled hound.


Xanthe Elliott is the alter-ego of a mild-mannered Maryland accountant. After counting beans by day, she seeks the meaning of life in the written word. Xanthe crafts tales of romance and self-reflection; “The Veiled Princess” is her first fairy tale submission.

About the Contributors

"Hawaii #1," Susie Garay
Hawaii #1
Susie Garay

Aeia Abas, wherever she may be, commits to a life of spontaneity with her pen and forever unfilled cup. She writes for her own well-being, though happy to inspire. She can be contacted at aeiaabas(at)gmail(dot)com.

Rebecca Aronson has had poems recently or forthcoming in Quarterly West, Tin House, Cream City Review, and others. Her book Creature, Creature was published in 2007.

Laura Chitlon has always loved to write, particularly stories inspired by sentimental fiction and fairy tales.

Sara Cleto is currently pursuing her PhD in English at the Ohio State University. She enjoys fairy tales, coffee, and obtaining more stamps on her passport. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Cabinet des Fees, Eternal Haunted Summer, Niteblade, and others.

Christina Elaine Collins is an MFA candidate and teaching fellow at George Mason University. The Jabberwock Review has nominated her Cinderella reimagining, ‘The Last Midnight,’ for the Pushcart Prize, and her other fiction can be found in publications such as Empirical Magazine, Weave Magazine, Otis Nebula, and Status Hat. She was a writer-in-residence at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts from May to June 2012.

Nancy Davenport was born, raised and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area; in her lifetime she has been a legal secretary, a yoga instructor, a barista, a hamburger-chef, and has worked at the Palo Alto Chapter of the American Red Cross.

Nancy chose to seriously pursue writing to start a new life after finding herself on full disability. Her poems have appeared in issues of The Burning Grape, The Mountain Gazette, Red Fez, Twisted Tungz, Danse Macabre, The Bicycle Review, FEARLESS, Full of Crow Poetry, Turbulence Poetry, Ygdrasil, A Journal of the Poetic Arts, and has most recently been accepted for publication by Shwibily Press and Ravenous Butterflies.

Xanthe Elliott is the alter-ego of a mild-mannered Maryland accountant. After counting beans by day, she seeks the meaning of life in the written word. Xanthe crafts tales of romance and self-reflection; “The Veiled Princess” is her first fairy tale submission.

An award-winning poet, Rebecca Forste holds a BA in English: British and American Literature from California State University. Currently teaching language arts to middle school students with special needs, Forste was previously a staff writer for Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, CA.

Born and raised in Portland Oregon, Susie Garay received a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Brigham Young University, spent some years in the Ohio Appalachians and currently lives in the Willamette Valley with her husband and cat where she works in the Vineyard industry. She spends her free time writing, growing plants and making art. She has been published in a variety of journals, online and in print, and co-edits The Blue Hour Literary Magazine.

Judy Hall is a teacher of English both at the high school and college level although she wishes she could just write all the time. She has a Masters in Literature from Rutgers and is an MFA candidate at William Paterson. She’s been previously published in Outsider Ink, Ostraka and Linguistic Erosion (June 13). She lives in New Jersey with her husband, three children, a very stupid cat named Vladimir, an evil cat named Tonks and a number of unnamed fish.

Sandy Hiortdahl is a recipient of the Sophie Kerr Prize and a Maryland State Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Novel. She has an M.F.A. from George Mason University and a Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming this year in Barely South Review, Eternal Haunted Summer, Alimentum Journal, OCEAN Magazine, Poetic Story/KY Story, MatterPress Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and Nemesis.

M.J. Iuppa lives on a small farm near the shores of Lake Ontario. Her most recent poems have appeared in Poetry East, The Chariton Review, Tar River Poetry, Blueline, The Prose Poem Project, and The Centrifugal Eye, among others. Recent chapbook is As the Crows Flies (Foothills Publishing, 2008) and second full length collection, Within Reach (Cherry Grove Collections, 2010); forthcoming prose chapbook Between Worlds (Foothills Publishing). She is Writer-in-Residence and Director of the Visual and Performing Arts Minor program at St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY.

Rebecca Kuensting is a 24-year-old writer and teacher. She has just completed her MFA in fiction at Penn State university, and is planning to spend the next year revising her first novel and travelling.

Sandi Leibowitz’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in magazines such as Mythic Delirium, Strange Horizons, Apex, and The Golden Key. One of her poems was recently chosen by Ellen Datlow for inclusion in The Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 5. She is a native New Yorker who teaches and sings classical and early music.

Sita Mamidipudi is a PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, India, studying Political Science. She works on issues of gender and development in drought-prone regions of India. Her work has never been published before.

Nicci Mechler is a recent graduate of Northern Kentucky University’s Masters of English program. Her fiction most recently appeared in Rapunzel’s Daughters. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she writes, paints, and falls asleep with armloads of books.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s poems have appeared in many literary journals in Ireland and internationally, most recently in France, Mexico, USA, Scotland and England. She writes both in Irish and English. The Arts Council of Ireland has awarded her a literature bursary. She was a winner of Wigtown Gaelic poetry prize (the Scottish National Poetry Prize). Doireann has also been shortlisted for the Jonathan Swift Award 2012 and Comórtas Uí Néill, both in 2011 and 2012. She was selected for the prestigious Poetry Ireland Introductions Series. Doireann’s collections Résheoid and Dúlasair are both published by Coiscéim.

Gerry Mark Norton was born in London, England in 1989. He has self-released one book of poems, Sick Roses, and two albums of music, A Momentary Lapse in Lethargy and Feasting, Dancing & Revelry. He has been published in Quail Bell, Misfits’ Miscellany, Eskimo Pie, Red Ochre Literature, The Rusty Nail, Danse Macabre, and Circa Review, and has work forthcoming in Eunoia, The Vehicle, and The Toucan.

Matthew Porubsky lives in Topeka, Kansas and works as a freight conductor for the Union Pacific Railroad. He has three collections of poetry, voyeur poems, Fire Mobile (The Pregnancy Sonnets) and forthcoming from Kelsay Books, Ruled by Pluto. His poetry has been featured in RHINO, Quiditty, The Journal (UK), {HOOT} and elimae. Visit mppoetry.com for more info.

Marybeth Rua-Larsen lives on the south coast of Massachusetts, half-way between Boston and Cape Cod (but closest to Providence, RI), and teaches composition at Bristol Community College. Her poems, essays, flash fiction and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Raintown Review, Angle, Crannog, The Poetry Bus, Free Inquiry, and The Nervous Breakdown. She is a book reviewer for NYQ Reviews and won in the Poetry category for the 2011 Over the Edge New Writer of the Year Competition in Galway, Ireland.

The fiction of Frank Scozzari has previously appeared in various literary magazines, including The Kenyon Review, South Dakota Review, The Nassau Review, Folio, Roanoke Review, Pacific Review, Reed Magazine, Ellipsis Magazine, Sycamore Review, Eureka Literary Magazine, The MacGuffin, Foliate Oak Literary Journal, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Chrysalis Reader, and many others. Writing awards include Winner of the National Writer’s Association Short Story Contest and three publisher nominations for the Pushcart Prize of Short Stories.

John W. Sexton lives in the Republic of Ireland. He was born in 1958 and is the author of four previous poetry collections, the most recent being Vortex (Doghouse, 2005) and Petit Mal (Revival Press 2009). His fifth collection, The Offspring of the Moon, is due from Salmon Poetry in 2013. In 2007 his poem “The Green Owl” won the Listowel Poetry Prize; in that same year he was awarded a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship in Poetry.

James Stutz resides in Arlington, VA, where he is a tech writer by day, and a wannabe-fiction writer by night.

Graham Tugwell is an Irish writer and performer. The recipient of the College Green Literary Prize 2010, his work has appeared in over fifty journals, including Anobium, The Quotable, Pyrta, THIS Literary Magazine and L’Allure Des Mots. He has lived his whole life in the village where his stories take place. He loves it with a very special kind of hate. His website is grahamtugwell.com.

Changming Yuan, 4-time Pushcart nominee and author of Allen Qing Yuan, holds a PhD in English, tutors, and edits Poetry Pacific in Vancouver (Submissions welcome at editors.pp@gmail.com). Yuan’s poetry appears in 709 literary publications cross 26 countries, including Asia Literary Review, Barrow Street, Best Canadian Poetry, BestNewPoemsOnline, London Magazine, and Threepenny Review.

Issue No. 5, Summer 2013

"Driftwood," Susie Garay
Driftwood
Susie Garay

Summer Feature, 2013
Superficial Superfish, a comic by Rebecca Forste

Fiction
The Night You Showed Me Ambaglass by Graham Tugwell
Eldest by Christina Elaine Collins
The Princess and the Dragon by James Stutz
The Cursed Princess by Laura Chitlon
The Veiled Princess by Xanthe Elliott
Nine to Forever by Nicci Mechler
Kill Me with Chocolate by Frank Scozzari

Flash Fiction
Red by Marybeth Rua-Larsen
Potemkin by Rebecca Kuensting
A Bottle of Mania by Judy Hall
The First Beautiful Girl I Ever Saw by Gerry Mark Norton
Blurb by Sita Mamidipudi

Poetry
Fox by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
Rainier by M.J. Iuppa
Flood by Rebecca Aronson
A Rectangular Depth by John W. Sexton
xlviii., from Pepper the Yard with Light by Matthew Porubsky
THURSDAY AFTER COYOTE SONG by Nicci Mechler
A Ballad of the Northlands by Sandi Leibowitz
Will o’ Wisp by Sandy Hiortdahl
Moonlight Picnic by Aeia Abas
Y and September by Changming Yuan
Rose Red, on the Occasion of her Sister’s Marriage by Sara Cleto
Dollhouses by Nancy Davenport

About the Contributors