Rivulets of gold hair swept over a pale, waifish face. Her skin was clammy and she moaned slightly, her lips blue. Two advisors conferred anxiously within her chamber, though it was only a nurse who dared move the canopy aside in an attempt to feed her sips of broth. Her nightgown, which was white, clung to her body, sticking to her because of her sweat. Her throat closed in on her and she shook her head slightly, indicating that she would eat no more. The nurse paid no heed to her and pinched her nose, until, gasping for air, she opened her mouth and winced as they poured the hot liquid down her throat, which stung.
Two enormous green eyes, fringed with black lashes, looked sorrowfully upon the woman. “Darling, it’s my job,” the nurse said softly, turning aside so the princess would not see the tears that fled to her eyes. “You will be better soon; you’ll see.”
Lydia did not think so. She, who was born to love the sun, to play in its golden rays and frolic outdoors, in the green of the forests, to torture her fathers huntsmen with her winsome smiles and otherwise wreak havoc- but never too much- could not envision the world which she currently inhabited, in which she was confined to her bedchamber, unable even to see the sky without yearning for it. She was weak, too weak to complain, or to demonstrate to anyone how she suffered, and with a wan smile, she simply closed her eyes in a pretense of sleep.
She woke to voices above her, most notably her father’s. “Something must be done!” he exclaimed harshly. She reached out her hand, as though to comfort him, and felt her father’s hand close around her alarmingly thin wrist. “Order that anyone who may cure her will be rewarded in whatever fashion they so desire,” he stated harshly, and she could feel the strain this was taking on him, the mysterious illness that could not be cured.
“It is not a natural illness,” one of the astrologers said calmly. “There is no one who can cure it but the Witch of Pythai.”
“Curse you!” the King bit out, then allowed his head to rest upon his hands. His entire posture was bowed, his back bent as though under the burden of a heavy load. “The Witch of Pythai be damned; what does she have to do with me!”
“She has nothing to do with you,” answered the astrologer, “but she has everything to do with your wife.”
“What aspersions are you casting on my wife?” the King hissed, his anger at the breaking point.
“She will tell you herself, your Highness,” answered the astrologer, while the King summoned to his wife.
She was dark and yet fair; her eyes were beautiful and clear in their blueness while black waves fell to her waist. “Yes, my King,” she said coolly, and he remembered how he had met her, as one of three sisters who practiced magic, and engaged in enthralling him with their shapes. He had wooed her and won her and made her swear never to work her magic against him or his kingdom. He feared even now that she had the power to cure their daughter, and what he would do, given the chance- he feared that he would break his word.
“My advisor tells me,” he said softly, “that the Witch of Pythai has cast a spell on our child.”
Marina stiffened in shock. “The Witch of Pythai?” she asked, and then laughed, a high, trembling laugh. “Yes, I suppose that could be true,” she mused aloud, and then sat down on the edge of the bed. “The Witch of Pythai is a beautiful woman,” she explained. “She has hair the color of a rainbow, and it seems to be woven of light. She is tall, or petite, and comely in the manner that attracts you most. She seems to have the grace, civility and bearing of a noblewoman or the austere dignity of a matron. She can be a peasant if you choose, her tumbling curls in a mass around her face. She is everyone and everything, and she is impossible to find.”
She paused. “Well, there is one way to find her. Like others of her kind, she keeps a rare garden. There are some of their creed who keep a garden of radishes or rosemary or rapunzel, with which to seduce the husbands of women who are with child. There are others who have rare statues in their garden, and the statues of those of the men whom they have turned to stone. But she is different. Her garden contains something very precious and very valuable- she has an extract of the Tree of Life in her garden. On that Tree are three golden apples. Any one of those apples is enough to revive a man and keep him young and healthy until it is his time. Even the scent of one of them is a fragrance which revives the spirit. The leaves of the tree, when crushed, produce a wonderous balm, a tincture without equal. If someone were to go to her garden, in an attempt to steal her apples, it is certain they would be captured. But it is equally certain they would gain an audience with her.”
“Where is this garden?” asked the King, afraid it was in an unreachable place, a castle in the sky or some other impossible destination.
“Why, she is named the Witch of Pythai for a reason. It is in Pythai, of course, encircled by gates of gold and silver, with wicked edges that poison and force one to bleed if you attempt to climb over it. Now, I with my magic could become a bird, and fly over the gate—“
The King’s face contorted with dread; she knew that he hated and feared all magic, even that of his wife.
“But that would be no use,” the Queen concluded. “As it is she who suffers who must speak to the Witch. And that would mean Lydia herself must go.”
“Lydia herself?” the King laughed. “Lydia can barely eat, let alone walk; how can she set out for Pythai and then attempt to outwit such a Witch?”
“I can cure her for a little while,” the Queen said in a low tone. “If you will allow me to use my enchantments, I can cure her.”
The King turned his head away; he could not bear the thought of something he believed to be evil and ugly to be used upon his daughter. “If it is the only way,” he said harshly. “Do it, but only when I am out of your sight. I cannot watch.”
Lydia was dressed in peasant rags, but they could not hide her beauty. Her golden hair was unusual, and so they matted it up beneath a rough cap, leaving only several pieces of it down, and these they smeared with a dye so that her hair seemed an orange color, unattractive and unappealing. This, coupled with her foul-smelling rags, suggested that she was an orphan of indiscriminate age, and a carrot-top to boot. They had dotted freckles upon her pure, smooth skin, and warned her against falling into the company of men, or of taking a bath. She smiled to herself when she thought of that, and of the fact that she would have to avoid all water for a time, especially were it to storm. She would simply pull her cap closer to herself and duck her head beneath her weary traveler’s hood, for she had been equipped with a cape, of a grey-green color, and it dragged against the ground.
This, a pack of victuals and a staff were all that availed her. Before she left the castle doors- she would be escorted to the edge of the nearest town in a cart, riding atop bales of hay, presumably to go to the market- her mother called her over.
The Queen was dressed in long robes of maroon, embroidered with silver.
“I want you to be very sure,” said her Mother, “that even should you be starving, dying of hunger or thirst while within the Witch’s chamber, you will eat nothing. Touch nothing- not a seed, not a fig, not even a pomegranate. It does not matter what she gives you; you must eat nothing but the apple from the Tree of Life. She will try to trick you, perhaps, in order to ensnare you. Be on your guard, and be watchful, for once you do this, you shall be in her power.”
Lydia nodded her head and bowed to her Queen Mother.
“You have none of my skills,” concluded the Queen, “your father forbade me to teach them to you. But I will give you this before you leave-“ and she took a golden hairnet from behind her back, and passed it to Lydia.
“This is not really a hairnet, though you may wear it in your hair and it will appear as such,” explained the Queen. “It expands and contracts, and it is stronger than the strongest rope that you could ever find. If you throw it around something, you will capture that item, and no one will be able to lift the net but you. It is also dipped in a truth serum, so that when you wear it, you may see things as they are, and not as the Witch desires them to appear. Take it and hide it, and may God be with you, my child.”
The Queen curtsied to her daughter, then planted a quick kiss on her dirtied, freckled face. She turned to hide her own before her daughter left her sight, for having the gift of scrying, and also the gift of telling the future, she was aware that while her daughter might leave healthy and whole, the price was great, and could quite possibly take her life.
Lydia had determined that for the time being, she would choose another name, one that was in common use by everyone. “Pan,” she decided, liking the god of that name, and believing that he embodied her spirit, which was free and uncontrolled. She smiled at the farmer who was driving her wagon, unaware that he was really a palace guard in disguise. Despite being only seventeen, Lydia had the confidence and skill of many twice her age. She was aware of her assets and of everything that could possibly aid her, and hence she kept on the lookout, watchful for the gates of the town, where the farmer would leave her at an inn. From the inn she would have to arrange for her own transportation, and then figure out a way to steal one of the apples of Life.
Other, less sober girls, would be excited by the sense of adventure, but Lydia was terrified. She knew what was at stake if she failed, and she did not wish to fail, could not bear it if she did. She was not afraid of death, and did not believe that anything could occur which would truly hurt her, but she was afraid of her father’s and mother’s pain, and felt that she must survive, if only for their sake.
Burrowing under the bales of hay, she felt within the pocket of her trousers, fingering the delicate golden hairnet. Best to always have it within reach, she determined, so that if anyone surprised her or snuck up on her, she could have him in her power.
Fascinated, she fixed her eyes on the landscape. Did her father really own all of this? The kingdom was beautiful, and varied. There were long fields of wheat, their stalks waving gaily in the wind, and other plains of grass, lush and green. She saw peasants working the fields, and they seemed content, though her eyes also detected a subdued sort of anger, as though they were unhappy with their lot. But how could that be? Was not her father a kind and great king? It could not be, she decided, and dismissed the thought, fixing her eyes on the purpling sky and the sunset, the color mingling with all the colors of the wind. She breathed in the scent of the end of the day, which smelled fresh, and pure, like lilies of the valley, tart and sweet and somehow crisp.
“Pan!” the wagon driver grunted roughly, and she sat up, brushing hay from her rude clothes. “Yes?” she inquired sweetly, an urchin on a hay bale, then remembered to deepen her voice and seem sullen. “Yes?” she asked again, her eyes lowered.
“This is as far as I’m to take you.”
She looked and saw that not very far from there was an inn, with a sign that said “The Singing Minstrel” and the symbol of a harp. “I’m obliged to you,” she said, and handed him two silvers and a copper, a very generous sum.
She took up her pack and stepped down from the wagon, a petite girl making her way through the fields in her quest to reach the inn, but keeping a wary eye about her just in case. She turned back once and threw the wagon driver a dazzling smile, waving as he went off.
After a sufficient amount of time treading the path, which soon turned into a paved road, with cobblestones that hurt the feet, even though her feet were encased in the softest doeskin riding boots, she entered, passing by the stableboy and indicating that she had no horse.
“What can I do for ye?” a frazzled woman asked, standing behind a counter. Lydia could smell stew and a kind of wild blueberry; she saw two boys, one towheaded and the other curlyhaired, stepping to work in the kitchen. The inn had a wooden floor, covered with rushes that concealed the smell of dirt and urine, sprinkled with spices and sweet-smelling flowers. Smoke wafted through the air and men grunted over their mugs of ale. She did not want anyone eyeing her too long.
“A meal and a room,” she answered the woman, playing it safe.
“And would you be wanting protection for this room of yours?” inquired the woman, looking meaningfully at a big, burly man with a club.
“Yes,” Lydia answered crisply, then held out her hand. “The name’s Pan.”
The innkeeper looked at the slender, white fingers, and realized the urchin before her was not whomever he seemed. “Pan,” she said nevertheless; a guest’s business was his own business. “Trencher of bread, stew and blueberry pie; there’s ale to drink, or milk, if you prefer that.”
“No, ale will be fine,” Pan said. “The price?”
The woman licked her lips. “Two silvers.”
“One,” said Lydia, who knew that was highway robbery.
“A silver and a copper,” stated the woman.
“Done,” said Lydia, and she snicked the two coins across the counter. “Now, which one’s to be my room?”
“Upstairs,” stated the woman. “Con will show you. Con!”
The towheaded boy turned around. “Yes’m?”
“Show Pan his room,” the woman ordered, and Con walked over to Lydia. “It’s just upstairs, sir,” he said, and showed her the door to the stairs. He walked in front of her with a candle and she saw the clever engraving on her door, an acorn, because most could not read. “It’s the Acorn room,” she said, delighted.
“Yes,” said Con, and he watched her take off her cloak and hang it on a peg on the wall.
“I’ll keep my valuables with me,” she said, hoisting her pack across her shoulders. “Now let’s see about that food!”
Her head lowered, Lydia dug into her trencher, sopping her bread in the juice left over from the stew and chewing it hungrily, in a deliberately unmannerly fashion. She watched the Minstrel begin to play, a clever man who strung the strings to his harp with aplomb, singing tales of the greats, the dragons and the plagues that had swept the country. He told stories of Richard the Great, the dynasty of the Kings that preceded him, and finally spoke of Lydia’s father, but his words were laced with censure. The songs he sang about him were critical, and suggested that he was not the right man for the throne. This was treason, and Lydia was shocked to hear it.
Glad her face was lowered so that the man could not see her skin burn with shame and anger, she continued to eat.
“Mind if I join you?” a voiced asked suddenly, and she looked up to see a man, with dark hair and dark eyes and a head full of curls. His question had been a command, not a request.
“Yes, I do,” she fired back. “Mind, that is. But-“ she smiled impishly, “you may have the table to yourself if you like.” And with a clatter of dishes, she swept up her tankard and stood up to leave.
“You would not be very wise to do that,” the voice said softly, in her ear, while a hand gripped her shoulder.
Her eyes flashed fire. “Unhand me,” she stated just as quietly.
He raised his hands and gave her a mocking glance, then a bow. “Well, peasant boy,” he stated, and she noted that he stressed the word boy, “I meant no discourtesy.” It was then that she noticed his regal bearing and the air of nobility about him. A circlet would not have been out of place among those curls, a silver hoop of a prince, or the golden one of a king.
Her eyes widened in fear, deep pools of green. “I have no wish to harm you,” the prince continued softly. “I, too, am not what I seem.”
She was quiet as she fought to concoct a story, something plausible about why a woman, traveling alone, had the regal bearing that he had clearly recognized in her. “I know you are a woman,” the prince stated softly, “why you have chosen to travel under the guise of a man, I do not know. But you are not safe as you are, and I would guard you.”
Lydia stepped back, then nodded. He looked like a ranger, a man used to traveling his land, but she did not recognize him and did not know him. “I am merely an archerwoman,” she said, in an inspired burst. “I am here to scout out the land.”
The prince nodded as though he accepted her answer. “I would you would not stay alone tonight,” he stated. “Where is your chamber?”
Lydia drew up her head in disbelief. “If you think I trust you—“ she almost spat.
“I swear I mean you no harm,” said the prince, and then undid one of the sleeves attached to his jerkin to show her a wound, angry and red. “As I believe I am to die, I swear it.”
The wound bubbled with blood, rushing to the surface, an ugly blackness that corroded the skin and Lydia looked at the prince again, impressed he did not cry out with the pain. “What gave you that wound?” she inquired.
“No natural blade,” he stated, nodding to the servant who brought him his food. He too, had chosen the meat stew and the pie, though he sipped a kind of wine made of berries, tart to the taste at first, but then something that would cleanse the palate. Lydia reached for her pocket and fingered her golden net, staring down into the wound, and it was as though she heard voices-
We hunt the man of royal blood, to ruin him.
“There are spirits!” she exclaimed, and the prince looked shocked.
“How can you hear them?” he inquired.
“I- am gifted-“ she stated, giving the impression that she was one steeped in the magic arts.
“Are you,” he hissed, and she saw fire in his eyes. “Do you know who gave me that wound? The Witch of Pythai,” he continued sharply, whispering. “At my christening, she was not content to cast a curse upon me, but she pricked me with her knife, and explained that every year, on my birthday, the wound would fester, becoming worse with time. Upon my nineteenth birthday, I would have to come to her, whether I would or no, for she planned to arrange my destiny. By which I am certain she means to kill me,” he continued, and Lydia saw the sorrow in his eyes.
It was at that moment that the ogre who was Lydia’s protection came over to the table.
“Is this man bothering you?” he inquired, his voice a dull roar.
“No,” she replied, and could not help but smirk a little.
“Shall we, then?” the prince asked, and stood, requesting that she follow him. She went upstairs, and saw that his room bore the sign of the rose. “Come inside,” he beckoned, and she shied at his request, but followed.
“You will sleep on the bed,” he explained; “I will guard the door and sleep on the floor.”
“I believe I can be useful to you,” Lydia said suddenly. “Let me travel with you to the Witch of Pythai.”
No doubt believing her suggestion that she had untold skills and magical powers, the prince gave a curt nod, and the two of them slept.
The Witch of Pythai smiled into her crystal ball, running her fingers through her rainbow hair, which shone like liquid, glinting and reflecting light. Everything was going according to plan.
She walked around her chamber, adopting the low stride of a panther, whose every footfall is soft. Cushioned by the Oriental rug that lined her chamber, she looked at the walls, which were made of marble, the finest in the world. Of course, these walls were changeable, like everything else she owned, and could become black onyx or silver in accordance to her whim. A touch and a thought was all that was required- in the same way that she could hide her castle, if she wished, or otherwise guard herself.
But she did not wish to hide her castle from these two intruders, who so boldly planned to steal her apples of Life. She liked their bold and forward natures, and what is more, had already mixed the bitter brew that they would drink, though they did not know it. For she amused herself in meddling in the affairs of mortals, and watching their pain- it fed her appetite.
The Witch sighed as she lay down on her silk sheets, sensuous to the touch, her long legs bare and smooth, clad only in a negligee. People forgot that evil was beautiful, and that what was beautiful was seductive.
Lydia had taken care to maintain her disguise the entire way, whether she accompanied the prince by horse or by foot. They had reached the shining silver gates that encircled the Tree of Life, and had paused to think about how they could best attain their goal.
“Since there are two of us, we should figure out a way to tackle it that involves one person being able to secure the other’s safety,” said the prince. “I wish I knew what was more dangerous- climbing over the fence in pursuit of the apples, or staying outside to deal with the monsters that would surely come to attack he who dares!”
Sweaty and tired, Lydia took down her cap, unmindful of the long golden tresses that spilled out over her shoulders and across her jerkin. “Perhaps,” she began wearily, “we could simply reach the apple with an object- my staff, for instance-“
The prince turned to her, about to say something harsh and dismissive. “Your hair,” he said instead, in a low voice. “Your hair is beautiful.”
Lydia looked down at her hair, which was dirty and coated with grease that made it seem orange. “Really,” she said crossly. “What’s wrong with my idea about the staff?”
“Only this,” the prince said, immediately fixed upon the business at hand. “The apple will not leave the tree except through human touch- through the touch of a human hand. A staff will merely alert the Witch’s guards without even guaranteeing us our success.”
Lydia searched in her pocket, glad to find the hair net her mother had given her, binding her tresses with it. “Wait!” she called out in shock, then rose to her feet. “It’s all an illusion!”
“What is?” the prince snorted, angry with himself.
“There is no gate! Why, I can just walk right through and take the apples! No,” she paused, “it’s too easy.”
“Too easy?! What are the chances someone is walking around able to see through this illusion; certainly not very high?”
“I am certain it’s a trap,” said Lydia, “but I have no choice. I’ll walk through- but promise that you will flee, as soon as I touch the apple. I will throw it to you, and you will run away.”
“Then I won’t do it,” Lydia said, and folded her arms flatly.
“Fine,” his eyes flashed fire. “I’ll do it.”
Lydia walked straight through the silver gate and then the gold one, noting where to tread so as not to wake the sleeping snakes and scorpions that littered the ground. She danced straight to the tree, then reached up to crush a few of the leaves and smell their scent, which left her refreshed. Immediately, she looked at her fingers and realized they were beginning to stiffen- she was turning to a statue, made entirely of gold.
“Run!” she shouted to the prince, and caught the golden apple in her hand, throwing it to him. He picked it up but then, rather than running from her, or taking a bite out of the apple, as would have been wise, he ran straight back to her, snatching the golden hairnet from her head.
“Fool!” she shouted, though it was difficult to breathe, because her mouth was filled with gold as she herself turned to gold.
“Well, well, well,” purred the Witch, stroking the statue of the beautifully made girl as she circled around the prince. “What have we here?”
“The Prince of Arabia,” stated the man strongly, running a hand through his black curls.
“Yes, and a thief,” the Witch said sweetly, delicately placing one leg over the next, swinging on a rope with a board that had only just appeared and seemed to be connected to nothing else but him. “Shall I tell you your future? That girl whom you love,” and she ran her fingers around Lydia’s golden throat, “will be the death of you.”
“Lies,” dismissed the prince, his hand reaching for his pocket.
“I can tell only the truth,” spoke the Witch, “a sad flaw, I know, but it is so.” She stepped down from her swing and turned herself into a maiden clad all in white, flowers in a wreath on her hair. “Do you want me like this?” she asked, and then turned to a tall woman, austere, with long black hair to her waist, “or is it in this form that you desire me?” She stepped forward again and was suddenly the spitting image of Lydia. “Or why not sleep with her form, as you desire, only with me, who knows so many more ways of pleasing you?”
The prince shuddered as he watched the transformations, then, with a quick gesture, flung the net over her. The Witch writhed but each movement drew the net of gold closer around her, then closer still, until she was wholly caught and could not breathe.
“Let me go!” she hissed, her face contorted with rage.
“Impossible,” said the prince, and laughed easily. “Only Pan can do that. She is the only one whom that golden net obeys- it tells her the truth, and it is only her touch that can undo it. So I suggest you let her go,” his lips curved into a slow smile, “or you are going to die, as will all your enchantments.”
The Witch laughed, loud and strongly. “If you wish to love death, then who am I to deny you?” she stated, then bid the prince step forward. “Only kiss her, and she will turn from gold to flesh.”
The prince stepped forward and gave Pan a long, lingering kiss on the lips. At once the girl gasped to life before him, although she was nude, and he turned from her so as not to cause her embarrassment.
“Now bid her remove this net,” hissed the Witch.
“No,” said the Prince, “not until you let us taste of the apples.” For he had lost the one he had snatched from the Tree, in his urgency to go help Lydia.
“The apples,” said the Witch, with a glint in her eye, “are on that table.” The prince turned to view them and stepped forward hungrily, clutching the golden skin. Lydia noticed and realized it was a trick. ‘No!” she cried, as the prince bit into the apple, “it is forbidden to eat in this place,” and flying to him, she pressed her lips to his and forced the bit of apple from his tongue to hers, where she spit it out upon the floor.
“It is enough,” said the Witch, “it matters not. The true apples are there-“ and she pointed to some simple red apples atop a basket of fruit.
“Do you swear it on your life?” asked Lydia, as she stepped forward to taste of them.
“I swear,” said the Witch, and hatred burned in her eyes.
Lydia bit into an apple and felt the glory of life fill her, so that she swam with it, was replete with it, completely alive with the pleasure and the passion of a life given purpose, and new meaning. She handed the apple to the prince, who took a bite, and whose wound immediately healed.
“Now we will leave,” said Lydia, who caught up a purple piece of cloth draped across a sofa, and wrapped it around herself as a kind of covering. “And I shall not remove the net.”
“You shall,” said the Witch triumphantly, “or you shall not find your way. You only found your way before because you wore the net, and you could see the difference between truth and illusion. If you do not remove the net, you will die here, for you will never find your way out.”
“She is right,” Lydia said out loud, as though against her will. “Do you promise to let us out, and not to kill us?”
“Yes,” said the Witch, as though the words were forced from her.
“She told us she could only speak the truth,” Lydia said to the prince, and then proceeded to lift the net. The Witch immediately snatched it up and threw it in the fire, where it burned.
“This is the key,” she handed it to Lydia. It was shaped like a golden coin. “Only insert it into the wall, just there, and you shall leave.” Then she paused. “Would you like anything to eat?” she inquired sweetly, in a tone that suggested maternal care and concern. “Perhaps something for your journey? I am not all bad, you know; there is much I can give you- or teach you-“
“She is lying,” shouted Lydia to the prince, who seemed bedazzled. “I swear it.”
The Witch laughed. “It is true,” she nodded to the prince, then transformed herself into a Lydia clad in purple samite, just as the one beside her. “Now, which of us is your princess?” she asked, and the prince was frightened, for he could not tell. “It does not matter. You are destined to wed a woman with black eyes and dark hair, so claimed the Oracle at your birth, and so you well know.”
“Princess?” asked the prince, confused, for he thought Lydia was merely a scout.
“Oh, please, let’s go,” one of the Lydias grabbed his arm and held up the golden coin- “let’s leave, we must!”
The other one began to sob. “That is not me- that is an illusion- look!” and she held up an identical golden coin. “It is I you must take.”
The prince was confused, and terrified. “Pan, bite down upon your coin!” he shouted, thinking that the one who was true would listen, and he would grab her and run, for the other one did not know the name “Pan.”
Sure enough, one of the women bit down upon her coin, only to choke. “It isn’t gold,” she wailed, “it isn’t gold, wasn’t gold- it’s food, and I have eaten of it; the Witch can hold me now!”
The other Lydia transformed herself back into the Witch. “But I shall not hold you,” she said magnanimously, and the door was opened in front of them. “Run while I am kind,” said the Witch, “for I will not be so kind in the future. You have met your deaths today,” she said, and laughed a terrible laugh as the prince and Lydia ran, as though trying to outrun the wind.
They reached an enclave where they could hide from the storm, for the heavens above had opened, unleashing their wrath upon all. Lightning crackled as it struck, and the wet infused their very clothes with the glittering drops, with the driving rain that anointed, cleansed and beautified them. Hidden beneath the leafy branches and struggling to keep warm, Lydia clung to the prince, who draped his cloak around her in an effort to keep her dry. Still shaken from her experience with the witch, Lydia crept closer to him, and placed her hand in his.
“I am a scout,” she said softly, “and I take my pleasure where I will. If you are not repulsed by me…” and the sentence trailed off, while the prince looked at her, the rain dampening his curls and turning her hair to strands of liquid gold that he could stroke between his thumb and index finger.
A scout, she claimed, and yet, the Witch had said she was a princess. He knew which of the two he wanted to believe; a scout could easily be his mistress, a princess would have to be wed and wooed properly. He could pay no mind to the Witch’s statement and take her here, in accordance to her desire, and no one would be the wiser, for she would never tell. But the Witch had also said this woman would be his death, and surely she must have foreseen it, for she could not lie. All this aside from the fact that the Oracle had indeed predicted that he would marry a woman with dark hair and dark eyes, and this woman had neither.
“A scout, you say?” and his voice filled with tenderness, for her courage and her bravery and the fact that she had saved him, or tried to, by throwing the apple to him, to cure him of his illness.
“Only a scout,” and her voice trembled, as she turned her face and hid it on his shoulder. The night wept over them, with its life-giving rain and the glory of God revealed in the thunder, and he loved her in the darkness, and gave no thought to what would follow.
They parted ways, he to his kingdom and she to hers. She had gathered that his name was Taran and that he was the prince of Arabia, while her father was King of the Darklands. She did not tell him this; she saw no cause. There was no need to tell him of a woman who could not exist for him, for the Witch had foreseen that he was destined to wed another, and not she herself. But she could not keep from weeping, tears that trickled down her face and that he noticed, though he kept silent.
Before he had left her entirely, he had given her his staff, his signet and his wrap, to keep, “in case you should want to remember,” he said quietly, but had looked torn, and guilty, as though he were the perpetrator of a crime.
Lydia went back to the palace, no longer Pan, an impish boy, but not quite a lady. Her parents were overjoyed to see her well, and to learn that she had successfully tasted of the apples of Life. She told them nothing of the prince or of the time she had spent with him, and instead commenced her training to become a lady of the court. She learned the languages required of her, and how to dance, how to charm and how to win favor in the eyes of others. She learned the arts of diplomacy and how to rule, for she was her father’s successor as Queen of the Darklands, and she alone could unite the land.
There was unrest within the land, the unrest she had sensed on her journey to the Witch, with the people whose anger shone within their eyes, and the Minstrel who had claimed her father was not a man. There was unease within the kingdom, and each advisor counseled her differently, for her father had grown old, and could not war anymore. Many bid her take a husband, for in that way, she would gain an alliance and create a new hero for the people to admire. But she would have none of it. ‘It is my land and my father’s land,” she argued, “and I shall fight for it.”
And she did fight. She was the woman warrior, a lady who would ride at the forefront of her troops, clad all in silver, her golden tresses fanning out behind her. She fought the opposing kingdoms, who had determined that she was weak because she was a woman; she united the bailiffs and clans; she brought them together through her charm and her will. She was princess of the Darklands, and would rule as Queen- and she would have none take away her birthright.
“It is time to wed,” his father argued, but the Prince of Arabia would not heed him.
“It is time to war, not to wed,” he argued. “The Darklands is a prime target, and it is necessary for our enterprise. If we wish to expand, we must expand to the Darklands, for they control the Black Ocean, which we need for purposes of shipping and transport. I must fight this princess of the Darklands, the one of whom they speak so highly.” He spat on the floor. “She cannot be a natural woman, for no natural woman could fight wearing the armor of men.”
“I have heard she is a demon,” his father agreed, “but that is all the more reason to wed and sire an heir before heading out to war.”
“I will do no such thing,” answered Taran hotly. He remembered a night in the rain with a lowborn lady who still retained a certain grace, whose golden tresses floated about him and whose sweet cherry-red lips kissed him out of love. “Marriage can wait, but war will not.”
Taran convened a council of warriors and wise men, and set out to hear their advice. Many of them suggested procuring closer knowledge of the enemy.
“We must capture this Princess of the Darklands,” said one man, “the question is how we do it.”
“I have heard that she is a sorceress, even as her mother was,” said another, whose robes were blue with twists of silver.
“I have heard it is really a man who rides in her stead, with a wig of gold to suggest that it is she,” said one, in a mocking voice.
“We must lure her out to battle,” declared the Prince, “and cut her off from her men. Then we shall capture her, at which point we can attempt to make a treaty. If that will not work, then we can threaten her with death unless she yields.”
Lydia suffered when she was informed that the Prince of Arabia wished to ride out against her. Yet she steeled herself to the task, and composed a plan of action that would ensure that she would win.
“I need a double, a lookalike,” she ordered. “I need a woman dressed like me to ride out to battle. The prince will surely capture her. It is at that point that I and my men will ambush him, and I shall hold him at knifepoint. There is no way that he will be able to parlay then.”
A woman was found, beautiful and pleasing to the eye, blonde even as the Princess was. She donned the Princess’ armor, and disguised as her, set out for battle. The princess wore armor of bronze, and steeled herself.
As she had predicted, the men cut off the false princess from her warriors, escorting her to the camp. The true princess was certain that the false princess would not be harmed; she had been ordered merely to state that she would not bargain, nor would she betray her people. In the dead of night, when all were sleeping, the true princess crept into the camp. Her blonde hair spilled out from beneath her helmet; she crept around the soldiers and forward to the place where the Prince of Arabia, Taran, slept. He looked so peaceful. She raised her knife to kill him, having freed the false princess from her bonds and ensured her safety.
But she could not bring herself to kill him, this man whom she loved. Instead, she cut a corner of his cloak and took up the cruse of water that stood beside him. She ordered her men to surround the tent, then thought better of it. No. She would take him from their midst- their very leader- and in this way, she would unman them all.
She ordered her men to surround Taran, to gag him and to lift him. They took him silently, in the dead of night, and placed him in her palanquin, then removed him to her tent. They removed the bonds and in the morning, when he awoke, she wore only serviceable army clothes.
His eyes wild, he looked at her, confused. “Pan?” he asked, as though he were dreaming, and she nodded.
“The- the Princess of the Darklands has captured you,” she whispered to him. “Luckily, I am her scout and I-“
The Prince was horrified. “My men- what has happened to my men?” he asked, agonized.
“They are fine- she took only you. She has captured you, but she will let you go if that will promise not to attack her lands any longer.”
“I wish to speak to her directly,” said the Prince, whose face was pale with concern.
“That cannot be arranged,” Lydia said in an urgent whisper. “It cannot be—“
“Oh my God,” said the prince slowly, as awareness dawned on him. “Are you- but you cannot be-“
Lydia laughed, a sweet, tinkling laugh. “Of course not- I am merely a scout; you know that. Please- if you swear you will not make war on her again- she will release you and leave you free to return to your men.”
“Then I will swear,” said the prince, who had no intention of keeping his promise.
He did not understand the joy that lit Lydia’s face. “Come with me,” he begged her, “please, come with me and I will make you my mistress.”
Her face fell. “No, I cannot, for I love her and must serve her,” she said. “She is kind, for you see she has not killed you. She merely wished that you would go- that you would go and leave her be, and leave her in peace.”
The prince nodded. “I will,” he promised, though in truth he wished only to avenge himself for the humiliation that had been practiced upon him and his men. “I promise to leave her and her lands in peace.”
“Thank you,” said Lydia, who leaned forward to kiss him.
“Are you not worried your princess will come in?” he inquired, confused.
“No, no, she will not,” she said as she kissed him hungrily and undid his clothes, so that she could lie with him skin to skin, on the floor of the tent.
He was distracted by her lips, her tongue, her breath, and shifted to help her, to lie sweetly with her and take his pleasure with her. “Come with me,” he breathed again, and she shook her head.
“It cannot be,” she said, and he could almost see the tears in her eyes.
“Why cannot it be?” he asked, and caught her between his arms.
A voice outside the tent answered for him. “Your highness?” a man inquired, standing at attention.
“Your highness?” asked the prince, and a look of horror and then of shame passed over him. “Please,” he said, as though it were a prayer, “please tell me you are not the Princess of the Darklands herself?”
“And if I am?” she asked, her face hot with shame as she struggled to button her shirt and make herself suitable for her commander’s report.
“Then I will marry you,” swore the Prince. “You and no other.” He paused. “I swore long ago to make Pan my mistress, if I could not wed her, but you- I do not care for prophecies or oracles- I shall marry you.”
He could not know it, but the Witch of Pythai smiled to herself as he said so.
Their parents were viciously opposed to the marriage. “The Prince of Arabia- to marry his sworn enemy, the Princess of the Darklands?” laughed his father. “It’s preposterous! It’s cowardly. It’s ridiculous! And it goes against the oracle’s prophecy!”
“You wish to wed of your own will?”’ Lydia’s father asked her. “And you wish to wed our enemy- a man who views my kingdom as his birthright?”
Unshed tears glittered in her eyes. “Cannot you see it as something we both want, for both our own good and the good of our countries?” she asked her father, pressing her hands against his. “Surely you see how that must be?”
“It cannot be!” her father roared, despite the pain that shot through his body. ‘I will not have people say that I and my progeny are weaklings, to wed rather than fight!”
“But I have loved him since I knew him!” she cried, and her anger fueled her, gave color to her cheeks and her entire expression.
“Ah yes, since that first time he sullied you,” said her father slyly, “if what you tell me is true! And who knows that it isn’t some concocted story you have created simply to persuade me- as I do not believe it!”
“It is mad!” continued the father of the Prince of Arabia. “Taran, I raised you to be a man, not to be a slave to your passions. Find another blonde wench and forget her- she is not your intended, nor the one who is destined for you. That one is black of hair, with dark eyes.”
The Prince of Arabia was sorely pressed on all sides, as was Lydia. They were not permitted to see one another, and there was little they could think to do. In a strange war against their own children, their parents spoke to each other, King to King and man to man.
They devised a plan, an evil plan, but one that would succeed nonetheless.
“Do me this favor,” said the father of the Prince of Arabia. “Wed a woman – any woman- with dark eyes and dark hair. Then you will have fulfilled the prophecy of the Oracle, and you will be free to wed again, and have this princess you desire.”
“Oh, and do you think she would like another Queen in her house?” asked Taran sarcastically. “You speak idiocy.”
“She need not know who you are,” said his father pointedly. “Wed a whore, if you choose. Pick a woman and tell her you will pay her to wed her, and support her all the rest of her life- so long as she does not speak of it to anyone, least of all the princess. And if she does, you may deny it as the raving fancies of a lunatic.”
Taran was weary of arguing, and though to please his father in this one thing, so as to fulfill his heart’s desire. “Very well, I will wed the woman,” he stated. “Send her to me.”
“How do you know this prince will be true to you?” inquired the King of Lydia, who could not bear to have more questions put to her. “You are not his intended.”
“He has sworn it and I believe him!” she stated, her anger heating her words.
“Do this,” said the King. “Send your handmaiden to him- the beautiful one, with her perfect skin and black curls, her deep brown eyes- and see if he will refrain from taking her, if you think you can trust him. Let her come to him at night, when he is weary, and see if he will refrain from taking comfort with her.”
“I shall follow her,” said Lydia, “and observe from a distance what they do.”
“Do so,” said the King, and he smiled in his heart.
In the evening, Taran, sick at heart, opened his chamber to receive the bride his father had chosen for him. He saw that she was lovely, of pure form, with black curls and beautiful brown eyes.
“You understand why you are here?” he asked her curtly.
“Yes,” she answered.
The two of them left the castle and walked a ways to the field, where the priest was waiting for them. He performed the sacred rites and the prince gave the handmaiden a ring.
“It is not a marriage unless it is consummated,” stated the priest, and turned to leave the field.
“Will you lie for me?” asked the prince desperately to the handmaiden. “Pretend it has been consummated.”
“I will do no such thing,” said the handmaiden, who had been told to act stubborn. “You will consummate the marriage, or it is no marriage.”
His heart sick inside himself, the prince undressed her quickly, wishing to complete the deed so that he might forget this night forever, and pretend it had not occurred. But then he looked into the brown eyes of the handmaiden and felt pity for her, that this, which was in a way her wedding night, would be something so cruel. And so, having taken pity, he expended his energy to please her, while trying to take no pleasure for himself, and to make her happy.
From afar, Lydia watched the prince sleep with her handmaiden, having seen only a man in the gloom before, speaking to the two of them. An unreadable expression crossed her face and she turned rather than watch it all, though a piece of her cloak snagged upon the ground.
The prince heard the noise and stood up, alert. “What was that?” he asked the silent handmaiden. He looked around and saw the fresh, damp tracks, and then the piece of fabric, which he recognized as his own. “No,” he said, and horror filled his eyes as he looked at the woman he saw before him, the dark-haired beauty.
“Yes,” said the woman, and the Witch of Pythai appeared before him, having shed the form she had worn. “I did tell you she would be the death of you, did I not?” she inquired sweetly, as the prince fell to his knees, clutching the piece of fabric.
“She- saw?” he asked, the expression in his eyes bitterly asking her to deny.
“Everything,” said the Witch, and then she disappeared.
The princess refused to wed him, and gave him no reason. However he endeavored to see her that he might explain, he found that he was stopped, stymied, and hating himself, he wished to die.
However, she had reopened war upon him and his people, and this time, fueled by the bitterness of hatred, she was determined to win. Her blonde hair spread beneath her crowning helmet, she decimated his troops, and he could not retreat, for now he must fight her in self-defense.
On one particularly bloody day, from amidst the carnage of the wounded and the dead, slippery with blood and replete with darkness, the sky darkened and the clouds grew thick overhead. The Princess had attacked him and his men were dead around him. Kneeling in the dirt, flinging off his armor, he stood before her. “Kill me, if you like,” he told her, “if you will not hear me and what I wish to say, then kill me, but please, forgive my people my sin.”
The princess raised her sword, but she could not bring herself to kill him. Instead she fell upon the ground and tore off her helmet, and he saw that she had darkened her hair with soot and ash, and that her eyes were dark from weeping.
“I would have fulfilled the prophecy if only you had trusted me,” she told him, “I would have darkened my hair with soot, and my eyes as well, would have been dark with tears, or with pain- but instead you chose to betray me.” And still her face did not condemn; she said this as though she were amused at a ghastly joke.
“It is not your fault. It was the Witch-for I ate“ she whispered.
He opened his mouth to answer her but there was a sudden sound as the arrow fled past him and buried itself in her throat. She fell backwards, tumbling, a graceful fall into the mud, blood and slime of the battlefield.
Tears flowed down his face as he knelt over her, the only woman whom he had loved, and he saw, beyond her, a woman laughing, wearing her form and her image as she looted from the dead- the Witch of Pythai. And then, in a mockery, the woman surrounded him, and images of her swam before his eyes; she kissed him though he fought her, and worse, fought the desire that coursed threw him- she kissed him as Lydia, and her golden hair surrounded him, and then, she left him, leaving him only her mocking laughter, as he cradled the dead Princess of the Darklands in his hands, and the rain began to fall.
Credits: Braveheart, Green Rider, Temple of the Winds by Terry Goodkind, Selected Fairy Tales by Barbara Leonie Picard, Saul & David, Tamar & Judah, Zechariah