There he stands three steps higher than I, dark eyes locked onto my face and the scythe-like curve of his smile the way it has always been. I bow my head and step nearer, my slippers thin enough I feel the smoothness of the stone under the balls of my feet. I go deliberately, softly, hoping to pass him by.
He catches my right hand. I lean against the curving tower wall as he puts his face to my sleeve. I am nearly undone by the feel of his hot breath in the crook of my elbow, and then he pushes back my sleeves and touches his lips to my wrist.
His words slither up my skin, “I will kill you, if I must.”
It is a sharp thrust of steel straightening my back. Gripping my knife – only a small lady’s knife, for cutting her dinner, for showing off her father’s favor – I twist and stab it at his face.
My hope is surprise will win me the day, but I might’ve known better. He grabs my left hand, crushing my fingers under his and against the hilt of my knife. Slamming me back, he laughs.
I am pressed between the hard stone wall and his body. The metal of his armor coif shimmers dully in the daylight melting through one thin window over my head. It is like dragon scales, growing out of his forehead and spilling all down his body, changing him. With my hand still trapped in his, he puts the tip of my knife to his cheek and together we cut. I shove all my weight into him, into my arm, but he is too strong, and only a trickle of blood leaks from his skin.
He smiles at me again, and my knees are week. I will not bend, I tell myself. I will not bend. But through his smile he suddenly cries out, as if in fear and pain! “Aoife! No!” And before I can react, swings me down the stairs.
When he lets me fall, all the world falls with me.
The room I wake in is not a dungeon, but I know it’s to be my prison. A small alcove room high against one of the straight castle walls, cleared of any furniture and even the tapestries are torn away. I am not even to be allowed comfort from drafting cold.
My body aches from breaking down the turret stairs, in a hundred tiny bruises, and bright stars glitter at the edges of my vision. But I am determined, and I sit. I wait for nausea to pass, a hand on my stomach, and then I stand up.
The hem of my dress is damp, and I feel hair loose against my neck. One slipper is torn and I cannot move the smallest finger of my left hand. He crushed it, and it’s gone entirely numb.
Outside, through the heavy curtain that serves as the door, I hear the low of a cow and a distant yell from one man to another. Creaking wheels, the splash of mud. Angry ducks from the lake. All sounds I expect, and the very slight brush of metal on stone teaching me there stands a guard outside my prison.
I must escape, must somehow fool my guard so that I will have one last chance to make everyone understand. Lowering myself to my knees and curving my back to show all the weariness I feel, I call out softly, “Hello there? Who is it?” If the guard comes, I can play the weak woman, I can faint in his arms and perhaps steal his sword.
The curtain pushes back with a snap and my guard bends over to fit through the doorway. My stomach heaves, for it is one person I will not persuade, will not be able to convince. He knows me too well.
“Samson,” I whisper, and my shoulders bow in true defeat.
He crouches before me, mail hauberk ringing against the sheath of his sword as he moves. His hood is pushed off his head, the metal pooling around his neck, and it’s left his hair messy all around his face the way he liked it as a boy. “Aoife,” he says sadly, “what have you done?”
“My hand is broken,” I whisper, showing him my ruined little finger.
Samson holds my fingers in his flattened hand, and I rub the rough leather on the palm of his glove. “It does not matter,” he says, “for they’re hanging you in the morning.”
The air in my chest thins, hisses out through my teeth as though I am the snake, and not my prince. I cannot stand the fear, and the moment I think it, that spark of fear flares into anger. I glare at Samson. “You should see it, too. You knew him as well as I did – as well as I do. Better even, for you left with him! Left me for two long years.”
His lips stretch in pain, but all Samson does is unhook his helmet from his sword belt and set it with a high clink onto the stone floor. He strips off his gauntlets and takes the bottom of his quilted shirt in his hands to rip.
“No,” I say, and offer my ruined dress instead.
Unsure for the slightest moment, Sam’s hands pause before he is even willing to touch my skirt. But he lifts the hem of the overdress and takes the first layer of my linen shift. Eyes never touching my face, he tears a long strip free. It is the loudest sound in the room, the shredding of my dignity. I hold my injured hand for him. It trembles only slightly as he wraps my smallest finger firmly to the ring finger. He touches gently where the prince’s ring used to sit on my hand. I had not noticed until that moment it had been removed.
“For you, Aoife,” Low said, tugging the ring from his finger.
“It will not fit me, Laurence.” I whispered it, curling my hand around the ring despite myself. Wind stole away my words, but he caught them. Or he knew what I would say.
“Find a way.” He smiled, the left corner of his mouth swooping out like a scythe. “Or if you do not, when I come home you’ll be married to some old retainer of Father’s. What then should I do?”
The rear of the stables sheltered us from the castle, from anyone who might see. Taking the front of his coat in my hands I pulled him against me and said, “You don’t want me for a wife.”
“True.” His laugh rolled down my throat as he leaned in and bit just below my ear. The sharp pain made me jerk him closer, wanting to run off with him at my heels, screaming and letting the wind push us nearer and nearer to the cliffs.
But there was Samson behind Low, waiting with both their horses and a mask of patience rubbed permanent against his face. He sighed heavily, his best signal, and Low grimaced wildly. I twisted my hands in his coat. “Wait, Low, take me with you. Dress me as your page boy and I’ll ride between you and Sam all the way to the Black Forest.”
My prince imagined it, I saw in his face the thrill of the thought, his wicked delight at my plan. “Clever,” he said. “And dangerous.”
Low’s two most favored things.
He smiled until his teeth glinted and I stood on my toes to kiss him. I pressed my body into his and his hands flattened on my back. They slid up to my shoulders, dragging his fingers in heavy, devastating lines that made me sink into him. And then his hands were in my hair. The thick strands fell out of their pins and tangled with his fingers, catching on the leather ties of his bracers and in the sharp corners of his remaining rings. Low froze, his mouth still on mine, and carefully, gently untangled himself.
“It shall all be gone in a moment!” I laughed. “A page boy does not need so much hair.”
But my prince’s eyes drifted all along the length of my braids, of the loose hanks and wispy ends. “No,” he whispered. His back arched back and he squeezed his eyes. “No.” It was more firm this time. “I can’t let you.”
“Low.” Samson clapped his hand onto the prince’s shoulder. “We have to go.”
I said, “I’ll cut it anyway, if you make me stay.”
“Do not.” Low said to my mouth and not my eyes, “For I… I love your hair.”
All the pieces of me stilled. I watched through promising tears as the boys mounted their horses and rode away, shoulders thin under men’s armor, their swords too big, and stole my childhood away with them.
Samson ties off my bandage and says, “He grew up, Aoife. We all change. It’s no demon returned to you, but only our Low become a man.”
I snatch my hand, ignoring the band of pain that circles my wrist at the motion. “You are wrong, Sam.”
“I was with him the whole time.”
Did you love him like I did? I want to demand, but I know the answer: Samson loved me, and he loved the king his foster-father, but he never loved Low. Instead I only say, “You wanted him to change! All the people here wanted him to change. They never liked his wildness or his passion. His father sent you both away because he wished for this, for Low to come back solid and calm and more like a king than a spirit.”
“They – we – wished for him to be a man. Yes.” Samson’s eyes are earnest, and I know he believes what he says. Just as I know Low, as I see the wrongness inside my best friend’s face, I know Sam could not lie to me.
“And so I’m to hang.” I lower my face so that my anger does not show. My words are low and heavy, trembling with fury. I will die and this pretender-Laurance will live, and no one will look for the real prince.
“Oh, Aoife.” Samson touches my head, and his hand gently moves to cup my chin. Lifting it, he says, “I will speak for you, if you let me.”
His skin smells like leather and water. I lean my face into it and speak with my eyes closed. “I tried to murder your lord, Sam. How can you speak for me?”
“Because I… because you’re too young to die. Too lovely. Maybe you’re sick, or you might repent. Convince them it was madness.”
I shudder – but not from imagining the rope at my neck. I cannot stand before the imposter and be kind.
I will kill you, if I must.
For nearly two years I waited here for them. I lived and moved, danced when I could, but mostly sewed and swept and served. Through the windows of the castle I watched, and while I waited, I never changed. I did not grow up, and if Low and Samson had never returned, I might never have done anything else.
I’d have wrinkled and withered, never a mother, always a girl waiting. My eyes are as dull as the castle stones, my fingers as cold. My dress is a hanging tapestry, and my hair this rope of hemp, braided with cobwebs. I am a promise and nothing more.
A boy popped his head under the tapestry in the queen’s solar, hissing for me. “Hsst! Girl!”
I put down the needle against the cloth in my lap, grateful to be interrupted, and checked to be certain my mother and the queen leaned near enough in their conversation not to notice me. They laughed through their gossip, and I raised my eyebrows at the boy. His dark eyes were wild when he grinned. “Oy, pass me that marble,” he whispered, pointing with a grimy finger at the small blue glass that had rolled against the foot of my chair.
“Is it a secret passage behind you?” I whispered back, leaning precariously over the arm to take up the marble. It was warm, and I squeezed it into my palm.
The boy showed me his teeth and half his mouth curved secretly and sharp. “Perhaps.”
We stared across two paces of castle floor, and with one flick of his wrist, he showed me the gaping black hole behind the tapestry, behind him. The darkness matched his eyes, and I said, “I’m going with you.”
The boy said, “Do,” and held out his hand.
“Samson,” I whisper, and I lean into him. His forehead touches mine. He is hot, too hot, and I sigh against his mouth. “I am sorry.”
“I know,” he says, as my fingers spider over the stone floor, reaching for his helmet.
“I’ve always known how you and he – how you and he are,” Samson keeps on, thickness making his voice stick to his own throat like tears.
Quickly, I kiss his lips. He startles as I say, “You should have known better then,” and in a smooth arc, I swing his own helmet against the side of his face.
Moments later, I have torn out of my overdress and created a pillow for Samson, where he lies crumpled and almost naked on the stone floor of my prison. His mail is heavy across my shoulders and the quilted red coat weighs me down more. I buckle his baldric to my waist, and then fumble to braid my hair again. My fingers shake with determination, and the moment I tie it off, I use Samson’s boot dagger to slice it away from my head at the base.
My hair coils like a snake in my hand. I tie it to the belt and lift the hood of mail over my head, until it sits cold as dragon scales against my brow.
I cannot fit into Sam’s boots, and so as I hurry, I pray no one will notice that there is a woman in armor dashing through the corridors. Face down and one hand on the pommel of Samson’s sword, I go as if I am charged with some immense task – which is no lie at all.
In the feast hall, the prince stands with his father the king and Otis and Dion and Albin, all of them studying a crude map pinned to the wall. I do not glance at it, do not hesitate or wait even a moment before striding to him. The boot dagger is in my right hand and I touch the dead snake that was my hair one final time.
Wind rushes through the hall, scattering hay at our feet, and I say, “Laurance.” Never Low, not anymore.
He raises his head, curious, and so do the king and his retainers. The prince sees my suit, the dragon-scales that hang so long and strange over my body.
The king only has time to say, “You have a report, young man?” before I stab the boot dagger up into the prince’s throat.
His blood splashes my face, spills over my hand, and we are the center of a tempest of cries. The scythe-grin falls off of his face.
I know I am right.
Prompt: “Meeting on the Turret Stairs” by Frederick Burton