There once was a kingdom, a tiny, impoverished kingdom. The king of that kingdom had a daughter with hair like sunlight and skin like cream. A rich merchant offered to marry his son to the king’s daughter and in exchange for a title, bring wealth to the kingdom.

The princess did not want to marry the merchant’s son—he was too round and too pale and above all too young. And she had already fallen in love on sight with a well-born knight, dark and strong and noble.

Her father told her that his sons served their people in war and she must serve her people in marriage.

She said, ‘no, father, and I will not speak of it again.’

Her father told her that without this marriage, their kingdom would continue to suffer from poverty.

She said, ‘no, father, and I will not eat with you anymore.’

Her father told her that after she had borne the Merchant’s son an heir she could take as many lovers as she wished. (This he told her in the strictest confidence and with great discomfort.)

She cried, ‘Father! I will not be touched by a merchant’s son!’ and locked herself in her rooms.

For ten days and nights the princess refused to leave her rooms. She refused food—at least food that was not sweet cakes and chocolates—and she refused drink—that was not honey mead and sugared wine.

Each day the king would beg and promise his daughter some boon but she turned away from all his entreaties and said ‘you will have to drag me before the priest and when he asks me if ‘I do’ I will scream ’til I turn blue instead!’

The king despaired and the merchant fumed, growing impatient and talking loudly of more amenable princesses in other kingdoms.

In the midst of this turmoil, a crone came before the king. She told him she would convince the princess to wed if she could just speak to the girl alone.

###

‘I wish to speak to you, princess.’

The princess lifted herself from her pillow, her eyes burned with tears. ‘Go away. I want nothing to do with anyone.’

The voice persisted. ‘I am not here to convince you to marry the merchant’s son, princess, but to help you have your true love.’

The princess pulled herself up off her bed. ‘Who are you?’

‘I am no one and nothing. Just an old woman who has seen many things and knows a little magic.’

The princess walked to the door of her receiving room. She opened it and saw a crone. The crone looked like the trunk of an old riverside tree, peppered with fungus and roped by sagging bark. The princess shuddered at the sight and glanced past her. No one in the hall beyond; the princess opened the door further and waved the crone into her receiving room. ‘Speak, crone.’

The crone hobbled inside. The princess offered her a chair and the crone slowly slumped into it, like a rotten house into a sinkhole. ‘Ah. Thank you my dear.’ The crone smiled—or perhaps frowned, the princess could not tell—and she spoke again,  ‘Are you virtuous?’

‘Of course I am!’ The princess replied, her voice short. ‘I am pure and virtuous in that purity.’

‘Purity is not virtue. I know this because I was like you once. Before time and toil twisted me into this shape.’

The princess laughed and it sounded like the chiming of tiny bells. ‘Oh, crone, age has confused you. You could never have been like me. I am a princess.’

‘Is that so?’ The crone reached for the princess’s hand. The princess flinched as the weathered, leathery skin touched her own. ‘You are to be wed, I hear. And you are not happy.’

‘No!’ The princess clenched her hands into fists. ‘He is far too young for me. And pallid. And clammy. My father says it is for the kingdom’s sake that I wed. But can you imagine it? Without love? Why should I sacrifice my heart just to bring wealth to my people?’

‘Very true, my dear. And there is a man. A man you cannot have.’

The princess bit her lip. ‘I have only spoken to him but once—‘

‘How true is your love for him?’

The princess swooned onto her chaise. ‘My love is as true as the sun rises, as true as the sky is deep, as true as the turning of the tide, as true as—‘

‘I can give you a magic.’ The crone’s gaze took on a pin sharpness that made the princess shiver. ‘A magic that will capture him and make your father consent to your marriage.’

The princess sat up, her brow furrowed. ‘What do you want for it? What is the risk?’

‘Clever girl.’ The crone bared the few teeth she had left. ‘But I want nothing and if you are virtuous and your love is true, no harm can come to you.’

‘Of course I am! And it is!’ The princess leaned forward. ‘What magic?’

‘Two words, princess.’ The crone laughed and her voice sounded like the breaking of rotten wood. ‘Two words. “Save me.” Say those words and everyone around you will see you beset by a horrible monster.’ The crone’s grip on the princess’s hand tightened. ‘You will see the truth, there is nothing, no danger, but everyone else will see only the illusion.

‘Tomorrow go to the castle courtyard and say those words within hearing of your knight. You will be married to him before the day is out.’

The princess did as she was told. The next day she went to the courtyard and when she saw her knight—young and strong and dark—she walked to him, her hand maidens trailing her, and he bowed before her, ‘My lady.’

‘Save me.’ She said.

Instantly the courtyard erupted in noise and running. Peasants screamed; children cried in fear. Her handmaidens shrieked, gathered up their skirts and fled to one of the stone archways ringing the courtyard. The princess glanced around, looking for the source of their terror—there was nothing but a goat slipped its lead and chewing a mouthful of grass by the well.

Her knight charged to his feet, pushing past her as if she was no longer there. She turned to berate his roughness when she remembered the crone’s words.

He had his sword out and shield hiding his head and shoulders as he advanced upon the goat as if it was a foe a thousand times larger.

The princess watched in amazement as the knight pantomimed fighting a monster. In the faces of her handmaidens and the frightened peasants hiding within the stone archways she saw a terrible fear.

But all she could see was the goat, hopping away from the knight in confusion, lashing out with its small hooves and braying.

The knight fought and fought, parrying non-existent swipes of a massive claw, stabbing at a non-existent belly as big as a siege engine, ducking non-existent fiery breath.

Finally the knight struck a mortal blow and the goat slumped to the courtyard floor, mewling as it bled.

The princess could feel everyone around her holding their breath as they watched whatever monster the goat was to them die.

That day the king gave the princess’ hand in marriage to the knight for his bravery in protecting her from a dragon.

The merchant and his son were not happy. Furious, the merchant told the king he would be rerouting several very lucrative caravans away from the king’s roads. He promised an even deeper poverty for the king and his people.

The princess and the knight were given half the kingdom to rule over. The princess was thrilled. She was saved!

It was to the princess’ credit that she did indeed love the knight. But it was to her detriment that she did not love him enough.

After a time, she found him neglectful; he spent most days honing his art and most of his nights teaching his squires. He said he did it only out of their people’s need: other kingdoms eyed them and they were poor, with only a small army to their name, they had to make themselves ready in whatever way they could.

The princess only knew for sure that she was lonely. She thought back to the Merchant’s son and realized that even if he was a bit unkept he had been clever and witty—well traveled and well read. And, really, two years younger was not so bad.

During a long, slow month alone, one of the knight’s squires caught her eye. The young man was charming and attentive and soon found a place in her bed.

She was not modest about her affair; her anger at the knight’s neglect made her bold and foolhardy. It was not long till her secret was out. The knight rushed to confront her and found her and the squire in her bed.

Despite her boldness, the princess was still shocked and horrified to be found out. In an instant she bolted from her lover’s side and threw herself at the knight’s feet whispering, ‘save me.’

Had she known what was going to happen next, she might have never said the words. But she could not take it back and as she watched, the knight leapt at the squire, blade drawn.

The princess hid her head in her hands and did not see what happened next, but she heard wailing and the sound of slit flesh.

When the knight returned to her side was no blood on him, but there was a grimness in his face. ‘Even if he was one of my squires, a rapist should not be suffered to live.’

Shivering and pale, the princess said nothing. She was sick to be sure, but under the sickness and the shaking was a low excitement that inflamed her.

That night, exhausted by the excitement and the feel of death so close, the princess slept fitfully. In her deepest dreams, her words coagulated in her throat, a lump so large she could not breathe. She woke, screaming.

The knight was beside her. ‘Why are you screaming?’

The princess tried to explain, tried to make her mouth form around the right words but it would not, she could only say, ‘Save me.’

The knight leapt from their bed and lunged at shadows cast by the candlelight. For the rest of the night he battled an imaginary foe while the princess wept.

Every night that followed the princess would wake from being choked: the knight would beg her to tell him what was the matter and she could only say, ‘save me.’

He would spend the rest of the night exhausting himself saving her from the dragon that besieged her every night.

And she would weep, because she could see it killing him and she loved him, but not enough.

When the knight could fight no more he started to barricade her in a keep by herself, hoping she would be safe if he could somehow find away to close off any possible entry.

During the night, alone and trapped, she would try to fight her way out of his careful fortifications just so she could breathe.

In the morning he would find her scraped and bloody from battle. He decided the dragon must have found a way into the keep and he would call for even stronger walls and locks. Eventually she was entombed into a room with no doors and no windows and walls five feet thick. It took a mason six hours each day to open and close it.

The nightmares continued and the princess continued to fight for freedom each night as if she was fighting for her life.

When the king heard what the knight had done to his daughter he sent what soldiers and arms he had to free her and bring the knight before his throne to be punished.

The princess was brought to the king’s side on a bed as she was too weak to walk.

The knight knelt before them both.

‘Look at my daughter. Look at the wounds on her hands and arms and feet.’ the king raged, ‘you have beaten her, starved her and thrown her in a stone tomb.’

‘No, my lord.’ Said the knight. ‘I have tried to save her from an evil that besieges her every night!’

The princess watched them argue. She knew that if she said nothing, her father would be persuaded by the knight’s words and she would be taken back to her prison to suffocate on her own nightmares. And she realized what the crone had been telling her: she could give up her magic any time she wished, just by wanting it. But she could not say she loved the knight enough.

The princess turned to the king and said, ‘save me.’

The knight was hung for his crimes.

With nothing left but her magic, it became a game and the princess played it with as many men as she wished. The petty enmities she cultivated between rival lords and the grinding poverty threw the court into chaos and then the kingdom into civil war. Neighboring kingdoms seized the opportunity to invade. The king was killed and his bloodline was dethroned; the princess faced the guillotine and wept bitterly in it’s shadow. ‘Save me,’ she said and was spared but even her magic could save her from the rage of all her enemies.

She was banished.

In her new life she wandered, destitute and penniless, until she found a trade she could ply. Here and there she would use her magic to incite brawls in taverns and bawdy houses, in the fighting of brigands and rouges her need to taste her power was satiated.

She did this until the ugliness of her body reflected the ugliness of her soul and no man cared to save her.

And she kept wandering, a shambling, dusty old woman wandering shambling, dusty old roads. After a time her magic loosed from her tongue and she was able to speak other words, but now she rarely had cause to.

Until one day, when she had wandered so far from her former kingdom that the people around her had never heard its name, she heard from gossip and rumors that this new kingdom was in turmoil.

Its princess was refusing to marry a prince from a neighboring land. The marriage would end a long and bitter acrimony between the two kingdoms. Peasants and nobles alike were strung tight; despite the treaties the delay had inspired vicious cross-boarder skirmishes and raids, even now their erstwhile ally built forces for an invasion they likely would not repel.

Every day the princess took to her room and refused to come out, the fragile truce deteriorated further.

The old woman—sitting on a broken stool in a cast-off corner of a tavern—listened to a retinue of nobles speaking to each other in hushed and urgent tones. After a moment she rose and hobbled over.

For the first time in many years she spoke. The first words she spoke sounded like the creak of old wood and made as much sense.

One of the nobles turned to her. ‘Go away, old woman. Can’t you see we have important business.’

She tried again, this time her voice sounded like dry twigs breaking, but there were words in amongst the crackling rasp. ‘I can get the princess to wed. If I can speak to her alone.’

It was a testament to the nobles’ desperation that they considered the crone’s offer and relayed it to the king. The king bade the crone be brought to the princess’ door.

At the door the old woman called out. ‘I am not here to convince you to wed, my dear, but to grant you your true love.’

After a time the door opened a crack. A princess, skin like cream, hair like sunlight, a mirror image of the old woman when she was young, looked through. ‘Who are you?’

‘I am no one and nothing. Just an old woman who has seen many things and knows a little magic.’ The old woman replied. ‘You are to be wed, I hear. And you are not happy with this.’

‘No!’ The princess gripped the wood of the door so hard it creaked. ‘He is too thin and brown and above all too old for me! My father says it is for the kingdom’s sake that I wed. But without love? Why should I sacrifice my heart just to bring peace to my people?’

‘Very true, my dear.’ The old woman laughed and it sounded like the breaking of rotten wood. ‘Tell me, princess, are you virtuous?’

‘Of course I am!’ The princess replied, her voice short. ‘I am pure and virtuous in that purity.’

‘Purity is not virtue. I know this because I was like you once. Before time and toil twisted me into this shape.’

The princess laughed and it sounded like the chiming of tiny bells. ‘Oh, crone, age has confused you. You could never have been like me. I am a princess.’

‘Is that so.’ At the princess’ laughter hatred welled within the old woman. ‘You want a man who is not your betrothed. A man below your station, yes.’

The princess stared at her. ‘How could you know?‘

‘How true is your love?’ The old woman asked.

The princess tossed her curls. ‘As true as a fox’s wit, as true as the blue of the sky, as true as—‘

The old woman waved the princess’ words away. She had heard them before and had no patience for their emptiness. ‘I can give you a magic that will capture him and make your father consent to your marriage.’

The princess’ eyes widened. ‘What is the magic?’

‘Two words, my dear.’ The old woman leaned forward. ‘“Save me.”’

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