by Yasmine Galenorn
originally published in the Once Upon A Curse anthology
Teal, Princess of the Woodland Kingdom, stared out of her bedroom window into the early morning light. A quiver of excitement ran through her breast. She gazed over the broad forest of oak and maple that stretched for miles around the castle. An ancient wood it was, and filled with secrets and legends and ghosts, but she knew every inch of the copse, had traveled every pathway, and yet, the glen always called her back.
Today was her birthday, she was almost a grown woman, and this time next year would see her taking her place beside her parents, learning how to be Queen when it came time for her to ascend to the throne. She would put away her childhood and face the mantle of her duty. It was the way—it was always the way.
Seventeen years she had passed in this castle, under the watchful eyes of her parents. Seventeen years she had listened and learned and obeyed their every command, as a good daughter should. Today, however, she longed to race into the woods, unescorted, to romp through the trees and find…find…she didn’t know what she wanted to find. An adventure, perhaps? Something wild and free, untamed? After all, one turned seventeen only once in their lives.
Teal turned back to her dressing table and brushed her long, flowing hair. Golden as sunlight, golden as the shimmering necklace that embraced her throat, her hair streamed down her back to kiss her waist. A beautiful contrast to her sea green eyes. Her mother had named her Teal because of the color of her eyes. They were like sea foam, her mother said—wild cresting waves that never rested.
Teal dressed quickly in a billowing green skirt and a light silken chemise, then wrapped a shawl threaded with silver strands around her shoulders. Today she would go wandering. The castle was silent, still slumbering, and she craved to feel the wind kissing her face, the taste of summer heat on her tongue.
Teal had never been beyond the borders of her land before. Her parents said when she became Queen she would take journeys and meet neighboring heads of state, and find a prince to rule by her side. But there was plenty of time for that, and she was not to worry herself about other places and other peoples. Their kingdom was safe and peaceful, but danger lurked beyond the borders, and her parents repeatedly warned her of venturing too far.
Usually, she acquiesced, as she always did, and contented herself with walking through the forests and picking flowers and occasionally listening to the King and Queen dispense their wisdom and justice from the Court, bedecked with honeysuckle and roses.
But today…today she wanted more than a garden journey, more than a chaperoned excursion into the fields to gather flowers. She passed through the silent corridors, aware of the heavy gray stones surrounding her. They bore the weight of her family lineage, and every step she took through the echoing halls reminded her of her duty, her heritage, her life to be.
Two guards watched over the mammoth doors that allowed passage in and out of the castle walls. They bowed as she lingered at the gate.
“Lady, let us call an escort for you,” one said, but she shook her head softly.
“No, I will go unescorted today.” She flashed them a smile, trying to sooth their worries. “This is my birthday. This is my wish, my will. Be kind and do not wake my parents, they need their sleep and I am only seeking a breath of fresh air and a walk in the sunlight.”
The guards looked at one another. Her will was law and there was nothing they could do. They nodded and backed away, allowing her free passage.
“She is beautiful,” one of the men whispered behind her.
“That she is, but child-like still. The King and Queen do not see that she is almost a woman. They have not prepared her for life. I wonder that they allow her to go walking about alone like this,” the other replied.
The first guard shook his head. “No one in the land would hurt the Princess.”
As she meandered through the forest, Teal thought about what the guards had said. Truth be told, they were right. No one within the forest kingdom would even think of raising a hand to her. She was their prize, their beloved jewel who shone brilliantly in the dark paths of the wooded glen. Even the poorest farmer knelt before her without a grumble.
The Princess looked at all the paths spread out before her. She had explored far along each and each today seemed too tame, too familiar. Startled, she realized that she knew the Kingdom as well as her parents, her long walks had given her a fine perspective on the borders of the land.
“So I have been learning something,” she whispered. “But where should I go today?”
A rustle in the grass caught her ear. There, between the trees, was a narrow path that she had not seen before. She chewed on her finger for a moment. Had she simply overlooked it, or had it had magically appeared?
But magic was rare in the Kingdom these days. The Dragon had long ago been slain by a brave knight who married her grandmother’s aunt, and as the land grew more peaceful, the witches had less inclination to use their powers for anything besides bits of healing and entertaining small children.
She must have overlooked it, she finally decided. Her parents would not like her traversing an unknown road by herself. They would fret and worry, but then it occurred to her that in another year, she would be of age. She should start making some of her own decisions now, as much as she valued her mother’s wisdom and her father’s heart. Indecision warred within her. She wanted to explore, to run free like a farmer’s daughter. She knew her duty, but for one day, one hour, she wanted to cast it off and be truly seventeen, free and full of fun and not caring about what dangers might lie on the trail.
Finally, unable to resist, she hiked her skirt up on one side and knotted it to keep it from dragging on the ground, then set off down the narrow path. She had been walking for over an hour when she noticed that the trees were thinning out. The light made her wince, and she shaded her eyes as she picked carefully through the briars and brambles creeping out of the soil.
The forest soon opened out onto a wide plain, scorched and barren, with soil so compacted that it cracked and peeled upwards like old paint on a fresco. Teal blinked against the glare of the sun and an uneasy feeling crept over her, as though she were gazing upon something she was perhaps not meant to see. She searched her memories for any mention her parents might have made of a neighboring land like this, but nothing came to mind. What should she do? Go home? She yawned, tired and hot, as she realized how sore her feet were.
“Maybe I should rest a bit before I turn back,” she said to herself, suddenly wanting the comfort of a voice. She looked around, hoping to see a stream she could sit by, or a tree she could sit under.
But there was no water here, and the trees had grown dark and twisted. Feeling more uncomfortable by the minute, Teal shifted her weight from foot to foot. The heat from the wastes filtered up through her shoes and burned the delicate soles of her feet. She decided to turn back now, before she grew any more uncomfortable. She turned back, but the path had disappeared under a tangle of wild matted brambles and thorn-bushes.
“It’s not possible,” she whispered. “It can’t just have vanished.”
Teal paced along the borders of the wood, but could find no inroad. She tried to ford her way through the undergrowth, but the foliage was so thick and thorny that her arms and legs were soon tattooed with long, bleeding scratches. Finally, she gave up and turned towards the barren land.
The King and Queen had expressly forbade her to cross over the borders of the Woodland Kingdom, but there was nothing else she could do. Perhaps someone along the way could help her find her way home. She began walking across the barren land, wincing as the relentless sun burned against her skin. If only she had brought some water or some food. Her throat parched, her stomach empty, she wept as she forced herself along. She wept out of fear, wept out of anger and hunger and wept because today was her birthday, and birthdays should never be dismal or frightening.
“Am I going to die?” The thought of death flashed through her mind, and for the first time in her life, Princess Teal was afraid. She had never questioned her own mortality. She toyed with the thought, wincing as she realized if she died, it would mean no coronation, no balls or games or laughing children calling her Mama. Her hand fluttered to her throat. She had never seen anyone die and didn’t know what to expect. But princesses didn’t die in faerie tales—she knew that much. Surely someone would come along to help her. But until then, she realized she was on her own, lost in the middle of a desert with neither shade nor water and no one knew where she was.
“There’s nothing for it, I have to buck up and survive until either some prince, or my parents come along.” Teal strained her eyes, searching the horizon for any signs of life, but nothing stirred in the parched, arid land surrounding her. Weary from both the heat and fear, she decided to seek shelter behind a large rock about fifty yards away. It offered shade from the burning sun, and she lie down behind it, grateful for the respite. Within moments, she slipped into unconsciousness.
Karamak the Dark, King of Wraithland, led his band of riders out onto the burning plains that separated the land of the dead from the land of the living. He was stately in form, with a strong silver aura enveloping the bones of his body, and his eye sockets glowed with opaline flames. A silver crown bedecked with sapphires and opals sat atop his skull, and a long purple cloak flowed gently from the outline of silver surrounding his shoulder blades.
He led his band of riders atop skeletal horses which, during life, had been their faithful mounts. They traveled across the great plains as they so often did in search of wanderers who had strayed too far from the land of the living. Some they would send home, no worse for the wear than a minor scare. Others, in whom the spark of life was but a faint glimmer, they took back to Wraithland. The King enjoyed this diversion, it gave him satisfaction and occupied the unending days that passed in the land of immortality.
They were out this day, riding, when one of his companions pointed towards a boulder that sat against the floor of the valley. Behind the rock lay a young woman. She was beautiful and radiant, and life bloomed full within her, still, and her hair gleamed like spun gold. Karamak stared at her, enchanted.
“She is like a spring morning,” he murmured. He motioned to his riders and they gently picked her up and began to head towards the land of the living.
“No,” the King said, wind whistling through his mouth to become the breath of his voice. “No,” he said again as his riders looked back at him, waiting.
“But she is young and still filled with life. We should return her to her land. No doubt her parents will be worried.”
Karamak swung off his mount and strode over to them, his purple cloak fluttering behind. He looked down into the woman’s sleeping face. Blood coursed through her veins, plumping her
cheeks and filling them with a rose blush. Breath whispered from between her full pink lips. Karamak silently reached out one bone-white finger and stroked back the golden strands that covered her face.
“Bring her,” he said quietly. “Bring her back to the castle.”
“But she is alive, Your Highness,” one of the riders said.
“I know,” Karamak answered. “I know.”
When Teal awoke, she found herself in bed in a dark hall. She was nude under a scratchy blanket that irritated her flesh. Confused, she sat up, propping herself on her elbows, and surveyed the room around her. The furniture was stark, heavy and dark with age and the pillows and bedclothes were old and tattered, though at one time they had been exquisitely embroidered with gold threads.
Teal pushed herself out of bed, wincing as her feet hit the floor. She pulled them up again and examined the blistered soles. Her shoes and clothes were nowhere to be seen.
She was about to knot one of the sheets around her shoulders into a tunic when the door opened. Teal held her breath, expectantly. Into whose kingdom had she had unwittingly stumbled? And then, she forgot her nakedness as fear rose up in her throat.
A skeleton, surrounded by pale blue light that took the rough shape of a body, entered the room, carrying a tray. On the tray was a bowl of fruit, withered and sickly. The creature set the fruit on the nightstand and turned to the Princess.
“You’ve woken,” it said, and its words were like the pale wind. “The King will be relieved to hear that you survived your misfortunate trip.”
Teal bit back a scream. She was a princess and that, in itself, meant she had to show courage. She straightened her shoulders, and quietly draped the sheet around her like a cloak. One look at the fruit told her she would never eat it. A worm burrowed out of the apple and her stomach lurched.
“Who are you? Where am I? Can you help me find my way home?”
The creature seemed reluctant to answer.
She tried again. “My parents will be worried about me. I am Princess Teal of the Woodland Kingdom.” She shivered, her skin rippling in the chill. The hall was as cold as the desert plain had been hot. “Where are my clothes? I demand my clothes.”
“Climb back under the bed covers. Your things will be brought to you soon. I will tell the King you’ve woken and he will answer your questions.” When the creature spoke, Teal could hear the faintest hint of disapproval in its voice. “Eat, if you will.” Then, it turned and left the room.
The Princess stared at the molding fruit for a moment, then looked around the room. A window near the bed hid behind shutters so old they had cracked, and at her touch, they fell to the dust-laden floor with a crash. She jumped back, holding her breath, but in the silence that followed she realized no one had heard. She looked down onto the plain below. Twilight made it difficult to pierce the shadows that surrounded the castle. She tossed the fruit out of the window, not wanting to appear ungrateful by leaving it on the plate.
There was a pitcher of water on the armoire and she raised it to her lips but stopped when the smell of vinegar rose to cloud her senses. The liquid was black, briny, and she quietly set the pitcher back in place without taking a single drop. She had barely crawled back into bed when the door opened.
The King. She had expected a real King, a flesh-and-blood liege and her disappointment washed over her like cold rain. A flash of bones and silver light. What nightmare had she stumbled into?
“So you are a Princess?” he asked, striding into the room. “I am Karamak, King of this land.”
Teal looked once into the opaline eyes for a moment, searching for any sign of humanity, and then hung her head. “Yes,” she whispered. “I am Princess Teal, from the Woodland Kingdom. I was out for a walk and seem to have gotten lost. Today’s my birthday,” she added helplessly.
Karamak settled himself on the bed next to her. She drew away, pulling the covers up to her chin. When he spoke, there was a new gruffness in his voice. “You should know better than go walking unattended.”
“In my kingdom, no one would hurt me,” she countered, not liking his tone. He was far too close for comfort. She straightened her back, summoning up what dignity she could. “We are a peaceful people. Our last Dragon was slain years ago and the brave knight married my grandmother’s aunt. I had no reason to fear walking alone.”
“Then yours is an unusual land. Have you no murderers? No rogues?” He spit out the question so harshly that the Princess pulled back against the headboard.
She looked at him through half-closed eyes and said, “Once in a while those things happen, but it’s rare and usually strangers are involved. My parents deal with the criminals quickly and efficiently, as will I when I am Queen.”
Karamak stood, towering over her. He looked at her with a fierceness that made her quiver. She had seen the same look, that same flash of light, in the eyes of a few men in the Woodland Kingdom and it always made her feel appraised, weighed and measured, and tied up with a pretty bow. She couldn’t help but notice that the silver light of his aura burned fiercely near his pelvis.
He leaned over her and with one jointed ivory finger, pointed at her. “Princess Teal of the Woodland Kingdom, you are a lovely woman. You should not cover yourself in shame, but display yourself with pride.”
“I want my clothes,” Teal cried out, angry now and blushing. She wanted to slap away his bony hand but was too afraid of what he might do.
Karamak nodded as he started towards the door. “I will order them brought to you immediately.”
Somewhat mollified, Teal rearranged the covers her and asked, “Are all your people like you?”
He paused and his voice was puzzled when he spoke. “What do you mean?”
“Are all of you…bones without flesh?”
“Oh,” he said. “Yes, we live in bone and fire instead of bone and flesh.”
“What land is this?” Teal called out but Karamak had vanished out the door. Within moments, the servant who had brought the fruit returned with Teal’s clothing and helped her dress but would answer no questions.
The second day, Karamak again visited Teal. They discussed her mother and father and her kingdom and how much she loved and missed the wooded glen. She hoped that he might help her find her way home but every time she approached the subject he waved her fears away.
“I’ve sent a message to your family,” he said. “They know you’re safe.”
Teal did not trust the skeletal King and she hated the dark castle with its shadows and perpetual gloom. No morning light showed through the windows, only the cloud and mist-shrouded plain through which she could barely see. Her heart ached for the sound of her mother’s voice. Once more, she tossed the fruit out of the window, but gnawed on the stale bread until she began to choke and was forced to swallow the brackish water, which set her stomach on fire. After that, she decided not to eat or drink at all.
When he left her the second day, he asked, “Is there anything I can give you?”
“A safe passage home,” was all she said.
Karamak turned and left the room in silence, bolting the great door behind him.
On the third day he told her he loved her. “Stay with me,” he pleaded. “You are like the golden sun, radiant and beautiful. I may have no flesh on my bones but my fire can take substance and I can love you like a man loves a woman.”
Teal stared at him, horrified. “Love? What would you know of love? How dare you imprison me? My family will destroy your kingdom to get me back.”
“But yours is a peaceful people. Have you an army ready to ride? They don’t even know where you are.” The dread king laughed.
Teal burst into tears, her dreams of escape dwindling as each moment passed. “You said you told them. I knew not to trust you.” She had suspected him of deceit, and now she knew she was right. As he reached for her, she screamed and flailed against his ivory embrace.
“Let me go! Don’t touch me!” A tidal wave of hatred and fear rushed over her, the first time Teal had ever hated anyone. The feeling sent her reeling with its strength.
The King pulled her to him, the silver fire swirling like a vortex. He tried to kiss her, to press his mouth against hers, but she fought him, shrieking, cutting herself on the sharp edges of his bones. He was stronger than she, but then—a glimpse of her bloodied face stopped him. The fire died down to a muted flicker.
Teal managed to break away from him and stumbled back as she looked for a weapon.
Karamak reached for her, then stopped. “Teal, please don’t be afraid of me.” The breath of his voice trembled.
She looked into his ivory face and knew that he wanted to comfort her. “Let me go home. That will be the only comfort you can give me, you wraith of bones and fire.”
He paused, then silently turned and left the room. A few minutes later, two servants entered and though Teal protested weakly, they stripped away her clothing and dressed her in a gown that had once been golden but was now faded and threadbare. After they left, Teal tried to bar her door, then crawled into bed and cried herself to sleep. Hellish nightmares plagued her dreams.
“Can it be done?” Karamak demanded.
Rennard shrugged, the bones of his shoulders grating as they lifted. “I can give you that illusion, but will it do any good? You have terrified her. What makes you think she will ever trust you?”
Karamak pounded the table. Dust flew into the air where his fist landed. The castle was thick with it, but the King and his company never seemed to notice. It made no difference in Wraithland, where shadow ruled.
“I have to try. I must try.” He unfastened the heavy cloak and laid it aside. He was about to remove the crown when Rennard stopped him.
“The King must never be without his crown,” the magician said softly. Karamak nodded. “I have to speak now. This is folly. You cannot expect this to work, Your Majesty. I warn you,” Rennard continued, “she is of flesh and blood. How long do you think she can last here? Our land is for the dead, not the living.”
“We feed her, she has air to breathe. She will live as long as I want her to live,” Karamak said.
“You have seen the fruit lying below the girl’s window each morning. She wastes away.”
“Will you give me the illusion or must I find another magician to aid me?”
Rennard shrugged. If not he, another would provide the King with what he wanted. “Very well,” he said. “But I do not think it will do any good.”
The Princess stared out the window towards the land of shadow below. She still didn’t know where she was, but she was starting to entertain the thought of climbing out the window, and trying to scale the castle wall to the ground below. From there, she might be able to make her way out of whatever land this was.
The cuts on her face had crusted over, and she had bruises where he had gripped her wrist too tightly, but the fear had taken to her bone deep. Every time she closed her eyes she could see Karamak’s ivory skull bearing down on her face, the fire in his eye sockets burning with pale lust. She shuddered, trying to cleanse herself of the feeling that insects were running over her body. As she scratched her arms, she noticed that the dress he had given her was loose and she cinched it up with one of the swags that tied back the curtains. She was losing weight from not eating.
As the lock sounded, Teal backed away from the window, not wanting to give herself away. She moved to stand by the table, keeping it between her and the door. To her surprise and relief, a young man strode in.
He was flesh and blood, like her, with long red hair and a full beard. Wearing a faded tunic that had once been royal purple, and trousers, he might have been handsome, but then she noticed the silver crown of Karamak set atop his head and her heart sank.
“What new horror is this that you visit on me? You wear the crown of Karamak and yet you are mortal?”
The King quietly crossed the room. He stood at arm’s length and said, “You cannot love me as I am. I thought, if I were to look like you…if I were mortal, you might accept me and accept my love.” He reached out for her and pulled her into his arms.
Teal struggled against his icy embrace. “Your touch is still the touch of death, and you stink of all that is faded and old and long, long dead. You imprison me against my will and expect me to love you?” Her stomach twisted as his hands slid over her body.
Karamak felt ashamed, but still he forced his mouth on hers and kissed her deeply, his tongue leathery and dry against her moist own. She beat against his chest and he finally let her go. As he left, he warned her, “You leave me little choice.”
“Let me go home,” she said.
“You will not love me, even in this form?”
“You are repulsive in any form,” she said, throwing the pitcher at him. It crashed against the floor, shattering into a thousand shards as the brackish water spread across the boards. “As long as I live I will hate you!”
He slammed the door as he left.
Rennard was waiting for the King. Karamak looked at him and shook his head. “Remove the illusion.”
“Then you will let her go home?” Rennard asked. “Your Majesty, take pity on the girl.”
“She has no pity for me.” Karamak settled back into his bones, watching the illusion fade with just a faint hint of regret. It had been so long since he had been mortal that he no longer missed it. “I don’t know what to do.”
“You must do something, Your Highness. She is wasting away. She refuses the food you give her each morning. She will die of thirst soon because she only sips at the water.”
Karamak stared at the magician. “She said she will never love me as long as she lives. And, how can she? I am the King of Wraithland and she is mortal. We are worlds apart.”
“Your Highness, I beg of you to stop this folly. Your obsession clouds your judgment.” But his words were lost on the King. As Karamak waved him away, he added, “I warn you, you will be sorely disappointed.”
But Karamak wasn’t listening.
The cold was almost more than Teal could bear. The dampness had gotten into her lungs and she coughed now, a painful shudder that wracked her body. When Karamak entered her room on the fifth morning, she turned quietly. She had almost decided to try her luck at climbing down the castle wall but then she stared into the gray mist and a wave of helplessness engulfed her and she realized at last just how far away her home was. She had climbed onto the ledge, willing herself to jump, but at the last minute couldn’t bring herself to do so, and so she fastened the windowpanes again and settled herself at the writing table.
The room held nothing to interest her, no books, no games. If there had been any paper in the desk, it had long ago vanished into dust. So Teal sat alone with her thoughts and when Karamak entered, she stared up at him silently, waiting his next torture.
Karamak gently crossed the room. “You are in Wraithland, you know.”
Teal stared at him, silently accepting the sentence. She knew then that she was doomed. “The land of the dead,” she whispered. “Am I already dead?”
“No,” Karamak answered. “Not yet. I could send you home again. You have the spark within you that still speaks of life. But how bright you are in my kingdom of shadow. How beautiful and radiant, like the sun you bring light into my world.” He ran his finger over the empty fruit plate. “Every day the plate is emptied and yet you grow thin. Why won’t you eat?”
“The fruit is full of worms and the bread is stale. The water is brackish, full of brine,” she said.
“Ah, that explains it. We don’t notice things like that here. We have no need for food.”
“Are you going to let me go home?” Teal asked, one last spark of hope rising up. She wanted to fall on her knees but her body was too weak and tired. Anyway, she was a Princess, born and bred never to beg.
Karamak leaned across the desk. “I thought I might, but now I see how bright you still are, how beautiful and full of sparkle and I know I cannot. I love you, Princess Teal of the Woodland Kingdom. I love you and I will not let you leave me.”
“I don’t want you . . . I don’t love you,” she said.
“Not with the gulf that lies between us. I was a fool to think my illusion could capture your heart. It was still illusion. But there is a way. If we are the same, then you will have no reason to fight me.”
He reached out and took her chin in his hands. Teal knew then that he was going to kill her. She straightened her shoulders and closed her eyes, trying not to cry out as he snapped her neck. As she slumped back in the chair, Karamak waited, watching the energy of his land work on her body.
Within minutes, the bones lay clear and gleaming, and a brilliant sea green fire surround the Princess as she stood, shrugging away the draperies that had been her dress.
Teal looked down at her bare bones and the thin line of sea foam flames that surrounded them. She looked back at Karamak and now he did not look so frightening. She had no more hope, no more reason to run. She stared at him unblinking.
“You have won the battle, King of the Dead. You own me. Will I be your dark queen, now?” The wind that was her breath and voice whistled like a hot summer breeze blowing through the reeds.
Karamak stared at her in horror. The brilliant beauty, the pale skin and bright eyes, the spark of life that had promised joy and desire to his soul, it was all gone and in its place, stood simply another wraith of shadow and fire and death.
“No,” he whispered, stepping back. “No. Where is my sunlight? Where is my radiant Princess? What have I done?” he cried. “Your will and your passion! Where have they gone?”
Teal laughed then, bitterly, for she saw his repulsion and suddenly understood. He fell to his knees as she turned. With her bones clicking gently, with her fire crackling quietly, she strode past the grieving King, stopping to lift the crown from his skull and set it atop her own. Then, without a single look back, the dark queen entered the shadowed kingdom that was her new home.