Read The Fairest of Them All Online

Authors: Carolyn Turgeon

The Fairest of Them All (4 page)

He rode into view just as the sun caught my hair and turned it to fire. He looked up at me, a dazed expression on his face. Never in my life had I felt the kind of power I felt right then. I
was young and beautiful. I had all the magic of the forest at my fingertips. I was foolish, too; I understand this now, after so many
years have passed, how I confused infatuation for true love, the power of beauty for real power in the world.

“You came back,” I said. I whispered the words, and let the wind carry them to him. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

“You were not at the ball.”

“She locked
me in this tower, to keep me away.”

He left his horse, walked toward the tower.

“You have to climb up here,” I said.

“What?”

He looked around, and then headed for the great wooden door. I could hear him struggling, just out of my vision. A moment later, he was standing again under the window.

“I’m locked in,” I said.

“I’ll get the key from her.”

“No. She is not here. Climb.”

He tilted
his head, not understanding. “There’s no rope or ladder.”

“Climb my hair.”

“How . . . ?”

“You won’t hurt me,” I said.

Tentatively, he reached out and touched my hair, grasped it in his fist. I could feel that touch. My hair was as alive as skin, as blood. I reeled back from the force of the feeling that spread through me. I could feel him. I
knew
him.

“Climb,” I said again, holding on to
the windowsill and bracing myself for the pain in my scalp. But no pain came. Instead, images flashed through my mind: a bed covered in furs, a heavy manuscript scattered across a desk, bright colors blotted across stone. They were all images from his life, I realized with
surprise, flowing from him to me. I’d never felt anything like it before. Of course, outside the tower Mathena always made
me keep my hair tied back, hidden under cloth. Was this why? Did she know what it could do?

He hoisted himself up and I could feel his full weight, as I braced myself against the window.

“Are you all right?” he called up.

“Yes,” I said, through gritted teeth. “Just climb!”

His anxiety moved from him to me. He was afraid to hurt me, pictured me flying sideways out the window like a golden bird,
my body smashing into the ground.

But my hair was strong, stronger than iron. It could hold him ten times over, and I anchored myself against the tower.

After a moment of hesitation, he stretched one hand up over the other and twisted his thighs around my hair. He began to climb. I could feel his fear dissipating, his excitement to see me pulsing through every strand.

I closed my eyes, as everything
he’d ever thought or felt or dreamed passed into me, like water seeping into the soil. I could feel the way he’d ridden through the forest to come find me, stopping at an inn at the edge of the woods, for the night. Hear the songs he’d sung to himself as he rode. I could barely breathe, as it poured through me, unfurling, moving further back in time. I could feel his worry over his mother
the queen, the way he’d begged her, as a child, to see him when she was busy talking to ghosts, his loneliness and hurt when she looked past him, his love for poems and stories that filled him, that populated his world, his anger at his father the king, all of it combined with a deep love for them both, a love for me . . .

It was overwhelming, feeling that I knew every part of him, feeling I
was seeing all the secret parts of his heart that should have remained hidden.

Finally, he grabbed on to the stone windowsill. His face was right next to mine and he pulled himself into the room. He moved gracefully, like an acrobat.

And then he was standing before me, several inches taller than me, still clutching my hair in his hands. I looked up at him. His face was sweet and glowing. I had
to look away, embarrassed to see him as nakedly as I did.

“I could live in this hair,” he said, pressing his face into it. I felt his breath, his lips, through the strands.

“Give that back to me,” I said, grateful for his silliness. I pulled it from him and yanked more of it in from the window until it reached the floor, then reined in the next batch.

He turned to help me, gathering my hair
into the tower, letting it brush against his face as he did. A thousand more images sparked in front of me: painted letters on a page, banquet tables covered with gold plates and sparkling glasses, childhood afternoons on horseback chasing falcons, stretched-out canvases and the feel of a brush dipped in paint, artists and dancers and musicians . . . Infusing all of it, a deep love for art and beauty,
a desire to fill the world with wonderful things. I could feel my own heart expanding as I took him inside me, and everything became possible for me, the way it was for him. More than anything else, there was joy. I had never felt the kind of joy that he did. Even at his most hurt, his most lonely, he contained this wonder inside him, a passion for the world and all its beauty. People loved
him for that, I realized.

I could love him for that.

“This must be what heaven is like,” he said, interrupting the flow of emotions.

“Pulling my hair in through a window?”

“Yes,” he said.

I was giddy with happiness. “You don’t seem very much like a prince,” I said.

“And what is a prince supposed to be like?”

“I thought princes were dignified.”

“You don’t find me dignified?” He made a face
at me, twisting his features into a ridiculous expression.

“Well, you are the most dignified prince I’ve ever seen, though it’s true I’ve only seen one.”

“You might have better luck if you didn’t get yourself locked inside of towers.”

I laughed, as he reached out and ran his palm along my cheek. I leaned into it. And then we fell silent, just watching each other.

“You’re here,” I said, finally.
“I can’t believe it.”

“Did you not call me to you?”

I was so moved, I found it difficult to speak. I
had
called to him, and he had felt it.

“Yes,” I said softly.

“I waited for you at the ball,” he said, his voice curling into my ear, vibrating along every strand of my hair. “I was afraid that bandits had attacked you, that you weren’t safe; I know the dangers of the forest and the dark forces
at work here. I came as soon as I could. When you called to me . . . it was as if you were inside me. I hadn’t slept that night and at first thought I was imagining things. But your voice was so clear.”

He stepped closer to me, and took me into his arms. As he
held me, I could feel myself transforming, as if under a spell. My body changed into liquid, into points of light. His body became an
anchor as I felt myself melting, disappearing into him. I couldn’t get close enough to him.

I knew it was too fast. I knew it was foolish, and wrong, but I’d brought him to me, the flow of feeling was overwhelming, and he was—I knew it, with absolute certainty—my fate.

The sun spilled into the room. His hands were on my waist, my neck, pulling off my dress. I let him press against every bit
of my body, ensuring that I was still there, that I hadn’t dissolved into light, too. I pulled off his shirt, slid my palms down his chest onto his smooth belly. And then we were on the bed and I looked up, saw my own face in the mirror—was it only mine? I was sure I saw a rippling, another face appear beside it—for one moment before he pulled me down beneath him. And then it was only his thoughts,
the press of his skin under my hands, the feel of him entering my body.

After, we lay tangled together on the bed, as the sun dropped in the sky. My hair cocooned us, humming with a contentment that moved from him to me, and back again. And then I felt, underneath it, something else. As he pulled himself up, a panic swept over me. I knew he was going to leave, that something was wrong. Why hadn’t
I sensed it before?

“I must return to the palace,” he said, as I sat up next to him. “Though I’d like to stay here with you. Can you let your hair down for me again? I’ll send soldiers back here to release you. I’ll have her punished for what she’s done.”

The room came into relief. My body was a solid mass. “No, don’t send anyone,” I said.

“But she has done wrong to you,” he said.

“No! Please,
don’t punish her. She just wanted to protect me. That’s all.”

“From what?”

“From you.”

He stared at me.

“She didn’t want me to go to the ball,” I continued. “She said . . . that you wouldn’t love me. That you were promised to someone else.”

He did not answer. He didn’t need to.

“It’s not my decision, Rapunzel,” he said, finally.

I pushed him away, forced him to look at me directly. “Who
are you promised to?”

“I’m to marry the princess from the East.”

“When?”

“In two months.”

The room had gone cold. His heart had shifted, clouded over with guilt and pain and regret. I could feel every bit of that shift, pulsing up from him to me through my wretched hair.

Tears pricked at my eyes. He was still bewitched, I could see the glaze in his eyes, feel the strength of his desire. But
it didn’t matter now. He was marrying someone else.

He buried his face in my neck, ran his hands up and down my spine.

“I’ll try to return to you,” he said.

“Marry me,” I said. “Marry me instead.”

“I do not have that freedom.”

He kissed me again, shoved his hands and arms into my hair, which made me feel his grief more intensely. He didn’t want to leave me, but would anyway. I had misunderstood
the way
things worked, overestimated my power. He pulled my body into his, and I kissed him back even though tears streamed down my face. And then within what seemed like seconds I once again lowered my hair out of the window, and he climbed down. His own sorrow streamed up to me but it didn’t matter, there was nothing at all I could do to change what had happened, what I’d given him.

He was
gone.

W
hen Mathena returned that day, just as the sun was dropping in the sky and melting over the mountains,
she could sense immediately that something had happened. Brune got to me first, landing on my shoulder and nuzzling me with her beak. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor in a pool of hair and my own tears, sobbing with grief. Moments later, I heard the great door creaking open, and Mathena’s footsteps as she raced up the stairs to me. What she’d tried to protect me from had happened despite
her efforts, and now her sole concern was to see that I was all right.

I was not.

“My child,” she said simply, over and over, stroking my hair back from my face. “Shhhh.”

Even in my sorry state, I noticed that her touch had no effect on me, and that I could not feel anything of her in it the way I had with the prince. It only made me feel more bereft. She seemed so distant after the kind of
closeness I’d felt with him. Only his touch, it seemed, could awaken all the magic within me.

She led me out of the tower and to our little house, where she sat me in front of the fire and served me tea and stew. She
heated water on the fire and washed me, rinsed the tears and dirt out of my hair, the imprint of his lips, and slipped a clean dress over my head. She wrapped up my hair and covered
it with cloth. I sat, silent. Neither of us spoke about what had happened. Her magic sometimes was a convenient thing; she already knew.

I
n the following days, we found out all the details from the women who visited us: that Josef was marrying a princess from the East to strengthen a still-shaky alliance his father had made the year before, and that his bride was a pale,
dark-haired beauty with eyes like the sea. She was named Teresa, after the saint. She would not only ensure peace between our kingdom and the East, but bring us all closer to God. This was what we heard, over and over: that the new queen would bring happiness, peace, and God’s favor to the kingdom, which had been ravaged by failing crops, illness, hunger, the threat of war.

I listened bitterly.
All those spells I had watched Mathena cast for women over the years, she cast for me then, because I had forgotten them. All those teas and baths and potions, she made for me. “Bite down on this,” she said, handing me a stick of wood she’d boiled with hemlock root. “Close your eyes,” she said, handing me a steaming bowl, “imagine him, and drink this all at once, to flush him from your body.” She
put elderberry bark around my neck, so that it hung next to my heart. She rummaged through my room and when she found the sachet I’d made, she burned it, then swept every bit of earth and herb from my hearth, down the stairs, and onto the forest floor. But I was committed to my suffering and nothing worked to rid me of it.
It was the first rule of witchery, at least the kind she practiced on me
then. One had to be open to it. Changing hearts was something else altogether.

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