Once upon a time:
A son was born to a good king and his noble queen, and the entire country rang with the sounds of rejoicing. Strong as his father and fair as his mother, he brought joy to the hearts of all who saw him. Noblemen came to pledge their sons to his service and their daughters to his hand, and the king his father listened carefully to all their petitions and after consideration and competition, two young men were selected from the many: one to be the prince’s right hand, the other to be his left. The right hand was the son of the king’s own advisor, Raven the Wise; the other was the son of a knight who had served long and faithfully in the king’s service. It was a good match, nearly everyone agreed; the lives of the sons would echo the lives of the fathers, and the kingdom would continue to prosper.
But at this declaration the queen turned her face away from the celebrations and stroked the hair of her son the prince as he slept in his cradle. And as the people raised their cups in celebration, a toast to the prince and his new companions, she wept over her son.
“Why do you weep, O wife?” said the king. “This is a joyous time. Your grief is unseemly for this day.”
She did not lift her head when she answered: “A shadow has fallen upon this day, which shall not lift for many years,” she said. “I will tell you this, my king: our son shall be betrayed by those he loves best.”
And the king was solemn, for the queen was witch-born, and had moments of true sight, and her words carried a grim weight to them. “These are bleak tidings of which you speak,” he said. “I would not have our son incapable of love.”
“He shall not be incapable,” said the queen, “but therein will lie his doom, for his heart will not cleave to one until it has been broken to a hundred pieces and put back together.”
And this further troubled the king, but then spoke Raven the Wise: “My king, put aside your sorrows for this day. Your son will love all, and our sons shall watch over him, and be glad of his growth. They will lay down their lives for him, that he may never know grief.”
And perhaps it was a foolish thing, for the king knew in his heart that the queen spoke truly, but he let himself be coaxed away from dark thoughts, and return to the celebrations. But the queen remained at her son’s side, and she looked sadly upon him.
“Do not blame your father,” she said, “for he is a good man, and true of heart. And do not blame Raven, for he loves your father as dearly as I, and wishes only to distract him from his sorrows on what should be the happiest of days.
“But live wisely, my son, and keep to heart your mother’s warnings, for her own heart will be in two before yours is ever broken.”
And the prince looked upon his mother, with her eyes blue as the sky and her hair red as firelight, and was silent as she wept over him.
Time passed, as time always will, and the prince grew from a lovely child to a strong young man, and his companions grew beside him, ever his shadows and his faithful friends. Both were dark as the prince was bright, though Ravenson was quick to jest and to laugh, and Knightson was solemn, preferring the study of books to the study of combat.
“How ironic,” Ravenson said once, as the three of them rode out for a fox-hunt. “That his pen be quicker than his father’s sword, where I would prefer to spar than bury myself in my own father’s texts.”
“There is nothing wrong with that,” said Knightson, who squinted at the bright sun in his eyes. “It means that we are not bound by our fathers. It means we can change, and we are not bound by fate.”
“My dear friend, we are always bound by fate,” said Ravenson. “It is simply a matter of whether we choose to accept it as men, or flee from it as dogs.”
The prince said nothing, riding between the two of them, and what thoughts he had he kept to himself. Through the woods they ran, pursuing foxes — and some they caught, and some they did not. Mindful of his lord’s quiet, even Ravenson ceased his chattering before long. Like a witch’s spell the silence grew and strengthened between them, until even birds fell silent as they passed — which in itself was unusual, as most were apt to burst into song at the prince’s approach.
However, when they came to a lake in the middle of the forest, their horses began to shy and worry, tossing their heads and refusing to come forward. The air reeked of magic, so that even they three humans could sense it. Ravenson finally shook off his quiet and said, “My lord, we should not travel any further.”
And the prince looked up, stilling his horse as well. “What do you see?”
“They say a fairy of the water lives here,” said Ravenson. “She’s not the sort to let travelers pass without a toll, let alone those who’d hunt in her part of the woods.”
Knightson smiled thinly. “What, are you afraid?”
And Ravenson frowned, for he was stung by the veiled insult. “I am not,” he said. “I am merely doing as I should, and advising our prince against danger.”
“Even if there were,” said Knightson, “we would keep him safe, would we not?” And he put his hand on the hilt of his sword, to show his readiness for battle. He looked at the forest around them with disdainful eyes. He looked very dashing and powerful, and not at all like a man who preferred the quiet seclusion of the library to the battlefield.
Ravenson looked to their prince. The prince looked to the lake, with its calm sparkling surface. After a moment he dismounted and walked to the water’s edge, kneeling in the tall grass growing there. After a moment both Ravenson and Knightson dismounted as well, and came to stand by their lord’s side: to his right and to his left, just as they had long ago been chosen for. Together they peered down, and saw that their reflections were not visible, though the prince’s face looked back at them from the water. Ravenson took his lord’s shoulder.
“My prince, you must come away,” he said. “The fairy has seen you, and you are in danger. You must not linger so close to the water, or she will pull you into her world.”
But the prince looked at Ravenson with his gentle eyes and shook his head. “She is very sad,” he said, and put a hand over his heart. “She is not here of her own will, but has been trapped for a long time. She does not even remember her true home.” He looked back to the water, to his solitary reflection. “We should help her.”
“Ravenson is right,” said Knightson. “We should not linger here, my prince. You must not be taken in by the illusions of a fairy. It is not your place to rescue her, if even she is in need of that.”
“I am a prince of the kingdom,” said the prince, and he did not move from the water’s side. “My duty is to all those in need, whether they be man or beast or fairy.” And he leaned over the lake’s surface, and he said: “I will rescue you from this prison.”
And then to the horror of both Ravenson and Knightson, the prince’s reflection in the water stretched up long white arms that broke the surface. They wrapped around the prince’s neck and then before any man could hope to come to his aid, the arms pulled him into the water. Knightson drew his sword, but at the last moment Ravenson caught his sleeve.
“You are the best rider of us,” he said. “You must hurry back to the castle and tell my father what has happened.”
“I am a knight,” said Knightson, “I will not run away when my prince is in need.”
“Against a fairy, your sword will mean nothing,” said Ravenson. “If you turned cold steel against her, she might kill the prince in retaliation.” He clasped Knightson’s shoulder and went on: “I am my father’s son. I will buy you time.”
Knightson looked him in the eye, and then clasped Ravenson’s shoulder in turn. He said: “Do not get yourself killed in his place. Our lord would mourn you as much as anyone.”
Ravenson smiled tightly. “Our lord mourns the falling of leaves every autumn,” he said. “It would not be a bad thing, to be worthy of his sorrow.”
He turned then, as Knightson ran for his horse, and dove into the waters of the lake where the fairy had taken the prince. And though he was a strong swimmer, he found himself sinking straight to the bottom of the lake, where a glittering palace of white stone and pearl stood with its bone-gates wide open. Here he set foot on what appeared to be solid dry ground, and so forgot himself he took a breath in surprise — and found that water did not immediately rush to fill his lungs. The air tasted like enchantment, so thick on the tongue that he nearly gagged on it. Despite his earlier warnings to Knightson, he found himself putting his hand on the hilt of his sword — just in case.
Through the long, winding hallways of the castle he walked. Strange flowers, the likes of which he’d never seen before even in his father’s oldest texts, nodded at his passing. He almost fancied he could hear them whispering amongst themselves as he passed.
His footsteps echoed.
Eventually, however, he came to a ballroom, where the walls ballooned out and paled to transparency. In the center was the prince, caught in a pas de deux with a woman all in white, whose pale hair fluttered out behind her like the stretch of great wings. Even from the distance, Ravenson saw that his lord’s face was sorrowful: for his heart was such that he felt pain for all beings injured or unhappy, and he was the born champion of all who might need his strength.
I am lonely, said the fairy’s dance; I am afraid.
I will help you, said the prince’s dance; I will protect you from that which would harm you.
You cannot, said the fairy’s dance; your doom has already been set.
And this declaration, told in the delicate arch of the fairy’s lifted foot and the way she turned her lovely face to the side, chilled Ravenson’s heart. Once more his hand went to his sword, and this time he drew the blade. He thought of the kindness of his lord, and found he disliked the look of the prince’s hands upon the fairy’s back, how graceless they suddenly seemed, as though the life were already being sucked from him. In a rage Ravenson charged, and his battle cry was the prince’s name.
For the first time he was noticed; the fairy’s eyes turned to him. Her expression remained sorrowful, and he could not stop himself as their pas de deux turned them, and Ravenson watched as his sword struck his own lord’s heart.
Like a spring-rose, blood flowered from his chest, but the fairy did not move: she opened her small white hands and caught the blood, and these in her hands turned into the pieces of the prince’s heart. The prince made no sound as he fell.
Ravenson stared at his fallen lord and at the damned sword in his hands, and the despair that gripped him was as deep and chill as the waters of the lake. He watched numbly as the fairy placed the pieces of the prince’s heart on her skirt and as she walked in a slow circle, picking up every small fragment that had been missed. When she came to stand before him, he saw in her eyes an understanding that cut him sorely, as though she knew exactly what madness had driven him to turn a blade against his lord.
Her pale lips moved; her voice was soft as a dream’s whisper. “I would have the last piece of the prince’s heart,” she said. “For he may be saved, but only if all of his heart is given back to him.”
And Ravenson looked down upon himself and saw that there was no blood on the blade, but on his own breast, in the same place where the prince had been struck. He took a deep breath and felt the warm stickiness of it upon his chest. He looked at the fairy, and saw that while she stood en pointe, her feet still did not quite touch the ground.
He says, “If it will save my lord, then.”
The fairy looked at him. She put out one small hand and touched the stain on his clothes, and this came off into her palm, a small glowing red fragment. For a moment, he felt cold with its loss, like something precious had been taken from him.
Without a word he watched as she turned and knelt beside the prince. Her fingers were slim and delicate, but they knew their work well: within moments she has assembled a crystalline heart upon the folds of her skirt. This she took and placed upon the prince’s chest, where it began to glow white at the edges. The prince made a little noise — a brief, pained sound, but still glorious proof that there was yet breath in his lungs — and the fairy turned to Ravenson, her eyes sadder than before.
“I have something I must tell the prince,” she whispered. “In that moment, you must strike me down.”
Ravenson stared. “I cannot,” he said. “You’ve saved my lord from my folly. You should be rewarded.”
“I have lived here a very long time,” the fairy said. “I have long watched the prince from my prison.” She gestured to the bubblelike walls of the ballroom. “You must do this, or else the prince’s doom will fall upon him still.”
“But you’re saving him!” Ravenson cried. “How could I do that, when I have already wounded my lord–”
“You must,” said the fairy. “For your own doom will be far worse if you do not.”
“I cannot,” said Ravenson, and he took his sword and threw it away: it hit the ballroom floor and spun far out of reach. “I will not be so callous twice.”
“Even now,” the fairy said, “your father the Raven has betrayed his father the king. They comb the countryside looking for you. If you do not strike me down, they will find you, and they will use you to kill your prince entirely.” She stretched up both her small white hands and covered his; when she pulled away, there was a dagger in his hands where none had been. “It has always been your fate to be the one to strike the prince down: but this has come to pass, and you may yet escape repeating history.”
Ravenson stared. “I do not believe you,” he said. “My father loves the king as a brother, he would not betray our lord so!”
But the fairy pointed, and Ravenson looked and saw with sinking heart the castle where the prince lived, and he saw the flames that danced across the stone, and the black smoke that came boiling out the windows. He saw his own father with a bloodied sword, and the slit throat of the king; he saw the Knight and Knightson both with their blades drawn, fighting their way through a mass of black-feathered bodies, as his own father’s guard sought to cut them down as well.
“No more,” Ravenson said, and averted his eyes. “No more, I will not — I cannot take this.”
The fairy looked at Ravenson, and it was not pity but compassion in her eyes. Her cheeks were wet.
“And what will happen,” said Ravenson, “if I do this for you?”
“Your father shall become powerless,” said the fairy. “For he has used my own strength for years, and would use me again to track the prince, and hunt him to his death like a fox in the woods. But you shall take his place, and your prince will never again look upon you with love.”
Ravenson swallowed and bowed his head. “I have already betrayed my lord,” he said. “It is a fitting punishment for one such as myself.”
The fairy placed her soft hands over his and squeezed gently. “There is still a way to the light,” she said softly. “Your prince will find happiness, I will promise you that.”
“Thank you,” Ravenson said. “That is … good to know.”
And then the prince said, his voice fading and tired: “What is going on?”
“Please,” the fairy whispered, and turned her back on Ravenson, turned to face the prince once more.
“Prince,” she said. “I am the fairy of the lake, trapped here by a dark curse. I was meant to lead you to your death, but I have watched you through these years, and I have been swayed by the kindness of your heart. And I wish to say one thing to you, before my own doom befalls me.”
Ravenson thought of the queen’s prophecy, years ago, and gripped the hilt of the dagger so tightly his knuckles turned white. He thought of the many years of kindness from his lord; he thought of the years of betrayal that would be yet to come. And his own tears fell at the thought of what would become, for the prince would never forgive striking down an innocent, especially one that had saved his life — but Ravenson would never allow himself the close comfort of his lord’s confidence again: it was too much to ask, for one who had turned steel upon his prince, however unwittingly.
“I love you, my prince,” said the fairy, and she did not speak for herself alone.
“My lord!” Knightson flung himself from the saddle, heedless of his injuries, and hit the ground running. He dropped to his knees, reaching out to grasp both of the prince’s arms and haul him out of the lake. “What happened?”
The prince shook his head. His eyes were terrible to behold. “We have been betrayed,” he said.
“We have,” Knightson agreed urgently. “The Raven has gone mad, my lord, and your honored father has been murdered — we must hurry, perhaps Ravenson will know something –”
“Then we are twice betrayed,” the prince said, his voice hollow. He turned his eyes upwards, to the empty sky overhead. “And it will be a long time till morning comes again.”
Once upon a time:
There was an old raven who’d lined his nest too far and deep with treasures gathered during his many years of life, and who sought to move his nest to the highest point on the tree.
But this raven had a son, stronger and more clever than himself, and at the moment what would be his father’s greatest, he struck the older bird down, so that his body dashed to pieces against the rocks far below. And the raven’s son took the highest nest for himself, and he looked upon the wide stretch of country so far below and open to him, and smiled.
And in the kingdom below the tree there was a prince, pure and noble of heart, who swore he would fight the raven, and remove his darkness from the land. And he set out, with his faithful knight by his side,
But that is another story, for another night. How nice, how nice.