And now, the final part…The Winter King. Part Four. J R Manawa.
Darkness fell over the land as the Enchantress stood and turned to face the king. Her eyes shone as black as her heart, and the quiet innocence with which she had seduced him now melted away completely in the face of his betrayal.
Alas, the king did not recognise his bride-to-be. Frozen to the spot where he stood, he set eyes on her, but could not remember. The thick miasma emanating from her body swallowed the garden around them until it felt like they were the only two people left in the world.
He forgot what the caretaker’s daughter looked like, and he forgot why he had come into the labyrinth to search for her. It was only her eyes which stayed fast in his memory. Her liquid amber eyes.
“My lady,” he spoke politely to the Enchantress, “how strange it is to find another in this garden when you are not the one I am looking for,”
“My king,” she replied, her voice a low hiss, “I have come hence as fast I could when I heard of your disappearance over night. Here I am, hastened to find you, and yet you do not recognise me? Even you ask for another!”
Startled, the king’s mind fought to make sense of the words he heard from her lips, and the vision of the woman he saw, but he simply did not recognise her. He thought that maybe, just perhaps, he had once danced with her at a ball.
“You speak riddles and sorcery,” he whispered in reply, putting his hand to his head.
She smiled, pacing closer. The evening wind swept through the garden and the folds of her dress billowed around her as she spoke, “My love, riddles and sorcery are things I do best, but it would seem that true love is a thing which escapes me,”
Exposed above the line of her dress, the contamination of her heart could be seen. It was swelling and throbbing through the veins beneath the thin layer of her skin, swarming further through her body with every beat of her heart.
“You have betrayed me for a peasant girl, for blood which is filth,” she continued.
“If this is true then you had bewitched me for I remember nothing of you, not your face, nor your eyes, nor anything of your character.” He knew the scathing words were true.
She shrieked at him in anger. “Where is she?” she screamed. “Where is the little witch? She has meddled with my spell.”
“She removed your poison,” he said suddenly, as the memory came to him. The caretaker’s daughter had sucked the poison from the wound in his hand. His mind fought to regain the lost memories, but he knew it. The girl with the amber eyes had saved him.
The Enchantress raised a hand toward him but lowered it at the last moment. “I watched you for years,” she admitted, “I watched as you cut yourself off from the world, and closed your heart to love. I watched as you spurned every advance and turned away every moment of hope. You put on a brave face for the world, but inside you felt like you were dying.”
“Stop.” The king begged, for her words were true, and sometimes the truth hurts worst of all.
She smiled as he cowered before her, “But you see my king, the funny thing about a heart is they can only empty out for so long. Eventually the vessel becomes so empty and so weak that it will take almost anything that is poured into it. So I watched as you shut out the world, and I waited for my moment.” She held one long and gnarled index finger up to his face, and the king saw the nail. Long, pointed, and still crusted with his dried blood.
“You may no longer be under my spell, but you are not strong. I paid a high price to purchase your heart, my king. Too high it now seems. But I do not need to possess your heart into order to control it and call it my own.” She placed her finger in her mouth and sucked it clean of the dried blood. When she was done, she licked her lips and smiled, “I’ll rip it from your chest instead,” she finished, and lunged toward him.
For a second too long the king was shocked to the spot where he stood. Now the spell was thoroughly gone, he did remember her. He remembered her face when she was brought before him by his advisors at the midsummer ball. He remembered her grip upon his shoulder as they danced, and the way she clasped his hand. And last of all, he remembered her piercing his flesh.
He ducked out of the way just in time, and fell into a tangle of thick vines. She shrieked with laughter, but before he could find his feet he was hauled back further into the undergrowth by a nimble set of arms.
“My king? Where are you my king? Hiding will do you no good!” She called to him in her hollow voice.
In the darkness of the bushes, the king coughed and spluttered indignantly, but the hand over his mouth did not let go.
“Shhhh!” The dappled remains of sunset shining between the leaves sparkled in the amber eyes of the caretaker’s daughter as she carefully let go of him. “Give me your coat,” she whispered.
“No,” he whispered back.
“Just do it. I will lead her away.”
“No!” He knew it was not right.
Her blonde head of hair shook with frustration. “She is only a danger to you, for she has control over you, and it is you she wants. Surely by now your men will be arriving, searching for you? You will go and get help, and I will lead her away,” she told him. “Besides, if you don’t I’ll just knock you out again,” she added, matter-of-factly.
Begrudgingly he let her take the coat from his shoulders, for he knew she was telling the truth. But he did not have long to rue the fact he had just been beaten by two women, because the Enchantress shrieked suddenly. She had spotted his coat as the caretaker’s daughter ran away up the path, further into the labyrinth.
“Are you a coward that you run from me?” she cried after the coat as it disappeared around the corner.
The king held his breath as the enchantress stalked past his hiding spot, and then he crawled away. Remembering now where he was, he made his way down out of the gardens. He ran to his horse and his sword which he had regretfully left bound to his saddle. The hope that his men would have arrived was ill-placed, so without a second thought he ran back into the hanging gardens.
This time was easier. The path was clearer, and where it was not straight he hacked the vines aside and made a way.
At the top of the gardens he found the caretaker’s daughter standing upon the precipice. The Enchantress had backed her up against the edge of the cliff with nowhere to go, yet still she held the hood of the coat low over her face to conceal her identity.
Sprinting forward, he called out to the Enchantress, expecting to divert the attention back to himself.
He was wrong.
Instead of turning to face him, the enchantress merely glanced over her shoulder with a fleeting look of triumph before she turned back to the caretaker’s daughter and drove her closer to the edge.
The night wind picked up, catching the hood of the king’s coat and pulling it back from the girl’s face. Her long blonde hair spilled out and whipped about wildly in the wind. She stumbled, blinded by her own hair, and the enchantress seized the moment, reaching forward to push her over the edge.
Dropping his sword, the king threw himself forward to stop her. He grasped the hand of the caretaker’s daughter, but it was too late. She slipped over the edge, and the Enchantress toppled with her. With both hands the king held tight to her slender wrist. The Enchantress made a wild grab to hold onto her ankle, but it was futile. She fell with a scream to the rocks below.
The king hauled the caretaker’s daughter up and onto the cliff.
“Forgive me, my lady,” he begged once he put her back on her feet.
She looked up at him with sad eyes. “There is nothing to forgive. You should take your coat back,” she slouched the silken coat from her shoulders but he pulled it back over her.
“Keep it, you are cold and shivering.” He could see tears in her eyes.
“I did not want her to die,” she said.
“She would have killed you,” he replied with a frown.
“Still, I did not want to kill her in my place.”
The king did not know what to say. The last time he remembered crying was as a child. He reached his hand out to stroke her hair and then he embraced her as he remembered his mother had done for him. She hugged him back fiercely, and when she let go, the king’s heart did not feel empty.
She let out a small smile, and they walked down through the garden together in silence.
Years later, when the caretaker’s daughter had become queen of the summer palace and her children ran wild about the gardens and through the halls, she and her husband the king would often do as his parents had done, and sit in the peace of the hanging gardens. But never would they find the time to watch the stars, or gaze out over the ocean. Instead they would sit on the edge of the garden where they first met, and he would watch and feed the fish, avoiding the queen and her spade as she tilled the fresh earth with expert hands. Sometimes they still went to the top of the cliff from where the Enchantress had fallen. Here the queen had laid a bed of red roses which she tended most carefully of all, in honour of their happily ever after.