The Witch's Daughter
By: Rae D. Magdon
Author's Note: Sequel to Wolf's Eyes and The Second Sister. This novel is based on the story of Rapunzel, but also draws from a lesser-known Greek variant: Anthousa, Xanthousa, Chrisomalousa. This fairytale, in turn, steals some material from the Baba Yaga legends. Since I am both Greek and Russian, they were a pleasure to research and adapt.
Dedication/Thanks: A big thank you to Tara, my Mistress, and Lee, my Beta. This is for you.
Disclaimer/Warning: Mine. Don't use without permission. Lesbian sex included.
Feed the bard: E-mail is email@example.com. My website is at http://raedmagdon.wordpress.com If you like Law and Order, check out my Alex/Olivia fanfiction (which includes entirely too much sex) at http://www.fanfiction.net/u/2407457/Rae_D_Magdon
Recorded by Lady Eleanor Baxstresse, taken from the verbal accounts of Ailynn Gothel, the Witch's daughter
My mother always treasured pretty things. When I was very young, she would take me into the treasure rooms and show me all of the beautiful objects that she had collected, pointing out her favorites. She let me explore them, too, allowing me to run my fingertips over the gold chains, the elegant satin gowns, and the finely woven tapestries. I liked to go in her rooms as a child so that I could play with the jewelry and the handsome dresses.
Mother never allowed any of the men and women who visited our house to see the treasures. She did not like people, but they were the easiest way to expand her collection, and so she tolerated them - sometimes. Whenever someone came to trade a new pretty bauble for a magical spell, curse, or healing draught, she would give it to me, and I would take it through the front room and into the kitchen.
Along one wall there was a small wooden door. The door was magic and if you asked politely, it would take you to the treasure rooms, the herb rooms, the library, and a few other rooms I did not know about. The only four rooms that were not connected to the magic door were the front room, the kitchen, and the two bedrooms that my mother and I used. If the door was cranky or if there was a stranger in the house, it would simply lead out into the forest
Despite the stories that the villagers from beyond the forest told, my mother was not a gruesome hag. She was very beautiful, with skin so fair that it was almost translucent and thick brown hair that tumbled over her shoulders in wild curls. I grew up to look almost identical, and I was blessed with an aptitude for magic as well. Unfortunately, I also inherited a small portion of my mother's magpieish tendencies, but only towards one particular treasure.
I had everything that a young child could have longed for. Anything that I wanted, I was given. The villagers knew that the witch had a daughter and that if they brought something for me, a beautiful piece of jewelry or a gown that would fit a small girl, my mother would take it favorably. I must confess that I was very spoiled, but it was not entirely my doing. My mother's fondness for beautiful things was the cause of it.
I remember one of my requests very clearly. An old man came to our house one evening, his back bent and his brown face weathered and burnt by the sun. He was poor, but had somehow managed to get his hands on a small golden circlet. When my mother opened the door and saw the circlet, her lips curved upwards greedily, her eyes picking up the glint of the precious metal as the evening sun reflected off of it. "What would you like?" she asked, never one for fanciful words.
"I need a healing draught," said the old man, his eyes holding a mixture of fear and hope. I peered out at him from behind my mother's skirt, studying his face. All people that came to our house interested me, and I had never seen the same person twice. Except for the visitors that came to trade, I was kept in complete isolation.
My mother thought about it. I knew that she wanted the circlet; her trembling fingers and wide eyes gave her away. With a richer customer, she might have pushed for more, but she could tell that the man was poor and that he was giving her all he had. "Who is it for?"
"My son's young daughter. She has been ill for months."
"What are her symptoms?"
They talked for a few moments about things that I did not understand, and then my mother hurried back into the house. I followed; holding bunches of her skirt in my small hands. She walked through the front room and back into the kitchen, heading towards the magic wooden door. "Herb room, please," she said, tapping three times to rouse the door from its rest. It swung open lazily, and I followed her inside.
The herb room was dark narrow and the walls were comprised of several levels of shelves, all of which were crowded with baskets of herbs. My mother dug into some of the baskets, selecting the leaves and roots that she wanted. I knew some of the herbs that she chose then, for she had already begun teaching me the art of healing and poisoning. She talked to me whenever she made potions.
"Use only the root of belladonna, Ailynn," she said as she dug into the basket, "and occasionally the leaves, but do not touch the berries." It was a mantra that I had heard before, mostly because my mother wanted to be sure that I would not be tempted to eat them. She dug out a thick, fleshy white root with her hands and passed it to me before hurrying over to another shelf.
"And aconite, my darling, to calm the girl's fever and pulse. But it must be prepared specially. It is also a poison."
"Mother, why are so many of your healing plants poisonous?" I asked.
"Because poisons are powerful," she said. "Poisons manipulate the body, and if you harness their power, the world can be yours." I didn't understand her then, but those words stayed in my mind well through adulthood. I never doubted anything my mother taught me about plants.
After she had collected the leaves and roots she wanted in her skirt, she hurried into the kitchen and began crumbling and chopping, teaching me all the while. My mother had many faults - her greed, her pride, her overconfidence - but for all her faults, she was wise, and she did try and do some good back then, as long as she received payment for her services.
Eventually, she had concocted both a draught and a cream for the old man and carried them out to him. He was waiting at the door. My mother never allowed people into her house. Everyone knew that she would hex you if you invaded her privacy. She gave him the cream and the draught and told him what dosages to give. Then, he handed her the circlet. She bid him farewell with a nod of her head and closed the door, grabbing my hand and placing the circlet on my head.
"I love you. You are my princess," she said, stroking my cheek as she knelt down to gaze into my eyes, "my beautiful girl, and you shall have anything that you want."
"Can the old man's granddaughter come and play with me when she is well?" I asked impulsively. At that age, I was beginning to tire of the many treasures that my mother horded. The beautiful gowns and the precious jewels had grown dull. Lately, I had been thinking more about the people that came to our house. I wondered what they knew, what their mothers were like, and whether they would like me. I was starting to realize that what I wanted most of all was a friend.
My mother did not answer. Instead, she stood up and headed towards her garden to work. "Go and play downstairs with your new toy," she ordered, but I could tell that her mind was elsewhere. I think it was my request that drove her to take her next treasure for me.
My memories of the weeks that followed were unclear. Days blended together in our house. Even at five or six, I was already learning my mother's arts. She told me stories, too, and I continued to play with the circlet and my other fine toys, but the feelings of loneliness grew in me and I think that my mother sensed it. Sometimes, in the afternoon, she would stand in her garden amongst her herbs, looking to the sky and thinking deeply.
I learned later that she had been thinking about how to find me a suitable playmate. It would not be appropriate for me to mingle with the village girls of my age, but I was growing lonely and my mother doted on me, though she seemed to care little for the wellbeing of others at times. My happiness was incomplete, and she could not be at peace until I was satisfied.
My next clear memory was of a crisp night in autumn. I was sitting on my mother's lap by the fire in the kitchen as she told me a story and braided my hair. The warmth of the flames and my mother's voice were starting to lull me to sleep when a muffled yelp drifted in from outside. My mother whirled her head around to look over her shoulder and out of a nearby window, her chin tilting up as she listened harder. Someone was in the back garden.
"Stay here, Ailynn," my mother said, hurrying towards the back door while I sat on the rug next to the fire. As soon as she was out of sight, I hurried over to the window, peeking over the sill so that no one would realize I was there. Everything was quiet for a few moments and then I saw my mother, her face almost glowing in the moonlight, holding onto a thin man by the scruff of his neck. My mother seemed as tall as an oak tree standing in front of the intruder. She looked angry and fierce, just as the villagers whispered she was.
"How can you dare," my mother said in a low growl, "descend into my garden and steal my rampion like a thief?"
The man tried to speak, but fear filled his mouth like a gag. Only a small, strangled cry came out from between his trembling lips. He was shaking, obviously terrified. I had seen the frightened, awed looks of the traders that came to bargain with my mother, but none of them had seemed this afraid. Also, I had never seen my mother this angry before. I knew that her garden was precious to her, but I had not expected her to be so furious.
"Ah, let mercy be taking the place of justice," the man stumbled, "I had to!"
"You had to?" my mother asked frostily, raising one eyebrow.
"My wife is carrying our first child," the man tried to explain, "and she felt such a longing for rampion... You know that if a mother is not given the food she desires, the babe is cursed!"
My mother paused, looking surprised. A thoughtful expression crossed her face, and she looked once again at the man cowering at her feet. "If it be as you say," she said slowly, "take away as much rampion as you will. I will even spare your life and tend to the arm you injured when you fell over my wall. It is probably broken and the tissue is already starting to swell. I mark only one condition."
"Anything, mistress," the man said. "If you spare my life!"
"You must be bringing me the child that your wife will bear. I will attend to the birthing myself. Your wife will not die in her childbed. I will raise the girl and she will want for nothing."
"You know it is a girl?" asked the man.
"Yes, it will be a girl-child."
The man looked horrified. "You would take my daughter from me? Never!"
"If you do not give her to me," said my mother, "I will curse your entire family after I kill you for stealing my rampion. It would be my right. Think on it, old man. This way, your daughter will have a sister, and I will give her everything she could ever dream of possessing."
"But my only child..."
"You will have other children, as many you please. I promise that your wife will not die in childbed with the first. I will be midwife for the others as well. I require no other payment except for your daughter. I promise you she will come to no harm. Besides," my mother continued, "if you don't give her to me, I will simply take her, and then hex your entire family."
My mother had backed the man into a corner. He had no other choice. I was too young to understand just how threatening my mother's offer was, but I recognized the expression of terror on the man's face. "Take her, then," he said bitterly, "just give me the rampion and I'll be on my way."
"After I heal your arm," my mother insisted, grabbing the man's healthy shoulder and dragging him towards the house. My mother had a price for everything. She was not above using threats and fear to get what she wanted, but she was not entirely evil, not yet. Along with the fear that most villagers felt towards her, there was a measure of respect as well.
I hurried back to the fireplace, closing my eyes and pretending that I had fallen asleep on the rug. "Up with you, Ailynn," my mother said as soon as she came in. "You canna fool me." I got to my feet. My mother pulled me against her belly while the man waited by the door, afraid to step inside the house. "What herbs would you use for a swelling, dear heart?"
"Aconite?" I asked, remembering the cream that we had made for the old man several weeks before.
"That would be appropriate. Fetch me some for a poultice and bring some water to put over the fire."
I hurried to do what she had asked, my hands shaking with excitement as I ran to the small wooden door. "Herb room, please," I said distractedly. I was going to have a friend! Someone to play games with and tell secrets to. Someone to take care of. It was exactly what I had wanted. I knew that my mother had forced the old man to give up his daughter for me, so that I would have someone to keep me company. And, selfishly, I loved her for it. I was too young to understand just how much a parent might miss their child.
It was a little over a month later when my mother brought Rapunzel home. Her face was bright red, and she was squalling like the newborn kittens that Diath, my mother's cat, had given birth to underneath our house that past spring. I knew that this girl, my new present, was nothing like a kitten. She would grow to walk and talk, and someday she would be able to play with me.
My mother hurried over to a beautifully carved wooden chair, payment for one of her spells, and sat down with the baby. "Mother, may I see her?" I asked, reaching up to try and pull aside the blanket.
"Be patient, Ailynn. I have to feed her first. She is very hungry, and she is weak after coming into the world."
"Will we need a wet nurse?" I asked. Most other children my age understood little about newborn babies, but my mother was a witch and babies often take ill. Many women had come to my mother's house with ill newborns, and many more had come to buy herbs because they were dry and had no wet nurse in their village.
"I will nurse her myself. I don't want anyone else in my house. I've been taking the herbs I need for several days, and I already have milk for her." My mother removed her cloak and handed it to me. "Put this away, please, Ailynn. Then, you can come and see your new playmate."
I dashed off as fast as I could to put her cloak away, wanting to get back to the new baby as quickly as possible. I skidded into the room, almost tripping over a knot in the wooden floorboards. "Hush, Ailynn," my mother said, "she has finally stopped crying." My mother had pulled down her shirt and the babe was nursing. I felt even more excited to see her now that she was not wailing loud enough to wake the dead.
"She is so small," I whispered, staring at the small child with wide eyes. "Was I that small once?"
My mother smiled and reached out to stroke my hair. "Oh, you were smaller still. You came several weeks before you were supposed to. I went five days without sleep trying to keep you alive. This child will be much easier to care for."
"May I help feed her when she is older?"
"Of course. You are going to have to help me be responsible for her, and see that she grows up to be as healthy and beautiful as you are."
I reached out to stroke the baby's head. She had surprisingly thick hair for a newborn and her head was covered with beautiful golden curls. My mother noticed that I was playing with the baby's hair and her smile widened. "Yes, I noticed that, too. I wonder if, perhaps, the rampion that the man took from my garden might have something to do with it. I have seen stranger things."
"Does the baby have a name?"
"No," my mother said. "Would you like to name her, Ailynn?"
I looked at the baby, trying to decide on a good name for her. "What if we named her after the rampion that her father took?" I suggested.
"You want to name the child rampion?" my mother asked, looking surprised.
"No, but you've taught me that plants have many different names... is there another name for rampion?"
"The local villagers call it Rapunzel. Would that do for a name?"
"Rapunzel," I said, trying the name on my tongue. I smiled up at the child and nodded my head. "It is a pretty name."
"Very pretty. And our Rapunzel will grow up pretty, too."
"Will she look like her mother as I look like you?" I asked. For all of my mother's faults, she never tired of answering my questions.
"Yes. Most daughters look like their mothers or their fathers. Her mother has these same golden curls," said my mother, tugging at one fondly. The baby squirmed for a moment and then went back to nursing.
Suddenly, an idea struck me. "Mother, may I give Rapunzel a gift?"
With my mother's blessing, I ran to the small wooden door. "Treasure rooms, please," I said. The door was tired, and I waited anxiously in front of it for several seconds before hurtling into the rooms where she kept her treasures. I hunted for the golden circlet that the old man had given to me. I found it sitting on top of a sheet of fine glass. I picked it up carefully, not wanting to bend or dirty the soft metal. Strangely, it felt warm in my hands, even though the room was cold. I went back up the stairs and returned to my mother. Rapunzel had finished nursing, and she was sleeping on my mother's lap.
"Look, Ailynn, you can see her face now," my mother said, brushing aside the baby's curls. I was consumed by a wave of warm, loving feelings as I looked down at the tiny little girl that would grow up to be my greatest joy.
I reached out and took her hand in mine, gently opening her small fingers and closing them around the circlet. She pulled it to her chest, remaining asleep. "I love you. You are my princess," I said, repeating the words that my mother had said to me when she had given me the circlet, "my beautiful girl, and you shall have anything that you want."
Rapunzel was dearer to me than any of my mother's treasures. As she grew, so did our bond, and we were nearly inseparable by the time she had reached childhood. Her first word was my name, "Ayn", and though she could not pronounce it properly with her baby tongue, I was touched. Even though I was five years older than her, neither of us seemed to mind. I enjoyed playing with her and teaching her, and she enjoyed learning.
I told her stories by candlelight in the evenings, and eventually taught her to read them herself in the many books that my mother kept. I kept her entertained with shows of light, which I could conjure in my hands using my magical blood. I showed her how to run through the forest and how to climb trees, and I was always there to patch up any scrape or bruise she got when she fell off of a branch or tripped over a rock. I taught her to recognize the birds by sight and song, and with my knowledge of plants, I made sure that Rapunzel always knew which were safe to eat and which were poisonous.
As Rapunzel learned, so did I. By the time I was ten, my mother started allowing me to help her prepare the herbs she used, and sometimes she would let me make simple healing draughts and potions by myself. Rapunzel was not as interested in healing herbs as I was. She had a wonderful imagination, and she would often talk to herself and play with her dolls while my mother and I worked in the garden.
She had a voice as light and golden as her hair, and my mother and I loved to listen to her sing. We taught her all the songs we knew and when we ran out she made up new ones. When she adopted a kitten from another of Diath's litters, she named it Sing, because singing, she said, was what she loved to do most of all. I told her that Sing was not a proper name for a cat, because I was ten and much more sensible about that sort of thing, but she did not care and my mother told me to let it be.
Despite the strange events that brought her to us, Rapunzel was an ordinary child except for one thing. The beautiful curls that she had been born with had grown quickly and would not stop at her waist. Ever since her second birthday, her beautiful golden hair had trailed on the ground behind her. My mother tried all of her herbs and charms, but nothing could make the hair stop growing. I was delegated the task of cutting it to her shoulders three times a day, a chore that I did not mind because I could not deny my Rapunzel anything.
When she was six, Rapunzel began asking questions about things she had noticed. "Why is it," she said to me one evening as I brushed her curls, "that you and your mother have auburn hair when mine is golden?"
"What does it matter? Your hair is more beautiful than ours anyway. Come, let us go and try on some of the dresses in the treasure rooms. You can be one of the princesses in your fairy stories."
And so I diverted her questions. She knew that my mother - whom she called Mother Gothel, the last name adding more formality - and I were not her blood, but not much more. I could not lie to my Rapunzel and so I settled for distracting her. I did not want to tell her that my mother had taken her away from her parents, because as I grew older, I started to understand just how painful it must have been for Rapunzel's parents to lose their daughter, and how painful it might be for Rapunzel to find out that we had taken her from her true family.
Even if I could not lie to Rapunzel, my mother could. Her questions finally came to a head one evening. She was reading a book by the fireplace in the kitchen while my mother and I worked. I cut the herbs and crushed them into a fine powder while she poured the correct dosages into the draught we were making. But Rapunzel's voice floated across the room over the pages of her book, interrupting our work. "Do I have a mother?" she asked.
I looked over my shoulder, staring into my treasure's wide blue eyes. I silently pleaded that she would let the question drop, or that my mother would dismiss her, but something told me that neither of us could put her off any longer. "Why are you asking?" my mother said, sprinkling a handful of powder into a measuring jar.
"I want to know. Please tell me."
Rapunzel was bright, but she overestimated herself. She was still a child and my mother and I both knew it. If Rapunzel had addressed the question to me, I would not have been able to lie to her, even though I might have wished to in order to protect her feelings. My mother, however, was fully capable of making up a story to ease the burden. "You had a mother and father," my mother admitted. "All babies come from a mother and father, but sometimes they do not live with them. You know that."
"Then how did I come here?" Rapunzel wanted to know, her face eager now that she was finally getting the answers to the questions I had been tiptoeing around for years.
"The forest gave you to us," said my mother. "One night in summer, Ailynn and I heard something crying near the garden. You were a newborn then, and from the moment I saw what a precious girl you were, we decided to take you in and raise you as our own. I was waiting to tell you until you were older, but nine is old enough, I suppose."
"Why did you not tell me sooner?" Rapunzel asked, sounding only slightly upset.
"I was waiting until you were old enough to understand."
I returned to slicing sneezewort leaves, afraid that Rapunzel might see the truth in my eyes. My hands shook and I almost cut myself twice.
That ended Rapunzel's stream of questions about her past. Part of me was relieved that my mother had fixed the problem so neatly, but another, deeper part of me felt guilty about the lie. Even though I had not been the one to tell it, the falsehood began to eat at me from the inside out. Eventually, I learned to ignore it, but the feelings of shame were still there, buried somewhere inside me.
Growing up isolated from the rest of the world, I did not have many opportunities to make friends. It was one of the reasons that Rapunzel's company was such a joy to me, despite our five-year age difference. She was not like a sister, but far more than just an entertaining playmate. I did not try to define our relationship. She was mine, and that was all that mattered.
However, when I was eleven, I did have the opportunity to meet another child my own age. That experience, looked upon with older, wiser eyes several years later, was probably the first glimpse I had of my mother's dark, manipulative side.
It started one day in summer. The rain drummed on the roof of our cottage like thousands of tiny feet scurrying over a wooden floor. Rapunzel was staring at the glass windows in the kitchen. Although we lived in a cottage, some of the rooms looked like they belonged in a small palace. The windows were beautifully decorated and perfectly fitted. My mother would never settle for anything less. Rapunzel giggled as the raindrops raced each other down the clear glass surface, following them with her finger.
"No," I said, pulling her small hands away from the glass. "You might smudge it. Come away from the window and we can play the fairytale game!"
The fairytale game was Rapunzel's favorite. We would dress up in the fine clothes and jewelry that sat in my mother's treasure rooms and pretend to be the knights, princes, and princesses from many of Amendyr's famous stories. I knew that many of these stories were at least half-true, but Rapunzel was too young to understand that I was giving her a glamorous history lesson.
Since there were only two of us, we had to play multiple roles at one time, which I did not mind at all. Rapunzel always wanted to be the princess or the lady. In order to please her, I gave her first pick. I found that my roles were usually more interesting, anyway. I had played knights, old wizards, giant dragons, cunning thieves, burly dwarves, and even Liarre, the half-human, half-animal creations of Lir the Shaper. Perhaps I was not much of an actress, but I was a wonderful storyteller and Rapunzel appreciated my narration.
Personally, my favorite stories were the ones about Tuathe, soul mates, lovers that shared a bond so strong that nothing could sever it, not even death. The word meant 'we two that are one' in the ancient Amendyrri language. I was not surprised that the word had survived for so many generations. Secretly, I hoped that Rapunzel and I would be Tuathe when we grew up, but I was far too shy to voice such thoughts aloud.
We played the fairytale game for a candle mark before I realized that my mother was not in the house. At first, I had assumed she was in one of the rooms behind the magical door, perhaps the library. When she did not emerge, I began to wonder and then I began to worry. Although I was used to looking after Rapunzel by myself, being without my mother for such a long period of time made me uneasy. She did not usually leave us alone without an explanation.
Rapunzel, drawing on my worries, abandoned the game to stand beside me, taking my hand and looking up at me with trusting brown eyes and a concerned expression. I tried to reassure her, telling her that I would take care of her while my mother was gone and that there was no reason to worry. Her faith in me was unshakable, and she immediately wanted to return to our fairytale game.
Before we could start playing again, the front door slammed open with a loud crash, sounding as though a violent wind had blown it against the wall. Mother stood silhouetted in the doorway, tall and draped in her heavy black cloak, which she held closed at the neck to protect her face from the rain. Holding on to her hand was another silhouette, one that I did not recognize. I realized with some excitement and some trepidation that this second figure belonged to a child.
"Ailynn," my mother called, holding open her arms to me and letting go of the other child's hand. I ran to hug her even though she was soaking wet. So was the strange child, who turned out to be a boy, and not a very impressive looking one at that. He had blonde hair and blue eyes and a nose that curved up a little at the tip. He looked me up and down, obviously examining me and making a judgment. I felt like a piece of livestock going up for auction.
Rapunzel, shyer than me, hung towards the back of the room, obviously uncomfortable with this new person in our house. Although he was not much to look at, I was as interested in him as he seemed to be in me. I did not get many opportunities to interact with children besides Rapunzel.
"Arim dei," I said, letting go of my mother's skirt to wave at the boy. "My name is Ailynn. What's yours?"
"My name is Byron Wylean-James the Third," he said, reaching up to wipe his nose with his sleeve. I did not blame him, his face was dripping wet and he had no cloak to keep off the rain. He had a partially Serian name, and I later learned that he was from a very well to do mixed family that boasted both Amendyrri and Serian noble blood. Like me, he lived close to the border and his accent reflected the use of both languages. He seemed grateful to be inside, and I stepped back from the doorway to give him and my mother more room.
"Why are you here, Byron?" I asked, also directing the question at my mother, who was undoing the clasp of her cloak and drawing down the hood. She glanced to the left, pausing. Usually, she did not hesitate to answer my questions, and I was suspicious.
"Byron will be visiting us for a little while, my beautiful princess. And how is my other girl? Come here, my pretty," she said, kneeling down so that Rapunzel, who had decided that it was safe enough to come forward, could give her a hug, too.
"I'm bored," said Byron. Now that the attention was back on him, he seemed content to keep it that way. "When do I get to eat? Where are the servants?"
"Servants?" I asked, looking skeptically around the cottage. Where did he expect us to keep servants in a place like this? We had the magic door, of course, but Byron did not know about it.
Completely ignoring our guest's rather snobbish questions, Rapunzel asked, "do you want to play fairytale with us?" Byron Wylean-James the Third looked at her, his expression just as skeptical as mine had been moments earlier.
"That sounds like a good idea," my mother said before either of us could respond. "Go occupy yourself with Ailynn and Rapunzel, Byron. I need to get in touch with your Papan and tell him where you are so that he is able to... make arrangements."
That was when I realized that Byron would be staying for the duration, not just an hour or two until the storm let up. I was both irritated by and interested in the young noble. On the one hand, I had a new playmate, a total stranger. I could ask him questions about his life and the world outside of the forest. Perhaps Byron had been to many interesting places. On the other hand, I was annoyed by the way Byron had simply come into my house, unannounced, and proceeded to judge everything about it and me with only a glance and a few questions.
"We were playing fairytale," I said when it became obvious that my mother planned to leave us to our own devices. "We were doing the story of Reagan and Saweya. Maybe you can be the knight that comes to rescue Saweya from the tower?"
"I'm Saweya," Rapunzel chimed in, showing off the golden circlet that she wore on her head. In fact, it was the one I had presented to her on the night she came to stay with us. Byron saw it, his interest obviously piqued by the pretty bauble and the idea of the game.
"Who are you?" he asked, pointing at me.
"I'm Reagan." He did not recognize the name. "The dragon," I clarified. "Don't you know the story?"
He shrugged. "I like to play outside. I don't have time for stories. My father does important things."
"Well, Saweya lives in a tall tower in the middle of the forest. There is an enchantment on her, and she cannot leave because a large dragon guards her..." At the time, I did not know that my mother was listening to every word from the next room. It was sickeningly ironic - that I might have been the one to give her the horrible idea that destroyed our lives six years later.
The game went well at first. I played the dragon that circled Saweya's tower to protect her from knights errant. In the original story, the dragon was actually female, although later Serian retellings of the story edited this part. The dragon, Reagan, was not a true dragon, but a human cursed to change form whenever the tower needed to be protected.
Over time, Reagan falls in love with her captive. She offers to let her go, but Saweya decides to stay - with the condition that she may occasionally leave the tower. On one of her journeys, her father's emissaries kidnap Saweya and return her to his palace, where he intends to marry her off. Saweya uses her own cunning to escape and return to Reagan, who, in a blood-rage, finds the strength to break the bindings that tie her to the tower and flies to destroy the cruel king's palace.
At least, that is how the story was supposed to go. Ours ended abruptly before the interesting part.
Byron entered on his cue, playing the knight-errant as the first role. I had also offered to let him play the king later in the story, even though I sometimes liked being the villain. Besides, I already had to play Reagan so that I could destroy the palace. He was wearing a helmet that was far too big for him and a swirling silk cloak. In his left hand he held a silver dirk with a jeweled hilt, another of my mother's pretty things. Except for the dirk, I thought he looked rather ridiculous, but he seemed to think that the props made him dashing. I decided not to correct his assumption.
"I challenge you, dragon, to mortal combat!" he hollered, waving the dirk around in a threatening manner. He was actually doing well in his role despite the over-large helmet, and I gave him a smile of encouragement.
"Run," I roared, quoting a line from the story, "run, or I will feast upon your pathetic carcass and leave your bones to bleach in the sun!" Bearing imaginary claws and teeth, I lunged at him and began the fight. It was more difficult than I imagined, because I had to be careful of his swinging blade, and unlike the real Reagan, I had no leathery hide, claws, or fire-breath to protect me.
"Okay," I said, swiping at him with my hand, "now you have to die."
Byron dropped the dirk, looking very disappointed. "I don't want to die. The knight should win the fight."
"That's not how the story goes," I told him. "Besides, you are still playing; you also get to be the tyrant king."
Crossing his arms stubbornly over his chest, Byron stood his ground. "No. The knight should always win the fight and rescue the princess." He gestured at Rapunzel, who looked very confused. She had never seen me argue with anyone before, although that was only because I had no one to argue with but her.
"Your parents only raised you on Serian fairy-stories, then," I said, unwilling to change the events of the story just because of some strange boy that I had made every effort to include in our game.
Byron pouted, actually pouted, which made him look just as spoiled as I suspected he was. "My father is a very important man. Byron Wylean-James the Second..."
"If you like him so much," I muttered darkly, "why are you here instead of at home?"
"I don't know. Your mother just took me away."
That statement stopped the argument. "My mother... took you?" I asked, not sure if I had heard him clearly.
Byron shrugged. "Yes. It happened once before. Father says that bad people sometimes take the children of important men like him and ask for gold to give them back. He said it's called a ransom."
"My mother is ransoming you?" I asked, my voice growing louder and higher pitched with each question.
"Yes," said Byron. "She says if my father gives her what she asks for, she'll send me back and nothing bad will happen. It didn't the last time, so I'm not worried. She knows better than to hurt someone like me, my father will come after her if she does. He just thinks paying the gold is easier."
I was floored. I had been aware of my mother's greed from a young age, but never thought her capable of kidnapping a nobleman's son. "We... shouldn't play anymore..." I stuttered, not sure what to say after such a revelation. I had a lot of thinking to do.
Fortunately, my mother saved me the trouble of finding an excuse to leave the room.
"Reagan," she called out, "come into the kitchen and help me." I scurried away, leaving Rapunzel and Byron behind, my mind awhirl.
I did not mention what Byron had said to my mother that night, or the next morning when she took him away, probably to some meeting point where he was exchanged for the ransom money. When she returned, she carried with her several bags of gold, a diamond tiara, a full set of chain mail armor (I could not see what use she had for this), and a beautifully decorated golden shield. It was ridiculous, as shields went, since gold is a soft metal and cannot be used to make weapons, but I did not comment. I also did not ask her where the new presents had come from. I really did not want to know the details.
My mother's relationship with Rapunzel was different than mine. She took great pride in Rapunzel's accomplishments as I did, and she praised Rapunzel's beauty and kindness, but there was a certain strangeness to her affection that I could not quite place. Rapunzel did not call her mother, but addressed her by her name, Mogra, which means 'wise one' in the old language, although it was always delivered with affection and respect. It was not until Rapunzel was twelve and I was seventeen that I finally understood what it was.
We were searching the forest for Sing, who had grown into a sleek, well-fed cat over the years, and had given birth to several litters of her own since she had reached adulthood. Diath was still very much alive, as she was bonded to my mother, and could not die until my mother did. Sing, however, was a perfectly ordinary housecat, and she had a special affection for Rapunzel, who doted on her pet almost as much as I doted on her.
It was autumn again, and the trees of the forest were starting to shed their leaves, although everything in my mother's garden followed different seasons entirely. You might find a blossoming apple tree in one corner and another ripe with fruit just beside it. Rapunzel loved autumn. She adored the colors of the falling leaves and she loved to play in them with Sing.
"See how the maple leaves look like giant brown hands," she said to me that evening, pointing at a fresh pile of brown leaves below a tall maple tree.
"They are giants' hands, reaching out to grab you," I teased, coming up behind her and tickling her sides. She squealed with pleasure and wriggled to get out of my arms, but I held her fast until she stilled. I pulled her close for a moment, and then let her go. Over the past year, my feelings for Rapunzel had been changing and I still wasn't sure what to make of them. "Here," I said, "you look for Sing along that way and I will go the other way. We will find her faster. I will meet you back by the maple tree at sunset."
I was not afraid of letting Rapunzel wander off on her own because I had taught her the ways of the forest. Nothing that dwelled there would harm her and I would be nearby if she ran into trouble. Besides, she was getting old enough to take care of herself. "All right, Ailynn," Rapunzel said cheerfully, grabbing my hand and standing on tiptoe to kiss my cheek. I felt my face flush with heat, and I was glad when Rapunzel scurried off to look for Sing without noticing.
I spent the next few minutes looking for Sing, but I didn't find her. I was peering up into the branches of a slender ash tree when I heard a scream. My heart stopped as I realized that it had to be Rapunzel. Who else would dare travel the forest this close to sunset? I ran in the direction of the sound, thankful that I knew the forest floor well enough to traverse it in the near dark without falling. Rapunzel screamed again, and I adjusted my course, my feet pounding in time to my racing heartbeat. My body felt no pain, and my mind was completely blank except for fear, the fear that I would lose her, the fear that something might have happened to her...
After an eternity, I rushed into a small glade. The hulking back of a man rose above me, and I caught a glimpse of golden hair over his shoulder. The man was as large as a bear, and looked to be about as strong as one. But he was distracted with Rapunzel, whom he was holding by the throat, leering down at her with yellow, uneven teeth. I drew the knife that I used to cut plants from my belt, lifted it, and rammed it into his back.
I had enough sense to hold onto the handle of the blade and pull it from his flesh before the man moved. He dropped Rapunzel and twisted wildly in the air, nearly falling over himself and clutching at his back. Instinctively, I raised my fingers and said a Word of Power. The man screamed again, toppling to the ground and writhing over the bloodstained leaves.
I grabbed Rapunzel with my free hand and hoisted her to her feet, clutching her arm and dragging her away through the trees. The screams of the man echoed behind us through the trees for several hundred yards until we were well away. Neither of us stopped running until we reached my mother's house.
"What happened?" my mother asked as we stumbled in through the door. "Ailynn, you have blood on your hands, and Rapunzel, your dress is torn..."
I nearly wept when I saw my Rapunzel clutching what was left of her dress together. It had been ripped down the front. "I don't understand," she cried, hurrying into my arms, "what happened? What happened? Why did he..."
"Hush, dear heart," I cooed, rocking her against my chest. "You are safe."
My mother instantly realized what had almost happened. "Did you get there in time?" she asked coldly, staring out of the window.
"Yes, mother," I said, still holding Rapunzel tight and letting her cry into my shoulder. I stroked her tangled curls, trying to calm her down.
My mother's next question made my body ripple with fear. "Did you finish him?"
"No," I said. "I stabbed him, and used a Word of Power, but he is not dead yet."
"Put Rapunzel to bed. Don't let her out of your sight." My mother stormed out of the back door, not even bothering to grab a cloak. I knew what she was going to do. Part of me was fiercely glad. Anyone that would dare attack a twelve-year-old girl deserved death. Another part of me, though, felt sickened by the whole thing. My mother was going to take someone's life away, and that was something I couldn't quite stomach.
I scooped Rapunzel into my arms and carried her to our bedroom. Sing, who had found her way back home, uncurled from the foot of the bed and made room for the two of us. I set Rapunzel down gently on top of the sheets and left her there, still weeping silently, while I hurried to the dresser to find her a fresh nightgown. Lifelessly, she let me strip the torn dress off of her and slip the nightgown over her head. Then, with Sing in her arms and both of them in mine, Rapunzel drifted off to sleep while I waited for mother to return.
She was gone all through the night and did not return until high noon the next morning. Rapunzel was still resting and I had stayed awake guarding her. Strangely, I did not feel tired. My thoughts stirred restlessly, denying me any sort of peace. I had almost let that man hurt Rapunzel. I had protected her ever since she was a baby and now I had finally failed her.
"Ailynn," my mother whispered, opening our door a crack and peering in at us. "Is she all right?"
"Still sleeping," I said, automatically looking down at the precious girl in my arms to make sure that she was well.
"Come with me." Torn, I slowly unwove my arms from around Rapunzel's thin body and bent down to kiss her golden hair before leaving her to rest with Sing. Her curls had grown to her calves during the night, as I had not bothered to cut them the evening before. The cat opened one eye to watch me as I stood, but didn't move. I crept towards my mother on silent feet, slipping into the next room without moving the door so that the hinges wouldn't creak and disturb Rapunzel.
My mother hurried me over to the kitchen table, forcing me to sit. I wilted against the back of my chair, completely drained of energy but too afraid to go to sleep. I heard my mother preparing something behind me, and a few minutes later, she set a warm mug of tea in front of me. "Mother..."
"Drink your tea, Ailynn, and listen to me." I lifted the tea to my lips, both of my hands trembling with fatigue and fear. I was too exhausted to protest. The warm drink was strong, and it wasn't one of my mother's usual brews. Immediately, I felt my body tingle with warmth, and some of the tiredness left me.
"I took care of the man that tried to rape Rapunzel," my mother said. We had our backs to each other while she fixed herself a cup of the tea that she had made. "He will not bother anyone again, but that won't stop others from trying. Rapunzel is a beautiful woman."
"She is only twelve. She's still a child..."
"Twelve is not a child, Ailynn. At eleven, you had already memorized all of the antidotes for the poisons in my garden. Rapunzel cannot defend herself as you can. She does not know Words of Power or magic."
"I do, I can protect her..."
"Like you did today?" my mother snapped, stalking over to the chair opposite me and slamming her mug down onto the table. "You did well in saving Rapunzel, but how many more times can you expect to escape without a scratch?"
"Then what do you suggest we do?"
"I have called in several old debts. A tower will be built about half an hour's walk from the house."
"For what?" I asked, still blind to my mother's purpose. She took a sip of tea and sighed, resting one elbow on top of the table. I brushed my curls away from my face, waiting for her to explain.
"For Rapunzel's protection. The tower will have no doors or stairs and only one window."
"If there are no doors or stairs, how will she get in or out?"
"She will stay there and let down her hair to us so that we can climb up to the window."
I leapt to my feet, sending my chair crashing to the floor. "What?" I roared, forgetting that Rapunzel was asleep in the next room. "You would keep her locked up like one of your pretty treasures?" I shook with rage, listening to my own words echo in my head. That was when I understood. My mother loved Rapunzel, but not as I did. The motherly part of her saw Rapunzel as a person, but the greedy part of her saw only another bauble, a fetching toy that she had to hide lest someone steal it.
"I will not let you do it."
"And risk her life?
"Rapunzel is a girl, mother," I said, lowering my voice slightly. "You cannot lock a human away inside of a tower for the rest of their life... you cannot hide her from the world."
"What other choice do we have, Ailynn?" my mother snapped, clearly too unbalanced by fear to see reason. "I will not see her hurt in any way. Look at what almost happened! If you hadn't been there to save her..."
"Very well," I said, kneeling to right my fallen chair and sinking into it wearily. I took another sip of tea, closing my eyes as the warm brew curled around my tongue and slid down my throat. I would not be able to talk my mother out of it. The tower would do to protect Rapunzel until I could find another way to keep her safe. Then, I would set her free.
My mother left me to watch Rapunzel while she went to supervise the building for a few hours each day, and it was the only time that both of us were not with her. Rapunzel had not complained; on the contrary, she seemed glad of the extra protection. Even though my own emotions were muddled and unclear, I tried to be a steady source of comfort for her, holding her more than usual and letting her fall asleep with her head in my lap.
All of us spent much of our time in introspection, our eyes darting about the rooms of our cottage with an unfocused glaze to them. None of us seemed to be in the here-and-now. While my mother brooded and paced around us like a lioness guarding her kill, I stared at blank spaces on the wall and wondered why our peaceful routine had been so harshly interrupted. Rapunzel seemed especially distant, and the fear emanating from her thin frame was almost palpable.
I had not cut her hair since construction on the tower had started, and when Rapunzel asked about it the first day, I told her that mother and I would explain in a few weeks. I still hated the idea of imprisoning my innocent Rapunzel at the top of a tower, but I couldn't think of another solution my mother would accept. Her extreme paranoia was growing worse, and she double-checked all of the doors at least once an hour to make sure that no one was outside.
Rapunzel had changed, too. The beautiful, laughing child full of questions and stories had faded into a shadow of herself and all of her smiles had disappeared. She spent most of her time crying, and patches of my clothes were soaked with her tears more often than not. As well read as she was, Rapunzel did not fully understand why the man had attacked her, and I was thankful that she did not ask any questions. I was not sure if I would be able to explain it to her.
I told Rapunzel many stories during those long days, and though she was only listening with half an ear most of the time, I knew that the sound of my voice soothed her a little. Sing, keen enough to sense that something was very wrong, stayed close to her mistress at all hours, tailing her like a faithful dog as she wandered from room to room and curling up with us as we sat in front of the fire while my mother watched from her high-backed chair.
The tower was built at a surprisingly rapid pace, and after only two tedious weeks, the last of the stones had been stacked at the top. My mother took me to see it one night, casting several charms about the house to keep out any intruders. It was the first time that we had left Rapunzel alone since her attack and both of us were wary, but my mother felt the need to show me the tower.
Reluctantly, I followed my mother out of the house and into the nighttime forest. It was well past sunset, and only hints of silvery moonlight managed to penetrate the thick canopy of autumn leaves that had not yet fallen to the ground. Soon, except for the regal pines, all of these trees would be stripped bare for the winter. My heart ached at the thought of how desolate the forest always looked in winter, even when it was covered in a clean, crisp blanket of white snow. I lived for green things and the earth.
Insects buzzed from their hiding places in the tree branches, and the other night sounds almost covered our soft footfalls as we trod silently over the leaves that covered the ground, which was still wet from an early afternoon storm. Finally, we reached a very small clearing in the forest surrounded by young ash trees with thin branches. Rising through the middle of the trees was a tower, its stones cracked and covered with ivy and creeper.
"You aged it?" I asked, lifting my eyes to the high window near the top of the tower.
"It looked strange with fresh-cut stones," my mother said, following my gaze. "A new tower in an ancient forest would be too noticeable."
"The ash trees," I said, gesturing around, "you chose them because the branches are too slender to hold a man's weight."
My mother nodded her approval, following my gaze up the trunks of the thin ash trees that surrounded the tower. "No human can climb to the top of the tower unless Rapunzel lowers her hair. The cat should be able to come and go as she pleases, though. It will be good for Rapunzel to have some company while we are at home."
"Then let her stay with us," I pleaded, trying one last time to sway her. "It is foolish to lock a child in a tower."
"Not foolish, cautious. She will come to no harm this way."
"She will waste away up there, mother; treated like a prisoner, and for what? She has done nothing wrong."
"Would you rather see her raped, perhaps murdered? That is the fate beauty comes to in the world. Unless it is guarded, it will be destroyed."
I held my eyes shut, my fingernails digging viciously into my palms, keeping a well-practiced blank expression on my face. I felt anger twist in my belly like a keen knife and I pressed my lips together, seething inwardly until the edge of my rage had dulled. "There is a hook at the top of the tower for Rapunzel to wrap her hair around," my mother continued. "Then, we can use it as a rope. How long is her hair now?"
"Perhaps twice her height, maybe more," I said darkly. "I have been washing and braiding it every day."
"Good," said my mother. "We will have to take care of her beautiful hair if we want to visit her."
"How will you get her into the tower?"
"There are footholds carved into the rock," my mother explained, pulling aside a patch of creeper to show me. As she said, there were several stone pegs on the side of the tower. There were two rows, and the pegs were a comfortable reaching distance apart. "I will get rid of them as soon as she's up there, of course. Then, no one will be able to climb up."
I did not mention that Rapunzel could easily be tricked into letting down her hair for a stranger. My mother's logic was deteriorating, and I was growing fearful. "The hair will do," I said. Without a word, I turned and started back through the trees, not wanting to look at the tower any longer. I had seen enough.
That was the moment that part of me started hating my mother. I had never experienced hate as a child - Rapunzel and my mother were the only humans that I had ever known and they did little to anger me. The emotion growing in me was new and frightening, not just the mere restlessness of an adolescent challenging her parent. My mother was threatening my dearest treasure, and even our shared blood could not make me forgive her. I never stopped loving my mother, some caring feelings remained even until the end, but I never stopped hating her, either.
Rapunzel stirred as I sank back onto our bed, clutching at the sheets in her sleep. She tossed her head, her long braids curving through the folds in the covers like winding golden rivers. I stroked her cheek with the back of my hand and marveled at how frail she looked in her white nightgown. Her eyelids fluttered, and she parted her lips slightly as she gazed up into my face. "Ailynn?"
"Sleep, dear heart," I whispered, feeling guilty that I had awoken her.
"Where were you?" she breathed sleepily, her arms circling around me so that I would not leave her alone in bed again. I was surprised that Rapunzel had managed to rest without me at all. We had been bed partners for over ten years; she had started sleeping with me as soon as she had outgrown her crib. Usually, she would not fall asleep unless I was beside her.
"It doesn't matter."
"Ailynn, where did you go?" Rapunzel insisted. She knew that something was out of the ordinary- why else would I leave her in the middle of the night?
"Mother took me out." Since I was already worried about Rapunzel and ashamed of keeping secrets, the pleading look in her eyes made my stomach twist, breaking my defenses almost instantly. "Mother is building something to keep you safe," I said hesitantly.
"She thinks that I am still in danger from that man?" she asked, pulling her warm body away from mine so that she could look at me.
"Not from that man, but from others like him. The world is often cruelest to the innocent."
Rapunzel stared at me, her expression confused and unfocused. "And she is trying to protect me?"
"Yes," I said. "She has found a place where no one can hurt you."
"Oh... where no one can hurt me..." she mumbled, burying her face into the crook of my neck and breathing against my skin. She was asleep almost instantly.
Something felt wrong with Rapunzel's dazed responses. I held still, idly stroking the crown of her head as I thought. Surely the attack had not completely extinguished the inquisitive spark that endeared her to me so. Something else was making her dull and pliant.
Slowly, I untangled myself from the sleeping Rapunzel's arms and padded into the kitchen, the grain of the wooden floor scraping roughly against the bare soles of my feet. My mother was sitting in her carved chair. Anyone else would have thought that she was sleeping, but I knew that she was alert behind her closed eyelids.
"What did you do to her, mother?" I asked in a cold whisper, leaning against the doorway.
"Nothing." She opened her eyes, staring at me too innocently. My mother was a masterful liar, and I could seldom tell when she was spinning a falsehood, but this time I was sure.
"You've drugged her, haven't you?"
Mother moved fluidly, tossing her curls over her shoulder as she rose from the chair. She tilted up her chin, drawing herself up to her full height. I did the same. Already well into my seventeenth year, I was almost as tall as she was. "It's for her own good, Ailynn. I thought about what you said to me and you were right, a girl locked away in a tower would go mad. This will calm her."
"You've taken her will away!"
"I'm doing it because I love her," my mother protested, reaching out to touch my shoulder. I shrugged her hand off of me.
"Cautious, not insane. What I'm doing might seem cruel, but it's what's best for her."
"Then why not lock me away?" I spat. "Would that be best for me, too?"
My mother looked towards the slightly cracked door to the bedroom and glared at me. "Keep your voice low. Do you want to wake her? And of course I won't lock you away, you foolish girl. You can defend yourself, but Rapunzel..."
"I can protect her, mother."
"Perhaps you are strong enough to defend yourself, little one, but you're weak in matters of the heart. You are letting your feelings cloud your judgment."
"My feelings?" I asked softly, creeping away from the doorframe. "What do you mean?"
My mother's lips curled up in a chilling smirk. "You shouldn't underestimate my powers of observation, daughter. You are of my blood, and I know how you think. How you feel."
"I don't understand..." I said, my anger draining out of me and leaving only a panicked confusion.
"Either you are a better liar than I thought, or you are still naïve," my mother said thoughtfully. "Perhaps you have not realized it yet."
"That you are in love with her."
The words struck me like a physical blow, clawing into me. I winced with pain and shame as I realized that what she said was true. I did love her. I had sworn to care for her since the first night she spent in our home. I loved the joy she brought into any room she entered. I loved the way her lush imagination created stories and pictures out of simple, everyday things. I loved how she saw beauty in everything. I loved her innocence and kindness.
"But I- she's…" I stumbled, shaking my head.
"A girl? Twelve years old? Almost a sister? Take your pick."
"I'm not," I said, leaning against the wall for support. "I'm not, I'm not, I'm not..."
"If you're not, then why are you crying?"
I reached up to touch my cheek with my fingertips and felt hot tears on my face. "No," I mouthed, but my voice was completely gone.
"Darling, beautiful girl, come here," my mother cooed, drawing me into her arms. I did not protest as she rocked me gently, rubbing my back as I shook with sobs. "It's all right. She isn't really your sister and she will grow. She is going to be a beauty in a few years, more than she is already. She is yours if you want her."
"You're doing it again!" I screamed, the words tearing from my throat, too angry to care that Rapunzel was sleeping in the next room. "You're treating her like a present that you can give to me."
"She was a present that I gave to you. I took her so that you could have a playmate, remember?"
"I wish you had never brought her here," I said, my voice trembling and unsteady. "None of this would have happened."
My mother was silent for several beats. Finally, she spoke, but her words didn't seem to be directed to me. "You truly do love her, Ailynn," she said softly. "You love her enough to give her up for her own happiness."
"I want her to be happy, and I know that no one can find happiness in a locked tower."
"That's what the herbs I gave her were for, to keep her content."
"They make her dull. She isn't fully aware of what's going on around her; she talks and moves as if she's in a dream."
"She probably wouldn't object to becoming your lover in a few years, you know," my mother said, changing the subject. "You are the only person she has ever known aside from me."
"I won't take advantage of her, especially not now. I'll wait. I'll wait until she's old enough to understand. Then, I'll offer myself to her. If she wants me, I'm hers. If she doesn't, I'll help her find whatever else she wants instead."
"You are too kind," my mother said. "You could easily make her love you with all of the knowledge I have given you. But you won't do it, even for your own happiness. You would be good for her, Ailynn."
"Addling her brain to win her love goes against my principles," I said, staring at my mother coldly. "I had thought it went against yours as well."
"Principles be damned," my mother said with a sigh, shaking her head. "Love has made you weak. Someday, you will thank me for protecting our little girl so well. Think, Ailynn! Rapunzel will never know pain beyond what she has already seen. She will be completely unspoiled by the world. Pure, trusting, innocent... everything that the girls in the village aren't. Protection is the greatest gift that I can give to either of you."
"You've gone mad, mother," I said forcefully, turning away.
My mother put her hand on my shoulder again, and I was too muddled and confused to bother removing it. "Here, I'll fetch you some tea," she said, working busily behind me to prepare a new kettle. Tea was my mother's solution to all of our arguments. I took a long draft, hopping that the warm brew would calm my nerves. If I had been a little more sensible, I might have noticed that my mother wasn't drinking any.
"You should rest, daughter," she suggested as I took another sip of the heady drink. "Rapunzel might wake again."
"We have already shouted loud enough to summon spirits. I'm shocked that Rapunzel is still asleep."
"She needs her rest," my mother said simply. She took my mug away from me before I was finished, and I didn't think to protest. "So do you, my beautiful princess. Now, go to bed."
Strangely, I wasn't angry with my mother anymore. I didn't feel anything except a strange, heavy tiredness settling over me like a thick blanket. "Perhaps," I yawned, hauling myself out of my chair and across the room to the door.
"Rest well," my mother said. I didn't have the strength to answer her as I stumbled through the door and collapsed onto the bed.
When I woke the next morning, Rapunzel was not resting in my arms. All that remained was a warm indent in the mattress where she had been and a pile of rumpled sheets. After a few blank minutes of staring at the place where Rapunzel should have been, I guessed what had happened. Mother had taken her in the night after I had fallen asleep to make sure that I did not interfere with her imprisonment.
A strange taste lingered in my mouth and I swallowed, trying to identify it. I realized suddenly that my mother had drugged my tea the night before. My tongue felt thick and heavy and my head ached. At this stage in my education, I could detect almost any poison or sleeping draught by taste, but my mother knew far more about herbs than I did, and she had probably found some way to trick my senses.
blinked my eyes slowly, trying to think. I knew that I had to do something to stop mother, but I was still too dazed to figure out what actions I should take. However, there was something that I did remember, something that had been drilled into me since childhood, one of the most important herbs any healer needed to know: the properties of Wormwort.
Used in small doses, Wormwort cleared your body of unhealthy substances. The only problem was that it was a slow-working drug, and some fast-acting poisons killed too quickly for the Wormwort to take effect. The only way to speed up the process was to take a large dose, and too much Wormwort was just as fatal as any poison it might be used to block. Wormwort was what I needed to cleanse myself of whatever my mother had given me, but I needed to find Mother and Rapunzel as soon as possible.
I thumped out of bed, feeling as though a net woven with stones
had been draped over my shoulders. Somehow, I managed to drag
myself into the kitchen. There, waiting on the table for me, was a
small container of ground Wormwort root and a fresh mug of tea.
Knowing that it would be pointless for my mother to drug me twice,
the some of the Wormwort powder into the
drink and drained it in one gulp. Then, I slipped the vial into my
pocket, slumped into a chair, and waited.
After a few minutes, my head began to clear. My body still felt drained and heavy, but my mind was responding more quickly and I could move a little more easily. I picked myself up out of the chair and hurried towards the door on unsteady legs, grabbing a shawl to wrap around my shoulders as I slipped outside.
The morning forest was oddly quiet, as though the birds and insects could sense my unease. I picked my way over roots and dried leaves, the sense of urgency never leaving me. I already knew that it was probably too late to stop my mother from imprisoning Rapunzel in the tower, but a small part of me still hoped that I would arrive in time to do something.
Far too late, I burst into the clearing. The pegs that had been carved into the tower wall were gone, leaving only smooth stone behind. I ran up to the tower, pressing my hands against its side, hoping that I was wrong. I felt nothing save a few strands of ivy and creeper.
Tears streamed down my cheeks as I stared up at the stone balcony above me. "Rapunzel!" I called, forcing my words out past the tightness in my throat, "let down your hair to me!" At first, nothing happened. I waited, my heart hammering against my breastbone. Then, a small, pale face peered over the edge of the balcony.
"Ailynn?" said Rapunzel. Her voice seemed small and frightened, even from so far up.
"Wind your hair around the hook," I said, "then, let it down to me."
Rapunzel moved to another spot on the balcony and ducked her head down. Seconds later, a heavy braid of thick golden hair thudded onto the ground at my feet. I tugged on it once to make sure it would hold and began to pull myself up.
Scaling the tower was very difficult, although bracing my feet on the stones helped to ease the burden of hauling my own body weight thirty feet into the air. Only desperation allowed me to complete the task as quickly as I did. Finally, I managed to clamber over the balcony, falling onto my hands and knees as Rapunzel hovered over me. "Did I hurt you?" I panted, pulling myself up.
"The hook took most of the weight," said Rapunzel, hauling her braid back over the balcony's edge. She finished, and I took her into my arms, holding her tight against me.
"Oh, Rapunzel, I'm so sorry..." I said weakly. "I tried to stop her, but mother won't listen to reason…"
"Will I stay up here forever?" she asked, tears rolling down her flushed cheeks.
"No," I said, trying to ignore the stinging in my own eyes and hold the rest of my tears at bay. "I will find a way to free you. Mother drugged me so that I would not see how she performed the binding spell, but I will find a way to undo it, I promise you."
Remembering the drugs that my mother gave to me, I checked Rapunzel's eyes. They were clear, and there was no sign of the dreamlike film that had covered them earlier.
"Can you be brave for me, beautiful girl?"
"Y-yes," she sobbed, still crying into my shoulder.
"Mother has been giving you herbs to make you calm. Answer me truthfully; do you think that you can stay here without them? Being confined to a tower might drive the sanest man out of his wits."
Rapunzel thought about it, chewing on her bottom lip. "I-I think I can…" she said. "I will read my books to keep my mind busy."
"You can help me search mother's books for a way to free you," I suggested.
"Alright. Will you give me something to make mother's drugs stop working?"
A small portion of my panic had eased. I had underestimated Rapunzel. Already her tears had faded and she was accepting the situation calmly. I forced a smile and stroked Rapunzel's damp cheeks. "Yes, my heart. She can take away your freedom, but I won't allow her to take away your will."
Mother was sitting in the kitchen when I returned to the cottage. She looked up when I stepped through the back door, watching me as I hung my shawl and stepped out of my shoes. "Where were you, Ailynn?" she asked, standing to greet me as I closed the door.
"Visiting Rapunzel," I said coldly, not wishing to speak with her. The hate was rising in me again, and I wanted to get away from my mother before it surfaced. I walked over to the small wooden door, trying to dismiss her, but she followed me.
"I know what you are looking for in there," my mother told me. "You shouldn't waste your time searching."
"I'll spend my time however I like." I tapped on the door three times. "The library, please." The door was in a good mood that day, and immediately took me to the library. Thankfully, my mother did not follow me in.
My mother collected books along with the rest of her treasures, and she stored all of them in the library. Like the treasure rooms, the library was completely disorganized. Books on history and affairs of state were crowded next to bestiaries and recipe books. Volumes that did not occupy the vast number of shelves lining the walls were stacked on tables and chairs that were spread haphazardly throughout the room. Candle stubs littered the floor where there were no stray scrolls.
The library had a cramped but comfortable feeling, and its high, wide windows made it the brightest room in the house. None of the furniture matched, and there were three fireplaces, but I was attached to the room despite its haphazard appearance. Some of my best memories were of being read to by my mother in the library, or later, of reading to Rapunzel.
I settled myself down in an overstuffed, faded blue chair and grabbed the nearest spell volume, flipping through the pages rapidly. There were hundreds of books to search, and I knew that it might be months before I found the binding spell that my mother had used to keep Rapunzel in the tower. Somewhere near the middle of the book, I found the edges of two torn pages near the binding. Mother had torn out the spell I needed. Refusing to let myself grow angry, I picked up the next book in the pile.
Seven books later, I had found three more references to the binding spell, but in each book, the pages that I needed were ripped out. My mother's actions did not surprise me. Her paranoia had probably driven her to destroy all the pages about the spell. I was not overly disheartened, however. There were hundreds of books in my mother's library, and surely she had missed at least one copy...
I woke up in the library the next morning unable to remember falling asleep. There was an open book in my lap and sunlight was streaming into my eyes from one of the high windows. I squinted and uncurled myself on the seat of the chair, stretching my arms and yawning to clear my head. The book fell to the floor with a thud, and I didn't bother to pick it up. "This is going to take an eternity," I said to myself, staring up at the library shelves.
I decided that looking at all of the books that I needed to read would only dishearten me more, and I grabbed a short stack of four volumes and headed for the door. Before I left, I grabbed a well-loved volume of fairytales off of a table and placed it at the top of the stack for Rapunzel. She had always loved reading fairytales, and I thought that reading them to her might improve her spirits.
The kitchen was empty when I stepped through the magical door, and I set my books on the table. I started to head for the door again, so that I could find some Wormwort in my mother's herb room to give to Rapunzel, but I remembered the vial of powder that my mother had left for me the morning before and reached into my pocket. The vial of powdered Wormwort root was still there. I grabbed my shawl from the hook next to the door, wrapped it around my shoulders, and picked up the books.
The walk to Rapunzel's tower was uneventful. The bright colors of the leaves were starting to fade, and most of the trees were already bare. Winter would come soon. The thought brought a wave of sadness with it, and I quickly shook my head to dismiss the feeling. However, some of it lingered even as I approached the grove of ash trees where Rapunzel's tower stood.
"Rapunzel," I called up, "let down your hair to me."
A few seconds later, I saw Rapunzel's pale face gazing down at me over the railing. "How are you going to climb up with all those books?" she asked, staring at me curiously. I looked down at the books in my arms, realizing that I would not be able to climb Rapunzel's hair carrying the heavy volumes in my arms.
"Could you tie your hair to a basket and lower it down for the books?" I asked.
Rapunzel nodded and disappeared for a moment. I waited, ignoring the soreness beginning to creep down my arms as I held the stack of books. Finally, she dropped her hair down with a basket knotted to the end. I dumped the books in it and waited while Rapunzel hauled the books up onto the balcony and lowered her hair again for me.
"At least I don't have to pull you up," she said, unwinding her hair from the hook as I swung my leg over the balcony railing. "Those books were heavy."
"When you're free, I'll carry everything for you," I promised.
"Oh, Ailynn, you brought my favorite book," Rapunzel said as she scanned the contents of the basket. "I love the illustrations." She rushed into my arms for a hug and I kissed her forehead.
"I thought you would enjoy having it," I said, feeling my heart lighten a little. Then, I remembered the Wormwort in my pocket. "I brought something else for you, too. Did mother bring you anything to drink?"
"There's a pool of fresh water inside and a dipper," Rapunzel said, leading me inside the tower for the first time. I had not left the balcony the day before, fearing that I would grow upset seeing the prison that Rapunzel was confined to, but the room was what I expected. There was a beautiful vanity set, a large, canopied bed, and a large number of my mother's beautiful treasures.
"She thought I would like them," Rapunzel said, following my gaze. I could hear the distaste in her voice and I put my hand on her shoulder. She led me to a corner of the room where there was a pool of clean water and a dipper. I took the dipper and scooped up some of the enchanted water, pouring some of the powdered Wormwort root in it and passing it to Rapunzel.
"Here, drink this. It will stop mother from drugging you."
"She left food for me, but I didn't eat it," Rapunzel said, pointing to a plate at the foot of her bed.
"It's probably drugged," I said, not bothering to go over and examine it. "You should be able to eat now. The Wormwort will keep your mind clear."
"Good. I'm ravenous."
Time passes differently in the forest. Weeks become months before you realize that the days have slipped away. I was no closer to finding a way to release Rapunzel from her prison, but the two of us had settled into a bearable, if not happy, routine. Every day, I would bring books to Rapunzel's tower and spend as much time as I could with her. We enjoyed reading together. Rapunzel preferred stories of adventure in the outside world, while I usually kept my nose buried in some ancient spell book, always looking for a way to break the enchantment that surrounded the tower.
I could sense the magic my mother had used whenever I approached Rapunzel's prison. It trickled over my skin like warm rivulets of water falling from my hair, trailing over my arms and belly and giving me gooseflesh. Before I knew it, Rapunzel's thirteenth birthday had passed and I was no closer to freeing her.
One day, frustrated by my lack of progress, I decided to abandon my books and examine the framework of the magic itself - the woven aura of power that surrounded the tower like a net. This was called shape-magic: using the senses to 'see' the energy that made up a spell.
Relying on the knowledge that I had gained from my advanced reading, I could almost see white tendrils of magical energy forming a chain from Rapunzel to... where? After hours of pacing and examining, which my treasure bore willingly because of the hope that she might be freed by my efforts, I was no closer to discovering the root of the enchantment. I was severely disheartened, but Rapunzel, ever the bright candle flame that illuminated my dark thoughts, reassured me.
"I know you will find a way to free me, Ailynn. I believe in you."
My mother, however, was less than pleased with me. Ever since she had imprisoned Rapunzel in the tower, a great rift had grown between us. No longer did she call me her beautiful princess, and whenever she gave her approval for a successfully brewed potion or newly acquired skill, the praise rang hollow in my ears. Perhaps that was more my fault than hers, but it hurt to have one of the only two connections nurtured during my life begin to unravel.
"You will thank me someday, Ailynn," she told me one afternoon while I was cleaning the dishes. I did not turn to look at her, continuing to stare at the pot that I was scouring with a carefully blank expression on my face. I was grateful that the heavier cleaning work, washing the cauldrons, was already done. "I am only keeping your bride safe for you until she is old enough..."
My temper flared and I slammed the copper pot back into the washbasin with a loud bang that startled the birds outside the window. "Mother, she is a person, not a pet," I snarled, too angry to address her respectfully. I still cared for her despite what she had done to Rapunzel, but I no longer worshipped her and wanted to become just like her. Besides, my mother had been acting strange lately. She often left our cottage in the middle of the night, coming back at dawn the next morning looking very tired, but refusing to offer any explanation. I knew better than to ask. I also knew that she was not visiting Rapunzel, because sometimes I slept at the tower with her to keep her company.
"Of course she is not a pet. She is becoming a woman. She will be very beautiful in a few more years."
I shuddered, partly from pleasure and partly from disgust. Having feelings for such a young girl frightened me, although I was comforted by the fact that I was not drawn to her present body, but to the future image of her I secretly carried in my mind. I had imagined it often - what she would look like at eighteen or twenty, even at forty or sixty. I was sure that she would age beautifully, but I would love her no matter what she looked like.
"If she is becoming a woman, why do you keep her in a cage like a dog or a bird?"
My mother sighed, shaking her head and taking the pot from my limp hands. I allowed her to set it aside and draw me into an embrace, although I remained somewhat stiff in her arms. "For all your intellectual knowledge of the world, girl, you are disappointingly naïve. Have you ever killed someone?"
The thought made my stomach tie itself in knots. She knew I had never killed before, although I had injured the man who attempted to hurt Rapunzel. I probably would have killed him if I had to, I thought. Part of me wanted to blame him for our misfortune instead of my mother, whom I still loved, but I was too logical to lie to myself.
"You have no concept of the depth of human cruelty. The world is a terrible place, Ailynn," she cooed, stroking my hair. I bore the touch, disliking the physical link between us, but unwilling to brush her aside. "There are so few trustworthy, honest people. But you can always trust me, Ailynn. I want what is best for you." But I knew that she was lying. Perhaps she was not even aware of the lie, so skewed was her perception of the situation. Mogra Gothel, Witch of the forest, only wanted what was best for one person: her.
At that moment, I realized that my mother would never let Rapunzel go. She was the jewel in her crown, the prize of her collection, and my mother wanted me to have her. Perhaps it was because she loved me in her own way. Perhaps it was because being able to provide me with what I wanted most of all gave her a feeling of power over me. Maybe it was both. But I needed to free Rapunzel, even if it meant alienating my mother. My heart, not to mention my conscience, would not let me do anything less.
"Where were you?"
My mother, who had been trying to sneak in quietly through the back door, set her sack down on the floor and looked up at me. I was waiting in one of the wooden kitchen chairs, a book open on my lap. Mother rolled her eyes when she saw the title. "I told you not to look for a way to break the enchantment," she said, half-scolding and half-annoyed. "I expected better of you."
"I expect nothing of you," I muttered, setting the book on the table and standing up to face my mother head-on. "Where were you last night?"
To her credit, my mother did not try to fabricate one of her usual lies. She knew that I was far too old to believe them. Instead, she bent down and reached for the large, lumpy sack that she had discarded moments before. Picking it up, she showed it to me. There were several books inside, and I studied the titles curiously. The Art of Transmogrification, Lir: A Biography, and A History of Magical Creatures and Their Creators.
"More books for the library," my mother offered by way of an explanation. I knew that there was more to tell, but did not push her. My mother had stopped telling me the truth a long time ago. "Ailynn, I have been thinking about you recently. You are almost a grown woman now, nearly eighteen. It is time for you take on more responsibilities here."
Although I still helped my mother whenever she prepared magical cures for the men and women that came to our house, I had been neglecting my duties lately. I felt slightly guilty, but brewing potions and making charms did not hold my interest like it used to. I wanted to spend all of my time with Rapunzel.
"What kind of responsibilities?" I asked.
"I have decided to leave my practice to you. You are knowledgeable enough and skilled enough to take over for me. I have other magical projects that I want to pursue." Again, I resisted the temptation to ask her exactly what these were. Perhaps they were part of the reason that she had been disappearing lately.
Although I knew it would take up more of my time, part of me was flattered that my mother thought I was skilled enough and responsible enough to continue her work. For the first time in several months, I felt a surge of genuine affection for her, and gave her a tight hug. "I will, mother," I said, giving her a genuine smile. She smiled back, pleased that I was pleased.
"I have thought deeply about this," she told me. "I know that you do not want to go out into the world on your own yet, even though I would encourage you to do so. You are as stubborn as an ox when it comes to Rapunzel and nothing I say will convince you to leave her." My mother was right. I was relieved that she had not suggested this option. Although I was interested in the outside world, I did not want to be apart from Rapunzel. "I am not sure whether such devotion is admirable or foolish."
"Probably both," I admitted.
And so I took over my mother's business, which kept me occupied during most mornings and evenings, but allowed me to spend the afternoons and some nights with Rapunzel. Despite the new workload, I did not give up my search for the binding spell that imprisoned Rapunzel. I often sacrificed hours of sleep to pour through books in the library, always with the same result - pages referencing the spell were torn out and destroyed.
Rapunzel, who was quickly changing from a shy girl into a beautiful and brave woman, did not take out her frustrations on me. She knew that I was trying to help her as best I could. I admired her grace and strength as she stayed in that tower month after month. She refused to allow her mind or body to become weak, and although being a prisoner often made her depressed, she fought her feelings of helplessness and frustration so that they would not overwhelm her. I did not know if I would have been able to bear her troubles half as well.
Before I knew it, Rapunzel was fifteen years old and I found myself admiring her body as well as her kindness and perseverance. These feelings made me extremely uncomfortable. I was an academic and a loner, both by circumstance and by choice, and knew next to nothing about romantic entanglements. Although I had started puberty at twelve, my sexual development was delayed, to put it kindly.
I was aware that other girls my age were already taking lovers, sometimes several, or even marrying and starting families in a vague sort of way, but did not pay much attention. At twenty, I was almost an old maid by the standards of some. I researched the subject - my mother had books on non-magical topics - and was surprised to discover that most other girls felt these strange stirrings much, much earlier than me. Perhaps it was because I was not interested in being with anyone but Rapunzel and she had still been a child during my teenage years.
Although I had been in love with Rapunzel for years, my daydreams were mostly ambiguous, innocent ones about marrying her, starting a family, and living happily ever after: my own personal fairy-tale. Sexuality was not a major factor, even though I often imagined how beautiful she would be when she grew up.
Now, things were beginning to change and I was not sure if I liked it. I began to have dreams, waking and sleeping ones, about what it would be like to kiss her. These dreams made me very frustrated. The more her body matured, the more involved these dreams became to the point where they embarrassed me. Just kissing no longer seemed like enough. I wanted more. I wanted everything.
The blossoming feelings of love and desire that I was experiencing came with a price: frustration and guilt. I was certain that some fifteen year olds took lovers or married older men, but I still considered Rapunzel far too young to be exposed to such things. It was difficult for me to stop seeing her as a child that I needed to protect and start seeing her as a woman, although my body had certainly noticed and responded to the change.
I could be patient, I told myself. I could wait for her to finish growing up. But when I woke in the middle of the night with a hand trapped between my legs and my body covered in sweat, it was difficult to push down the desire I felt.
In addition to my frustrating desires, my mother's deterioration worried me constantly. There was no other word to describe it. It was as though locking Rapunzel away was only the first step, and once that step had been taken, continuing down the wrong path became easier and easier with every stride.
She hardly stayed in the house anymore, and when I did see her, she looked exhausted. Dark bruises hung in half-circles under her eyes and lines covered her once-beautiful face. Her body was also deteriorating.
I tried not to think about it, tried not to notice, because despite everything that had happened, a small part of me still loved my mother and the relationship we had once shared. I could not help it, although I also felt guilty for holding on to a small piece of that love. Rapunzel was a balm to my soul and eased some of the guilt, but it always resurfaced.
Once, I followed her on one of her late-night journeys, determined to discover where she went and talk some sense into her. I wrapped my green cloak around my shoulders, bolting all of the doors and windows and making sure that the enchantments of protection were secure around the house. My mother was too distracted to pay attention to that sort of thing.
My mother started off into the forest, not following any of the usual paths, but I knew this place like the palm of my hand and it was easy to follow her. I could sense that she was concentrating on her progress through the trees and undergrowth, not really paying attention to her surroundings, and so it was easy to follow her. Perhaps it was because she was so confident in her abilities, or maybe it was another sign of her mental instability. The mother that raised me never would have put herself in such a vulnerable position.
As I followed a good distance behind her, I began to notice a change in her. Her steps did not slow, but her gait became more shuffling and less forceful. Her back began to bend, and once I thought I saw white hair whipping around a tree instead of her glossy brown curls. Had she cast an illusion over herself to change her appearance? Why? But this was only one more question to add to the long list already in my mind.
Even though she was not watching behind her for followers, I muttered a spell of disguise and protection around myself, feeling the magic spark on my tongue like mint. The taste was familiar, and a comfort to me. Although some people were frightened of magic, I greeted it like an old friend. I felt some of my energy leave me as it wove itself into the spell, fading my outline against the shapes of the trees and stones. If my mother looked back, she would not see me, although she might be able to sense the spell I had just cast.
After she had walked a good distance, we were in a part of the forest that I had not often explored, although I knew in a vague sort of way where we were. It was a place that few visited, and I suspected that was why Mother had chosen it. She valued her privacy. As I crept closer, I confirmed the presence of an illusion surrounding her. Instead of standing straight and tall, she was curled over like a dying fall leaf, and her skin was wrinkled and thin like old yellow paper. Her hair was white as snowdrop petals. She looked like a harmless old woman, but I knew better.
Quickly checking over her shoulder, mostly out of habit, I suspected, she hurried past a curtain of leaves and disappeared. Worried that I would lose her, I followed as fast as I could without drawing attention to myself, carefully picking my way over stones and twigs and crackling leaves. When I reached the place where she had vanished, I could not see where she had gone at first. After a few moments of careful inspection, I realized that she had not gone forward, but down. Below me, covered by a carefully woven mat of greenery, was the entrance to a cave. As I peeled the mat backwards, the smell of damp limestone rose from below. My mother was spending her time in a hidden cave? Why?
A high, keening howl jerked me from my thoughts, sending a shiver shooting up my spine like an arrow from a bow. I was not afraid of wolves. They were not aggressive unless you invaded their territory or tried to take their kills. But something about the voice of that wolf - the voice of the forest - warned me of danger.
I sighed, chiding myself for my unfounded fears. "You're a woman now, Ailynn," I mouthed, careful not to speak aloud just in case my mother decided to come back out of the cave, "not a child." But I could not shrug off the feeling of foreboding that coated my skin and seeped into my lungs like the cold air rising from the cave. Following my instincts, I turned back and left the cave. I would not discover anything if Mother was already down there, and I did not want to get caught. I would come back later when I knew that the cave was empty. I could conduct a proper search then.
Rapunzel's sixteenth birthday came, and I had no idea what sort of present to give her. My mother gathered several pretty trinkets to bestow on her, but I was not taken with any of them, and I knew that she would not be, either. Although my mother liked to pretend that nothing was wrong, Rapunzel had noticed the change in her just as I had, although she did not comment on it except when we were alone. She had every reason to keep Mogra in a good mood. She was, after all, Rapunzel's jailer.
But I wanted my present to be different, special. Of course, the best present I could give Rapunzel was her freedom, but I had searched Mother's library from top to bottom with no success. An awareness was growing in me, a realization that I did not want to face because it meant leaving behind what I cared about most in the world. I knew that soon I would have to leave Mogra's cottage and go out into the world in order to find the spell I needed. I stalled as long as I could, not wanting to leave Rapunzel alone with my mother, but I knew that the time was coming for me to leave. One of my reasons for waiting was also selfish. I did not want to leave the woman I loved.
And she was a woman now, as much as it frightened me to admit it. Her hair, despite its amazing length, was healthy and strong, the color of golden summer wheat, and very thick. It took hours of care, but the results were magnificent. Her thin, lanky child's body had softened and curved, narrowing at the waist and flaring at the hips. The softness of childhood melted from her face, giving her a thinner, more adult appearance and wiser eyes.
While walking to the tower, inspiration struck me. I knew that what Rapunzel longed for most was to visit the world outside her prison. She missed the sights, the sounds, and the smells of the forest that she had experienced in her youth. I could not remove her from the tower, but perhaps I could bring a bit of the outside world to her. I hurried back to the cottage for supplies, grateful that I was only a few minutes in to my walk, and went out into my mother's garden.
I quickly found what I was looking for: a small butterfly bush lined with soft pink flowers. A Tiger Stripe butterfly was perched on one of these flowers, but flew away when I approached. It would be perfect for Rapunzel's balcony, and she could prune it when it became too large. Perhaps the birds and butterflies that visited the bush to drink its nectar would cheer her up.
As I took up the trowel I had brought from inside and began to loosen the earth around the bush's roots, I wondered if Mother would be angry at me for disturbing the plants in her garden. I dismissed those thoughts. This garden was as much mine now as hers, anyway, since I was the one who used it to help the villagers when they came to me with their problems and I was the one who tended to it most these days.
Soon, part of the butterfly bush had been carefully removed from the earth and placed in a rectangular clay pot. I patted the dirt around it so that the plant would not shake loose, brushed my hands clean on my working skirt, and straightened up with the pot in my hands. Now, it was time to deliver my gift.
The walk to see Rapunzel was always shorter when I approached tower instead of leaving it. Perhaps this was because I was excited to see her. I must have been even more anxious to visit her on this particular day, because the journey seemed to take no time at all. Far sooner than I had expected, I was standing at the base of the tower, leaning against the slender trunk of an ash tree.
"Rapunzel! Let down your hair to me, please." Although the ash tree might have been able to hold my weight, I decided not to risk it. Rapunzel could easily lift Mother Gothel, who was taller and heavier than me. Then I remembered the bush in my arms. "Wait, tie a basket on the end first!"
I smiled as a rope of golden hair spilled over the edge of the balcony, a basket firmly attached to the end of her braid. I had wanted to make the bush a surprise, but there was no way to hide something so large, and she would have to pull it up herself. Carefully, she began to raise the basket. "What did you put in here, Ailynn?" she shouted down at me, her voice sounding muffled because of the height difference. "It's heavy!"
I smiled. "You'll see when it gets to the top."
I heard her gasp in surprise as she pulled the basket over the balcony railing, listening to the scrape of clay on stone as she removed the pot from the lifting basket and set it carefully on the ground. A few moments later, she flipped her braid back over the balcony so that I could climb up. My arms, strengthened by my frequent visits, carried me quickly up the side of the tower.
As soon as I found my footing on the balcony, Rapunzel threw her arms around my neck and wrapped me in a tight hug. I smiled over her shoulder, proud of myself for coming up with a present that she liked and secretly enjoying the way that her curves melted into mine. I sighed, savoring the intimate contact. We fit together perfectly.
Slowly, I forced myself to pull away, not wanting to make Rapunzel suspicious of me. Although I was deeply in love with her and secretly desired her, I would never dream of making her uncomfortable. I still had no idea whether my attention would be welcome. I knew that Rapunzel loved me as a childhood friend, but I had no idea if her feelings ran deeper.
"Thank you for my birthday present, Ailynn," she whispered, keeping hold of my hand. I blushed, pleased and embarrassed.
"I thought you would like it," I stuttered, stumbling over my words. "I wanted to get you something beautiful, since - since I think you're beautiful. And I - I hoped you would like the butterflies..."
Rapunzel laughed, pressing her finger to my lips so that I would stop talking. The simple touch made my skin burn, and I could feel a fierce blush crawl all the way up my face and over my scalp. "Shh..." she whispered, leaning closer to me. "It's perfect."
And then she kissed me.
It was not a kiss between friends or sisters, a simple, soft meeting of lips that lingered for a few seconds. Against my will, my eyes closed. Neither of us deepened the kiss, parting slowly instead and taking several moments to open our eyes and calm our racing hearts. I had suspected before, but now I was absolutely sure. Rapunzel was the other half of my soul, and I was lost to her for the rest of my life. We were Tuathe, two souls that are one, in the old language.
Nothing else happened between us that night, but Rapunzel's hand did not let go of mine for the rest of the evening. We did not discuss the change between us, but I received a second magical kiss, just as sweet and innocent as the first, before I left her later that night. The last thing I remembered before I went to sleep was Rapunzel's beautiful face hovering close to mine, leaning in to touch my lips with hers as a Tiger Stripe butterfly landed on the tiny pink flowers of the butterfly bush.
Even as Rapunzel and I enjoyed the added depth to our relationship, my mother grew increasingly restless. She spent less and less time at the cottage, sometimes not coming home for days. Consumed by thoughts of love and happiness, I did not worry about her. Later, I regretted my lack of awareness, but by then it was too late.
I had all but forgotten the secret cave where my mother sequestered herself. In truth, my forgetfulness was deliberate. Whenever questions about my mother flared up in my mind, I stamped them out. Rapunzel proved to be a very pleasant distraction. It was much nicer to think about the new, shy love growing between us. I continued to ignore all signs of my mother's instability until they became too pronounced to overlook.
I was walking home after a visit to Rapunzel's tower when I nearly collided with another passerby, dodging to the right just in time to prevent an accident. "I'm sorry, did you need something?" I panted, wondering if a visitor seeking my help had found the cottage empty and gone searching for me. Only then did I realize that I was staring at my mother.
She was in the shape of an old crone again, but there was no recognition in her eyes as she gazed up at me. There was something else in her expression, however, something that I could not label. It frightened me. Pulling her black cape tighter around her shoulders, she hurried away from me without a word, leaving me behind with the crackling scent of her magic. Threads of the spell drifted off of her like loose strands of hair brushed from a shoulder.
I stood there for several moments, startled and confused by what I had seen. Why had my own mother not recognized me or spoken to me? Could whatever magical experiments she was working on be eroding her mind? I tried to remember the last time my mother had acted normally and realized that she had not been herself for over a year, although the past few weeks had clearly been the worst of all. Where had the time gone? Why had I not tried speaking to her earlier?
It did not take me long to reach a decision. I needed to find out what she was doing in that cave. Something was consuming her thoughts and poisoning her actions, and I had to find the cause. Perhaps there was a chance for things to return to normal.
Imitating Mogra and pulling my own cloak tighter about my shoulders, even though the trees sheltered me from most of the breeze, I followed the path she had taken to the cave. I realized that there was indeed a path to follow this time. She had traveled it so often that her feet had worn a thin impression into the ground. My feelings of unease grew stronger. The mother I had grown up with never would have been so careless. It was further evidence of her deterioration.
My thoughts grew increasingly frantic and I began jogging to release the excess energy, the sides of my skirt flapping behind me. I was grateful for my comfortable shoes. The closer I came to the secret entrance of several weeks ago, the quieter the forest became. There were no birdcalls, no rustling leaves, only the loud, crunching sound of my own footsteps on the forest floor. My heart began to beat faster.
I had never believed that mere thoughts and actions could taint a particular place, although I had read essays on the subject, but as I approached the woven mat that covered the gaping maw of the cave, I began to doubt my assumptions. Perhaps it was because the sun was sinking below the tops of the trees, but there was definitely an essence of... something... not magic, because I recognized the taste and scent of raw power, but something else, something dark, cold, and unpleasant.
Burying my feelings of foreboding, I gripped the edge of the mat in my hands and pulled it back. A puff of air came from inside the dark pit, rising up despite its cold temperature. For a moment, it seemed as though the cave was breathing. I released the breath that I had not known I was holding and started my descent.
The cave was very dark and cold, not a pit after all, but a steeply sloping tunnel that stretched down, down, down. It smelled of limestone and black places, and I realized that Mogra had created it with magic. Who ever heard of a limestone cave in the middle of a forest, even this close to the mountains? I moved forward carefully, not wanting to slip on the soft, damp stone under my feet and hit my head. No one would come to my rescue if I fell.
The entrance to the cave did not stretch as far as I had imagined, although it was uncomfortably steep. Soon, the light from the surface had vanished. I murmured a Word of Power, letting the taste of mint break and crackle on my tongue, enjoying the refreshing jolt to my skin and muscles. The release of magical energy also served to warm me, as did the small globe of light that appeared above my right shoulder to light my way. I smiled. The added warmth had been a nice touch.
Soon, the cave rounded out into a basin-like chamber. To my surprise, there were shelves of books against one wall. Not bothering to examine the rest of the room, I hurried over to the first shelf, pleased by the smell of wood and old leather. Perhaps, I thought excitedly, the spell that I needed to free Rapunzel was somewhere among these books? Had my mother been hiding it from me here all this time?
As I scanned the titles on the spines, some embossed in gold, some written with white chalk in my mother's familiar scrawl, I realized that these books did not have what I was looking for. I recognized three of them: The Art of Transmogrification, Lir: A Biography, and A History of Magical Creatures and Their Creators. There were others, too - Men from Clay and Beasts and Their Gods. All of these books had one subject in common: the ancient practice of Shaping.
Shapers used magic to change, alter, or even create living beings. It was an old magic, very difficult to learn, and very powerful. Although some ancient Shapers had created the kind spirits of the forest and other good creatures, many of them were infamous for creating monsters. The Liarre, half-animal, half-human hybrids that lived past the western border, were the result of a magical accident that occurred while the Shaper Lir (or Lyr, in some texts) was experimenting. Some even said that Amendyr, which had originally been called Amen Thyr, was named partially for him.
What on earth was my mother doing with such books? I wondered. Although she had a great deal of power and magical skill, I had not known that Shaping was one of Mogra's interests. Above all, why was she keeping her research a secret from me? Unless...
I turned away from the books, examining the rest of the underground chamber. A crowded square table stood in the middle of the room. Mixing bowls, cups, and measuring implements covered its surface. Ladles, knives, and other cutlery were scattered between the bigger items. There were herb pouches, grinding pestles, and several lumpy packages that I could not identify. Whatever Mogra was working on, she had certainly taken a long time to gather her materials.
Only after I had finished examining the table did I notice the other piece of furniture in the circular room. Tucked into a crevice, mostly hidden by shadow, was another square outline. I crept closer, the hovering ball of light guiding my way. In the darkness, something glinted.
Cages! That side of the room was lined with Cages! What could my mother be keeping in them? I took another cautious step forward. There were three of them, rusted, twisting things made of dull metal. Although there were chips in the bars, none had been bent and they looked strong. Each cage had only three sides, with the cave wall making up the fourth.
My stomach began sinking as though I had swallowed a handful of heavy stones. Although they were empty now, I could guess what my mother had been holding in those cages. The only question was: where were they now? What were they now?
The sound of footsteps echoing from the entrance to the underground chamber startled me. Instinctively, I ducked underneath the table and extinguished the globe of light with a frantic whisper. The tiny sphere winked out like a dying star, leaving me in total darkness.
From somewhere to my left, a soft humming began. A wordless, keyless tune stretched into the empty space between us. I recognized the timbre of the voice, the silhouette that I could just barely make out as she lit a scented candle on the other side of the room. The weight of dread settled over my shoulders as I accepted what I had been denying: my mother was completely insane now.
"I see you, Ailynn, my beautiful princess," the old woman cooed, although she was not looking beneath the worktable. I shuddered, hardly recognizing my mother, but unable to deny that it was her. Her presence, her aura, was familiar. "Come out... stop hiding from me."
Praying that my legs would continue to support my weight, I crawled out from under the table and stood to my full height, noticing with some surprise that I was taller than Mogra now. I was not a little girl anymore, and it was time for me to confront her. "Mother." Mogra did not react. "Maman," I tried again, hoping that the informal, childhood name would stir some feelings of love in her. There was no spark of recognition, no glint of warmth in her cold, metallic eyes.
"I will have to punish you for coming here," she said. Although her body was old, leathery and twisted like a knotted piece of sea rope, her voice was clear and strong, the voice of a much younger woman.
"Oh, Maman," I murmured to myself, "what has happened to you?"
"I have been making things," she said, staring at the empty cages with frosted eyes as though she had forgotten I was there. "Wonderful things. Terrible things! I have been making things for Her."
I swallowed, trying to ease the dryness in my throat. Nevertheless, my voice cracked as I asked, "who?"
"Her," Mogra repeated. "She needed an army, and paid me well to build it for her."
I interrupted her, sure that my mother was speaking nonsense. "Mother, whatever Shaping magic you have been doing, it needs to stop. It's changing you..." A terrifying thought flitted through my head, forcing itself to the forefront of my mind. Fear's frozen hand squeezed the warm blood from my heart. "Have you - have you... done anything to Rapunzel?" Although my question was only a whisper, the walls of the cave amplified the words to a shout.
"Rapunzel?" At first, she looked confused. Then, her eyes cleared for a moment and she almost smiled. "My treasure? No. Rapunzel... she must stay with me forever."
'Forever', the ghostly, echoing voice of the cave whispered in my ear. 'Forever'.
Mogra would not try to harm Rapunzel. She did not think of her as a person anymore. She was just a pretty toy, an ornament to be admired, a decoration. I could not decide whether to be frightened or relieved. In my mother's eyes, Rapunzel was not even human, but at least she was not a potential experiment.
Tears needled my eyes, threatening to spill over the brim of my cheeks and roll down my face. There was little more I could do for my mother now. She had lost herself to whatever insane magical forces she had been experimenting with, or had this darkness been inside of her all along? I was not sure. I could not be sure of anything anymore.
"Yes, Rapunzel is your treasure," I said soothingly, slowly backing towards the mouth of the cave. "I will go to Rapunzel now." I wove a hint of magic into my voice, mesmerizing, calming. If my mother's mind had not started to go, she would have noticed what I was doing at once. Instead, she just stared blankly at me as I retreated. For just a moment, I thought I saw her back straighten and a glimpse of brown in her snow white hair.
"Stop." The voice halted me in my tracks before I could edge out of the cavern and back up the tunnel. It was full of overtones, echoing without the help of the cave walls. "Who told you to come here? Did they send you?" Mogra seemed to grow larger, her disguise flickering in and out. I saw glimpses of my mother's young face before the torn patches of the spell repaired themselves. She was caught between two different shapes, unsure which she wanted to take.
We both moved in the same moment. I ducked back into the tunnel as Mogra lifted her hand, cradling a crackling ball of flame in her palm that was much larger than my tiny globe of light had been. Too startled and frightened to shield myself, I turned and ran for the surface as fast as I could, stumbling up the steep slope of tunnel and bursting out into the forest.
The sun had set while I was underground, leaving everything dark, but I continued running, not stopping to see if Mogra had actually thrown the ball of burning magic after me. I suspected she had not. Perhaps part of her still recognized me as her daughter. I knew one thing for certain - it was too dangerous for me to stay near her any longer.
Feet pounding over the uneven forest floor, I crashed blindly through the darkness, hurrying towards the tower where Rapunzel slept. I threw my arms out like the wings of a bird, trying desperately to keep my balance. Several times I thought I was running in the wrong direction, but miraculously my legs had memorized the path. My pulse hammered wildly like the heartbeat of a frightened mouse hiding from a night owl.
I needed to leave. Mogra had become too dangerous, too unpredictable to deal with. Although I had managed to escape this time, I might not be so lucky again. Trapped in her high tower without any magical powers, Rapunzel was no threat, but Mogra could turn on me at any time if she felt paranoid.
Painful lances of guilt pierced my stomach, making me flinch and forcing me to slow my run to a jog. It was easier to think of my mother as Mogra now, easier to separate myself from her. My mother, the same beautiful woman who had thrown me in the air so that I could pretend to fly. The woman who had taught me which herbs restored health and which caused sickness. The woman who had given me Rapunzel.
Despite our long estrangement, I had still loved her when she locked Rapunzel away. Even now, a small part of me could not help but love her. Or, at least, it loved what she had once been to me. I had no love for the madwoman that I had just seen in the cave. She was not my mother. She was someone else, something else.
I stopped short as I came upon the tower. It loomed up out of the dark, its silhouette impossible to miss even at night. The night-sounds of the forest were loud here, not like the eerie silence that had surrounded Mogra's cave. The view was familiar. I released some of the tension from my muscles, clinging to the semblance of normalcy.
Staring up at the high balcony, I wondered if Rapunzel was asleep. I rarely came to visit her in the middle of the night, although I often shared her bed. She was probably asleep already, curled up in a tight little ball under the covers, rolling from one end of the four-posted canopy bed to the other because I was not there to hold her still. I felt terrible for disturbing her, but I was frightened.
I glanced at the slender ash trees that grew around the tower. Mogra had picked them deliberately, stating that they would not carry a man's weight, but what about the weight of a young woman?
Deciding to try my theory, I hooked my elbow over the lowest branch of the nearest ash. It groaned, swaying a little as I lifted my feet off the ground and began to scale its trunk, but did not bend and fall. Holding my breath, I carefully navigated the thin branches, locking my muscles whenever the tree began to move beneath me.
Hoping to end the climb before I lost my balance, I shoved myself through the rest of the dying fall leaves and snatched at the balcony railing, holding on for dear life. For a moment, my damp fingers slipped, but I fixed my grip and tugged myself up and over the balcony wall, landing on the soft soles of my shoes and listening intently to make sure that Rapunzel was still asleep. The last thing I wanted to do was startle her. I already came bearing bad news.
The door to the inner chamber had been left ajar to let in the breeze, and I crept inside the room without making a sound. "Rapunzel," I whispered as I approached the bed, keeping my voice soft. I could just make out her form beneath the sheets. She looked beautiful in the silver-gray moonlight streaming in from outside, although perhaps I was biased. Her impossibly long braid was coiled above her head like a great golden snake, piled in strange curved patterns over her pillows. "Rapunzel," I repeated, louder than before.
This time, her lashes fluttered and I watched her stretch her jaw, rubbing at one eye with a tired hand. "Ailynn? Wha- why are you here?" she asked, her voice breaking with sleepiness.
"Shh... I had to come see you..."
"Something is wrong," Rapunzel guessed immediately, reading the emotions in my voice since she could not see my face in the darkness. Reaching out blindly, she groped for the candle and match on her bedside table. After a few moments, faint light filled our corner of the room.
Rapunzel gasped as the light fell on my face, illuminating the hard set of my lips and the uncomfortable stiffness in my jaw. I bore no visible injuries from my encounter with Mogra, but the fear and disappointment were just as easy for her to see. Rapunzel had a gift for judging people's actions and responses, especially mine. This puzzled me, because she had been isolated for most of her life with little chance to develop these skills.
I tried to speak, to explain why I had climbed up to her bedroom in the middle of the night, but I could not find the words. Her small, soft hand reached out, two fingertips caressing my cheek in a half-circle. "Don't leave me, Ailynn... please don't leave me here with her."
"She attacked me today," I said, forcing my voice past the tight ball in my throat until it cracked. "She is completely insane now. I think she's conducting some kind of experiment in the secret cave she hides in."
"She attacked you?" Pulling me frantically onto the bed, Rapunzel began pushing aside my clothes to search for bruises or cuts. "Did she hurt you?" For once, her touch did not make my heart pound and my hands tremble. I could only remember that I was leaving. Who knew when I would get the chance to feel Rapunzel's touch again?
Do not think like that, I ordered myself. I buried all of my negative thoughts, afraid that Rapunzel would sense them and worry even more.
"I have to leave," I said, not able to meet my love's eyes. I stared at the headboard of her bed instead, following the patterns in the grain of the wood. The flickering candlelight gave the illusion of movement. "I have been through every book in the library twice. With moth- Mogra... gone... there is no reason to stay."
Rapunzel's hands lingered for a moment, and then fell away. The loss of her touch left a gaping hole somewhere in the middle of my chest. I felt as though part of my soul had been sucked out. Instead of looking surprised, she seemed resigned. Rapunzel was never one to indulge in self-pity or hysteria. I admired her inner strength, but part of me wished that she would burst into tears or start screaming at me, ball her fists and beat my chest, something. Selfishly, I wanted her to prove that she was as consumed by love as I was.
"I will wait for you," she promised instead, the edge of her leg just barely pressing against mine. She leaned closer, allowing our shoulders to brush as well. "I will wait for you if you promise to come back."
For a fraction of a second, I sensed her fear. I could not see it in her face, but it radiated from her body in one short, sharp pulse, so strong that I could almost smell it. She was terrified that I would leave her here to rot, that I would forget about her.
Slowly, careful not to startle her, I pulled Rapunzel into my arms, sighing as our bodies met and recognized each other. "I promise," I whispered against the crown of her head, placing a kiss on top of her golden hair. She squeezed tighter. "It would be impossible for me to forget you. I have to come back." She murmured something, only a few words, but I could not make them out because her face was partially buried in my shoulder. "What was that?"
"I love you," she murmured. A soft, hesitant kiss brushed against the dip in my throat where it ran into my shoulder. I knew that she could feel my heart speed up and my breath catch. "Stay with me tonight..."
"I will stay with you forever, if you let me." I blushed, hoping that the candle was not bright enough to illuminate my red face. Rapunzel began to draw away from me, but I held tighter, not wanting to let her go. "I love you, too," I said, pleased when my words came out stronger, more confident. I believed in those words with all my heart. "We are two-souls, Tuathe. When I come back, I want you to marry me."
Something wet seeped through the material of my dress and I realized that Rapunzel was crying. "No, please don't cry. I didn't mean to make you…"
"Is it silly that this is one of the happiest nights of my life, even though you're leaving in the morning?" Slowly lifting her chin, Rapunzel loosened our embrace enough to look up at me, her brown eyes glistening with tears. Before I could process the change, two gentle hands cupped my face and brought our lips together.
I had kissed Rapunzel with joy before, with love, and even with restrained desire. But until that moment, I had never tasted sadness in another person's lips. When she pulled away, only an inch, I was not sure if the kiss had left my heart empty or full. It was not enough, so I kissed her again. She opened her mouth against mine, allowing my tongue to stroke hers as her hand curled around my hip.
Both of us knew that we could not go any further. Not tonight. I wanted the memories to be beautiful, not the beginning of a painful goodbye. Without asking, I sensed that Rapunzel felt the same. Neither of us slept much that night. We spent most of the long, dark hours crying, kissing, and listening to each other's breathing. Even while we held each other close, loneliness, love's companion, began to creep over us like a thick gray fog.
The next morning was dark, a reflection of my mood. Birds sang outside nonetheless, not discouraged by the sickly gray pallor of the sky. I had hardly slept at all during the night, but Rapunzel, at least, got a few hours of fitful sleep beside me. I was content to hold her, trying to memorize how she felt in my arms, just in case... just in case I never got the chance again.
Carefully peeling myself from her tight embrace, I crept out of bed without disturbing her. When her empty arms reached out for me, I eased a pillow into the empty space. It must have carried my scent, because she buried her face in the fabric and pulled it closer to her chest.
My insides tied themselves in slippery knots, the nauseating feeling of fear growing stronger by the second. For several minutes, I could only stare at my love as she slept, guilt tearing at my soul. Even though I knew that Mogra would not allow me to stay, even though I knew that I had to find a way to release Rapunzel from the enchantment that kept her prisoner, I felt like a coward. What kind of protector and provider was I, running away like a frightened child?
As I forced myself to turn away from Rapunzel's sleeping form, the room's colors seemed to fade right before my eyes, fading back into dull browns and grays. I realized that I did not know how to say goodbye to her. Perhaps it would be easier to leave before she woke up. Maybe it would be less painful for both of us.
Creeping quietly over to her small writing desk, I searched for a piece of paper and an inkbottle. Choosing a quill, I ran the soft edge of the feather along my cheek, searching for the right words. Eventually, I gave up. There is no good way to say goodbye to someone you love.
I love you. I fell in love with you the first moment I saw you, and that love has only grown with you. Sometimes, the depth of this love frightens me. I have never felt anything so strongly before in my life.
It seems that most of my memories are of waiting - waiting to tell you my feelings, waiting for you to become a woman, waiting for you to be free so that we can begin a life together. I would wait until the end of the world for you, but the time for waiting is done. You deserve to be free and reclaim the world for your own.
This separation will not be forever. Soon, we will walk away from this place together, and I will hold your hand. Please do not hate me for leaving you behind. I promise that I will always come back to you. I pray that you will still love and want me when I return. You are my life's greatest blessing and my one true joy.
Wait for me. Please. I know that I do not deserve someone as wonderful as you, someone with such beauty inside of them. But even though I am unworthy of the gift of your love, I am asking for it anyway. Wait for me. I will find a way to free you, no matter how long it takes.
I did not sign the letter, too ashamed of myself to put my signature on it. She would know that I had written it. Sick with the knowledge of what I was about to do, I carefully folded the letter and set it beside the guttering candle on her night table. Before I left the tower, I took one final look at my sleeping love, my Tuathe.
I moistened my fingertips with my tongue and put the candle out.