|Pandora's Box by Arthur Rackham|
Who are the heroes and villains now? This is a tale of a cursed prince and a cursed princess, each rescued by an amorous foreigner with ambitions to the throne.
Princess Rosemary is a child tormented by the repressed and unsatisfied drives forged in captivity. The more her mother struggles to contain her, the more dangerous Rosemary becomes to herself and those around her.
Nearly a century after Rosemary's legendary birth, Prince Gustav is said to be the only child ever born who may have exceeded Rosemary in physical beauty. But an evil spell cast upon the orphaned prince in his childhood disfigures both his body and his mind, which deteriorates over the years into the violent, frenzied soullessness of a beast.
Two adventurers converge at the cursed site, following two separate prophesies, but both encouraged by the same mysterious wise woman. One is a farmer's son from a neighboring land named Johann, who thinks he is the Heir to Gunnar the Great, who will claim the hand of the sleeping Princess Rosemary and the throne of Vepres. The other is a nomad in exile named Bellynda, who thinks she has the power to break the curse of Prince Gustav, restore him to the throne, and enlist his aid in leading her people to a new home in Vepres. Bellynda derides Johann as a delusional peasant with an unclear link to the royal lineage, but her confidence erodes as new secrets are uncovered.
Meanwhile, neither of them understands the role that the surviving peasants of Vepres play in creating the reality that will name a victorious successor to the throne.
Even in its golden age, the little land of Vepres has existed precariously, surrounded by dense wilderness, powerful kingdoms, and raiders from all directions. Its vulnerabilities hid for many years beneath superstitious folklore, the kingdom's own unappealing poverty, and a shaky alliance with neighboring Forasland. When two curses strike down two Vepresian dynasties within a single century, Vepres falls under the power of marauding cannibals. The curses upon both houses are prophesied to be lifted the very same year, but the legends, prophecies, beliefs, and loyalties of the surviving people of Vepres are fragmented.
In the ruins of the Old Castle, a dragon came to roost over the bedchamber of the century-old Princess Rosemary. When Johann arrived to rescue her, the great Palace of Vepres, only three miles downhill, still showed signs of habitation two decades after the fall of the last Vepresian dynasty. The Cannibal Lords have never dared to loot the Old Castle because of the dragon or the crumbling Palace because of the terrible wolf-god that howls from its parapets on full moons.
The unicorns have faded into legend along with the golden ages of Queen Hildegard and King Gunnar the Great, but two very old women carry on the memories of Vepres and the old magic that lies buried like a seed beneath the decay.
Following is an excerpt:
The Angels of the Grove hung from their wrists, arms open like wings, both shy and fierce. Their heads bowed and bared their gapped, ragged teeth at the earth. When the wind blew over the hillside, they rustled beneath the spring rowan branches that held them.
Yulonna washed and assembled each one herself, from the remains of the sisters found in many secret places. They were old and new, big and small, arm-wings and heads and ribcages stuffed full of dried hopes, with swinging tails of vertebrae strung tight as prayer beads. Their skin was many strips of parchment tattooed with writing and tucked between the bones. Their feathers were curling strips of birch bark crosshatched with the deep scars of words, memories offered up to be forgotten.
From a distance, they looked like haloed angels dancing in the trees.
Grandmother Nuzala, who was no one’s grandmother, could see them from the blue shadows of the firs many paces down the hillside. Even to her failing eyes they flashed brightly through the scruffy, baby-leafed trees at the edge of the Dark Forest.
Nuzala’s eyes and ears and nose were not what they used to be, but her hands never failed her. She touched the trees and rocks as she passed, feeling the wisps of lichen and the supple patches of moss and spongy mushrooms. Her old toes wrapped in fawn’s hide kneaded the earth and felt its changing pitch. The deep folds of her skin caught the sun’s winking rays and sensed the cool breath of caves and pools, and she never lost her way in the forest.
She knew as soon as she had entered the sacred land. Her old sinews relaxed, and the very wrinkles of her face loosened. The two cursed, abandoned royal castles of Vepres formed two corners of the Triad of Terror—one inhabited by a dragon and the other by a werewolf—and the Grove of Angels was the third. No man dared tread here, and that made it a safe place for a finely dressed old woman to walk.
She reached into the neck of her new, many-colored, many-layered silk dress and took out a yellowed ivory cameo. She ran her thumb over the engraved likeness of King Gunnar the Great, sensing, as keenly as she could taste the purity of a freshwater spring, the rare power encapsulated within its dry old surface. She knew just what kind of creature had given its horn for this icon, a creature not seen since before the Hundred Year Curse that was supposed to end this very year, before the fullness of summer.
She ground her rotten teeth together, eager to break the thing in two and suck its core, which would surely glitter like the heart of an agate. But then it would be gone forever, and it was the only one of its kind left in the whole world as far as she knew. The Cannibal Lords had destroyed every image they could find of Gunnar the Great.
Old Yulonna stood there with her humped back and lanky limbs, garlanding their smooth heads with spring buds.
As Nuzala tramped up the hillside, she shouted a greeting so as not to startle the frail thing with a sudden, quiet appearance. “Yulonna, you old whore! Is that you?”
The stooped caretaker of the grove grinned downward at her loose arms that hung all the way to her knees. She bent over a stump and scratched some words into a newly pressed sheet of bark with a sharpened wolf’s tooth.
Nuzala tried again. “Yulonna, are you here? My eyes are not so good anymore, and I can’t tell one old sack of bones from another.”
Without looking up, Yulonna lifted a gangly arm and beckoned. “Come closer. My ears are not what they used to be.”
Nuzala huffed into the grove and stopped directly beneath Yulonna’s drooping lips. “Oh,” Yulonna said, “it’s you, you old witch.”
“Well, and what do they say?”
Yulonna looked at the words she had written and shrugged. “It doesn’t matter what they say.” She smiled at the stamped earth, where the wind rolled the stray curls of bark that fell here and there. “The dead cannot read.”
“Not that rubbish! I mean what do the people say in the villages? This spring it will be a hundred years since the first curse of Vepres and twenty since the second. Have you forgotten that?”
Yulonna shrugged again and slipped her sheet of bark between a set of ribs. “Hopes are best forgotten.”
Nuzala made a harsh sound in her throat. “The only good thing about living this long is remembering. You could have written a library of books by now if not for this nonsense.” She slapped at a dangling tail and set the bones rattling. “Your namesake was a powerful witch, you know, an ancestor of mine.”
“Yes, I know. She cursed the household where my aunt Vera was a servant.”
Nuzala’s face crinkled into a frightening smile. “So you do have a story to remember.” She scrunched up her lower lip until it nearly touched her hooked nose. “I remember everything, every way things happened and didn’t happen, everything I saw and didn’t see.”
Yulonna shook her head. “That is too much, too much. I forget and forget and forget whenever I can, so that I can reach the end of my journey and keep only what is important.” She patted her bony breast, where there was a crunching sound as if her own ribcage were stuffed with curls of bark.
“Well then, I will only tell you what is important.” Nuzala danced back and forth on her stubby legs and chuckled. “I have found what you said it was impossible to find these days—a brave and noble youth and a healthy maid, both sixteen years of age.”
Yulonna’s great, mournful eyes protruded beneath their wiry brows, and she took up a stack of new-pressed bark sheets and laid them on the stump, her wolf’s tooth poised above them.
Nuzala coughed. “Yes, write this down. I did not find them among our own people, of course. One is a stupid farmer from across the border, and the other is a traveling barbarian—a barbarian with fine taste in clothing.” She smoothed the layers of her dress coquettishly. “That savage girl, I have never seen anything like her in all my years! Her face is rounded with health and unmarked by scars, and she has the limbs of a panther. And you will not believe me until you see her yourself, but her hair and skin are as richly black as tilled earth soaked with blood. The whites of her eyes shine, and her teeth gleam—and the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet are rosy just like a cat’s paws.”
“Monstrous,” Yulonna muttered, frowning at her own hurried scratching.
“Yes, well, great beauty is always strange and monstrous,” Nuzala sniffed. “So I won’t call the boy a great beauty, because he is the classic form of beauty itself.” She took out the cameo of Gunnar the Great and set it on the stump.
“Aahhhh…” The breath rattled from Yulonna’s throat as she hunched down further to examine it. “I saw young Prince Gustav once, just before his transformation. His profile was the same.”
Nuzala cackled. “Gunnar the Great must have seeded his beauty all through these parts in our grandmothers’ time. Well, I spied upon the farm boy pleasantly enough and found him vigorous and eager for heroics. He wishes to be a knight, but his mother tells him she cannot afford weapons and armor.” She cackled again. “And the girl, her father and sisters are tricksters. They sell toy weapons and shields so cunningly made that they look mighty, but a child can lift them.”
“Ummm.” Yulonna tilted her head and made a few more marks. Then she set down the wolf’s tooth and spread the sheets of bark all over the stump. She gathered them in a pile, spread them out again, and repeated the process a third time. She arranged the sheets in neat rows and read over them. Her eyes misted over, and her face sagged.
Nuzala grinned slowly. “Wake up, Yulonna,” she whispered. “What do they say?”
Yulonna’s milky eyes rolled up to meet Nuzala’s. Her voice came rough and garbled, as if she spoke underwater. “You must feed the boy to the dragon and the girl to the Beast King. And then forget them.” She swept the sheets together in one pile, picked them up, and drove them between the broken teeth of the angel swinging closest to her.
Nuzala leaped backward. “Never!”
Yulonna lowered her face and grinned at her feet. “Never,” she repeated. “That’s right. You know that they are never wrong. You must do as they say.”
“Ylaaah!” Nuzala spat on the ground, snatched up the cameo, and made a rude gesture as she turned to leave.
“Remember,” Yulonna sang after her, “to forget.”