This story begins not once upon a time, as fairy tales are wont to do, for that is not its nature. It is not a tale of princesses and apples, long golden hair, or mermaids given legs. It is a tale of a power-hungry man and his brutality, of madness and metal, of blood and sleep.
There is a castle in the wilderness, high upon a hill. It is small, by castle standards, bound by a village of straw and stone before it and a mighty river behind it. Villagers make trite jokes about good things coming in small packages, but still they are loyal to the Lensherr family rule, vast though it is not.
The Lensherr family is not a powerful one. There are people within the village with the gifts that could effortlessly steal the throne. No one among the Lensherr lines possesses gifts, abilities beyond human comprehension, and Herr Lensherr is far from politically savvy. But he is compassionate and his wife is kind and gentle.
Castle Lensherr falls to a man named Shaw. He comes from the farthest edge of their lands in the dead of night, an outsider, with less than a dozen warriors. The King and Queen yield to his demands lest their people be put to the slaughter.
A declaration is made: Sebastian Shaw will tend to the affairs of state on behalf of the Lensherr family. Though the villagers nod and smile, applaud graciously, they see the cold dread written across the face of their Queen, the tremble in the hands of their King. They are wise and they see too that this man answers to no one.
They are loyal to the Lensherrs.
To say Sebastian Shaw is cruel is to make saints of monsters.
His pursuit of power, of allegiance, is unwavering, his wrath relentless. Shaw is a man of carefully restrained violence and rumors. They say he is searching for gifts he hasn’t already collected. They say the woman, Frost, who walks beside him in white that never dirties can bend a mind to Shaw’s will. The children call Janos “the wolf,” softly, lest he blow down their homes with a huff and a puff. They say the devil himself bows to Shaw, that you can smell him in the air as he comes and goes; that some dark angel walks beside him with violence in her eyes and a poisonous smile.
The queen bears her first and only child on a chilly autumn morning. Winter is slinking in through cracks in window panes and under doors, and the child is crying softly in her arms. The king welcomes in their guests, loyal subjects and their oldest friends, who have come to give their blessings to the child. They are well wishers, bearing promises of happiness and wit and charm and talents, and one lovely young woman who makes a wreath of flowers appear from nothing but air. They say,
“Oh your Majesty, listen to how strong his lungs are,” and
“What a healthy little boy. What a strong man he will grow to be,” and
“May good fortune follow him, that his rule may be as peaceful as your own.”
Their joy is cut short by the stomp of boots and the click of heels in the doorway. Shaw, uninvited, strolls in with Frost by his side.
“Ah, I see my invitation to the christening never found me,” he says with a sneer. “And what have you decided to call our new prince?”
“Erik,” the Queen replies. There is a furrow on her brow as Shaw runs his finger along the prince’s face.
“Good, good. A powerful name for a powerful child,” he announces. “But this boy, our Prince Erik Lensherr, I shall see to it that he does not live to see that power become useful to him.”
The King wrenches Shaw’s hand from his child’s face. He holds tight to his wrist and bears down on him with the full force of his fury.
“If any harm comes to my child, it will be your head on a spike, Shaw.”
In reply Shaw grins. It is the smile of a predator about to feast. “Remember who now holds the power in this kingdom,” he drawls. Herr Lensherr jerks back his hand with a gasp as Shaw’s wrist glows hot to burn him. “I expect you’ll reconsider that threat.”
So it is that Sebastian Shaw curses the Lensherr child.
His footsteps echo down the hallway of stone in counterpoint to the sobbing queen. However, Frost remains behind with the royal family and their assembled guests. She sweeps back her hair, blonde like morning sunrise, and kneels beside the queen to touch the forehead of the child.
“He will not die.” Through blurry tears the Queen looks to Shaw’s constant companion for explanation. “There will be a moment wherein your Prince Erik shall come to face his death,” she says. “He will stand before Shaw with hate in his heart and revenge in his hands but I will not allow him to die. Instead, his fury will be stayed and he shall sleep until he is found by one who can bring him peace.”
“Why would you do us such a kindness?” The King asks of her, for it is unclear why Shaw’s own soldiers should work against his aims.
“I am kept beside Sebastian Shaw because I am an asset to him, and I remain there out of loyalty to his vision. It is not out of any fondness for the man himself nor his methods.” And so it is that one Emma Frost, right hand to Sebastian Shaw, does vow to prevent the death of the young Lensherr Prince at her leader’s hands.
Erik is sent to school with the village children. The King and Queen feel it best that he grow among the people who will one day follow his rule, so that he may understand their needs as though they were his own. They encourage him to invest his life in his people, to make friends and lovers and confidantes in the kingdom. And he does.
When he is 15, Erik is involved in a fight with a classmate when the boy’s buttons, zippers, and buckles melt, and the affair is so bizarre it is kept quiet, to the relief of the King and Queen. They opt to send Erik off to apprentice with the blacksmith in the aftermath of the shock. The blacksmith and his family become the first keepers of Erik’s secrets.
It becomes quickly apparent that Erik is a master of metalwork. He takes to the ore as if it is an extension of himself, and the blacksmith finds he is proud of Erik and the shapes he pulls from metals without the use of the anvil and flame. Erik finds that he enjoys the way the blacksmith’s twins—a girl with rich mahogany ringlets and her brother with bright eyes and hair curling soft against his nape—look at him while he works.
Erik crafts her birds in copper and iron, twists silver flowers in her hair and kisses her on the cheek. Her brother pushes Erik up against the shop wall in the dying sunlight, mouth hot on his throat.
An ocean away the Xavier family reign over a vast kingdom. The royal family themselves are aloof, uninvolved in the affairs of their people, and their kingdom rules itself under leaders the people decide upon. It is a land of freedom and opportunity for many, but also great oppression at the hands their peers. The Xaviers intervene only in emergencies, and so the kingdom progresses on a series of trials and errors.
It works, mostly.
The King and Queen have two children. Prince Charles is charming and witty with soft curls and a silver tongue. When he is 15, Charles is caught in a compromising position with the butcher’s son, and the affair is widely publicized, to the chagrin of the King and Queen. They opt to make their daughter Raven their heiress apparent in the aftermath of the shame. Raven, with golden hair and eyes that, it is rumored, change color with her mood, would prefer her brother remain heir. They are the keepers of each other’s secrets, and she sees no shame in him.
Charles alone knows that Raven is not truly his sister in blood, that he has planted lies in the minds of an entire kingdom, but he loves her just the same.
The blacksmith sees the flowers in his daughter’s hair, the way his son’s eyes track the prince’s movements, and he worries for them all in the way fathers are wont to do. Later he will think that if only he had concerned himself less with their easy affection and more with the prince’s growing esteem that things might have been different. He will think that perhaps it would have changed the outcome. Deep down he will know, however, that it was inevitable.
Rumors are spreading through the kingdom that the prince is a natural in the metal arts, rumors of his delicate detail work and the strength of his chains. The children spread their own manner of rumors. Girls envy the blacksmith’s daughter and the favor the prince has shown her in his beautiful gifts. Others whisper half truths about intertwined fingers and all the moments the prince and the blacksmith’s son disappear together. The rumors get louder, they grow as they pass from lips to ears, and it is inevitable that Shaw hears them.
It is inevitable that Shaw arrives at the blacksmith’s workshop and sees with his own eyes the way Erik shapes the metal without touching it. He sees the way the blacksmith’s children are enamored with Erik, and the prince with them.
“It seems you are quite gifted after all, Prince.” Shaw mocks from the doorway, making himself known. “I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to kill you before you had a chance to be so…beloved.” This is the first time Erik and Shaw have truly met. Until this moment he has been but a bogeyman waiting in the shadows to steal away Erik’s life, an ever present threat since the first button melted on his classmate’s collar.
This is not the moment he wants to die, and he is bold before Shaw, wielding shop tools as weapons.
“Defiant too, I see.” He shifts his gaze to the twins, intention clear across his face. It says this is punishment for defiance in the face of the inevitable, for defying me.
“Leave them out of this.” Erik hisses. The hammer shivers before him, unaccustomed to the use of his ability for aggression. His stance is shaped like protection, the way he shields the twins with his own body between them, and Shaw is going to capitalize on Erik’s fondness. His eyes narrow and his smile sharpens, and Erik knows he is going to fail. He fights back, he screams for the twins to run, but fail he does.
Shaw leaves the still bodies of the twins on the workshop floor, blood mingling with iron shavings, boiling off in an angry steam as it flows toward the fires. Filled with inconsolable rage, an anguish born of unreasonable loss and the screams of his first loves still ringing in his ears, Erik sets the metal in the room flying toward Shaw.
It is weak. It is ineffective. It saves his life that day.
Shaw sees in the prince a weapon for his personal gain. He sees the anger and pain which drive hot pokers and nails and hammers to find purchase in his flesh. No longer is Erik a threat, but a tool to be shaped and used. No more delicate petals. No more singing birds. Now, a vision of blades to throats and the turning of locks and twisting in confinement.
Erik is a prisoner under Shaw’s command. His days are spent training metal to obey him, to bend and submit. Where once the ore sung beneath his hands as he pulled from it a thing of beauty, it now lays silent and unyielding. His mind cannot will it to form the violent arc of a blade or to sink itself into flesh and sever bone. But Shaw insists that it must. He insists this Erik was born for this power, the honor of being his weapon.
It is subtle at first, the way in which accidents are accumulating around him. There is more damage by wind than the town has ever seen and homes are riddled with pock marks like the alchemists have been careless with their acid. The butcher’s wife falls from the stairs. The sister of a dear friend washes up blue faced and bloated on the river shore. Erik is defiant in the face of the tragedies, in the face of Shaw’s cruelty, and the body count rises until it cannot be ignored. Always an accident, but the smell of sulfur lingers heavy, relentless.
Frost is watching.
Erik has become far more formidable than Shaw knows. He is holding back, suppressing the extent of his strength. Emma watches and Erik knows. The prince does not trust her but she keeps his secrets faithfully.
But Shaw grows impatient with Erik’s progress and it is the village that suffers. Shaw says to him, “It is simple, Erik. Move the coin, as you did before.” And the prince smiles politely, tells Shaw it is impossible.
The kingdom burns that day, and the ashes are sent away on a violent wind.
“Come now,” Shaw whispers. Erik doesn’t realize that it is in fact a choice with which he has been presented. It is not until he chooses, once again, not to move the coin that he discovers it.
The king is murmuring, “Edie. Edie, my queen. My beloved. Edie, my precious wife,” against her temple. His voice mingles with Erik’s maddening cries of, “Mother. Ohgodohgod, mama.” He is on his knees, her blood staining his trousers and pooling around his toes.
“It is so simple, young Erik,” Shaw says. “Just move the coin.”
And he does move it then, the bereaved prince.
The devil has taken his father somewhere.
His mother’s body has only just gone cold.
His kingdom is burning.
Erik is staring out over the smoldering buildings which are as much his home as the castle ever was. This is the moment of his resolve, the shift in his stance and the bone-deep knowledge that Shaw must die by his hand. That death, he decides, must be by the very coin on which Shaw is so fixated.
He gathers his courage. He gathers his fury. He takes up the coin and sets out to hunt down Shaw where he sits on the throne. Before him though stands Frost, cold and regal and steadfast in his doorway. Her collar is high at her throat, drawing his eyes to her face where she is looking at him bright and sharp and dangerous.
“I can’t allow you this vengeance, Prince.” She says prince like it his own name, as though she truly honors his position. It is her respect, this capital letter in her tone that demands he stop and listen.
“What right is it of yours to stop me?”
“Long ago, on the day of your birth, I promised your mother and father that I would not allow you to die by Shaw’s hand.” Her stone face breaks then into something fond and full of a sorrow Erik does not understand. “Know this, Erik: you cannot hope to win this battle. For all you are powerful, for all your might, Shaw will best you.”
“Are you now an oracle? That you can see with such certainty my defeat?” Erik crowds into her space, alive with rage.
“No. Certainly not,” she says simply. That she reaches out to stroke his face softly is so unexpected Erik makes no move to stop her. Nor does he flinch away from the affection, and his inaction is an opening. Within his mind, Emma Frost tangles sleep around his unmitigated sorrow and vengeance. She calms his senses and sets his heart low, a peaceful cadence out of alignment with his racing thoughts. His mind she leaves untouched, memories and concomitant rage intact.
“Sleep, Erik Lensherr. If ever comes one who can temper your rage, shape it into something productive and new, then shall you wake. Shaw would be wise to fear your awakening, but may he live in arrogant repose until such a time.”
She exits his chamber then, leaving him arranged carefully where he fell. To Shaw she reports of only the prince’s slumber. She suggests, with a cunning born of years under Shaw’s thumb, that he ought to hide away the castle and abandon the wasteland they have wrought. Predictably Shaw summons a minion, loyal through false promises of glory, to raise a brutal wall around the castle’s perimeter.
A barricade of brambles and thorns weaves up from the ground to engulf Castle Lensherr in spikes. It is a living wall. It is formidable, even under Shaw’s scrutiny, and it will hide Prince Erik effectively from the world at large. Shaw takes his entourage and leaves with an assumption of safety, backed by a briar forest against which no one could argue.