Lily was nine, the apple of her father the King's eye. She hurried down empty halls, scuttling past open doors, to the ladies' rooms. The seamstresses had finished her older sister's wedding gown earlier in the morning, and while the rest of court ate and caroused at dinner, Lily tip-toed to the mannequin wearing the dress of gold and silver cloth. She pulled a chair over to the mannequin, legs screeching, and she wrestled the dress from the form.
She had to try it on, this shiny dress. She admired it so. Whatever Lily wanted, Lily got, and if she was naughty, the king would laugh and laugh and never scold.
She climbed down from the chair and gathered the skirt enough to tunnel under it and poked her head up through the bodice. She smoothed down the cloth. It was too big for her, but oh, how it sparkled as the crystals embroidered throughout the fabric caught the candlelight.
Then she was spinning, and the gold and silver fabrics blurred as the skirt billowed into a bell. The dress fit! She was grown, and it was her wedding gown, but the collar was tall and stiff, and the silk was cold against her bare legs. Lily opened her eyes and she saw her sister's dress had changed into her could-have-been wedding gown of webbing and darkness. She was running down dark corridors, again, and the only King waiting for her had a heart of pure evil. She opened her black-lipped mouth to scream.
Lily's eyes snapped open, and she breathed in the scent of spring. The sun warmed her limbs, and her dear Jack's face was before her.
"I love you, Lily." He slipped a ring on her finger. It was the same one she'd so impulsively thrown away for him to retrieve. She would not take it off again.
The nightmare vision slipped away. 'Perhaps it was all a dream,' she thought, as he kissed her. Warmth flooded her cold body. He pulled her to her feet, and she could pretend, for a moment, at least, that all was how it had been.
They walked together in the late afternoon sun. The restored unicorns pranced through the water of the forest stream, proof that their quest was over. Even now, after all that had come to pass, she wanted to walk down to the waterside and touch one of the shining beasts once more. She took a step forward before she became aware of Jack's hand in hers. She stepped back again, but the want was still there. The desire to take what she wished, to do as she willed – it was strong within her. Even now the seed of evil germinates...
Lily shook her head, as if to empty the memories of the Lord of Darkness out. She pulled Jack to her, her lips seeking his.
"Marry me," Jack murmured, his fingers combing through her hair. "Be my wife, Lily. Be mine forever."
"Yes, please, as soon as we can." She closed her eyes, her cheek pressed to his chest. He would come home with her. He would be a prince of the kingdom. They would never be blighted by darkness again.
Jack would not go with her later, though she tried to convince him.
"I've had enough of castles for one day," he said, his hands grasping hers firmly. "Besides, your family will worry. You've been gone a long time."
"My family doesn't care. Come with me."
"Come back first thing tomorrow, and we'll figure out what to do together."
"Do you want me to go?" She pouted.
"No, of course not." He kissed her. "But I must prepare things before we can marry."
"Oh, true," she said, thinking he meant to pack his belongings. She grinned and kissed his nose, making him laugh. "I'll be back as soon as breakfast is over."
They parted, the sun glowing like stained glass. Lily thought she'd never seen a sunset so beautiful. She drifted along the cobblestone road towards her family's holdings at the edge of the great forest in a daydream haze. They would be married. She would wear a proper gown and have a proper feast and there would be jewels for her that shone just as beautifully as the ones in the nightmare castle deep in the forest. As she approached the bridge over the moat, she sang and danced, her skirts swishing and swaying. The guards of the door grinned and made way for her to step through the threshold.
"Princess Lily," called the voice of one of her father's wizened advisors. He'd been waiting for her arrival. "The King wishes to see you. At once, if you please, your Highness." He bowed to her and offered his arm.
Lily's song trailed off into silence, and her brows furrowed. Her father died two years ago, and her eldest brother, Aubrey, ascended in his place. She had no idea why her brother would wish to see her at all; he never had before. Still, she must tell him of her marriage to Jack, and this was as good a time as any.
She took the advisor's arm and walked with him to the King's privy chamber. Lily was the youngest of eight daughters and four sons. She rarely worried with affairs of state. There was no need, when all she truly wanted was to play and gambol, to dress up and dance, to wander through the forest and be with her Jack.
King Aubrey barely glanced in her direction when she entered the chamber, but she remembered to curtsy deeply, as was expected. Of course, her father never had expected such things. He would dangle her on his knee while signing papers, and she never had to call him "Your Majesty."
"Oh, good, you're here," Aubrey said, his attention on the parchment before him. He made her wait. As she stood there, wondering how to tell her brother about her new situation, her mother walked into the room and stood by her, smiling.
"And Mother, as well. Very good." Aubrey pushed the parchment aside and faced Lily and her mother, his hands folded atop the table. "I have good news for you, Liliana. You'll be married next month to the Baron of Narwalk. It's a fine match, and you will do us much good in cementing this alliance with the land of Corren."
Her mother beamed, but Lily gaped in shock. "But- but- I cannot. I love someone else."
"What?" King Aubrey huffed, his face hardening.
Her mother, alarmed, took her hand. "What Lily means is she has a girlish infatuation, no doubt with a young man of the court. She knows marriage to whom the King requests is part of her duty."
Wide-eyed, Lily looked to her mother. What was happening? She couldn't be parceled out like this. But... wasn't that what happened to all of her sisters before her? She never thought it would happen to her. Her father would have made sure she married someone she loved. Her father would have welcomed Jack into the palace, and all would have been well. She'd gone through too much to be denied this.
"You're sixteen, Liliana, and you're no longer Father's spoiled brat," said Aubrey, standing and glowering down at her. "Your job as princess is to marry and have sons. That is all you're needed for, so I'll hear no more. You will marry whomever I say, whenever I say. Return to your rooms, and your ladies can begin preparations for the wedding."
He sat down and picked up another piece of parchment. "Oh, and you will not be leaving the castle on your 'jaunts' about the forest. Guards will be posted with you at all times. I should have done this much sooner." He called an advisor over and began discussing some other matter, thoroughly dismissing both Lily and his mother.
Her mother pulled her hand, "Come, daughter."
Lily let her lead her along the corridors. "But Mother, I don't want to marry the Baron of Norwalk. Isn't he an old man? With scraggly whiskers? And hasn't he had three wives already? And I do love someone else, I do."
Her mother sighed, patting her hand. "We do as we are told, we women. You'll be married, and God will grace you with strong sons, and daughters, too, whom you'll delight in. When I married your father, he was a stranger to me, but we found love. I've wished the same for all of my daughters." The sad look on her mother's face made Lily think that if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride. "You are young. It may hurt now, but it will all turn out well in the end."
Lily could hardly see how that would be possible. "May I please be alone?" she asked in a quiet voice. They'd reached her rooms. Two guards already stood beside her door.
"For tonight, my dear," said her mother, leaning over to kiss her forehead. "But tomorrow, we will begin preparations for the wedding, as the King has requested." She opened the door for Lily and, with a gesture of command, indicated that Lily's small cadre of ladies-in-waiting within should come with her. "Sleep well, daughter. Things will be fine. You'll see."
"And if they're not?"
Her mother ducked her head. "Then there is little we can do but hope for better."
Lily paced before her hearth, trying to figure out what to do. She couldn't meekly accept this fate. Not after all she had been through. She'd helped save the world. She helped to bring the light of the unicorns back into existence, even if she had been the cause of its ruination. Besides, Jack would be waiting for her in the morning. She couldn't be parted from him now.
She paced and when she tired of pacing, she threw herself onto her bed, and she cried herself to sleep. She awoke with a start, but the nightmare of running down dark corridors fled before she could catch more than a glimpse of it. Then, as she sat there clutching the soft sheets, she realized what she must do to escape. She would leave and never return. If the reason for her existence as a princess was to marry at her King's whim and bear babies like a brood mare, then she would be a princess no longer.
Lily went to her wardrobe and quickly pulled on the black dress she'd worn to her father's funeral. She hastily threw extra clothing into a tapestry bag, and then took her favorite jewels from the armoire on her dressing table. She then ripped the sheets and thin blankets off her bed and tied them end-to-end. She threw a dark green cloak over her shoulders, all the better to blend in with the night. She knotted the makeshift rope onto a leg of her bed and slipped the length of it out her window. She shinnied down, dropping onto the grass below her window without a sound. Since she knew the castle grounds well, she easily slipped away into the shadows, making for the forest.
"Jack!" she called, hurrying through the forest, her bag weighing her down more with each step. "Jack, please! Hear me!" She hated when he did this, hiding from her until the last moment. She didn't know where he lived; he always appeared to her when she called him. She was cold and frightened; the woods at night were too much like the wintry woods after the death of the unicorn. She heard a rustle of leaves, and there was Jack, rubbing his eyes.
"Oh, Jack," she said, near tears. She threw her arms around his neck.
"What's the matter?"
She told him everything. He nodded, as if he'd expected such news. "I couldn't live in the palace with you, Lily. That could never be the way for us. You'll live here with me. You love the forest" He hugged her, dropping a kiss onto the crown of her head. "We'll be married, and I'll make a- a house for us. We'll be happy here in the forest."
"You don't have a house?"
"Well, no," he said, blushing red. "I have an arbor, though. In the winter, I usually live in a cave."
Lily blinked. And then she began laughing. "Oh. Oh, I see."
Jack watched her, worried for a moment she was laughing at him. "I'll make things right for you. I've already straightened up the arbor and decorated it with flowers. We'll have such a good time together here."
"Then let's get married, and we'll make our home," she said.
"I wish we could we do things the proper way with a priest and a church and all you'd expect. It wouldn't be safe now that you've run away. They'll be looking for you. But we can marry the old way, and we'll hide from any searchers who come."
She nodded her head, mourning the loss of the feast and the gifts and the dress of which she'd often dreamed. "Then I shall hide here. With my husband," she added.
The sun rose through the trees. Birds sang and squirrels jumped from branch to branch as they walked together to a meadow filled with a circle of weathered standing stones.
"This is where people in the long ago days came to be married. Women still come here, hoping for babies."
Why someone would come to a place in the middle of nowhere for babies, Lily didn't know. Despite her flaws, she was still an innocent. She let go of Jack's hand and ran to the flowers blooming along the edges of the stones. She picked enough flowers to make crowns for both of them, and then she set Jack's on his head. He laughed and took the remaining crown from her hands and carefully placing it on her head. "You'll always be a princess to me, my lovely Lily."
She looked down, blushing and feeling altogether too warm. That's when she realized her wedding gown was black, as Darkness had intended it to be. Gooseflesh prickled on her arms, and her smile faltered with the thought of his persuasive words. The dreams of youth are the regrets of maturity...
Then Jack's left hand grasped her left hand, his right hand her right, and they stood facing each other in the middle of the stones. She watched his handsome, earnest face glow as he watched her, and she forgot her worries.
"I will be your husband. I promise to love you forever, Lily, and to make you happy. We'll be free here in the forest, and we'll do what we like and laugh as we please for the rest of our days."
It was easy to find the words to answer him. "I will be your wife, and I promise to love you, too, Jack. We'll dance and we'll sing, and we'll take care of each other. No one shall come between us and no king shall ever tell us where to go or what to do."
"Then we're married," Jack said, and he leaned in to kiss her. The May sun shone down upon them, giving its blessing.
"Bless my soul, it's Lily," cried Nell, dropping her dough-covered spoon. "And Jack? What's this then, forest child?"
"We've married, Nell," said Jack, "and Lily is with me, here in the forest."
Concern flitted across Nell's face for a moment, and then the older woman smiled hugely and ushered them into the cottage. "What happy news! Come in, come in. We'd heard you'd been kidnapped or worse, and here you've been since - what, May? - here all along. You've been hiding well from the King's men tromping about looking for you. They've been a fuss and bother for certain. Oh, how I've missed you."
"It's been a while since a search party came through," said Lily, perching on a stool by the empty hearth. Jack stood beside her, his hand on her shoulder. "So we thought it would be safe to come see you. I wanted to tell you sooner
"You have to keep our secret. Please say you will."
"Of course. How could I deny you anything?"
"I didn't know you knew Jack so well," Lily said, laughing.
Nell brought Lily and Jack pieces of warm bread with butter. "I'd have raised him up in this very cottage had he not taken to the trees as a wee thing. He always comes back for a piece of bread and butter every now and again, and I expect you'll be joining him."
They talked and laughed until tea time when Nell's husband would be coming in from the fields. "We'll tell him, we will," Jack assured her. "Just not quite yet."
"Here, Jack, you go on into the pantry with this basket and take what you like. You'll eat me out of house and home, but I reckon you're worth it." She thrust a basket into his hands and tousled his hair.
Once Jack was occupied, Nell turned to Lily. "Have you been readying for winter?"
Lily looked at her blankly, and Nell shook her head after a moment. "Oh, child. You've followed your hearts, but you've not followed your sense. You'll need to be gathering food, dear, as much as you can. You have a good month until the frost. You haven't any place to go but the trees and his cave, have you?"
Lily shook her head no. She hadn't given a thought to winter. She'd never had to before. They'd been enjoying themselves too much spending long days loving each other and exploring their forest home to worry about much beyond the next day.
"Aye me. Well, we'll have to make it work somehow. You've got your man to look after, and your children, who'll be coming soon, no doubt. No need to blush; we're both married women. You've got some work to do, but I'll help you."
"I don't understand what you mean." Her eyes were wide. What on earth was Nell going on about?
"You won't be enjoying yourself in winter if you've no food and no way to live. If you have any money - and please say you have some, for Jonas and me, we can't spare much - you can send Jack to market at harvest to buy what you need. You have to know that he's a child of the forest and you're a child of the castle. The two couldn't be farther apart. You won't have a warm kitchen with servants bringing you what you want, and there won't be berries on the bushes and fish leaping in the streams ready for you to eat. Jack knows how to get by, but there's two of you now."
Jack walked out of the pantry and stood beside Lily once more. " I'll do what I can to take care of her, and she'll do what she can to take care of me. I've never been to market, but I can go from now on."
"Cheeky bugger, listening in, were you? You know I'll help you, but- well, you've got a ways to go."
Lily glanced around the snug cottage. Simple furniture, sturdy crockery, large hearth for cooking and warming - she had none of this. She had nothing to make her home even half as comfortable as Nell's. She shivered, and Jack squeezed her shoulder.
"We'll be alright. You'll see."
Lily had no idea how to build a fire or what you needed to bake bread. She'd sat in Nell's cottage hour after hour, but she'd never really watched how to do the work. She'd simply basked in the comfort and coziness.
What had she given up? She would not return home a princess to be married off to whomever the King saw fit. She could not now, even if she tried. She could not be a Dark Queen upon a black throne, even if Darkness had not been vanquished. The thought of approaching that lurking fortress gave her the terrors. Her mother's words came back to her. "There is little we can do but hope for better."
She could hope. That was something.
"And what happened when the wicked dress danced into the room, Mummy?" The wide-eyed girl on Lily's lap had heard this story a dozen times by now, and she asked the same question every single time.
"It caught me," she said, clapping her hands. "And then the evil Lord of Darkness said I should be his queen."
"I should like to be a queen," said her eldest daughter, sitting on the floor of the snug cottage and spinning a top her father had made for her. "I'd like to wear fancy dresses and dance."
"But we can wear fancy dresses and dance here, silly," Lily said. "Besides, being a queen - or a princess - is hard work, and it's not very fun once the dancing stops. You don't get to do what you like or run where you please. Not like you do here in the forest. I'll take our snug cottage over a castle any day, lovelies."
"Then you and Father saved the unicorn, right?" said her son, crawling back over to the girls with their mother.
"I tricked the Lord of Darkness by pretending to be what he wanted me to be, and then your father, with help from the fairies, saved us all."
The children laughed and clapped. "And what is the most important part of that story?" Lily asked, as she always did.
"Never touch the unicorns ever," the children said in unison.
"That's right," Lily said, lifting her daughter off her lap. "Now Mummy has to get back to work. Nellie, will you please watch Owen and Betsy?"
Nellie nodded, very much the big sister. Lily checked on baby Rose sleeping in her crib before returning to the crock filled with risen dough waiting to be formed into loaves. Lily did not look much like a princess these days. Her hands were reddened from work, and her figure fuller. She no longer wore the pastel, diaphanous frocks of her girlhood, but sturdy dresses dyed the color of berries or nuts that kept her warm. When she smiled - and she smiled often - she was still the old Lily, and when she sang - and she sang often, too - the years lifted away.
Cold air gusted into the cottage as the front door opened and shut quickly, so as not to let in the snow.
"Father's home," cried Nellie, and the children clamored to greet him at the door. Jack walked inside, his arms full of evergreen branches and holly.
"Hello, my beautiful little ones! I found some greenery that wants to cheer up our cottage." He handed each child a bough, and the children scurried to decorate the places they could reach.
Lily breathed in the scent of the greenery and grinned at her husband. Jack walked over to her, slipping off his cloak of fur, and held a bunch of mistletoe over her head. She laughed and kissed him, just as happy to see him as the children.
She took a moment to give thanks for everything good and bad that had come before that brought her to this happy place. There had been many times in the hard years at the beginning of their marriage when Lily set off to pick flowers or berries in a tangle of tears and worries and came within sight of one of two castles - one dark and looming, and one mundane, but just as treacherous. She would stop and gaze upon whichever one she'd wandered to see, and she would daydream about comforts and luxuries, and servants at one's beck and call. After a while, she would always come back to her home with Jack in the middle of the forest. Once the children arrived, she began forgetting which paths to take to find either place.
Sometimes, in the dark of the night, she would dream of spinning in circles, with a dark dress of the finest velvet flaring out, jewels catching the light of candles. She would wake up, yearning for lives she no longer truly wanted. She would take the children for adventures during the restless days that inevitably followed those dreams, and they would wander far. They would run and jump, swing over fallen logs or paddle in the shallow streams. Lily would gaze up into the trees and the blue sky beyond as the children played, up where Jack traveled to mind the ebb and flow of the forest, and she would find contentment once more.
Lily knew she had been given a choice neither princesses nor queens often got. She had no need of court or the dance of dependence, the trap of the crown, in light or in darkness. She had the freedom of sunlight on flowers and moonlight through the leaves; she had the freedom to live and love and laugh as she pleased.