The silent hiss of magic skins his nerves.
She is here then. She is come. This woman he has never seen. This woman whose life was bartered for the brightly dying petals of the sharp-stemmed roses that he loves.
He does not wish her here. Does not wish to feel her presence weave ever deeper those silver set enchantments that cleave the truths of body and soul.
His doom is filled. His fate is set. His choices passed. He does not need to salt the wounds. Needs nothing and no-one, least of all one such as she, this most unwelcome tithe of curse’s demanding.
She has crossed the inner boundary now, and he can feel the magic recognise her unfaltering intent. She will be what he was promised. She will answer what he has asked. But she will not answer what the curse commands. She was never meant to break what was never made to be broken. He knows it. And that too is his punishment, and his burden.
Her father should have fought. Fought for his life. Fought for hers.
They never should have met.
He does not want to meet her now.
He does not have a choice.
The sun is bright, and he can pick her out easily from where he stands on the rise of the great white steps of his lovely dungeon. As easily, she must see him. A massy shadow, slipped somehow from nightmare’s bounds to stand tall and awful beneath the pitiless light of day. She must know to what horror she is given… and yet she does not hesitate. Her back is straight. Her shoulders set. Her stride is sure. If she fears her fate, she does not show it.
And when her dark eyes rise at last to meet his, they are hot and fierce and utterly unyielding. She does not flinch from alien eyes, from harsh fanged jaw and terrible hands, for her anger is a just and righteous thing, and it is no monstrosity of form or feature which has earned it of her.
And she sees him know it.
She walked through his gates alone, this long-striding woman of the clear-sighted gaze. There was no hand to steady her, no voice to comfort her – nor any bindings to compel her. None but his. And they are his. His the voice that offered the choice, his the fear that broke her father’s love. His the curse that demands its due.
So, because of him, somewhere in the world beyond his prisoning, a daughter weighed out the measures of love and honour and future, tested her resolve, set her face to the road and walked knowingly to her doom. And yet, standing before her now, he can see that there is nothing in her of acceptance for her fate. There is no resignation in her sacrifice. No absolution for his sins.
She is here. She has bought the life she chose to save. She has done her part. She waits.
He is stopped cold by her silent defiance.
The roses toss their bright heads behind her in a tumble of colour and form, the wind swishing through the glossy greens and carmine veins of their leafy hair. Yet beneath, the gnarled limbs barely sway, rise hard-spined and twisting to twice his height and more, their tangled shadows dancing darkly between the two whose wills have met and matched and fixed here.
Beautiful they are, his beloved roses. Soft and scented, seeming fragile. Yet they are rooted in rock, and he is suddenly reminded that beneath his feet the cracks widen slowly in the white marble, and each year more stone dust blows on the wind as rock crumbles where the roses endure.
She is here because her father took unbidden what had not been offered him. Reached out his hand and broke off a sharp spurred blossom from the living bough, thoughtless of cost or consequence. Yet the roses remain, and it was blood and sap both which mingled on the wound. She is here because she chose her own fate.
This rose too has thorns.
And he… he too has endured. And he too remains.
The curse was not made to be broken. True enough. No more was he made to be broken. And, he realises, he has not. Is not. Need not be.
Somewhere deep inside, in the lost crevice where once he hid his heart, a soft glow begins to pulse, unregarded, undefeated, and at last - awake.
Its name, did he dare remember it, might be Hope.