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The Sweet Taste of Peaches

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Once upon a time...

There was a small kingdom on the edge of a forest, ruled over by a fearsome king.

The villagers stayed away from the distant castle and it's surrounding wild gardens and orchards.

The rumors of what happened to anyone who entered the castle grounds were frightening indeed. It was said if a person entered the property, they disappeared, lost forever in gigantic twisted lands, or eaten by it's monsters.

The King was said to quite ugly, with large horns and a great beaked nose. If one made it to the center, where the castle was, the rumor that passed from villager to villager stated the king turned them into a monster too, and cursed them to wander the wild labyrinthine gardens and property, waiting for any unwitting creature to enter and be consumed.

In the village was a girl, a woman really. With dark chocolate tresses and sparkling green eyes. She lived at the edge of town alone in a small cottage. In the small community, she was thought of in two distinct ways. To some, she was a healer and a sage, to others she was looked upon with suspicion, her talents thought to be borne in evil and witchcraft.

She was widowed, so she was not a maiden, her brief young marriage ending in tragedy when her husband was lost to illness. Some thought she killed him herself with her dark practices.

One late afternoon, this woman was walking at the edge of the forest, looking for herbs. She sang as she walked, enjoying the crisp early autumn air. The soft breeze was full of the sweet scents of the season. fall flowers, still green trees, fresh water.

She turned into the thick canopy, as as she moved down the path through the trees, she smelled something else. Something so sweet, so enticing she moved towards it to find the source. At the end of the path, she was stopped by a great wall, and whatever it was that was attracting her was right on the other side.

She looked around, and saw no living thing but the birds in the trees. Finches, bluebirds, and looking up further, a great owl.

She had to know, had to see. She climbed up the wall and looked over the top.

There as far as she could see, were rows and rows of peach trees. Her mouth watered at the wonderful scent. The fruit hung low and the trees were heavy with peaches, large, round and ripe for the picking.

She had heard the king had a peach orchard. It was legend in the small community. The orchard, sacred, forbidden, and absolutely beautiful.

She swung her legs over and looked around carefully. Again nothing but birds.

"Surely the king would never know if I took just one peach. I'll just go to the closest tree, pick one, and leave. He will never see me." She said out loud. "Just a single peach. I need to have one."

She climbed down the wall into the king's orchard and stood still, waiting to see what happened.

Nothing. No guards, or monsters, or evil kings. Just the songbirds singing in the trees of the forest.

She tiptoed to the first tree and went to pluck a peach, but saw an even better peach a few trees further down the row.

"Well, it's just a bit further, and I am very fast. I will chance it." She kept as silent as possible as she crept forward. When she got there, she again reached for the fruit, but even further down, the peaches were much bigger. If she was only going to take one, it may as well be a big one.

Feeling brave, she took the chance, moving towards the center of the orchard, where it looked to her that the biggest juiciest peaches were growing.

When she got to the largest tree in the center, where the largest fruit was, she leaned against the tree and looked around.

She was too far from the forest to hear the birds now, so it eerily silent. Yet, she was certain she was safe from harm.

The woman smiled and took a peach, snapping it from it's branch. Her mouth watering even more, she put it to her lips and bit into the sweet fruit.

The juices filled her mouth, the meat of it was the most delicious thing she had ever tasted. It was the most perfect peach that had ever been grown.

As she chewed she heard the flapping of wings of a large bird as it landed in on the lowest branch. The owl. It must have followed her.

It observed her as she ate the fruit. it's large eyes gleaming darkly as she stared back. She closed her eyes and when she opened them, it was gone.

A dark voice came from behind her causing her to almost drop her peach and gasp at the unexpected sound.

"So, precious one, how are you enjoying my peaches?"

She twirled around and screamed at what she saw.

There was a tall slender figure, in a dark cape, with great horns and a large ugly distended beak. Blonde hair caught in the wind and blew out behind him.

The King.

"Oh! I am so sorry! I smelled the peaches and I couldn't help myself! Please. Don't turn me into a monster!" She declared, frightened at the horrible visage of the ruler.

He said nothing, but placed his gloved hands behind his back and began to circle her.

"You do know that no one is allowed in my orchards, do you not?" He asked as he walked, not turning his eyes from her.

The woman bowed her head. "I do, but, but..." she sputtered, her voice almost a whisper.

He stopped. "So what would you have me do...sweet Sarah?" He stopped circling and stepped closer.

"How do you know my name?" She asked before she could stop herself.

He chuckled. "I am king, I know everyone's name."

She didn't know what to say, so she stayed silent. He took another step closer and she stepped back, this continued until she found her back against the tree, clutching the half eaten evidence of her crime. He placed a hand above her on the tree and leaned, hovering over her.

He reached out a gloved hand and traced her cheek with one finger, his touch surprisingly gentle. "You are quite beautiful." He remarked, his voice soft and low.

She was now close enough to him to see that his ugly face was not a face at all, but a mask. A mask with a terrible ugly nose and horns.

This made her curious. "Why do you wear a mask? Surely you are not so ugly that this is an improvement?"

He smiled. She could see his teeth, slightly sharp and pointed. He laughed again, a fuller richer laugh than before.

"Such cheek on you, Sarah. I must say I like that. It almost makes me want to forgive you."

He reached out and grabbed her then, pulling her against him. "Almost."

His body was hard against her. He was slender yes, but he was solid, and she knew he was strong, she would be unable to remove herself from his grip.

"What do you think I should do with you? Aside from letting you go free. You did break my rule, and must be punished." He asked the woman in his arms.

Sarah was silent, looking up at him. Looking closer than she had up to this point she noticed something else about the man under the mask.

His eyes. His bright beautiful sky blue eyes. The were not full of evil at all, despite his actions, she saw humor, curiosity, and frank interest.

She was not an innocent as she had once had a husband, but had not sought out male company since then. That marriage had been arranged, and intimacy was given as it was her duty as a wife, but her husband had never looked at her like the king was doing right that moment.

"If you are going to take my life, sir," She started, "May I at least see the face of the last person to see me alive?"

"You are forward, aren't you. I should expect nothing less from the village witch. I let you see my face, I expect something in return. You already stole a peach, so you own me two things now." He informed her.

Sarah thought for a few minutes. While she wasn't one to try using her womanly wiles to get her way, she was very curious about this man and her words escaped before she could think better of it. "I will give you two kisses." She suggested. "Surely such a favor would be fair trade?"

She could see his eyes widened in surprise. So much his grip loosened. "That is not what I expected, witch. I thought you would offer me some awful herb tincture for warts."

"Is that why you hide your face? Warts? I could help you." she offered.

He let one hand drop, and she had a chance to move back a step, which she took.

He looked at her for a long moment then answered. "No, I do not have warts." His tone made him sound slightly offended.

"Then do we have an agreement?" She inquired.

He smirked. "Yes, I think we do. In exchange for not killing you for your crime, and showing you my face, I will accept two kisses, on the lips, like lovers. Though I do believe you are getting the better end of the bargain."

She took a few seconds before answering him, so he would think it was harder choice than it really was as was polite for a woman to do. You mustn't seem eager, her mother had said. "It is done."

He let her go completely and reached behind his head, undoing the ties that held his mask in place. Once loosened he lifted the ugly thing off his head and away from his face.

Sarah took a deep breath and held it as is face came into view. The surprise she felt was palpable to both of them and he smiled.

She had never seen a man so handsome as him. His cheekbones sharp and defined, his lips full. He was almost inhumanly beautiful.

There was something more. Instantly she knew why he wore a mask.

Their feared king really wasn't human, at least not entirely. With arched brows and the coloring around his eyes, the pointed ears and sharp teeth, he could never be mistaken for a human man. Not at all.

It was odd, Sarah thought, that she was not afraid of this fact.

"I have only heard of your kind in fairy stories." She said matter of factly. She tilted her head. "But I wonder, sir, why are you here? Why are you not with your own?"

His eyes became sad. "I am trapped here. Banished. The King of my realm put me here as punishment. I must stay here until I learn to love. For I was an evil king in my own lands. Unfair, unjust, unkind. So many things I should have done differently."

Sarah took a step towards him, seeing that sadness, she could not help but feeling compassion.

He took a deep breath, reached out and pulled her to him once more. He looked into her eyes seeing no real fear but some apprehension. "Now, about those kisses."

He cradled the back of her head in one hand and touched his lips to hers.

Sarah had been taken by surprise at his actions, but marveled at the softness of his lips. He tasted like cinnamon and she opened her mouth to his. He took full advantage, deepening the kiss.

The hand not on her head pressed into the small of her back, and moved downward to cradle her backside, which pulled her even closer. The kiss increased in passion and intensity and Sarah felt that he really might devour her but she found she loved it, oh how she loved it. It was the must incredible feeling she had even known, kissing this man. It should feel wrong but it didn't. It felt right, natural, as if he was always meant to be kissing her this way.

When he pulled back and looked down at her face, it was flushed, her lips looked freshly kissed and rosy. He longed to take the other kiss but let her go instead.

"You are even more beautiful now." He observed. "You should always look like that."

For the first time she smiled at him. Really smiled, her eyes dancing. "I thank you, but I have no one to kiss me in such a way regularly."

"That is a shame, little wench. Such passion should not be wasted on lonely nights in a little cottage. You should be in the arms of a man every night. A man who could make you scream his name over and over." He told her.

Sarah blushed. "I..I don't know what you mean."

He looked puzzled. "You have been married." It was not a question.

Her blush deepened. "Yes but, it wasn't like that. and we never talked of such things. It's impolite, and as I've always been told, a good wife takes what she is given."

The king shook his head."Human men are fools. The best part of being with a woman is the passion you can create with her, for her. A woman's passion is a gift. It means you are pleasing your lover well, and that is the most precious thing of all. In that, she will only please you more."

"I thought you didn't know how to love." Sarah blurted out.

He smirked knowingly. "Oh, I know how to make love, dear Sarah. Loving is a different subject altogether. That is about two souls being one, two halves of a whole. Now that, I have no idea how to create."

Sarah wanted to know what he was speaking of. It was not talked about among the people she knew. To talk about what went on between husband and wife was considered not only rude, but grounds for terrible punishment by the village elders. No one would ever know of this. Could ever know. Everyone was too scared to come near this place.

She had to. Her innate curiosity forced her forward to wrap her arms around his neck. "You still haven't collected your other kiss." She said as she pushed herself up on her toes and kissed him.

He took her mouth again, his tongue sliding into her mouth against hers. He moved it forward and back, then sucked and nibbled on her lips, kissing her breathless. When he stopped the kiss, he was supporting her weight against himself, and she laid her head against his chest, her breath coming in soft gasps.

He held her close, the warmth of her soft curves giving him more comfort than he had experienced since he was banished. This little mortal woman. She was turning his world upside down and inside out already, and he could not figure out why.

"I guess our deal is completed." He said, reluctant to let her go. His voice was filled with regret that he would not be kissing her again. He had so missed the company of a female.

She still leaned against him, much to his surprise. She did not dash away, escaping what she thought would be certain death. Instead she pressed closer, and her arms went around his waist.

He put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her back "I said, our deal is done. You can just go. You have my permission to eat all the peaches you want. Only you."

She looked at him through her lashes. Her hand reached out and played with the fasteners on his tunic. "I'd rather have you show me what you were speaking of, sir. I am no maiden, and not afraid. I want to know." She whispered. She looked up and he froze.

He saw in those green eyes, the moon, the stars, and so much more. She trusted him. He who had waged war on neighbors to the point they had attacked and slain his queen and the child she had carried while she had traveled in carriage to visit her family, in revenge for his actions. The ferocious Goblin King that never loved anything or anyone more than power.

This girl. A mortal. She looked at him with sympathy at his plight, and there was no fear in her eyes.

He grasped her shoulders and spoke vehemently. "You should not be so foolish as to trust me, little one. Do you know what I could do to you? Do you know what I have done? You should be afraid."

"I cannot help it sir. I just do. Trust you I mean. I can feel it. You will never hurt me. You would never be able to. You have no power over me, and I have no power over you." Her eyes were unflinching, her voice steady.

"You are so very wrong, my dear." He kissed her again, and she let him.