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After Silence

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After Silence


Fandom: Fairy Tales (trad)


Written for: Baranduin in the Yuletide 2007 Challenge

by Truth

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music. - Aldous Huxley

Before the stained walls of the ancient castle, rearing upward from what was once the training ground for the King's Guard, stands a gibbet. Despite its age, it has not yet begun to decay - its heavy timbers and careful construction guaranteeing that it will loom over those who come and go for years to come. The shadow that it casts is long, far longer than can be explained by the angle of the sun, and in that darkness hides a story.

There are two sides to every story, or so goes the saying. The older the story, the more divergent and distorted the two sides become. Eventually, they no longer reflect each other save in most cursory of ways. Sometimes those broken tales become two entirely different stories, truth lost in the cracks of imperfect memory, darkened further by the shadow of an abandoned monument of death.

Here then, are the pieces that were lost, set again to the music that which once held the entire tale together. Listen.

There was always music.

The queen had been dead for almost fifteen years when the trouble began. Those with an eye for detail and a keen memory might have been able to confirm that the anniversary of the queen's death coincided perfectly with strange behavior of her daughters, but there were few enough of those.

This lack of perceptive witnesses was not accidental. Upon the queen's death, her ladies in waiting had been dismissed, her attendants had been sent away and even the various nurses and governesses who looked after the princesses had been replaced. This last was no small undertaking. There were no fewer than twelve royal princesses - the attempted birth of the thirteenth having brought the death of the queen. The child itself was stillborn, although nothing was said of that. The two shared a small space in the royal crypts, adorned by the saccharine figure of a crowned and elegant mother cradling her perfectly smiling infant.

It was the first of many pretty lies drawn over the ugly rictus of truth, but lies have a certain dark smell to them and eventually the decay becomes obvious.

We are getting ahead of our story, however.

After doing his best to remove all traces of his beloved queen from his castle and his kingdom, the King was left with a darker, greyer life. Within that house of muted sorrow his twelve daughters sang and danced, bringing color and song wherever they went and leaving an even deeper awareness of the slow decay of their father's kingdom in their wake.

The princesses were understandably the center of much attention both within the kingdom and without. Stories were told of the exceptional beauty and grace of the eldest daughter of the widowed King and the promise of her younger sisters. As they grew, each was said to be more beautiful than the last, no matter how you chose to look at them and, by the sixteenth birthday of the youngest, the stories began to whisper of magic. For twelve girls, no matter how noble their birth, to not have a single blemish between them was unheard of.

The soft whisper of music turned every step into dance, every gesture into a thing of grace.

As if the whisper of magic had brought it to life, a new story began to circulate in the surrounding kingdoms, attributed to one of the long-ago tiring women of the dead queen. It was barely a story, more a snippet of rumor that was whispered between the womenfolk when their men were elsewhere. Oddly, the story was only told outside the borders of the affected Kingdom.

'The queen became ill during the last few weeks before the birth of her thirteenth child - terribly ill. Various men skilled in the healing arts were called as well as women with less sterling credentials. She recovered, slowly, but kept strictly to her chambers and her laughter and smiles seemed to have disappeared with her health. She slept but little and ate less, becoming a pale wraith rarely seen by any but her ladies and maids.

Late one evening, restless and unwell, she called for company. They sat quietly together in the darkness, a single small light across the room more for comfort than illumination. The tall window that looked out onto the queen's garden had a chair drawn up beside it, so that she could see the paths and flowers without having to exert herself, and there she sat, her companion on a stool by her feet.

The relative peace of the night was broken by the sound of approaching voices and an argument.'

The queen's servant was never named or identified as a maid or a lady or even simply a local woman engaged for the birth itself. She did not, after all, have a part in the story herself. She served merely as a witness for those who wondered....

The story, oddly enough, was never repeated within the bounds of the kingdom in question. Or, perhaps, it wasn't as odd as it seemed.

'The voices rose and fell, one strong and familiar; a low growl of command. The second was also male but lighter, somehow, and filled with the sound of music.

"... promised you the most beautiful queen to walk beneath the sun. Graceful, loving - "

"You promised me a queen without equal!"

"Have you found her equal, then?"

A pause followed as the voices drew slowly nearer, accompanied by the sound of booted feet against the gravel.

"No," came the grudging admission, but it was followed hotly by, "but she is not perfect!"

"You say that merely because she has yet to bear you a son. Are not twelve lovely daughters enough?" The musical voice sounded surprised and there was mockery there, giving a strange, jagged edge to the question.

There was another pause, this one longer, broken by the musical voice; softer and finally bearing a faint note of anger. "They are not. You were told that she would bear you no sons and yet you persist."

"Without an heir - !" The angry exclamation broke off.

The musical voice had become cold and terrible, cutting through the bluff, furious voice like a blade. "Your greed and inability to accept this priceless gift, as it was given, will be your doom."

There followed a long, painful silence. Eventually, it was broken again by the sound of footsteps, this time only one set, and they dragged with unspoken defeat.

The queen still looked out into the garden, lovely face bathed in moonlight and looking little older than the eldest of her daughters. She was beautiful and somehow suddenly empty. One hand rested on the curve of her belly, feeling the movement of her thirteenth child. When she spoke, it was to the moon and the garden, not to the unborn child or her silent attendant.

"This child will be a son," she murmured, unaware of the murmur of horror from her companion. "And he shall be my death."'

The truth of the story would doubtless never be known, but the queen was dead and so was her child. As the dismal grey fog of misfortune settled over the lands of the widowed King, only the twelve princesses seemed untouched by the sorrow. They continued to dance and sing and laugh, bright sparks of light bringing color to all they touched.

Underneath it all, the music played, dropping slowly to a minor key.

From the unexplained failure of crops to sudden infestations of vermin, strange illnesses and the disappearance of livestock and lone travelers, the health of the kingdom was declining. As night fell, doors were barred and so were the windows. Cold iron, where people could lay hands on it, was appearing above doors - always on the inside. Outside, you would sometimes see a bowl of milk on the step, but that was far more furtive and carried out in the last few minutes before true dark. Strangers were viewed with outright hostility in those few places where travelers still ventured, and huge wolves ran at night.

It was a slow descent into despair, sinking by degrees so slowly and gradually that the morning's light would somehow banish the growing shadows until the sun's next fall. Things became greyer and bleaker as the years passed....

Fifteen of them, to be exact.

The sun came up, as it always did, and the shadows crept reluctantly away. With them, they took the last bright gleam of hope that had lit the heart of that unhappy kingdom. The twelve princesses had lost their laughter - lost their song.

The music still sang along beneath it all, a melody that rose and soared - mourning even as it rejoiced.

There came no more laughter and the dancing feet were stilled. Solemn-faced and heavy eyed, the twelve princesses moved through the day as if asleep still; without joy and, for the first time, without hope.

The King, distracted by his own concerns, did not immediately notice the change in his daughters. Wolves had given way to bandits in the forests, although the high mountain passes were now silent save for wolfsong and the occasional, despairing scream. The most troubling report, by far, was that of a village near the border which had somehow lost an entire generation of children but one. No one was willing to give any explanation, at least not among the adults. The boy himself was silent, lying still as death despite every effort of the mourning villagers. It was that, more than anything, which sent the King to seek solace with his lovely daughters.

Their pale, drawn faces and weary sighs were the death knell of the King's hope. He sank into the nearest chair, staring with horror at the languishing forms of the princesses. In the midst of his despair and guilt at the death of the queen, he'd thought his doom already upon him. Now, seeing the slow decline of his kingdom echoed in the faces of his daughters, he realized that his nightmare was only beginning.

There would be no more attempts to save his kingdom, no more attention spared for anything outside the walls of his castle. If he could not save his daughters, he cared nothing for the rest.

Slow and somber now, the music could still be heard - the requiem for a kingdom and a dirge for its king.

Every spell has its counterspell, every curse a cure, and the desperate king, perforce, tried them all. He sequestered his daughters, destroyed their former clothing, baubles and fripperies, and summoned every citizen with the least pretense to knowledge or power to find some way to aid his daughters.

Herbs were burned, unguents were applied, charms and signs against evil were constructed and applied. Hair was cut, then bound up, then unbound again. Furniture was moved, removed and replaced. People danced, chanted, prayed and sang, every one of them convinced that they had the answer which no one else seemed able to find.

Every attempt proved a failure, and the King's despondency was slowly burned away by the strength of his growing rage. He had no patience or time for any problem save the one that faced him lethargically every morning when he unlocked the door to the tower which had become his daughters' prison.

A curious paradox came to light perhaps a fortnight after the princesses isolation, brought to the attention of the King by a terrified servant. By now the city and surrounding countryside knew of the loss of the life and laughter and dancing of the princesses, and it was with full awareness of the King's growing anger and desperation that the woman wordlessly set a single pair of dancing slippers before her king.

Of dark satin, the slippers had a pretty set of flowers embroidered upon them, white shading to a pale rose. It wasn't until the woman turned them over that her dilemma became clear. The heels had been worn to a dull grey, the delicate fabric strained and beginning to give way. The toes were still dark, but as she pulled calloused fingers away from the fabric, there was a dull stain of rusty brown clearly visible against her skin. The King picked up the second shoe, which fit fairly easily in his hand, and could feel moisture against his skin.

The slippers had been danced to tatters, and the feet within them had bled, wearing away flesh even as the pretty fabric had begun to give way.

The servant gathered her courage, voice barely above a whisper as she watched her king turn the delicate shoe in one hand. "They're all like that. All. Every set of dancing slippers and their feet...."

The King himself had set the guards upon that cheerless tower, held the keys upon his own belt. He heard the words, but his attention was elsewhere as he turned the slipper again. The blood now staining his fingers was both a warning and a taunt, as clear to him as if the words had been whispered directly into his ear.

'Your selfishness has cost you your queen and the child she tried to bear, but the reckoning has just begun. Your daughters are already lost to you and you will mourn them even as they slip between your fingers.'

Only the King heard the music as it swelled to a glorious crescendo... and ceased.

The silent princesses were seen to, their split and blistered feet carefully bound and the ruined slippers washed and burned. New wards were drawn upon the walls. Charms were placed within tiny bags and slipped beneath beds. The servants were ordered to stay with their charges, awake or asleep, and the guard was doubled.

No one saw the princesses dancing and they did not leave the cramped rooms of the tower in which they were prisoned. They reacted to the increased scrutiny with the same lethargy that had marked every movement of the past few months.

In the morning, the careful bandaging was in tatters, their beds bore dark stains where their feet had rested and a score of terrified servants whispered desperately of witchcraft and faeries. The princesses themselves remained mute, resting here and there as if nothing more than silent ghosts of the vibrant girls who had been somehow stolen away. The King left them to the care of the servants and retired to his chambers, helpless rage nearly consuming him.

Alone, surrounded by the grey emptiness of his dying kingdom, the King heard a soft voice calling to him. He followed the sound of the voice to the window and gazed out. Beneath his window, standing on the crushed stone of the path, was an elderly woman with cane and hooded cloak.

"So it has come to this." She sounded almost amused, her cracked voice shaking a little with age. "You sought love and it was granted - you squandered it and it has been taken away."

The King watched her warily, anger slowly fading into apprehension as he looked down upon her. His queen had indeed been a cherished prize, and only those from whom he'd won her should have known of this. To offend a being of power was never wise - as he had learned to his continuing sorrow.

"They might still be saved," and wasn't that the faintest trace of lost music beneath the rasping of her voice? "Love is a fickle creature. Your rejection resulted in the loss of your daughters, and while you may not win them back, one who could might yet be found."

Love may be fickle, but Hope is a cruel creature in her own right. Driven by desperation, the King could see little else. He did not wait to see what became of the woman, turning away and shouting for his servants. If love could free his daughters, as love had won his queen, he would make use of it any way he could.

In the silence that spread across the kingdom like a shrouding fog, there remained a single fading note, high and clear, with a dissonance that hurt. It left a jagged tear of utter stillness in its wake, the pause of someone holding their breath. Waiting.

Far to the north of the beleaguered king, a small boy chose that moment to turn restlessly in his bed. There was no one to note this movement, his first in many long days. A healthy child, held back only by a lame leg, he was now little more than a collection of skin and bones, worn down to the barest essential of life.

He had been dreaming, held fast within a web of fantasy by the ever-present music as it forced his heart to beat so very slowly, keeping to the somber rhythm of the song. The frantic and nearly hysterical joy of his parents, upon finding him awake, nearly overpowered the child, and he took again to his bed.

He did not sleep, however, and when his grandmother came to sit beside his bed and work on her knitting, he told her of his dreams. Childish voice cracked with days of inactivity, fumbling for words to describe things he'd never seen inside the walls of their tiny village, he tried to find an understanding in the eyes of the old woman.

'It was like an enormous cavern, with... stones, like the ones in the church, set in the floor. Windows, too, like the one the priest tells us they have in the cathedral, but they shine with light without the sun. There were people there, dressed more finely than even the mayor, and there was music....'

He'd closed his eyes then, face tight with a longing that should have been foreign to a child, and it had been some minutes before he tried again to tell her what he had seen.

'There were musicians, but the music did not come from them. It came from him.'

No need to elaborate on who 'he' was, and the boy's grandmother crossed herself rapidly. Her precious grandson was the only child left for miles after 'he' had visited this tiny town - and the boy would never be left alone again, for fear that 'he' would come back for this last, lost soul who had somehow been overlooked.

'He, he looks like a king, sitting on his throne and he is watching the dance and the party, but he is angry.'

The child turned restlessly on the bed, refusing the cooling soup that his grandmother offered him, small, bone-thin hands knotting in the worn coverlet. 'His throne shines, like silver, but... but it's not. It's bone. Bones. So many bones...."

When she left him, late in the night, he was still awake. He'd taken a little water, and less food, but there was a restless energy that still held him tight. As the door closed behind her, she finally let the fear show on her face. Saying nothing to her daughter of the conversation, she pulled her shawl tightly around her and went in search of the priest.

The touch of powerful magic can linger, and often the victims never recover. Perhaps the dreams of her only remaining grandchild held some key to free him. As for the other children, she had a horrible, queasy conviction that she knew whose bones 'he' had used to construct his macabre throne.

The priest, roused from his bed, had questions - many questions. Pulling on his own heavy cloak, he accompanied the woman back to her daughter's small home. In the cramped room the boy had once shared with his younger brother, they found his mother - asleep with her head against the mattress, one arm curved to embrace the rumpled blankets that, for several weeks, had held the small body of her son.

The room was otherwise empty.

When they woke her, the mother was hysterical. Despite his best efforts, all the priest could get out of her was a broken story of sitting with her son... and something about a lullaby.

Silence reigned.

In the sudden, fragile peace, the King failed to notice that the wolves had vanished, the bandits disappeared and the strange stories filtering in from the outlying regions of his kingdom slowly ceased. His entire attention was now on his daughters and the desperate hope that, perhaps, he had an answer.

Messengers rode out across the country, visiting every country baron, fortress, castle and town. They sought men of education and rank, men of honor and determination, men of ambition and power... and they bore an 'invitation' to the capital and the castle of the King.

Perhaps there were those remaining within the Kingdom who had not yet heard of the strange behavior of the King and the imprisonment of his daughters. If so, they were few and well isolated. There were some few responses to his invitation, pleading duties which would keep them safely at home, but a handful of younger sons presented themselves at court, willing to find out what the King would be willing to pay for the breaKing of whatever curse held his daughters.

Two days after the first of these hopefuls arrived at the capital, work was begun on a new structure in the square before the castle. By the end of the second week, the Kingdom was short five promising young men and an enormous gibbet stood before the castle gates.

The public proclamation which followed was brief and to the point. A large monetary reward, a title, one of the King's own daughters to wife - any man who could solve the mystery of the vile curse visited upon the twelve princesses could name his own reward.

However, as grimly promised by the five rotting heads mounted just beside the main entrance to the city, any who tried and did not succeed would be put to death.

It was not as great a detriment as might be imagined. To the ambitious and the desperate, it was an attractive thought indeed. The opportunity to become wealthy and titled when your entire future consists of varying views of the back-end of a plow horse, a monastery or the back of a domineering father's hand, is far more enticing than the fear of death. Despite the best efforts of their families, men of all ages set out for the capital, determined to better themselves and certain that they, of all people, would discover the answer and emerge victorious.

Every man was given three nights to discover whatever he could. The following morning he was put to death on the gibbet in the square and the next candidate was called. Every man reported the same thing, with increasing desperation as the nights passed. All was quiet within the tower. The princesses retired to their beds, their maids with them, two footmen and the chosen man patrolled the tower, pausing to look into the huge room that had been made into a sumptuous dormitory each hour and half hour.

The princesses never rose, never woke, and in the morning their shoes were worn through and their feet again bleeding and raw.

The maids reported that their clothing also was being worn, jewelry found in odd places in their boxes, a cracked fan.... The King tried a new tactic, then. Soon, the princesses had only one plain gown each, one set of soft slippers and no fans or jeweled combs or other ornamentation.

Where ever they went, and the King was now certain that they left the castle somehow, their lack of appropriate attire seemed not at all to trouble them and still they danced the soles from their shoes. Despite the locked doors, the patrolling guards, the presence of the maids and their own abused feet, somehow his daughters were still spending each night dancing. Each day showed them slowly and irrevocably fading away and the King's health fared little better as he looked down from his window at the enormous gibbet set before his castle.

Somewhere there must be a man who would put love before greed and who would be able to pierce the illusion that hid the tragedy which was overtaking his daughters. Someone would be able to bring them back to him.

The King's hands closed slowly on the edge of the aperture as he stared outward, knuckles tightening and slowly turning white. He was not oblivious to the slowly rising fear and resentment of his people, but in his desperation and anger, in his certainty that he had found the weak spot in the plan of his enemy.

Someone would find a way to reach his daughters, to break through the spell - be able to defeat the creature behind this and make him pay.

The silence wrapped around the kingdom like a shroud, most clearly noticeable to those outside.

Travelers would reach the border and hesitate, despite the sudden disappearance of roving bandits. In more than one case, even the most hardened of wanderers would turn away to seek another road. The cessation of the music which had pulsed to the beat of this lost kingdom's heart was palpable, if not easily put into words, and tragedy of that scale is something best avoided.

There were still those who walked the neglected roads, but they were either oblivious to the waiting silence or driven by need to disregard it. In the tenth week after the construction of the gibbet, looming beside the castle gate, a lone traveler crossed the border into the shadowed kingdom.

Little enough separated him from any of the others who had come this way before. He was older than some, travel-worn and battle-scarred, yet still with a certain rough-hewn appeal. He had a sack over one shoulder, and his boots were worn at the heels. His rough cloak was fastened tightly at the neck and showed the signs of weather and ill-usage. Still, he walked with his shoulders back and head high, one foot steadily in front of the other.

He saw no one along the road, heard no bird song and saw no movement in the occasional field. Like the abandoned silence of a chosen battlefield, here even he could taste the silence and the waiting. It was a familiar feeling and he did not let it disturb him, moving on while keeping watch for any advancing armies. All remained deserted, however, and he eventually stopped to answer the demands of his stomach.

The hard bread and water which made up his simple meal were half gone before he caught sight of movement. The figure making its way through the fields was stooped with age and wrapped warmly against the stiff breeze. Leaning heavily on her stick, she eventually reached the man, just as he finished the last of his meal.

Her voice broke the silence that even the wind hadn't been able to lift. "You've come to see about the reward, haven't you?"

He didn't rise, despite her age and gender, still leaning back against the tree which had sheltered his poor meal. He watched her for a long moment before nodding.

She gave a soft, cackling laugh, folding both hands across the head of her cane. "It would make a nice change from soldiering, wouldn't it? To be the one to give the orders, for a change? Find a way to get even with those that sent you to die just because you weren't born high enough for their tastes?"

"You a witch?" Flat hostility edged the words as he stared up at her, suspicion giving his face a hard edge.

She laughed again, shaking her head. "Merely someone who wishes you well. What is bad for the king is bad for the kingdom, wouldn't you agree?"

"Maybe." The suspicion remained, and he shouldered his bag before pulling himself again to his feet.

"Such caution." She stretched out a thin finger, pointing away down the road. "Go to the capital, take the King's hospitality. If you wish for help, merely speak the words aloud and someone will come."

He gave a bark of sardonic laughter, following the direction of her finger. When he glanced back, mouth open for another retort, it stayed open. The woman was gone.

With a muttered curse, he spat upon the ground and started off. Now, however, he kept one eye on his surroundings and every so often paused to glance suspiciously over one shoulder.

The silence grew deeper closer to the capital, closer to the King and the grim secret that was destroying his daughters. In the wake of this new traveler, however, a rift was forming in the shrouding thickness. Birds could be heard singing, if rarely, and a new, minor theme drifted just beneath hearing - an invisible orchestra waiting for the conductor to once again raise his baton.

It took two weeks before the travel stained wanderer came to the head of the ever-shortening queue. He, like all the others, was certain that there was some obvious clue that the previous men had missed. There would be a secret passageway or drugged wine or some obvious trick, like the maids taking their mistresses' places, so all appeared in order.
When morning dawned and blood was once again found in the beds and the shoes of the twelve silent young women, he began to feel the first dreadful pangs of doubt. His first interview with the King was less than encouraging, particularly as the hangman was also in attendance.

The day passed in relative luxury. Good food, better clothing and a softer bed than he'd ever encountered were only minor distractions from a deeper worry. By the time the sun set, he was as tense as before any battle.

He walked the halls of the tower, two burly footmen at his heels, feeling the first sharp pangs of actual fear as everything remained obstinately peaceful. As the evening drew on, he could feel a cold knot forming in his belly and, by midnight, the fear was crawling along his nerves to where he could not hold still.

The long walk from one end of the room to the other, passing between the beds of the sleeping princesses, seemed to take forever. None of them stirred or made the slightest noise and he fought the urge to reach out to the nearest and shake her till she woke, demanding some sort of answer.

Some few hours before dawn, he found himself staring out one of the heavily barred windows of the tower, knowing that he had less than one full day before he would find himself standing beneath the looming gibbet which could be seen even from within the tower. He could feel the words sticking in his throat, wondering how much of a fool he could be to be trusting in the words of a hedge witch who could not possibly have his best interests at heart. It couldn't be worse than finding himself shadowed by a pair of servants who clearly despised their place at the heels of a peasant, despite their orders.

"I...." He had to stop and clear his throat. "I need... help."

The words were soft, muttered with a mix of anger and shame that was obvious to his ever-present attendants, even if they could not hear exactly what was said. He waited, eyes closed tightly to block out the sight of the place of his soon to be execution.

Several minutes passed to no result. With a grim sigh, he pulled himself away from the window and opened his eyes. Another minute passed as he stared around himself, eyes wide with surprise and fear.

It was the same tower, the same hallway, but the footmen with their torches had vanished. In their place stood a small, thin boy in unfamiliar livery. He carried a branch of candles and, seeing the man staring at him, gave a shallow, awkward bow. Eyes dim and distant, he said, "This way please," in a high, piping voice. Without waiting for an answer, he turned away, moving toward the narrow stair at the end of the passage.

After a moment's incredulous hesitation, the man followed the boy's limping form down the stair. At the bottom, the armed guards were also missing and the heavily barred door stood open. From without drifted the sound of music and laughter, thin with distance. The page didn't hesitate, leading his charge from the tower and across the ward toward the hall.

Within the hall, crowded with revelers and servants, the music was clearly heard, despite the laughter and conversation. There was food aplenty, but the man kept his eyes on his small guide, feeling a surge of resentment and unease. He did not belong here, and it had been evident enough before things had become so strange.

Despite the page's somewhat halting gait, his height made it easy to lose him in the crowd. Eventually, he disappeared behind a pair of dancers and the man came to a frustrated halt, unwilling to follow the child into the elaborately dressed crowd. He looked around the room, beginning to take in some of the strangeness of the scene.

Peasants do not often have the opportunity to watch the landed nobility at their leisure, unless they happen to be engaged as servants. He'd been a soldier, but never a servant, and thus it took several minutes for him to notice a few, jarring details. For one, the huge table laden with food at one end of the hall was untouched. The revelers appeared to have by-passed their meal for the excitement of the dance, despite the enticing smells rising from the dishes set upon the board.

The servants who stood along the walls, occasionally coming and going, had something strangely wrong about them. This one was just a little too tall, with his arms too long. That one moved with an odd gait, as if her knees were hinged wrong. One who passed very close indeed had something subtly wrong with his mouth, although a good look was not granted the man, who had to step out of the way to prevent being trodden on.

The music made it difficult to think, ever-present and soaring beautifully above the dancers. That was another thing which jarred. The dancing was lovely, but the steps and turns seemed to have little to do with the melody being played. The musicians themselves, at the far end of the hall, seemed to be in sync with the dancers, and not with the music.

Feeling even more out of place, with the hair at the back of his neck pricking upward, he stepped backward until his shoulders hit the wall. He took a deep breath to steady himself and looked around once more.

At the opposite end of the hall, upon the raised dais where he'd seen the King upon first entering the castle, sat a stranger. Tall, despite the fact that he was slouched back on a throne much taller than that sat in by the King, he had long dark hair and a face of truly arresting beauty. It took some time to realize that he was dressed far more plainly than the revelers.

As he watched, the young page limped from the crowd to kneel at the feet of his master. The step at the foot of the tall throne, upon which rested a booted foot, suddenly came into sharp focus. Long bones, lashed together, rested upon four small skulls, all smaller than that of the boy kneeling before it, and the man drew a sharp breath.

This was nightmare come to life. Glancing left and right, the man began to edge toward the doorway. His mistake was in looking back.

The man on the throne was looking at him. He found himself frozen to the spot, wondering somewhat wildly if this were hell, and what horrors awaited him here. Staring back at the arresting figure on the throne, his attention was suddenly demanded by the page, who had reappeared beside him.

"Come." The soft, piping voice was heard easily over the music and somehow that unsettled him more than anything else.

He found himself standing before the macabre throne, small bones lashed together tightly with sinew to make a throne that was curiously hard to look away from. Something inside made him try to count, to figure out how many children had died to make that strange seat.

"Look."

He met again the intense gaze of the man on the throne and immediately looked away. Gratefully, he followed the gesture of a curiously pale hand and looked out at the dancing throng.

The voice pursued him, almost hypnotic in its rise and fall, weaving easily with the music even as the dancers moved against it. "You can see them better from here, far better than from outside."

Memory moved, reminding him of childish attempts to watch the landed at play, climbing upon the shoulders of an older brother, wrapped in their mother's old cloak, to peer through a crack in a door to see the kitchen and, beyond, the occasional finely-dressed noble. He felt cold suddenly, remembered chill gripping him as he watched the dancers come to a graceful halt and the musicians rest their instruments. He shivered again as the music wrapped around him, settling across his shoulders like a physical weight.

As the dancers chose new partners and began to dance again, he suddenly spied one of the twelve princesses he had last seen curled up, fast asleep, in the long room with her sisters.

"She is beautiful, is she not?"

She was beautiful, and she moved and turned with grace, her pale face smiling brilliantly at her partner. He found himself wanting to see the smile again and realized that he was stepping forward only when an iron hand descended upon his shoulder and brought him to a jarring halt.

"What reward will you ask for, from the King whose daughters dance here in my hall?"

It was hard to remember why he was here, and he shook himself free of the compulsion to move into the crowd of dancers. "I...." The creature holding his shoulder couldn't be human, and the yellowing throne behind them spoke eloquently of the danger he was in. He glanced back, as if the sight would help him to focus on the danger here, and found himself staring again at the page.

The boy was again kneeling beside the footstool before the throne, one thin hand resting against the bones, and staring straight ahead, as if looking at things only he could see.

With a shudder, he jerked his attention back to the dancers, fighting against the slow seduction of the music. "I would ask...."

"For what will you ask?" There was a touch of sly humor in that voice, as dark and appealing as the creature it belonged to. "If I were to let you take them again from my hall."

He was lost, feeling the music creep against his skin and pull him toward an answer he never would have considered before seeing her dance - seeing her smile. "Her. I would ask... for her."

A soft laugh greeted his words and the hand still resting on his shoulder, tightened to the point of pain. The voice was now a soft, warm whisper in one ear as it asked, "I will let you have her, then, and her sisters as well."

A strange, fogged wonder filled him, although he could not look away from the dancing girl. "I...."

"And in return," like poisoned candy, so sweet and dark and deadly, "you will do something for me."

Dawn came, brightly colored light creeping across the sky as if chasing after the suddenly fading silence. As if the light of the sun were evaporating an inconvenient frost from the face of a lovely flower, the first soft surge of long-absent music followed the tendrils of color as they spread across the sky.

The King, awake before the rising sun, was already waiting outside the barred door of the tower. As light crept down the stones, the guards opened the door. Instead of finding the latest candidate held firmly between the two footmen, ready to be handed to over to the hangman, he found himself facing an empty corridor, enlivened by a chorus of feminine voices.

Hardly daring to hope, he took a stumbling step into the passageway. His daughters... he could hear them laughing....

Dark, rolling and triumphant, music crashed over the kingdom like a wave, wiping away the silence and crowing victory to the skies.

Two days into the wild celebration that rocked the capital in the wake of the King's joy at the restoration of his daughters, tragedy struck. Overcome by relief and joy, the King had succumbed to illness and, hours later, was declared dead.

The wedding, joining the hero of the hour and the youngest daughter of the King, was hastened forward. The kingdom must have a King, and the other princesses were unmarried and, as yet, unattached. It was an unconventional choice, but there was a strong attraction to the idea of a hero, one who could protect the entire kingdom from the effects of dark magic.

The badly neglected kingdom was slowly beginning to breathe again as the gaudy panoply of a royal wedding and coronation spread across the capital. The new King knew nothing of nobility and an uncle of his bride, the elder brother of the deceased Queen, was brought in to aid him in learning his role.

The day of the wedding was bright and beautiful, the cathedral covered with bunting and bedecked with flowers. The groom, ready for his coronation on the following day, was full of pride and showed it. He'd had one servant beaten for impudence and another for not moving quite fast enough to please him. It was being said that he acted more the tyrant than the King, but such things were said very softly indeed.

The bride, gaily clothed and wearing the most beautiful and elaborate pieces from her mother's jewel chest, never set foot within the cathedral. Her screams were heard clearly within, and even the priest came running out to see what new horror had struck. Clinging to her newly arrived Uncle at the very doors of the church, she was sobbing with near hysteria.

"I can't do this! I can't marry him, I can't! He murdered my father! I saw, I saw it all! He poisoned the King's mead and I... I will be next!"

Squaring his shoulders and bringing up his chin, ready to bluster past the accusations, he found himself staring into the dark, intense eyes of the man who held his bride, and there came the sudden, disquieting sensation of blood turning slowly to ice in his veins. The hands of the guards, closing on his shoulders and arms were no less heavy than the weight of the voice which, even over the clamor, murmured intimately against his ear.

"I hope you enjoyed the view."

The distraught bride looked over her shoulder at him, the same dark intensity shining from her bright, tear-filled eyes. As the guards hauled him backward, all eyes upon him, she smiled... a perfect echo of the expression worn by her 'Uncle'.

"You lied to me!" he screamed, feeling himself dragged backward, knowing that behind him loomed the gibbet and knowing also that no thought of trial or justice would cross the minds of the guards holding him. Their minds were dimmed by the music he could feel pressing against him with the weight of an anvil.

"I gave you what you asked for." The bride's small hand was raised, and lips pressed against it. This did not seem to impede the melodic voice from speaking. "Your error was in not asking to keep it...."

The jerk of the trap, the answering snap of a rope suddenly drawn taut, all were a part of the slowly swelling song. The King had paid for his betrayal and his destruction of a gift without price. He had lost everything, his Queen, his kingdom, his daughters and, finally, his life.

Revenge was sweetest when celebrated by a spirited dance upon the grave of the offender.

Slow, sweet music rides the winds of that small kingdom, wrapping itself around the shattered bits and pieces of the story, slowly and irrevocably pulling them apart.

The young Queen sings wordlessly to herself as she braids her hair, sitting in the window and looking down at the looming gibbet and the rotting body that still hangs from the noose. She has little else to do, save sing with her sisters and pass the daylight hours in quiet games and stitching.

There is nothing at all to worry her or to detract from her perfect, contented calm. After all, she has her mother's brother to see to the petty details. She need think of nothing more complicated than the folds of her newest dress or whether or not the flowers on her dressing table are fresh.

Every day passes in a pretty dream, the howl of wolves in the mountains or the helpless screams of lone travelers none of her concern. Stories of missing children do not trouble her, for they never reach her ears. All is light-hearted and gay, a brightly lit whirl of 'happy ever after'. She is perfectly content, now used to being carried wherever she went, her small page limping by her side or fetching her needlepoint or sometimes singing for her, in a high, sweet voice....

For there is always music, even in the soft creak of the wood and rope beneath her window and the faint sobs from further within the castle, blending with the song and never really touching her awareness.

Happy ever after, with feet that will never again fit delicate slippers, bound and resting on a small stool that was gifted her by her uncle. Happy ever after, wearing a soft, absent smile as she dreams of dancing to a song that will never truly end.

 
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