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Totentanz

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Totentanz

 

The soldiers boarded up the entrance under Hilde’s bed, but in the king’s sweep of the princess’ chambers he missed the hatch between the headboard of Adalind’s bed and the wall.

She could still recall: it was the week after their wedding when His Highness marched a troop into their chambers when they were huddled on Leni and Ele’s beds, gossiping and plotting a new escape route. They heard a few forceful knocks on the door before it opened and in marched a small battalion, including one young soldier she recognized who had been sweet on Ele until he learned along with everyone else that the twelve princesses had been running off to dance every night. His lips were quivering and he stared straight ahead of him as if determined to persevere in light of unexpected betrayal. How he justified his sorrow, Adalind still didn’t know, because he and Ele never had a conversation whose depth exceeded a discussion about the weather and Ele – blunt as always – once informed him she found that his chin lent him an insipid air. Perhaps that memory waxed more fondly in his recollection, for it seemed he more so than the others destroyed their ornaments and trampled their belongings with a heavy heart. 

The soldiers demanded that they rise from their beds and lined up against the wall, hands at their sides where they could be seen. They complied silently and swiftly, faces as blank as they could keep them. Even Ele limited her reaction to a mere glower. The eleven of them watched as the soldiers who guarded our gates ripped paintings off the walls, overturned beds, shattered mirrors, tossed the knickknacks that had accumulated on nightstands. They kicked open wardrobes and yanked out the clothes. The princesses knew, though they said nothing the rampage commenced, they sought to uncover all their secrets. They just as surely and just as immediately knew that the men had been sent by the king.

The king walked in a few minutes after his troop, beautiful Hilde clinging demurely to his arm. He struck an awkward figure, with his wooden leg and arrogant grimace. He stood and surveyed the evidence of his power. He radiated pleasure as he walked over to Hilde’s bed, devoid of all indicators that she once slept there, and shoved it aside. Where the bed had been, there was nothing more than an old, dusty, wooden door in the ground. Nonetheless, all the soldiers paused in their joyous pursuit of chaos, gasping and muttering. The king pointed, and his brutes threw themselves upon the door like starving hounds. They tore the it off its hinges and immediately more soldiers flooded in bearing enormous stones that they dropped into the tunnel.

Adalind and her sisters watched the opening dwindle beneath the cascade of rocks, and they watched as the soldiers sealed it off by nailing planks over the stone, and they watched as his Highness lauded the efficiency and thoroughness with which his new subjects completed their first task, and then they watched as they all departed. Throughout it all, Hilde kept her eyes fixed on the floor and uttered not a sound. When her new husband exited, she glided away with him, her steps so light and so noiseless that even their dour manners tutor would have approved.

That was when Adalind resolved to murder the king.

 

*

On a slight hill outside the castle walls still hung the corpses of the foolish princes who had hoped to win this kingdom by the strength of their wit. They were a row of headless guards next to distorted masks of their faces in life, heads on pikes beside bodies dangling from ropes. They hung from a crude display that some poor carpenter had cobbled together. The former king had commissioned it for the express purpose of deterring all but the most courageous and temerarious; he who triumphed when all others failed declared these pathetic shells of men would continue to be displayed there for another month, not to serve as a warning as they did for him, but to remind all of his superior intellect and character.

Sometimes at night Adalind tried to listen for the flutter of their tattered clothing, and she would be lulled to sleep watching their silhouettes swing gently in the breeze.

Our enemies will beg to for our friendship, the king had boasted at dinner, and Ele said that she’d rather be a dead jester forced to dance in the wind than be subjected to what he called friendship. The king chortled and threw her in the dungeon and said in his booming voice, “Let it be known that I am a forgiving man, seeing as I did not immediately have Princess Mariele decapitated for her insolence but rather allowed her time for solitary reflection.”

 In that moment, he reminded Adalind of their father.

That night in their ruined room the sisters convened. With only ten of them there among the debris, emptiness laced their echoed whispers. They crowded again onto Ele’s and Leni’s beds, so close they seemed like a single large lump with limbs.

“We should create a schedule,” Renate said. Since Hilde had been stolen from them, she assumed the leadership role their oldest sister usually held. Renate had her arms around Leni, who slumped against Renate. Curled up with sorrow, Leni looked even younger than her eight years, and Renate, brows furrowed with worry, looked older than her thirty. “We’ll assign mealtimes and days to each of us until Ele is let out.”

“Or Leni can go every meal,” Adalind said in an effort to lighten Leni’s mood. “If she goes three times a day, she’ll get to see Ele almost as often as she does following her around all day.”

“If it’s too predictable, we’ll be caught,” Ishild said. 

“Of course Ada didn’t mean that seriously, Ishild,” Verena said. “You always interpret everything so literally.” 

“Well, Leni was probably considering it seriously, weren’t you, Leni?” Ishild asked a sullen and unresponsive Leni. “Leni, come now, you know you were, admit it!”

Leni buried her face in Renate’s side.

“Leave her alone,” Renate said. “Let’s focus on how we’ll help Ele. Perhaps we could ask Hilde to talk some sense into His Highness and persuade him to release Ele earlier?”

“She can’t be seen consorting with us, so it might be dangerous for her if one of us tried to approach her. She’s probably already trying,” Elise said. Annett and Brigitte nodded in agreement.

“I’m certain Hilde is doing her best to rein him in,” Brigitte said.

“How much has that done though, seeing as Father is dead and Ele’s in prison while his body is still warm in the dirt!” Ishild said.

Leni began to cry, and Ursel wordlessly rose and ran to bring her a plush dog that had escaped the pillaging.

“Thank you Ursel.” Renate said, “There you go, Leni, don’t cry.” She rubbed circles on Leni’s back, and Leni began to sob outright, her shoulders heaving and her entire body shaking with the force of her sorrow. A dark spot formed on Renate’s dress from the tears, and Adalind watched it grow steadily, as helpless as her other sisters. Usually Ele cared for Leni, and she was the only one who could calm Leni down.

“Goodness, Ishild,” said Verena. Her voice was barely audible above Leni’s sobbing. “Look what you’ve done.”

They waited. Within a few minutes, Leni’s sobbing quieted and her body grew still and soon she was fast asleep in Renate’s arms.

“I wouldn’t shed tears over that man,” Elise said, looking at the floor. She tightened her crossed arms. “He and his Highness might as well have been the same person.”

“That’s why he had Father killed,” Adalind said. “They’re too similar.”  

*

“It was always going to be either him or me,” the King had explained to Adalind after the funeral. They had returned to the Great Hall after the former king was interred beside his first wife in the church graveyard. It was a solemn procession from the church to the castle, and the members of the party had been called away by various duties until they were whittled down to two. Servants swerved around Adalind and the king in the hall, carting away the funereal and replacing them with the necessary props for a coronation. “If I hadn’t been clever enough, it would be my head out there on the pike, like a handsome flower among the dead.”

“Sire,” Adalind said in acknowledgment of the reality that he was still opening and closing his mouth at her and words somehow slithered their way out from between his lips.

“You understand,” he said. “I always felt that, aside from my Hilde, you were my most preferred of all your sisters. Elise, is it?”

“Adalind, Sire,” she said.

“There are far too many of you, you understand, to be able to reasonably expect anyone to remember you all,” he said. “What are you, number six?”

“The third eldest, Sire.”

“Hilde’s told me before, but tell me all your sisters’ names again, in order please, even though I will make no effort to retain this information.”

“Hilde, Renate, myself, Elise, Ima, Annett and Brigitte, Verena, Ishild, Mariele, Ursel, Leni,” she recited. “Sire.”

“I like you though, Adalind, and I will strive to remember you. You, Adalind; Hilde, the very name of beauty; Mariele, who is always in need of severe guidance and I so charitably wish to provide it to her; Leni, who will grow to see me as a father. These are the names I will remember. Adalind, I am now your brother. Soon, I will be your king and then, I hope as I am positive you do, we will be loyal friends.” 

“Sire.”

“You’re not too hard on the eyes either,” he added, as if as an afterthought. “Not the loveliest of your sisters, but you could be acceptable.”

Adalind knew neither how to respond nor whether she could respond in a polite manner.  

“Will you not thank me?”

 She clenched her hands in the folds of her dress. “Thank you.”

 Everything in place, the servants were now milling about, trying to look busy. The King walked away from Adalind to survey the new décor. The throne, tall and ominous, stretched high as if reaching to touch the shadows in the arched ceiling. It was an iron behemoth of jagged lines, with threatening metal teeth jutting out of its back. A tale of warfare was carved in the arms of the chair, beginning with an image of knights on horseback and finishing with a scene of carnage. Adalind couldn’t keep her lips from curling a bit as she watched the king survey the throne with satisfaction; she had never liked it. Of course, he would. It reeked of the most obvious brand of power.

 A flash of light caught Adalind’s eye and she turned her attention from the king to the small table beside the throne. The servants had placed on the table a porcelain vase with a delicate blue pattern. From that distance, the vase was a strange sight with nothing but three twigs emerging from a yawning mouth, like fine threads pulled stiff by an invisible hand. When she looked closer, however, she could see them glisten in the dim light, and she realized that one was silver, the other gold, and the third, a brilliant diamond. Beside the vase was a bronze chalice decorated only by faint scratches and dents. Dirty and worn dancing shoes lay in neat pairs with toes pointed inward at the feet of the table. They were three to a side, a makeshift patterned outline for the table.

 In the corner of her eye, she could see that a servant was slowly making his way along the walls, lighting up torches around the room one by one. The flames swelled and flickered angrily, reflected in the chalice. In the increased brightness, the twigs glittered like three daggers.  

*

They never saw the dungeon much when their father was king, even though it seemed like someone would be threatened with it as punishment once a fortnight. It was always an empty threat. He preferred other disciplinary methods – ones that respected the royal blood of his progeny, such as restricting their activity to the castle or subjecting them to diatribes about their respective mothers’ failings. He also enjoyed marching them out to watch the executions in their nicest dresses. They would stand toward the front (out of respect, he claimed) and their dresses would inevitably be splattered to some degree with the blood and unidentifiable bits of the newly deceased.

These images kept coming to mind as Adalind descended the narrow staircase, holding a brioche she took from their breakfast. Leni bounded ahead of her and chattered ceaselessly about how excited she was to see Ele again. When they reached the door of the dungeon, the two guards bowed to them and opened the door without a word.

How strange, Adalind thought, that the king hadn’t forbidden visitors from entering the dungeon. But her contemplation was cut short by the elated shriek that Leni emitted when she saw Ele reading in the corner of her cell. Upon seeing Leni and Adalind, Ele put down her book and practically threw herself at the bars and at Leni.

Ele’s normally lustrous blonde hair was stringy and limp, dust and dirt stained her clothes, and she was still wearing the same dress that she had been the day of her imprisonment, though it seemed to hang more loosely on her frame than a mere week ago. She had impressively dark bags beneath her eyes that only seemed to accentuate how large and green they were. Adalind felt a surge of affection and fear for her sister.

“Are you doing all right?” Adalind whispered. “I brought you a bit of bread.”

Ele snorted and took the bread. “I don’t know how to dignify that with a response, Adalind. I thought you were smarter than that. Thank you, though.”

“Don’t get clever with me right now. I want to know if there’s anything I can bring you, at least until we can figure out how to get you out of here.”

“I can help too,” Leni said. “I’ve been watching your things for you very carefully, so Ishild doesn’t take anything.”

Her mouth full of brioche, Ele responded, “What’s Ishild trying to steal? That brat.”

“She wanted some of your books, but don’t worry, I’ve put them under my pillow.”

“That’s quite thoughtful of you, Leni, what would I do without you?” Through the bars, Ele took Leni’s hand in her own and gave it a squeeze.

Leni beamed.

Suddenly, the prison door creaked open. The three girls froze. One of the cell’s guards entered with the king and his personal guard. Adalind understood at once that the guards’ orders must not have been to obstruct them from seeing Ele, but to alert the king as soon as any of them had come. She could see in her sisters’ faces that they had reached the same conclusion and that they were both just as confused and apprehensive about the king’s reasoning.

“Did I not say that our dear Princess Mariele could not have any visitors?” the king said jovially.

“Sire,” Adalind said. “I thought only to bring her some lunch. And Leni missed her a lot; they’re very close.”

“Dear, dear Adalind, do you not have faith in me and mine to bring sufficient victuals to your sister for survival? I, whose charity and pity toward an old crone brought me all the pleasures of this kingdom?”

Adalind bowed her head and stared at her hands so that she could conceal the hatred burning in her. “I didn’t intend any offense.”

“Well I shall not take any offense then. As you can see, I am a generous ruler who offers many second chances to my loyal subjects.”

Ele laughed at him from behind the bars. “You’re a coward. You’ve locked me up because you’re afraid that others will follow my lead and treat you like the usurping bastard that you are.”

“Ah, well, your chances are up,” the king said. “You’ll die at dawn.”

Not if I kill you first, Adalind thought.

“Nonononono! You can’t!” Tears were already running down Leni’s face as she yelled at the King. Adalind put her hand on her youngest sister’s shoulder to restrain her.

“I disagree,” he said. “I am the king, after all.”

Leni threw herself at him and began pounding at his legs with all the fury her small body could conjure. He raised his eyebrows at his personal guard, who wrested Leni away from the king. She bit down on guard’s hand, causing him to drop her, and she launched herself at the king once more. This time, the guard unsheathed his dagger without pause and readied the pommel above her head.

“Stop!” Adalind could barely hear her voice over the sound of Leni’s inarticulate screaming. “Don’t hurt her!” The guard looked over at her with disdain but sheathed his weapon.  

Adalind took her opportunity and rushed over to her sister. “Leni, Leni, shh, this isn’t helping,” she said softly. She put her arms around Leni and tried to pull her away. Leni slapped her hands and glared at her before stomping down on the king’s left foot.

“Ouch, that hurt!” the king said. “Little girl, if you continue this belligerent behavior, I will have your sister killed before the sun sets today.”

Adalind yanked at Leni with greater force. “Leni, please stop.”

The younger girl finally sank into her arms, overcome by her sobs. Adalind embraced her sister more tightly and said, “Please, Sire, surely it would be prudent to forgive Mariele this time. It hasn’t been long since the last funeral, and our people have witnessed too many deaths in the recent past.”

“I’m not sure your logic holds true. Besides, is that not partially the fault of you and your sisters? You led quite a few of those suitors outside our walls to their grisly deaths, and indeed you would have celebrated my own demise had I not outwitted my dear wife Hilde,” the king said. He smiled. “Do not displace blame on to me when you know that you and your sisters ought to claim responsibility.”

“Yes, responsibility for the actions of our mad, dead father and his mad, murderous successor,” Ele said.

“I will see you and the executioner tomorrow at dawn, Mariele,” the king said. “Which reminds me, I should tell him to clean up the guillotine. A princess deserves a polished blade.”

*

With each new execution, the waters of the pond down the hill from the corpses’ perch would be dyed a murky red for days. A small trough, hollowed out by the wind or the rain, curved through the dirt like a thin root reaching for water, and on execution days, it was a vein feeding blood to the half-dead reeds. An aroma of rotting flesh and sharp copper clung to the pond and to the few plants that managed to grow there despite the punishing living conditions, and people avoided wandering anywhere within the range of the smell. There was a path from the castle to the main road that passed by the pond, but it was overrun by weeds.

As Adalind trampled through the weeds, she wondered how long it had been since another human being had walked down that path. When she told her sisters of her plan to save Ele, they all seemed unconvinced. Rational Renate voiced what they were all thinking: this was an act of desperation that could so easily lead to her own destruction. Adalind pointed out that they had fewer than 24 hours before they would lose Ele. Elise begged her to think of an alternative, Ishild remarked that they might as well all poison themselves together, Leni cried and cried and cried. Verena said she would do anything Adalind wanted them to do, and so the others relented. This part of the plan, though, she wished to do alone.

She reached the pond, knelt down, and peered in, willing herself to endure the stench.

Years ago, when she was a young girl, the pond teemed with life. On a clear day, the water was a glass window into a new, curious world. Tiny fish darted like silver shards around the weeds that grew at the bottom of the pond, snapping their mouths around the occasional bugs. Frogs and turtles happily ignored each other as they swam about or sunbathed on the rocks. Adalind loved to run her hands through the clouds of tadpoles that were always floating by the edge of the water and watch them scatter. Often, a duck or two would paddle around the cattails and lily pads, indifferent to her presence aside from when she had bread crumbs to feed them. Tall grasses grew densely around the pond, forming a protective barrier that hid her from the castle. She escaped to her sanctuary at least once a day in those days, either alone or with a less fascinated but ever tolerant Hilde.

(That was before her mother had been found dead in her chambers, seemingly poisoned by her own hand. It was before Ima’s mother was plucked from the array of maids and crowned queen, and before the fearful and timid Queen Irene accidentally fell from the highest tower of the castle. Before Queen Kathe – who bore Father four more girls – was summoned from a neighboring kingdom, and before she was publically hanged for her infidelity. Before Father married his cousin Mara, hoping that the strong family bloodline would be the key to a son. Before Queen Mara died in childbirth, leaving him with Ele, Ursel, and Leni. When Adalind thought about all she had witnessed in her life, she felt very old and very close to death.)

It hardly looked like the same plot of land and pool of water now, Adalind thought. It was more like a large puddle of brownish green, rippling beneath the rain. The creatures who once inhabited the pond had long fled for a more hospitable environment, and the grasses had withered over the years so that a handful of resilient reeds persisted. Detritus from the castle had clumped together in the shallows, miniature islands of trash where no creature would desire to live.

Adalind brushed her wet hair from her face and said into the pond, “Are you all there?"

Only the rain answered her.

She tried again. “Hello? Is anyone there?”

There was no response.

She continued to kneel there, unsure of what to do. This was her only plan and failure was not an option.

Then, the ripples began to smooth, the raindrops motionlessly absorbed into the pond. The sediment and dirt slowly settled to the bottom of the pond, leaving the pond as pellucid as it had been in Adalind’s childhood memories. Twelve figures emerged as shadows lurking fathoms below the greatest depth the pond could have reached.

“Please, show yourselves,” Adalind said.

The shadows stirred and moved closer to the surface. All of them bore the faces of young men, but with their features blurred, as if refracted through many prisms.

“I’m begging you for your help. We were once friends.”

The wraithlike faces twisted in scorn.

“We danced together, once, and then you betrayed us. We lived our lives free to reap from your world the many pleasures it offers, and we shared our fortune with you and your sisters. You rewarded our generosity with this prison,” intoned the face of the eldest prince. “You have cursed us with your carelessness, we who only ever brought you amusement and bliss.”

"I’m sorry. We just – we didn’t realize. So many had failed.” Adalind knew even as the words left her mouth that they sounded weak and foolish. Like petty excuses to spirits who had been condemned to reside for the rest of their half-lives in a dirty puddle.

“You do not deserve our aid.” The faces wavered.

Her mouth went dry. “Wait, don’t go!”

The shadows began to dissolve.

“Ele is to die tomorrow at dawn, at the king’s orders. Please, help us save her. I know you can, or so the tales say.”  

The faces stilled and returned to focus. Another prince had shifted somehow to the forefront of the group, and Adalind remembered he was Ele’s favorite. He had the smoothest hands, she claimed, and the lightest touch.

“What will you give us in exchange?”  

“Anything you want.” She winced mentally at her misstep. She knew how to bargain better than that, but now that her sister’s life was at stake, she set herself up for a trap.

“Dance with us one more time,” said the eldest prince, and immediately a sibilant chorus began: Dance with us. Dance with us. A mist rose from the waters and thickened slowly until Adalind could no longer see the castle or the row of corpses.

“And you’ll take my soul?” she asked. “Is that it?”

“We have no interest in your soul,” the eldest prince said and then added, “They always think we want their souls.” The other shadows murmured, presumably in agreement. “Our business is our own concern.”

“But the safety of my sisters is my concern,” Adalind said. “I don’t want any harm to come to them.”

“You have no need to worry. The covenant is with you, and so all payment will be taken from you only.”

“Am I allowed to know the nature of the payment?” she asked.

“A dance,” the prince said. His indistinct features arranged themselves in a what resembled a sinister smile.

The pounding of her heart drowned out the hammering rain. “All right,” she said. “I’ll dance with you. You have my word.”   

The faces swirled and coalesced into a single shadow that stretched over the full surface of the pond, a pool of ink rather than mud. “We will come when we sense your need,” the prince’s voice rose from the pond. 

And the others echoed: Need. Need. Need.

*

Adalind stole down the corridor, trying to move as lightly and quickly as she could. As she approached the entrance to the main hall, she saw that the door was already ajar and she slowed before she gave away her presence. Agitation hit her abruptly: What was she about to do? Would the others be able to break into the dungeon and help Ele escape? How would the princes be able to sense her need? Had she allowed them in her desperation access to her mind? What did she sacrifice?

In the main hall, stained glass windows stretched from about Adalind’s height until nearly the tops of the vaulted ceiling. On sunny days, colorful lights patterned the floor and brought a bit of cheer to the cold and gloom of hall. The main hall was built to intimidate, in her opinion, rather than to welcome. This night, with the full moon hanging large and low outside the window, the figures depicted in the windows darkened a naturally tenebrous space. With all the torches lit, Adalind could see that the king and Hilde were alone but for the king’s personal guard, standing at attention on the opposite wall. 

The king had his arms around Hilde in an embrace, both facing away from the door, and his head rested in the crook of her neck. “I want to take you on this throne, my love,” he said. His voice, not quiet by any means, was amplified by the hall. “You see, all I want is to see these edges cut into your skin, to see your blood stain this metal, to have you and this kingdom become one, beneath me.”

Adalind bit down hard on the insides of her mouth in order to keep from rushing in. She needed another moment to gather her courage.

He gave Hilde a light push and the princess fell forward, bent slightly over the throne.

Before she realized, Adalind had shoved the door open. The heavy wooden door creaked open. A reverberating slam would have better conveyed her the rage she felt, but the unpleasant grating sound still caused the king to pause and pivot around. Hilde straightened and turned around, her arms crossed in front of her protectively. Her eyes widened upon seeing Adalind, but not a moment passed before her usual impassive expression slipped into place.   

“Adalind,” said the king. “How may I help you?”

“I’d like to dance,” Adalind said. She clenched her hands in her dress and curtsied low, in case she could not hide her emotions sufficiently well.

“That’s an odd request. I would like for you to explain it to me, Princess.”

“It’s been so long since we have had music and dancing in this castle,” she said. “I crave it.”

“Interesting,” he said. “I still find that quite unusual. The minds of young girls are indeed bizarre, but I am willing to entertain this whim of yours. I am unable to be an adequate dance partner, I think.” He waved his guard over and gestured to his wooden leg. “However, I am happy to offer you my beautiful Hilde, on the condition that there’s no mumbling and plotting between the two of you while you dance. Heinrich here will keep close watch.” At the mention of his name, the guard stomped his right foot twice in acknowledgement.

“None, sire,” Adalind said. 

“Go on, then.” The king took Hilde by the hand and led her to Adalind. “I shall hum a little tune for you to dance to, and it will be great fun for the three of us, won’t it? I’ll certainly enjoy the show.”

The sisters curtsied to each other. Adalind took Hilde’s right hand in her left, as they had done so many times dancing around as children, placed her right hand behind her sister’s shoulder.

As he retreated to his throne to spectate, the king began to hum a waltz.

The princesses fell into a familiar rhythm, Adalind leading and Hilde following, stepping and twirling to the king’s reedy, airy humming. Forwards, right, backwards, left, break apart, together again, they glided across the vast floor for what felt like hours. She was unfamiliar with the melody the king chose to hum, but his voice was thin and high in a way that reminded her of the threads of a spider’s web.

When they spun away from each other, Adalind felt someone else take her hand – before her had materialized one of the princes. He was solid to the touch but translucent when she inspected him. She let go of Hilde’s hand, allowing the prince to lead without missing a beat. She glanced at her sister, who had stopped dancing and was looking wonderingly at the sight in the hall. Around them, one by one, the other ten princes had appeared. They seemed to be standing and hovering at once, and they were dressed just as they had been every night when the princesses met them to dance.

“We are at your disposal,” the prince said, and his voice was deeper, more real than the voice to whom she had sold herself at the pond. “We can remain only as long as you dance with me.”

“You know what I wish for you to do,” Adalind said.

“What is this?” the king demanded and leaned over to sound the alarm bells on the wall beside the throne. “Heinrich, the Queen!”

Heinrich, jaws slack, failed to respond for a few moments until the king called for the second time, “Heinrich!” The guard pulled out his sword and charged toward Hilde. 

The prince turned his head to his brothers and nodded. At that signal, the princes, including the one who was dancing with Hilde, vanished. They reappeared with a thunderous rumble, now monstrous distortions of their human incarnations, a colossal shadow in which human features could occasionally be perceived. The mass swept forward and as it passed through Heinrich, the guard crumpled to the floor, his howls of pain mixing with the clanging of the bells. Adalind grimaced at the dying man’s screams; they sounded as if they were torn from his throat as one might rip organs from an animal.

The king froze, and the tolling of the bells faded into echoes as the screams dwindled into whimpers and then silence. Heinrich’s corpse shriveled, as if all of the liquid in his body had evaporated at once, and then it lay there, twitching like an insect. Hilde ran over to the body, knelt by it, and announced unnecessarily, “He’s dead.” The miasma continued to hover over its victim, tendrils escaping from whatever central force was holding it together and pulsating outward.

“Go now, Hilde!” Adalind yelled at her sister, who was still staring in disbelief at Heinrich’s remains. Hearing Adalind shook her from her stupor, and Hilde clambered up and backed away. 

As she turned, the king shouted, “Stop! There is nowhere for you to go. Unless you foolishly believe you can run past the soldiers with their noticing.” They could all hear the rapid approach of reinforcements, unaware of the adversary that awaited them.

“Don’t forget,” he said, “that I can have any of your sisters killed at any moment. In fact, I may have dear Mariele die a little earlier than scheduled.” 

“You overestimate your advantage,” Hilde said, but she ceased moving towards the door.

Adalind and the prince continued to dance in circles across the floor, spinning and sweeping. Her feet felt like she was stepping on whirling blades, but she knew she could not stop. If she did, she knew, the shadow creature would disintegrate and her most powerful ally would be gone. “The king, now,” she said to the prince below her breath.

“As you wish,” he said, equally quietly.

The shadow twisted together and then expanded, enveloping all of them in a dome before it plummeted down. Adalind flinched as the prince, unaffected, kept moving her around even as they were submerged in an unrelenting icy gust. She could hear – as if it were a distant occurrence – shrill shrieking. She could see – faintly, through the thick haze – lacerations tearing up his face and arms and the vague outlines of a collapsing body. The coldness of the shadow cut past her clothes and skin and muscle, sinking directly into her organs, freezing them from the inside. She tried to inhale deeply, but she seemed to have lost all ability to control her own body as the prince whirled her around through the darkness.

Then light returned all at once, and Adalind couldn’t take her eyes off of the tableau before her. The shadow, again contained, lurking above its second victim of the night. The king’s face was unrecognizable, and his body was contorted in ways impossible to him in life. His wooden leg had become separated and rolled several meters away. Behind him, the throne and twigs glittered mockingly.

Less stunned, Hilde yanked a torch from the wall and ignited the carcass. Flames blazed from the human kindling with a supernatural ferocity, and within seconds, the king was incinerated. Only his cloak remained. Hilde grabbed it from the fire, and the flames diminished and then disappeared. 

Adalind and the prince danced on. She glanced down and saw that blood was splattered across the bottom of her dress. She became aware that her feet were encased in something wet and sticky. The pain, a minor irritation before, erupted into agony. She gritted her teeth and focused on counting to ten.

When she reached three, the soldiers burst in through the door. With them were Annett, Brigitte, Elise, Ima, and Ele. “They tried to help Princess Mariele escape, your Highness,” the soldier restraining Ele said before he realized that he had stumbled upon a wholly unexpected scene. The king was nowhere to be seen, his guard lay dead nearby, and streaks of blood painted the floor in circles. The rank smell of blood and smoke filled the air.  An ominous shadow throbbed above a pile of ashes.  

“Let them go and leave us,” Hilde commanded. “Unless you wish to meet the same fate as your friend Heinrich.” 

The men promptly complied, falling over each other in their haste to depart. Ele spit at their backs as they retreated.

“Are we finished, then?” Adalind whispered, barely able to muster the energy to speak. She had no idea how she could still be moving when all she felt was sharp, blinding pain. 

“Almost,” the prince said. “We will now reclaim our freedom.” He nodded at the shadow. At that signal, it split again into the forms of the eleven other princes. Adalind could hear her sisters gasping behind her. 

The prince finally stopped their dance in front of her sisters. He let her go, and Adalind thought she would faint. She felt someone’s arms around her and heard Hilde’s voice say, “Don’t worry, Ada, I’ve got you.” Her vision was swimming, but she could just make out the princes walking up to the vase beside the throne. The one she had danced with put his hand around glimmering lights and then all twelve of them faded from sight.

She felt herself falling unconscious as voices reverberated around her, hissing thank you, thank you, thank you.

*

The first thing Adalind noticed when she woke up was that she was ensconced in her bed and the sun had risen. The second thing was that all her sisters were gathered around her, and she could feel their anxiety rolling off them in waves. Immersed in conversation, none of them had realized she was awake. The third thing was that she could feel nothing in her legs. So that’s the sacrifice, she thought to herself. 

“Are we really going to leave?” Leni asked. She was perched on the edge of Adalind’s bed, clutching her stuffed rabbit to her chest.

“There isn’t much for in this castle,” Ele said. “We’ve waged a war, and what for, this rotten plot of land? We’ve been prisoners here all our lives, and I need to get out.” 

“It might not be safe here,” Hilde said. “The soldiers are loyal to no one, certainly not to me. I may be their queen but Father was a despot. They’ve been scared off by these mysterious killings but if they decide to raid us, we can’t hold our own.”

“But how will we find food and shelter? Where will we go?” Ishild asked.

“We can figure it out,” Ele said.

“Elise, Ima, Ursel, and I packed provisions for all of us for the first week or so,” Renate said. “And we have horses waiting for us just outside the gate. We can take the tunnel.”

“What is happening?” Adalind asked, her voice hoarse. “Are we leaving?”

“You’re awake!” Leni threw herself onto Adalind and hugged her, and everyone else piled on. They were all finally together again, but she could barely feel the pressure of her sisters against her legs. She began to cry, not knowing whether her tears sprung from joy or sorrow.

“How are you feeling?” Hilde asked as she handed Adalind a handkerchief.

“Exhausted,” she said. “Happy.”

“Once you feel rested enough, we need to leave.” Ele pointed at the opened hatch beside Adalind’s bed. Adalind looked down the secret tunnel that they had used to escape the castle many times as children, before they found the pathway to the princes’ otherworldly realm, and she felt a pang of despair.

“I can’t go.”

“What do you mean?” Renate asked.

“I will hold you back,” Adalind said. “The princes helped us at a price.”

“They had the opportunity to liberate themselves from the curse!” Hilde said. “Surely that was enough.”

Adalind peeled back the blanket to reveal her torn feet. The wounds were angry and red, scar tissue only just beginning to form.

“That will heal in time,” Verena said. “It looks awful now, but it will get better and you’ll be walking in no time.”

“But this was part of the spell that conjured the princes and allowed them to leave the pond,” Adalind said. “You know this to be true. And as the king died a permanent death, so I will be unable to walk for as long as I live.”

“We won’t leave you,” Leni said.

“You must,” Adalind said gently.

“We’ll come back for you,” Ele said. “Once we have a plan in place and we’ve found a new home. We’ll come back.”

Leni looked at Ele in disbelief. “Ele, how could you? We can’t leave Ada here!”

“Ever heartless, aren’t you, Ele?” Ishild said.

“Don’t say that,” Verena snapped. “She has a point.”

“Please just go,” Adalind said. “Before anyone decides they do care about our whereabouts and tries to stop you. I don’t want to cause everyone trouble.”

“I’ll stay with you,” Hilde said.

Eleven heads turned to stare at her.

“Perhaps as queen I’ll be able to do more than I had previously believed,” Hilde said. “Perhaps I’ll be able to leverage all that just transpired to quell any sign of revolt… or perhaps I’ll even be able to render our small kingdom a better place for all of its inhabitants. The chance of success is slim… but I do think it is there.” She took a deep breath. “Renate, please take care of everyone.”

Renate took Hilde’s hands in her own. “I will.”

“Hilde, you don’t need to stay,” Adalind protested.

“I do,” Hilde said. “You need someone to help you, at least for now. And I think I would very much like to try to change things around here.”  

“What if you can’t?” Leni said. “And what if we never see each other again?”

“I have faith that we will, Leni,” Hilde said. “Be good. Although that might be better directed towards Ele.”

“I’ll try,” Ele promised.

“Go,” Hilde said. They all huddled over Adalind’s bed again for another hug, but a ponderous weight hung over them this time. Adalind could hardly see through her tears. “I’ll miss you all dearly,” she said. The princesses gathered together their belongings, and one by one, they kissed Hilde and Adalind on the cheek and then disappeared down the serpentine tunnel. Time passed both distressingly slowly and far too quickly as Adalind watched her sisters leave.

And then only she and Hilde remained.

“What now?” Adalind asked.

“Now you recover,” Hilde said. “And we rebuild the kingdom.”