Some stories start "once upon a time" or "in a faraway land". This one does not. It starts with this: in war, one sees many strange things, but nothing is stranger than what happens afterwards. Even if you can return to where you once lived, it is no longer home, no longer the same.
I was a soldier once. I will always be a soldier. I cannot see a leaf blow in the wind without thinking it an enemy; I cannot hear distant thunder without also hearing screams that aren't there.
That is why I wander.
When I first heard of the "shoeless" princesses, my curiosity was piqued, and I followed the rumors to their source: a nearby kingdom that had made a tidy profit off the latest war, with a king whose treasure room was filled to overflowing. But his greatest treasures, twelve daughters all unwed, were his greatest vexation, for each morning their shoes were worn to disintegration, as if used for years. Each day the local shoemakers worked their fingers to bleeding providing new shoes for the twelve; each night said twelve went to sleep with the castle locked and guarded; and in the morning, the shoes again would be in tatters. No one knew why or how.
I sat in one of the local taverns, nursing a watered-down cider to spare the few coins I had, and listened to the chatter around me. Apparently the king had promised many things, including wealth and a royal marriage, to whomever could figure out what the princesses were doing at night; apparently his temper, just as famous as his wealth, meant that those who tried and failed were put to the death. Indeed, the head of the latest would-be suitor was still fresh, although I did not check for myself -- I had seen enough of death.
I did not sleep that night. Instead, I waited, and watched. The castle itself was guarded, and -- apparently, though I had no way to check for myself -- each princess's room was locked and barred, with guards outside the door, and barred windows that permitted the passage of light and fresh air but very little else. The guards of the rooms stood awake all night, and always said afterwards that they heard nothing. And as the first several sets of guards had been killed for the presumed lies, and the subsequent replacements still said the same thing, it was now presumed truth. (Little comfort, thought I, to the guards that had been killed.)
One of the amusements my company had tended towards, during the interminable idle periods that make up a part of war, were locked room puzzles -- one of us would tell an impossible story, and the others would figure out how it had been accomplished. I was alone now, but faced with a real life application of our mind games, could not resist playing.
The easiest solution, always, was that one or more persons were lying. But given the notorious nature of the king's temper, and the temptation of the rewards offered, I could not see any guard or castle servant risking their life for this. The princesses, all of whom claimed they slept through the night, might or might not be telling the truth, but that did not solve the questions of where, if anywhere, they went at night, and how they were wearing down their shoes, for such a thing cannot be done both noiselessly and quickly. If they did not leave, the guards would hear their ruckus; yet leaving was impossible.
But there was one explanation that we quickly outlawed for our mind-games, that was too easy an answer: magic.
And if that were to happen, I would know.
So I waited, and precisely at midnight I felt a growing warmth at my chest -- for I, like many soldiers, owned an amulet for the detection of magic. Sorcery was outlawed in warfare but that did not mean it wasn't used, and cobliviouslessness in this regard could mean death or worse.
I looked to the castle. Barely visible against the clear dark sky rose a small winged figure, perhaps the size of a crow. Another separated from the shadows of the castle, and another, until twelve such birds circled in unnatural silence. When all were assembled, they flew north in a line.
I followed them, using all of my skills as s soldier to remain hidden from sight or hearing, but they flew too fast, and I soon lost them. Curious, I continued north for a while, but encountered nothing.
As the sky lightened into dawn, twelve crows flew in a line back south, and I imagined then slipping between the bars of the castle windows and transforming back into twelve princesses.
During the day I continued north and soon came to the shores of a lake. On the pebbled beach I found a single black feather, similar to a crow's tail feather but blacker, with a sparkle that made my amulet resonate.
That night I settled myself in the shadow of a tree, bare of leaves but knobbly enough to disguise my form. Not long after midnight I saw the line of crows again, but they were not high in the sky. Instead they circled low, landed on the beach, and one by one walked in silence towards the lake. As they reached the water they transformed, with a sudden pulse of heat from my amulet, into fish, and once again disappeared. They were there for hours, until the sky lightened, and the surface of the lake rippled to spit out twelve fish that silently became birds and flew off.
In the light of day I waded into the lake and, when my feet lost the bottom, began to swim. Soon I saw a shape under the water that would have been an island had it been high enough to pierce the surface. When I dove under the surface, the water was clear, but even then it took me twelve tries, surfacing for air when my lungs burned and submerging once again, to find a crevice that led in turn to a cave, full of air despite being underwater. My feet found solid rock, and I stood and looked around.
This place was, I was certain, carved by magic -- it did not have the randomness of rock worn down by water, nor the chisel-marks of a space hewn by men. My amulet was a throb of heat against my skin, more than enough to combat the chill of the lake's water but not enough to purge the chill in my soul.
Unable to see the sky or judge time, I waited with the patience drilled into me as a soldier, until at last the water bubbled up and twelve fish flipped out and turned into princesses, clad in fine gowns and new shoes. They would have been beautiful but for the queer lifeless blankness to their faces.
In silence, always silence, they filed out of the cave into a hallway that had not been there before. I hesitated long enough to take a single shining fish scale, glittering with impossible starlight, from the cave floor before following them.
The next room had the look of a ballroom, with mirrored walls and bright lighting and high arches decorated with gold leaf. I stopped at the threshold, mesmerized and unnoticed, as the princesses began to dance.
It was unlike anything I had seen before. They had no partners, but stood shoulder to shoulder, arms stiffly at their sides, shoes clattering with rhythmic precision. They moved as if one, leaping together and hitting the ground together, legs flinging in perfect timing to the same height, dancing to music I could not hear.
After a time they paused, still as statues except for the heaving of their chests as they gasped for air. From panels set within the mirrored walls, servants appeared with goblets, one for each princess--
--and a thirteenth for me.
Laughter sounded in my ears. "Yes, my wanderer, I noticed you. Do you need explanation?"
"They are enchanted," I said, stating the obvious.
"Indeed. No man can break their curse; I have ensured that. These maidens will dance for my pleasure until the end of time. Now drink, and you may join them."
I glanced into the goblet held patiently before me. Wine, no doubt either poisoned or enchanted. I did not take it. "Who are you?"
"I will tell the king."
More laughter. "It would please me to no end if you did. He destroyed my family. I will destroy his. Now drink." And this last came with a magical compulsion so strong that I could not resist it, despite my amulet blazing against my skin.
I drank, and the bitter liquid was the last thing I remember.
I awoke to the singing of birds. It was daylight, I lay sprawled on the shores of the lake, my boots had no soles left, and I ached all over.
The walk back to the castle was long, and my feet were cut a thousand times over by the time I reached the gates. The guards looked askance at my wet and wrinkled clothes, my bare and bleeding feet, and whatever they saw in my face. But the third time I demanded audience with the king, they let me in.
The king was older than I expected, and there was a weariness to his scowling face that made him look even older. "You are an unusual suitor," he murmured, as I knelt before him.
"No suitor," I replied, and could not tell if the response in his eyes was disappointment or relief. "Just a soldier with information."
Before the war, I would have trembled at the thought of speaking before a king. Before the war, though, I would not have pursued twelve enchanted crows into a lake. There are a great many things I would not have done.
But it was not before the war.
I told him what I had seen; laid before him the evidence of a crow's feather and a fish scale and my own tattered boots; danced a clumsy replica of the steps I had seen in that ballroom; and said what I knew.
He looked at me critically. "And what will you do about this matter?"
I met his gaze unflinching and shrugged, to the outraged gasps of the king's court. "It is not my affair, sire. You asked why: you did not ask for a fix. And some things cannot be fixed." I did not close my eyes, because I knew what I would see: images from the war of people dead and dying, of families ruptured, of the despair of those who had no sorcerer to avenge them after.
I did not wed any of the princesses. I received no reward. But I did ask for one single thing: to dance with the eldest princess, both of us free of will.
The king began to speak, but I -- cementing the impudence that lost me any reward aside from keeping my life -- turned to the princess in question and reiterated that it must be free-willed, else I didn't want it.
Her smile made my heart glow, and not because of the amulet or any magic around us.
She introduced herself with all twelve of her names, "leaving off the titles for brevity," but allowed as I could call her Isabella, if she could call me Eliza.
I allowed as how she, as the princess, could call me whatever she liked, but that my name sounded lovely on her tongue.
We danced a traditional sort of court dance, with me improvising as I had never been in the suitor's position; and while we danced, her arms warn around me and her feet deftly avoiding my bare toes, I closed my eyes, letting myself be there in the moment: no war that I was running from, no magic compelling her, nothing but two people exactly in rhythm.
I bowed a soldier's bow to her afterwards, and the look on her face told me that she had appreciated the dance as much as I.
"Farewell," I told her, but she shook her head.
"I will see you tonight. I fear you are now bound by whatever spell has captured us."
"Perhaps," I said. "But I do not think I would mind dancing beside you."
Somehow I didn't think she would mind either.
It was a spell no man can break, I thought, but there are things other than men in this world.