The Writer, Chapter 5: Elden
After a long and difficult journey, plagued by bandits, the young Prince reached the eastern Kingdom, an exotic, beautiful place. The legends went that the sun was born in the castle there every morning, and a team of sorcerers threw it into the sky for the day.
King Llewyn was a good and kind King. His beloved Queen had died when his only son, Anwen, was just a boy, and her absence was heartily felt. He knew that his Kingdom was falling, but he was too proud to ask for help. And yet in his heart, he had almost begun to lose hope before the young Prince Elden arrived.
Prince Elden knew that if he could only convince the King to marry Anwen to his sister, the strength of the two Kingdoms might be enough to withstand Daegen’s mi — -
The shriek probably echoed through the entire castle, scared the living daylights out of me and no doubt everyone else too. The guards were in the room before I actually woke up properly, and I sat up in a fluster, quite convinced that I was being attacked. The look on my maid’s face only reinforced this thought, and I panicked for a few seconds, staring around for what was wrong, at last running my hand through my hair and remembering exactly what.
But before I could start explaining myself, more servants began to run in the room, accompanied by my poor, panicked mother, who took one look at me and shrieked herself and sank into my sofa by the mirror, almost slipping on the pile of sorry hair there.
It took a very long time before anyone calmed down. I tried to explain, the maids shouted, my mother shouted at me, I shouted at her, the guards stared at each other and tried to decide if they could leave, my mother shouted some more, and finally to avoid everything, I dove back under the covers to wait there until the yelling stopped.
After several minutes, everything quieted, and I chanced peering out from the covers. My mother was still there, sunken on the sofa and breathing hard, but thankfully the rest had left. Somewhat concerned that I really had made a butchery of myself, I snuck from the bed and went to look in the mirror.
Besides all the bits sticking up here and there from sleep, it looked just as good as it had the night before, and I preened for a long second before suddenly catching my mother’s eye in the mirror and whipping around.
I stood there, in my shift, feeling suddenly very young while she surveyed me, head down. At last, I said, just to break the silence, “It’s not that bad. I think it looks good.”
There was a long pause, and then she finally spoke. I had been expecting, ‘What possessed you?’ or ‘Get out,’ or something similar, but instead, she asked, “Did you do this because of me?”
There was something strange about her voice, almost pleading, and I was confused by it. “No, Mother,” I said, “I did it because it fits me.”
She didn’t respond for a long time, then finally she said, “Come with me. Put something on.”
“But a dress takes ti-“
“Whatever you want, child, just dress quickly.”
Wondering what in the world was going on — I briefly considered that I was being taken to the dungeons — I threw on a pair of trousers and a loose white blouse. My mother led me from the room, walking quickly through the castle. The servants did many comical double-takes as I passed, more than one literally dropping whatever they were holding.
After receiving no reply the first two or three times I asked where we were going, I stopped asking and just followed. We climbed steadily, heading up the main tower. Despite her fragile appearance, the dozens of stairs didn’t faze my mother, and at last we came out at the highest tower.
“Leave us,” Mother told the watchman, and he bowed, descending a prudent distance down the stairs.
“Look around, child. Do you know where the boundaries of the Green Forest are?”
More confused than ever, I pointed out the landmarks I knew, and my mother nodded. For a long time, she said nothing more, and I turned in a circle.
“Why did you bring me here, Mother?”
“When I was a young girl, we had no stories. It was just life, and the way it was. I did what I was asked and thought of nothing more. The man my parents picked me to marry was a brute, but he was rich. I had no future, no choice. My best bet was to hope he died soon.”
I had absolutely no idea where this was going, but bit my tongue. Apparently, the butchery of my hair had released something powerful in her, and it didn’t seem my place to stop it.
“Your father came to stay in our castle on his way to sl — on a grand adventure. I loved him upon first sight, but he was — -the quest of his was for another woman, and so I said nothing, did nothing. But I could see the freedom he had, how he chose to go where he went, and I was terribly jealous. And when he left, he took my only hope.”
She looked down at her tiny hands. “But then a miracle occurred. He came back. He said he couldn’t stop thinking of me, could not possibly follow another woman when he knew I lived. And so he fought my parents for the right to my hand. The brute challenged him to a duel, your father won, and he took me away.”
She paused, staring back out at the far peaks where my uncle lived. “I thought I could not possibly be happier. And then he told me about these Writers, about how we can choose our endings, make our own stories, be like those beautiful women who were happy forever, and — well, it was too late for me, but for our children…” She trailed off, and I was startled to find tears in her eyes.
“All I wanted was for you to have that life. Gods, I loved those stories when Lloyd read them to me, and I thought, those must be the happiest women in the world. Not like the closed little universe I lived in before. A world, a story, that lives forever, and finishes with happy ever after. That’s all I wanted.”
At last, she looked at me, and there was the same pleading in her eyes. “Penny, is that such an awful wish? Is that really so terrible?”
I was speechless for several seconds, but found my voice. “But why does happy ever after mean making me into something that came before? Something I’m not?”
Mother didn’t respond, then swept a hand along the horizon. “This realm is small,” she said. “There are hundreds of Kingdoms, each of them with their Princes and Princesses, vying for the Writers’ attention.” She seemed to be fighting with herself, and muttered, “Well, you wouldn’t know the story, but — well, there was a story with a dragon — -“
“I know it,” I said, before I could stop myself, and she stared at me.
“I — I heard it somewhere. In the village,” I lied badly, staring at my shoes.
I don’t think she believed me, but her need to talk was apparently too great to care. “Well — Lloyd wouldn’t want me talking about it, but — listen, Penny, you have to understand, I’m glad he — oh goodness, it’s complicated, but he was humiliated, Penny. The man who beat the dragon spew the names of those who failed across the Kingdoms, and the Green Forest — his father could hardly bear the shame, and –“
“And so he put it upon his children to right his mistakes.”
“To win back the shining name of the Green Forest! Your father was a great warrior, Penny, and a wonderful Prince, but no one cares about that anymore, all they care is that he didn’t slay the dragon.”
I shook my head. “And what if he had, Mother? What if he had? Where would you be?”
Mother didn’t answer, her shoulders shaking. I could see how torn she was, to have found her Prince and yet to be married to a failed Prince Charming, and yet as much as my heart reached out to her, I could still not understand.
Lost and unsure, I stared at my hands. “I am who I am, Mother,” I whispered finally. “I can’t be the girl you want me to be. Try Elden instead.”
My mother’s eyes raised, tortured and filled with tears.
“I have two children,” she said, “but Elden was a mistake. Do any of those stories have two children?”
I felt awful for her, but however miserable she looked and however much I was not a fan of my brother, the only emotion I could feel was incredulity. “You — seriously — this is seriously so important you weren’t happy with more children?”
“I was happy!” she insisted, “but it was you, Penny, it was –“
“Elden is your best shot. Trust me.”
Mother was about to respond, but it never came out, because at that precise moment, the fanfare on the ramparts began, and we jumped.
“Oh lord they’re here!” Mother exclaimed. “Oh no. Oh gods, they’re early. What are — oh there’s no time — “
She wiped her eyes and looked me up to down. “Goodness,” she said faintly.
“It’s not that bad,” I replied defensively.
For the barest second, I caught something more than exasperation in her transparent face, something almost — no, it couldn’t be that, and it was gone by then anyway. “Well, we can’t put it back on,” she said. “It’d be best if I tell your father before he sees you. Put something decent on, I don’t care what, and come to the throne room. For heaven’s sake, please don’t wear the serving boy’s clothes, at the very least put on your riding clothes, we’ll say you were out early. Now go.”
Not daring to push my luck — not going to the dungeons and getting out of wearing a dress to meet the Prince — I went.
Despite my great luck, I was shaking in my shoes as I approached the throne room, perhaps more of fear of my father’s face than anything. I suddenly felt very naked without my hair, and had to force myself to approach the door.
The guards were staring at me openly, mouths hanging open slightly, and I had to clear my throat before they jumped to attention, opened the door, and called smartly, “Your Majesty, Her Royal Highness Princess Penelope.” And then waited for me to go through.
One of them had to push me.
To my very, very great relief, the Prince was apparently not there, just my family, talking quietly next to the throne. They turned immediately to look as I entered. My father said absolutely nothing, and my brother, being the prick he was, covered his mouth in shock.
The silence was awful. I cleared my throat. “Where is Prince Anwen?”
It was my mother who answered. “Resting from the long journey.” We’re keeping him away until we figure out what to do with you.
Seeing as all anyone was doing was staring, I stared back. My brother had changed a lot during the several months he’d been away. He was much taller, probably taller than me now. His hair was longer, he filled out the armor better. His hand was resting gently on the hilt of his sword.
In short, he was more the Prince Charming everyone had ever wanted him to be, and for a second I was so jealous of him I couldn’t see straight. It was clear just from the way my father was standing next to him he was proud of him, and I could see him in a book so clearly I thought for a moment I was looking at a page with a picture of them.
And he was looking at me with the strangest expression. I couldn’t figure it out, and for a long moment, we just stared at each other, until my father finally cleared his throat.
“Well, it’s done,” he said. “It’s not going back on.”
“Some women in the east keep their hair short,” Elden spoke up suddenly. His voice had broken. I stared at him in complete confusion. Since when did my brother stick up for me? He shrugged defensively at my open gaping. “Well, you know, perhaps you didn’t ruin everything, the Prince might not care much.”
“I suppose,” my mother hedged. “They do, don’t they?”
Elden nodded. “I saw them.”
“What’s done is done,” my father repeated. “Both of you, get ready for the feast. Penelope, for god’s sake, do something with it at least and try to wear something nice. Now go.”
Ashamed by his tone, confused, and not a little angry, I turned to go. My confusion was only compounded when my brother ran to catch up with me, joining me walking through the halls.
“I don’t think it’s that bad,” he said, and I stopped in my tracks. It could not possibly be my brother, I thought.
“Elden, did a wizard switch out your soul on this little trip of you?” I asked. I wasn’t used to looking up to him, but now I had to slightly. He looked defensive.
“No! I’m just saying, it’s not that bad.” He shrugged, looking decidedly uncomfortable, and despite everything, I found a huge grin breaking out over my face.
“What’s this, Elden? You’re not rushing to tell me how un-Princesslike this is? Am I hearing this right?”
He was even more uncomfortable now, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself. He shuffled and muttered, and looked so pathetic that I finally relented.
“Well, you are the first person not to scream about it,” I said.
“I’d have screamed too if I saw you just waking up,” he retorted, with a sudden smile, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Seeing my expression, he threw his hands to either side. “What?”
“I think a troll brought a changeling back,” I said, “because this is not the Elden I knew.”
He actually looked wounded. “I wasn’t that bad,” he protested.
“Elden, you were a sanctimonious, self-righteous, loud-mouthed gnat chattering from an ogre’s-“
“Princess!” my nursemaid stormed up at that moment, clearly taking my lack of hair personally. “How many times, you do not call your brother such terrible things, off you go, we have to do something with you for the feast, what is the Prince going to think — “ With that, she seized me by the elbow and began dragging me off.
“But I said ‘were,’ mum, I said were, aw come on, let me go, I said were!” I glanced over my shoulder to see my brother laughing heartily at my expense, and was suddenly so happy for it I forgot to struggle, and was summarily whisked directly to the baths.