a tale inspired by the fairytale of the princess and the frog by the well.
The Well at the End of the World stood, half hidden, underneath some birch trees in a town that had been abandoned for many years. The houses, that had once been full of life and sound, had been overtaken by vegetation and ruin. The windows were broken, the doors stood crooked on their hinges, the curtains were torn, a chair stood legless in the middle of the road and the playground, that had once been a source of joy and laughter was completely still except for the swing that hung on one string and swayed quietly in the wind.
The wind that seemed to echo the laughter that once upon a time had turned into screams as the villagers world came to an end, abruptly and completely. Some of their remains were still in the houses, skeletons sitting in comfortable chairs, the agony and horror on their expression long since wiped away by time. There were others too, lying on the floor in their homes, or in the fields, not buried but safeguarded.
Emeralda came to the village alone, with a small rucksack hanging on one shoulder and wearing sensible brown shoes. Her blond hair was fastened in a careless ponytail and her pants were tanned with dust from the long walk. She looked tired, worn by the journey and the thoughts that plagued her.
The skull by the sign had almost frightened her off, a line had been drawn through the village name and above it someone had written The End of the World Village. She had hesitated a long time before taking a step and then another so she could enter the village and find the well. It had taken a long time to find the well, it wasn’t until she met an old woman in a village quite far from where she was now, that she found a clue to what she had been searching for.
The old woman hadn’t exactly filled her heart with calm and confidence. There had been something sly, something strange, in the old woman’s eye. She had been wearing a dark frock that covered her whole crooked body and her face had been half covered by a cowl she wore on her head, it was dark and finely knitted, the girl had observed.
But the woman had known what she was talking about and she had given her detailed instructions on how to get to the village and the Well at the End of the World. The old woman had scowled at her when she asked where exactly the well was. She had mumbled something, the girl hadn’t heard, and then pointed her crippled finger at her, “It was a long time ago, my memory fails me, but it’s there, I know it’s there”.
If the girl had believed in witches she would have sworn the old woman was one. There was something strange in her demeanour which put the girl on edge. It turned out, though, that she didn’t have much choice and despite all, the old woman had pointed her way to the village. No bullshit.
She hadn’t warned her about the state of the town, though. The old woman had hissed something between her teeth that the girl didn’t have the chance to hear, but she heard something of a warning in the tone of the old woman’s voice. A tint of darkness surrounded the air around her, even after the old woman had vanished into the hut and slammed the door behind her so hard that Emeralda was afraid the hut would collapse. The darkness seemed to follow her around too. It was with her through the stony, dark desert that she feared was endless. She had praised the clouds above her head every day, because had the sun shone down on the black sand she would hardly have been able to cross the desert at all.
The air had been cool, the sand manageable but when vegetation started to seep into the landscape again she had felt at the end of her rope. She was sure the old woman had given her the wrong information and that everything she said had just been the ravings of a crazy old woman.
Now she was in the village and the village was as dead as the old woman had told her it would be. The cracked concrete street led her towards a small church which stood in what she gathered had been the centre of the village. The church had a grass-roof that had all but collapsed and small windows that were relatively whole, compared to the other buildings in the village. The cross that had once embellished the rooftop now lay broken on the ground before the door, that had suffered a blow and was all but broken in two, the top half hanging loose, ready to fall.
She walked into the white gate that still stood as if nothing had happened and crossed the overgrown field and found her way towards the area behind the church. There was a bench there, the grass had outgrown it but she sat down on it anyway, not caring about the grass or the dandelions that stuck their heads up in the wedges between the wooden boards. She sat there for a while, looking in all directions trying to see if there was a well nearby. She saw none, but there were several tall birches standing close by and she couldn’t see what lay beyond the trees.
When she stood up to examine the area, she realised that even if the well was right there in front of her she might not see it. The weed had taken over the field that had surely once been a very well kept lawn and it could very well hide a well so tall was it.
She started with the grove by the birch trees and combed the area by walking in circles. She found it, hidden by sunflowers she had mistaken for dandelions at first.
She put her rucksack on the ground, fell to her knees beside the well and hurt her knee in the process. There were stone slabs surrounding the well but the flowers and the weed had somehow found a way in between and now hid them entirely. She didn’t care about her knee though. She pushed the rotten, wooden lock off the well with both hands. It crumbled down to the side and broke into four pieces. She wondered for an instant if she was being irresponsible, if she didn’t cover the well up after she was finished but then the task at hand took her mind.
How would she be able to get anything from that well? There was a bucket but it was at the bottom of the well. She could see it if she squinted, laying there in a small puddle, which was all that was left of the well’s water it seemed.
She had a few tiny sample bottles to fill, but she had no idea how to get to the water that was left at the bottom of the well. The wall was made of stones, but she would never be able to climb down there to get the water she needed.
She sat by the well for a while to think. Then she dug a rope out of her rucksack and threw one end down to see how far it would go. It wasn’t long enough. She looked around and wondered what her chances were of finding a small bucket and a rope long enough in the village, but the thought of ransacking the houses put a shiver down her spine. Who knew what else she would find in the dead houses?
For a long time she sat there, feeling utterly useless. She was so close now, but it looked like she would stumble over the finish line and never be able to go back home with the water. She looked down the well again and considered climbing down, if she’d had a partner to help her she would maybe be able to get help to lower herself down into the well, but she was all alone in a dead village.
She sighed and stood up. There was little to do but to try to find something in the houses to help her. The thought sickened her, the houses around her looked as dead as the people who had once lived in them were. It was as if the entire village screamed to be left in peace and here she was, a living being going through its inner most sanctum.
It felt most reasonable to start with the church, but the thought of going in there terrified her. It had once been the village pride, a sacred sanctum and now that the entire village was dead, she felt as if stepping in there would somehow bring on the wrath of the dead. So instead she walked over to the cottages that stood to the left of the church by a small pond that, like everything else, was overgrown and dark.
The doors to the cottages were all but gone, what was left rotted on the floor just inside. She stepped over the debris and stopped for a while to let her eyes get used to the light inside. There was a small table by the window just beside her, and two chairs one of which had fallen sideways. There was a thick layer of dust everywhere and she felt as if creating a path through the house would be desecration, but what choice did she have?
She tried not to touch anything, afraid that the books in the shelves would vanish underneath her touch, the wood in the shelves give way and crumble as if this entire town was made of dust that would vanish into thin air if she did as much as touch anything. The vegetation had seeped into the houses as well, some of the rooms were filled with weed and impossible to enter, other’s looked just as she imagined they had when the owners were alive, except maybe for the thick layer of dust that hadn’t been disturbed at all, until she came to disrupt.
In the second cottage she entered, she found a skeleton of someone who had been sitting in a comfortable chair, looking out the window when they died. She didn’t know if it had been a man or a woman, there was nothing left on the bones but a silver necklace and she knew better than to judge a book by its cover. She had known both men and women who wore silver necklaces. She figured a trained eye would be able to identify the skeleton as one or the other, but she figured it didn’t matter. She exited the house the same way she came, except backwards, holding her hands in the air in front of her until she was out underneath the grey clouds again.
She found a rope in one of the cottages, it was mirky but might hold the small cup she figured she would be able to tie the rope to. The real trick would be to get water in the cup and hoist the cup up again without spilling.
She walked back to the well, a cold wind was blowing, making strange noise in the rafters of the houses. It was as if the entire town was singing a requiem for its dead. She knew that old, worn-down houses made strange noises but to her it really sounded like dreary music, and the trees joined in, adding to the ominous atmosphere.
“I can do this” she told herself. She fought the tears like she had fought the tears when her mother died. She fought the tears like she had when her father remarried. And she fought the tears like she had when her father got ill or when her stepmother suggested that she was suitable for the mission at hand.
She got down on her knees in front of the low well wall and leaned over it carefully, terrified that the mure would give way and she’d fall into the well. The wall held, though and she lowered the rope with the cup tied to it into the well. She figured the cup had once belonged to a child, with two handles on each side she would be able to keep the thing steady on the way up, the trick was to get water into it.
She heard a soft clang when the cup hit the bucket at the bottom. She lowered the cup into the bucket hoping that there would be water in it, but when she hoisted the cup up again she was disappointed, because there wasn’t a drop in it. She tried again and again, she tried with the puddle at the bottom of the well, but nothing worked. All she got for her troubles was a pain in her knees and back from lurching over trying to manoeuvre the rope correctly.
In the end she sat down with her back to the wall and rested. The tears welled up again, and this time she couldn’t fight them. All the sorrow of her world was residing in her chest and she could do nothing to stop the tide of tears that seemed in harmony with the melody the wind and the town were playing for her. Her sobs echoed back to her, creating within her dark agony that she felt she’d never be able to depress again.
For some time she thought that this agony was what created the footsteps that she heard echoing in the distance. She would later make believe that he had been created from her despair and only lived to lighten it. She made believe that she could, if she wanted to, wipe him out from existence with her mind only, but she never tested if these powers were within her reach.
She was no witch, but the footsteps came closer nonetheless and when she saw his brown boots standing in front of her in the tall grass she felt a surge of fear so strong that she almost got up and ran away.
Instead she gathered her courage and looked up at him. Sky blue eyes met her, clear as the stones in her mother’s aquamarine necklace and his hair was raven black. He looked like someone out of the fairytale books she used to read as a child, wearing his brown leather boots, a brimmed hat and the whip in his belt. His shirt was the colour of tobacco but she couldn’t guess if it was because the shirt was dirty or if that was its original colour. He looked down at her, and she found arrogance in his eyes.
“What are you doing here?” he muttered, seemingly agitated at having found her there by the well, crying.
“I need to get water from the well,” she stumbled on her words, each seemed to begin before the previous one ended and she let out a loud sob at the end of the sentence as if to underline her predicament.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said simply, “it isn’t safe”. She expected him to pick her up by the neck, like she’d seen the cat do with her kittens back home, but instead he stepped to the side of her and looked down the well. “The well is dry,” he said simply.
“But there is a little puddle down there,” she crawled up to her feet and pointed down the well, as if her gesture would somehow make a big difference in convincing him of her statement. Not that it mattered one way or the other if he believed her or not, she thought.
He nodded his head softly and looked at her. There wasn’t gentleness in his eyes exactly, more agitation and contempt, she feared, but he looked like he might be willing to help her.
“I have a rope” she said, “you looks strong enough to heave me down and up again?”
“Is this the rope?” he asked. His voice slow, his words seemed calculated to be short and precise.
She just nodded her head, and looked down.
“It won’t hold you” he said, but then he put his own rucksack on the ground. She hadn’t even noticed he was holding one. He pulled out a large rope and started tying it around her waist.
“Do you trust me to lower you down into a well?” he asked.
She looked at him, realised she didn’t have much of a choice and nodded her head. He might look arrogant, but she couldn’t see why he would leave her down in the well without a way back. He had no grudge against her, as far as she knew.
But then the thought caught her and sent her escalating into panic. What if she had tread a sacred ground by coming here and he was angry at her for that? What if she had done something inadvertently and he wanted her dead?
But why would he lower her into a well. This man would have little problem killing her right there and then if he wanted to, he didn’t have to lower her down into a well for that. But dying in a well meant slow death and…
“Are you sure about this?” he was smiling a little as he tied the rope around her waist, and she realised that she was standing there staring at him, eyes as big as saucer surely. She smiled and relaxed a little.
“I need the water, if you’re going to leave me down in that well it’s on your conscience” she told him and climbed on top of the small wall. She sat there for a while with her feet dangling from the edge, looking down into that dark hole in the ground, then she grabbed the little cup that was balancing on the edge beside her and told him she was ready.
She turned around, held the rope and pushed her feet to the wall as he lowered her down slowly. It looked strenuous and she kept telling him to go faster if he needed to but he kept the same steady pace until she was at the bottom.
The world above had all but vanished. All she saw was the round light opening above, but down there it was dark. She forced herself to breath steadily, prayed that the man above was good at heart, despite first impressions and filled her cup with the little water that was left in the well. She managed to fill the cup easily though and then she shouted that she was ready.
Getting back up was hard. Of course the cup wasn’t a very good container for the purpose. In each heave, a little water splashed over. She did her best to hold the thing and the rope at the same time but it was almost impossible without spilling the content of the cup. She should have brought the vials down the well instead.
“It spills” she shouted. She saw his face appear at the edge and it looked like he was nodding his head. The pulls became a bit more gentle but when she was up the cup was half empty.
“What do you need the water for?” he asked. “You should have brought a bottle”.
She sighed, nodded her head and pulled the specimen bottle out of her rucksack. He took the cup and the specimen bottle, pulled the small tab out and filled the bottle with water. Then he took the next from her and filled that too.
“All done?” he asked and handed her the water.
“Yes,” she said, a bit sheepishly. “How can I thank you?”
“You can thank me later” he said drily and turned to go.
“Wait, thank you” she shouted, “who are you?”
“Come” he said, “lets get away from this place, it’s cursed,” and he continued to walk without looking to see if she came after him or not. She thought for only a moment about the decision of following him, but then she quickly put her vials in a small compartment in the rucksack and ran after him.
His pace was quick and she had to trot to keep up with him. She wanted to ask about the town but she didn’t. It wasn’t clear to her if it was because she didn’t really want to know, or if she was just too afraid of the answer but she had heard the rumours. Rumours she didn’t believe in, but had a hard time shaking off.
“I need to get home as quickly as I can, my father needs a potion his wife can make from this water. He’s sick” she told him.
He just hummed at her, a response she understood she was not meant to understand. She strutted quietly behind him a long way, or until he suddenly stopped by a large stone that stood quite a bit from the village. He then pulled a straw out of the dry earth and started to chew at the root.
He looked her up and down in a way she didn’t like and nodded his head.
“I helped you at the well, I can get you home fast, but I won’t do it for nothing and I need very little money to get by” he told her simply and grinned.
She looked at him and she didn’t like the look on his face, but she had to get this done, there was no room for failure so she looked into his eyes, nodded her head and whispered the words, “I’ll do anything”.
He seemed happy with her answer, nodded his head and grinned. “You are Mayor Charles’ daughter, aren’t you?”
She looked at him, a surge of surprise running through her, showing in her cheeks and in her eyes. Then she just nodded her head.
“What does he need the water for, you say?” he asked.
“He’s ill, my stepmother sent me to get it. She used to live in the town, she knows how to make a potion, she says will save his life, but it has to be made from the water of this particular well she says, otherwise it has no effect”.
Her words ran out of her like water in a creek.
“Right” he said and she saw the scepticism in his eyes, but he said nothing more about the subject. “And how do I know you won’t go back on your word?” he asked instead.
“I’m Mayor Charles’ daughter” she said, “if you know his name, you know he’s an honest man”.
“Doesn’t mean his daughter is” the man spat out his straw and ran his hand through the dark hair. Then he picked a bottle from his rucksack and drank a large clunk of water. Then he offered her the bottle and she accepted.
“You’ll have to believe me then, I am my father’s daughter and I’ll never go back on my words. If I’ve said I’m going to do something, I do it, no matter what it takes” she said and wished, at that moment, the words weren’t true.
“And you know what kind of payment I am likely to ask for?” he said still grinning.
“I’m young, not stupid” she said and peered at him.
He nodded his head and smiled, “Then we shouldn’t keep daddy waiting” he said and started walking.
On the way home she often thought if she had made a mistake of asking him to help her. She often wondered if she would have been able to get back to her hometown on her own, but she hadn’t been kidding herself when she figured that she was lost and she had learned the hard way that asking for directions was hard. People shied away from her, on her way to the village she had often received wrongful information, people had tried to trick her and others had been so afraid that they had been willing to say anything just to get rid of her. It was a strange land, and she didn’t understand it. If she was going to get home quickly, he was her best bet, there was no question about that.
In her worst anxious fantasies she imagined that he didn’t know a single thing about her home town and wouldn’t be able to show her the way home at all. Then she quietly reminded herself that he had known who she was before she mentioned it. She didn’t have many options and her father’s time had been scarce even before she left. She had squandered a lot of time searching for the village and the well at the End of the World and she couldn’t afford to continue to do so, her father’s life depended on it. She would have to pay for it later.
His job to get her home consisted of finding a freight train that stopped close to her town and he did so in a village named Middle Of Nowhereville. It was an easy job, when you knew what you needed to do.
It had taken her two months to find the Village and the Well at the End of the World. It took Jacques two whole days to get her home, much of that time they sat on a freight train that was so loud they couldn’t hold up a conversation at all. She was happy about that. She didn’t want to get to know him, didn’t want superficial communication with a man she had made an unspeakable promise to.
He sat on the floor of the freight wagon with his feet dangling out of the opening like a suspect figure out of a story always with a straw in his mouth. His hands were rough, but his demeanour was relaxed, as if nothing could irk him. She mentally kicked herself when she found that she liked the atmosphere around him, relaxed and none caring, found herself wishing she was more like him, an adventurer without a care in the world.
When they came to her home town she started to feel the anxiety build up for real. She didn’t want to waltz into her father’s house with the stranger in tow, but she knew that he would never believe that she would make do on her promise if he was stowed away in an inn somewhere.
She did try though, explaining how strained her relationship with her stepmother was and how strange everybody would think it was. He listened, smiled and followed her to the house anyway, as if he was bringing goods to a patron.
Her stepmother’s voice could be heard from far outside the big mansion that lay in the heart of Inauguration Grove. She took a deep breath before climbing up the steps and finding her way inside the house.
“I’m back” she yelled from the top of her lunges. A sudden silence fell on the house before she heard her stepsister come running down the stairs, her curly blond hair flailing behind her. Aurora had always been a colourful addition to the household and she loved her big sister with the same fierceness she did everything.
“I’m so happy to see you” Aurora shouted and jumped up and down holding her sisters arms. When she saw the stranger standing in the doorway she hushed and walked towards him, still holding her sisters arm.
“Who is he?” Aurora asked.
There was no time to explain it before Aurora’s mother and Emeralda’s stepmother came waltzing down the stairs wearing a black gown with her hair up in a bun she was sure was supposed to be modest but looked extravagant. She looked like she was already mourning.
“Mother” Emeralda said and pulled herself away from her sisters fetters. “I found it, how is he?”
“Child” the woman said without looking at her, she was instead looking at the stranger in the door, who stood there silent, chewing his straw. Her stepmother hesitated in the staircase, looking, evaluating, but then she descended.
“Child, I fear you may be too late, he is on the brink of death, standing in the doorway to another world, being pulled away by his forefathers, it is a strong pull” she walked over to the stranger and offered her hand.
Jacques looked at the hand, for a long time, in fact it was such a long time that Emeralda feared he might not do what was asked of him. Then he took the hand and kissed it lightly but dropped it all too soon.
“I am Jacques, Madam” he said simply, “I helped your daughter find her way back”.
“How chivalrous of you, come in and let us thank you properly for the job you have done and the kindness you have shown my dear stepdaughter” she said with contempt in her voice.
Aurora pulled at her mother’s sleeves, “Mother, you have to make your potion, it’s what we’ve been waiting for. It’s all ready”.
“Of course, Aurora dearest, but lets not be rude, show this man the proper curtesy he deserves and find him food and a place to rest his feet” the mother said. “Now where is the water?” she turned to Emeralda and smirked. She gave her stepmother the vials, lifting them to the light proudly.
“Is that all?” the stepmother spat out, “we’ll see if it will do” and then she rushed up the stairs holding her skirts just high enough for her ankles to be seen. She noticed Jacques looking at her stepmother and then at her. There was something new in his eyes, something she hadn’t seen before and she feared it was pity. She couldn’t stand that, not from him. She scowled at him, but followed after him and her sister when Aurora started dragging the man towards the living room.
She wanted most of all to go and see how her father was really doing, but she knew from experience that she wouldn’t even be allowed in the room. Her stepmother had put one of her most loyal servants on guard outside his room when her father got ill and he didn’t let anyone inside except with her permission and she constantly claimed that he was way too ill to be bothered with people fussing over him.
Aurora asked questions, talked endlessly about everything and nothing while Jacques smiled and nodded but was otherwise his quiet, calm self and when Aurora started asking Emeralda questions about her quest she just shook her head and told her sister she would tell her all about it later.
“Oh, you must be so tired!” Aurora exclaimed to them both and quick enough they were ushered into a bath and into bed. When Emeralda’s head lay on the pillow and she could smell nothing but the lavender smell of her shampoo and the fresh smell of clean sheets she felt almost human again, after sleeping underneath trees and creeping down behind big stones this was heaven and she slept the sleep of the dead until she heard a light tap at her door.
She knew before she opened her bedroom door who it was, but instead of wallowing in it she rushed to the door, opened it, pulled Jacques in to her bedroom quickly and closed the door.
His hair was wet, the dark streaks falling into his eyes repeatedly even when he pushed it back with a fast, deliberate movement. His hands were clean, even the dirt underneath his fingernails was gone. She sighed and tried to smile, but failed.
“I guess you want what I promised you” she said in a low voice. Her hands were shaking uncontrollably and her heart was thumping harder than it ever had on her adventures to find the water.
He said nothing, just sat himself on the side of her bed and leaned back with one hand on her pillow and looked at her.
“You’re not quite the girl I thought you were” he said after a moment of silence. She was standing there in her white nightgown that she suddenly remembered was all but see-through. This was no time to be shy, however, she had made a promise and come hell or high water, she was a woman of her words.
When he took her hand and pulled her to sit down on the bed beside him she wished to all almighty powers she knew of that she wasn’t, that she could just scream and shout and have the servants throw the man out.
He didn’t touch her though, just held her hand lightly in his as if he was trying to prevent her from shaking. After a while she wondered if he was shy, she hadn’t taken him for someone who was afraid to go after what was his.
“I made you a promise” she said at last, “I am a woman of my words”.
He lay down on the bed, let go of her hand and ran his hands through his hair. Then he seemed to make a decision.
“I know you are” he said, raising himself up, leaning on his elbows, glaring at her.
“So what is it you want me to do? Seduce you?” she whispered the words, unable to fathom how she would be able to do that.
“Your father got the potion early this morning” he told her, “Aurora didn’t want to wake you. Your father seems better, Aurora saw it for herself”.
Emeralda stood up and stared at the stranger. She wanted to run out and see if he was telling the truth. She wanted to run to her father’s room and embrace him, but she stopped herself, better get this over with.
“That’s good to hear, thank you” she said, “now can we get this over with, I don’t know what you want from me”.
He smiled and she found it wasn’t the smile she hated, but a smile full of pity and … she hesitated to even think the thought, admiration?
He rose, lifted his knee up into the bed and faced her. He took a hold of the back of her head and pulled her close to him, so close that she could feel his breath on her cheek. He held her head tightly as he whispered the words in her ears.
“I was going to see what it was like to pluck something so precious, so beautiful as the virginity of someone as high and mighty as you. I was going to take pleasure in doing things you never even dreamt the devil would do. I was going to find delight in spoiling something as delicate and as pretentious as the daughter of the Mayor of Inauguration Grove.”
He sighed in her ear and she felt a kind of surge go through her, a chill.
“When I found you by the well I couldn’t believe my luck” he laughed a little lightly. “And even after you jumped into that well yourself I was full of contempt. It wasn’t until I saw you at home, with your, so called, family that I started to understand your predicament”.
He let go of her head, kissed her on the cheek but then he grabbed her again.
“I still want to spoil you” he said, “but now I’d rather do it with you and not to you, if you get my drift?”
She didn’t understand at first. She still felt his breath on her cheek and on her ear and she felt his warm hand lightly touching hers.
“But that, of course, I can’t do when you despise me and therefore I am going to play a little game with your stepmother” he sighed, “if that’s all right with you?”
She didn’t say anything, didn’t dare to move.
“I’m going to act as if she owes me” he says, “I’m going to linger for a week or so” he stood up, “this will be your payment to me, to endure me for a week, after that, if you want me to I’ll go and we’ll call it even, can you live with that?”
She looked for deceit in his eyes, in his demeanour but he looked serious.
“That’s fine” she whispered, “I thought you were going to…”
“I was…” he raised an eyebrow and smiled that smile she had hated.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I’m the son of a beggar and a whore” he said. “I’ve travelled the land, I’ve fought demons and dragons and lived to tell the tale. I’ve saved damsels in distress before…” his words hung in the air for a while.
“Did you insist on the same kind of payment from these damsels?” she asked sternly.
“Truth? Yes, some of them, I did. It’s the beauty about being a traveler, an adventurer if you will” he laughed, but the laughter died out. He shrugged his shoulders and the frown of his face almost looked apologetic.
“And what exactly do you want from me during this week?” she asked, a bit louder this time, her fighting spirit was back now that the she had dodge the bullet.
“Nothing in particular” he said, “but let me just put an image in your head. Imagine the look on your stepmother’s face if you decide to become like me, be an adventurer, go out and fight monsters for living” he laughed and as she sat there imagining just what he had told her, she couldn’t but laugh with him.
“Imagine her reaction if you decided to go with me, to be like me, your father would understand, wouldn’t he? But she would be furious.”
She laughed and suddenly it was as if floodgates opened and she found herself unable to stop. She laughed until tears were flowing down her cheeks. She hadn’t laughed like this in ages.
“Before you go” she said when she noticed he was holding the doorknob. “You expect me at the end of the week to go with you?”
He looked at her, cocked his head, shrugged his shoulders and left without saying another word. She sat on her bed, still chuckling from the image of her stepmother she now had stuck on her mind. Then she remembered her father and she pulled on some pants, put on a blouse and ran up the stairs and towards his bedroom.
Aurora was walking the hall as she came rushing by. “How is he?” Emeralda took her sister by the shoulders and shook her lightly.
“Oh Emeralda” Aurora said smiling, “he’s better, she did what she said she could do, she cured him. He’s sitting up and he is eating and it’s, oh…”
Emeralda had always been clear on one thing when it came to her stepmother, she didn’t want her husband dead because without him she would loose the status. For a long time though, she had been afraid that the wicked woman kept her father ill so she could rule the village, but there had been whispers around town, whispers that had reached her stepmother’s ears and the whispered told of discontent and ideas that a new mayor should be put into office and of course she wouldn’t have that. So she had sent her stepdaughter on a mission to find the Well at the End of the World and Emeralda had agreed to doing it because she was pretty sure the woman didn’t want her father dead.
She was pretty sure though that her stepmother wanted her dead and sometimes she wondered if the woman had the elixir she needed all along. It didn’t matter now. Her father was better and she had survived her adventure.
She sighed and knocked on her father’s bedroom. The servant was no longer standing there, staring sternly at anyone who would come close.
“Come in” she heard a weak voice from within.
She took a deep breath, pulled down the lever and entered the badly lit bedroom.
“Father” she said, tip-toeing towards his bed.
He was indeed sitting up, there was colour in his cheeks and a smile on his face. He looked weak, but before he had looked dead.
“Emeralda” he said, “I hear you went to get the ingredients necessary for my medicine, I’m so proud of you” he said and patted the side of his bed.
She sat down beside him and hugged him carefully. She felt a bit shy. He had been sick for so long she didn’t quite know how to talk to him anymore. She had been such a kid when he grew ill and now…
“I’m so glad you are better” she said, “do you have everything you need?”
He nodded his head, and stroked his beard. “I need this shaved off though”.
She knew she should tell him that it was in fact her stepmother that had made the potion and that it was her medicine that had cured him, but she couldn’t. He knew and no matter how modest she wanted to be she couldn’t say the words.
“I’m going to be fine” her father told her. “I have you to thank for it and your mother, of course” he added smiling.
A chill always went down her spine when she heard him call her stepmother this.
She sat with her father for a little while, or until she was driven out by her stepmother who claimed that her father needed to rest, to get his strength back. So Emeralda went down to the kitchen and ate a good breakfast, the way she was used to eating breakfast, and she found herself wondering what to do with her day.
She found herself wondering what she had done before, found herself wondering what she was going to do with her life. Was she going to sit there in her father’s house until she, or someone else for her, found her a spouse so she could switch houses and be a delicate doll there instead? Was that her fate?
She walked around the house like a ghost, found Aurora with her spindle and her yarn, smiling as she saw her sister. She sat down and helped her for a while, but she found the work relentlessly boring and she realised she always had.
The week went by quickly and yet for her time seemed to drag at the same time. She spent more and more time with Jacques, discussing something that seemed far away and out of her reach. She asked him more and more questions about the life he led and about the dangers she faced and she found his tales endlessly exciting. She found herself daydreaming about her colourless adventure to the well at the End of the World. She loved the glares her stepmother gave her when she saw her in Jacques company. Her stepmother had at first tried to buy the man off, given him a pouch filled with golden coins and thanked him for his part in saving the mayors life but Jacques would hear none of it, said his deal was with Emeralda. The wicked woman frowned, smiled as she agreed that he could stay the week and when she introduced him to Emeralda’s father she almost choked on the word “gentleman”.
So the week went by and one morning she saw Jacques rucksack lying by the kitchen door, filled with last nights leftovers and a bottle of wine. She got a big clump in her throat, a form of sadness set on her that she hadn’t experienced before and she saw her life pass her by as she stood there staring at his rucksack.
He came from behind her and she could hear him standing there for a while before he said anything.
“So I’m leaving” he said, “it’s been a week and you kept your end of the deal”.
“The deal changed on me” she said and turned around. “I think maybe our original deal might have been easier to handle in the long run. Then I could have pretended that this life was what I wanted” she said. There were tears in her eyes and she could feel them suddenly flowing over and falling down on her cheek.
He smiled. “The deal changed on me too” he said, “I was perfectly prepared to continue being the big bastard but here I am, leaving without you”.
She looked at her feet and said nothing. Another tear fell down and she could see it splashing on her stepmother’s precious rug.
He stepped closer to her, put his finger on her chin and pulled it up.
“You can still come with me, you know that?” he said.
“But…” and she tried her best to find a reason not to, but she found none. Her father was better and had no real use for her. Her stepmother hated her. The only one who would really miss her was Aurora and Aurora would bounce back like the cheerful bird she was, she had friends in the village and her life was filled with little things she called her little pleasures. She would miss her sister, but she would also understand.
And a form of hope awoke within her. She could really do it. She could go with him. She could learn how to fight demons and dragons and she could be whatever she wanted to be. She could go with him.
And it wasn’t just that she could go with him, it was also that she wanted to go with him. She wanted it with all her heart, to be that person.
“It’s not glamorous” he said, “you will think it’s dirty and nasty and evil many times, but I can teach you and I’d like your company”.
“And you won’t do things to me that I didn’t think the devil would do?” she asked and she found him grinning.
“I won’t, if you don’t want me to” he said simply and at that she laughed and she didn’t know if it was because she already wanted to explore the far reaches of his mind further, or because she could already hear her stepmother’s reaction in her minds eye.
“I will go with you” she said and she threw herself spontaneously around his neck and kissed him. “Teach me to fight demons” she said under his breath.
“I will” he said and kissed her back. “You’ll love it”.
And she walked off with him with only the rucksack on her back with a few of her belongings. Her father wasn’t happy to see her go, but he had told her that he was happy to see her find her own thing in life and when she was cold or hurt or just a bit miserable she just had to conjure up the face her stepmother made when Emeralda had announced that she was going away with Jacques, that she was going to become an adventurer and learn how to fight.
“A beggar, a thief and a whore is what you’ll become,” her stepmother had spouted, but the wicked woman’s curse fell from her like water off a duck’s back and when she thought of this she smiled. She learned how to swing her new sword and she did so until her arms hurt and at night she lay beside Jacques, underneath the starry sky and she found herself thrilled at the aspects of this new life.
This was just the beginning, and the devil better look out.