Monday, February 28, 2011
And so the kingdom watched as their angry prince accepted his throne, taking as his bride the unlikeliest of queens. There were those in the kingdom who mocked the notion of kneeling before the daughter of a common blacksmith although those whose displeased tongues wagged too loudly found themselves face to face with the dungeon's resident predator, never to be seen again. Yet, most who heard the fearsome rumors thanked their lucky stars their daughters remained safe at home, wondering if perhaps a peasant girl though lacking in grace and decorum wasn't somehow better equipped to handle the ire of her new husband. The palace smithy reopened after so many dormant years as the young queen's father settled in, wanting to be close to his beloved daughter. The palace was again the realm of the living, the tragic ghosts retreating to the shadows where they belonged. No longer did the light in the tower room burn at all hours of the day and night. No longer was the prince content to play alone. A steady glow could be seen flickering from the library as every evening the young monarchs sat at the chessboard, locked in a tireless battle of wits. And slowly, very slowly, the angry prince's animosity towards the world began to melt like ice crystals turning to dew on the morning rose. Then, one happy day, the first of many children was born to the king and queen. On that day, the sun returned once more to the darkened kingdom. On that day, the angry prince, at long last, smiled.
Monday, February 21, 2011
In place of the desolation Catalena previously experienced within the castle's confines, now it bustled with activity, servants eager to finish tasks which had become foreign to them as empty years unfolded. No one stopped her as she made her way through the corridors. Not a single guard gave her a second glance. An unknown force compelled her return to the palace whose stones were haunted by more than vengeful spirits. It was the library to which she was drawn, knowing where the angry prince was wont to hide. No fire lit the cold room, rays of the dying sun illuminating the books and tapestries turning the atmosphere a rosy hue. The prince's back was to her as she silently entered, making no more noise than the smallest mouse tip-toeing up behind him. He was rehearsing their game, learning where he had gone wrong, his sharp mind having memorized every move. Catalena reached forward to select the ebony knight. Prince Dragos caught her wrist in mid-air, the piece in her hand, glancing up at her from his seated position. "My guards are careless letting common peasants wander into the castle." "They were never meant to stop me, were they?" "You are far too bold for a blacksmith's daughter. One day it will land you in trouble." "I have tasted the hospitality of your dungeon, Prince Dragos. What more could you possibly have to offer?" For a fraction of a second, his face lightened, a smile he could no longer repress melting those onyx orbs. "Why have you returned, Catalena?" "To answer the question plaguing you." The prince released her wrist and she placed the knight back on the board. "This maneuver left your king vulnerable. This is how I won." "The king remains vulnerable long after the game's end. Do you know what the servants are preparing for?" "A celebration of your twenty-fifth birthday, I imagine." "Tonight I accept my father's vacant throne. Tonight I accept the kingdom." "The kingdom also awaits your announcement of their queen." Prince Dragos quickly rose and Catalena was forced to take a step back, feeling unexpectedly small and insignificant so near his imposing frame. "I ask you once more, Catalena, and this time I demand truth. Why have you returned?" Catalena understood this was her final moment, the final chance to accept trial and tribulation for the good of the kingdom, or escape to the safety of her father's shop where she could live out the rest of her days in peace. "I reconsidered my decision. I accept your offer of marriage." "Was it fortune, politics, or fealty of country which changed your mind since it clearly could never be love?" "I have never been one to listen to the idle tongues of politicians and there is not enough gold in all the land to force me to remain by your side. It is fidelity to the kingdom which brought me back. You ensure it is impossible for anyone to love you, but one day that may change. One day there may be love. Regardless of whether that day comes, you will have your queen." For the first time in years, the angry prince discovered he no longer desired to be angry, but he could not recall how to be anything else. So he did the one thing he knew to do, raising her hand to his lips and placing a gentle kiss on her knuckles. "Then come with me and take your place in the great hall." Catalena blushed and cast her eyes down, acutely aware of her plain dress and appearance in a way she had never been before. "I cannot attend a royal gathering. I am not dressed in a manner worthy of such an event." Prince Dragos lifted her face so her eyes met his again, familiar with her determination and strength yet unaccustomed to witnessing shyness and distress. "My parents taught me one recognizes royalty not by appearance, but by the quality of their character. A queen remains a queen whether she is dressed in pauper's rags or jeweled silk. It is actions, not title, which determine our fitness to rule. Perhaps your future subjects will be able to see more clearly what I witnessed if they are not distracted by sparkling gems. In so many ways, you beat me at my own game. Come with me, Catalena, and take your deserved place at my side. Come and accept your throne."
Monday, February 14, 2011
Catalena lovingly placed the bouquet of wildflowers at the base of the intricate wrought iron cross marking her mother's final resting place, forged by her father in his grief after the death of his wife. A fortnight passed since she returned to their quiet house near the blacksmith's shop. In that time, she had done her best to put the experience out of her mind, but Prince Dragos' enigmatic eyes haunted her dreams. There was little doubt of his cruelty and pride, but she had seen sadness and suffering as well. He was as lonely as he was angry leaving Catalena conflicted and confused. If only her mother was here, she would know what to do. The leaves and grass near the headstone rustled, a tiny figure dressed in a red leather tunic emerging from his hiding spot. Although no bigger than he palm, the imp confidently stared up at her, his butter blond locks shimmering in the sunlight and a puckish grin on his face. "Wish us here and here we will be," he spoke in an ethereal cadence. "I did not wish you here," Catalena responded, wondering why the tiny sprite appeared. "Oh but you did. You did wish for little me," he replied with a giggle. He climbed up the cross until he reached a perch on one of the arms where he plunked himself down, his legs dangling playfully as his emerald eyes met Catalena's. "Trust is earned if their face you can see. Trust is rare, as rare can be. Like icicles in a coconut tree." Catalena couldn't help but grin as the sprite laughed at his own joke, his good humor infectious. "Why have you appeared to me, fairy?" "You assist those who come in search of aid, it is custom for me to do the same." Catalena considered the prospect of accepting the help of the fae. Fairies were notorious tricksters, but it was rumored they could glimpse the future as well, a future they would relate if the compensation was right. "What will happen if I refuse the prince's offer?" "Though wise, my words are never free. A price must yet be paid to me." Catalena was at a momentary loss for what to give the fairy, finally settling on one of the turquoise silk ribbons in her hair, shiny and pure as a calm sea. The fairy clapped his hands in gleeful acceptance of her payment. "Your father one day will retire and you, my dear, will tend the fire. Simple and pleasant your life will be, but no husband or children do I see." "I will never marry, but I will become blacksmith in my father's stead. What of the kingdom?" "The king is fated to sit alone beside an eternally empty throne. Misfortune on both sea and land as warring nobles get out of hand. Refuse your place in the great hall, and the royal family's banner falls." "And what do you see if I am queen?" "While you experience great joy and misery, easy your life will never be. I see children playing in the hall and peace outside the castle walls. Though the king remains a mystery, you change the course of history." Before she could ask anything more, the little fairy scampered down and disappeared, his reverberating laugh echoing like the tinkling of sleigh bells. In many ways, Catalena was more confused, by the fairy's prediction could not be ignored. The blacksmith's daughter had a choice to make which would alter the course of the kingdom. From out of nowhere the fairy's voice wafted through her ears, calling her to action. Beautiful maiden, do not tarry. Consider if you are meant to marry. A decision ultimately must be reached before the prince's birthday feast.
Monday, February 7, 2011
A hush hung over the great hall, tension so thick it was difficult to breathe. The guards and the blacksmith waited with baited breath attempting to divine the result of the macabre competition. The old serving woman slipped unnoticed through a side door, standing in the looming shadows, praying for the outcome which would save their kingdom. Prince Dragos maintained his smirky self confidence as Catalena agonized every move. Never before had she doubted her own abilities, but all she could see flashing in the periphery of her consciousness was her father's death. She could not let that happen. She must win. Sublime insight came in a brilliant flash. In her mind's eye she saw the next few moves, understood what she must do. Concealing her excitement, she carefully maneuvered each piece across the board, countering the prince's until at last he had nowhere to go, his king cornered like a hunted animal. "Checkma..." Catalena did not have the opportunity to finish uttering that victorious word as the prince hopped out of his chair and violently batted the game away. The board flew from the table, pieces skittering across the stone floor in an effort to escape the prince's wrath. "Impossible! I never lose!" Catalena calmly rose to her feet, unafraid of the darkness hovering over the young prince's features. "Then it is high time someone bested you. Remain locked in your palace and vent your rage to the ghosts. You can no longer keep me here." Catalena turned to leave, but Prince Dragos grabbed her wrist in an iron grip preventing her from moving away. After everything which had befallen her, Catalena could control her fury no longer, pivoting sharply and smacking the prince across the face. He released his hold on her as if she was hot to the touch, shocked beyond words. For the first time in his life, someone dared to physically reprimand him for his actions. "Do not touch me again. You may be prince in title, but you are nothing more than a selfish bully." Catalena glared defiantly, daring Prince Dragos to lay a hand on her again, before she made her way swiftly to her father's waiting arms. Neither could prevent tears as father and daughter hugged each other, both so happy to see each other they barely knew how to respond. In the midst of their joy, her father kept trying to tell her something, but Catalena halted him each time. Whatever it was could wait until they were safely away from the immediate reach of the prince. "I did not believe there was a worthy queen to be found. I was wrong," Prince Dragos' baritone rumbled. "The first day when you dared to look up, to challenge me, I knew you were the one. I did not want to accept it so I made you prove yourself." "No more games, Prince Dragos," Catalena responded, wiping the last of the tears from her eyes. "No games, Catalena. Ask your father." "It is true, my darling daughter. I have been attempting to tell you. The prince did not send fifteen gold pieces to me the day after you left for the palace. H send five thousand. It is to be your dowry. He asked for your hand in marriage." Catalena stood dumbstruck as she moved her gaze from her father to the prince. The same smug poise, the same dark veneer, how could he expect after everything he put her through that she would agree to marry him? "I will never marry you." "Very well. If that is your decision, so be it. You are free to leave," Prince Dragos responded coolly, concealing his conflicted emotions. A part of him was happy to hear he'd be left to his solitude, yet there was an overwhelming sadness as he had grown quite attached to her presence in the time she'd been here. "Wait! Catalena, you must accept the prince's offer," the servant woman implored, rushing forward from the gloom and earnestly grasping the young woman's hands. "Always two must rule. If the prince is left without a suitable bride, the kingdom will fall into chaos." "Let him choose another." "There is no other, he has chosen you. All you see is anger and spite, but I promise there is more to the prince. Hidden under the surface is a good man. I helped raise him, I know this to be true. Please, Catalena, for all our sakes. Give this marriage a chance." Catalena raised her eyes from the beseeching, wrinkled face of the servant to the haughty prince. As was customary, he betrayed little, but his visage softened for a moment as he dared to hope for the first time she he lost those most precious to him. "No. I will not do this even if it means the kingdom falls to ruin. I will never be queen."