by Yasmine Consolo El-Khoury
It all started with a curse. A curse that fated an innocent girl to spend her days locked in a tower waiting for a knight in shining armor to save her and whisk her away to his far away kingdom. Only the last of the Wanderers remembered why, but what everyone did remember was that she was untouched by death and whoever rescued her won her hand in marriage. No one knew what she looked like, but her unattainable features gained her popularity among the young men. They would ride to the tower on gleaming horses and make way with a loud parade saying they would be the one to bring the princess home. But none ever did. Soon the girl fell from memory and was as forgotten as the Wanderers.
A long time ago when people still remembered the princess, her parents would come visit her daily, calling up the tower and telling her of all the ways they were trying to save her. They brought her homemade food to be sent up by basket and knights from faraway lands to save her. She never got to taste the food and the knights never saved her. She never told anyone, but as soon as anything from the outside passed through her window it turned to ash and floated down to coat her floor, a reminder that she was fated to stay locked up forever. Immortalized until someone could save her.
Vines wrapped her tower in layers plastering the struggles of those that came before as a sort of warning to others. Their armor and bright white bones stayed pinned up by thorns, swaying in the non-existent wind. An omen for all those that came after. Years passed and the princess’ parents stopped coming, and the parades stopped coming, and the knights stopped coming. And yet the girl still sat in her tower untouched by the years surrounded by a floor covered in the ash of presents she couldn’t enjoy.
Year after year the princess watched from up in her tower as the pile of white bones below her window grew and the shadows around the castle grew longer and scarier. The yard became unkempt and the vines grew out of control, spreading wildly across everything they could touch and devouring it in a spiral of green. Still more men came all pomp and circumstance, leading parades and delivering grand speeches about the princess they would attain as theirs. But the parades became funerals that marched home in sorrow.
The girl’s hope slowly seeped away. It seemed to run out of her in dark rivulets and escape through the cracks in the rock to slither across the ground, creating a shadowed wall that none dared to pass. Not even the sun rays seemed to pierce it, bouncing off and falling across the yard, leaving the tower to wilt away. Forgotten. The shadows rolled off of her in streams blackening the whole room. The tower was surrounded by a blackness that seemed to have no end. And slowly her legend was lost to everyone, and the shadows stayed dark as no one came upon the tower.
The girl gazed out her window and watched the world pass her by as her tower started to crumble and the stones started too groan in the night. She began to wish that the tower would fall and take her with it, but she knew it was a hope that wouldn’t come true. It was on a cold winter’s night when she was woken up by the sound of horse hooves. She crept to her window to see an old horse struggling to walk as a hunched figure swayed in the saddle. Watching helplessly she saw the lump in the saddle sway too far and collapse to the ground, landing with an unmoving thud. Gasping, she leaned out of her window as far as she could before her air seemed to evaporate and she was left gasping for breath. The horse neighed, tossing its matted mane and stamping its hooves, but the lump barely twitched. Slowly, the horse calmed and sank to the ground, lying as still as the lump that had lain on its back.
Watching from the window the girl wished for a voice, wished for a basket, wished for a way down. She wished until she felt mad at the gods and cursed her fate, but only the stars responded, blinking down at her. Tears streamed down her face to fall into her ash covered floor, making puddles of grey water that fell through the cracks and sank into the tower stone.
Keeping vigil all through the night, she stared at the odd duo under her tower and wondered at the wanderer that had tumbled upon her tower. The lump under her tower was a man, a young man. One who had set out to prove something and fight for something, but as he lay there, unmoving on the hard ground, he too cursed his fate and he too only got the stars blinking back in response.
He hurt. His body hurt from lack of food and sleep and the beating a group of stable boys had given him for trespassing, but most of all his soul hurt. It hurt him to breathe as he lay there and felt his dream slipping out of his grasp to fly away on the wind, seeming to mock him as he couldn’t even lift a finger to try and grasp it.
He didn’t know where he was and he knew he should care, but he could not find it in himself to. Just as the girl could not find in it herself to hope that someone would save her.
That night the world watched two lights wink out. And not the lights that flickered out as a life ended, but the snuff of a light that happened abruptly when a soul reached its limit and retreated back into darkness.
The girl had had a little hope left, enough to keep her soul warm and her tower from being cloaked in complete darkness, but watching the unmoving lump and the horse, she felt only dread because she knew no one was coming to help them. She lived in a tower caged by vines, haunted by knights tangled in their thorns, forgotten by the world thanks to a curse she wasn’t supposed to be a part of. No one had come in years; she was as forgotten as the Wanderers, the last of the storytellers, who had wandered the Old World. She was a legend long forgotten in a kingdom that didn’t know how to save an innocent girl.
And the man, he was a just a boy with a dream to prove that the legends existed. That the Wanderers still lived. They just hid because the world had moved on and forgotten about them. But lying there half dead, their hope died. Snuffed out. And the world seemed to get a little greyer.
It was a legend, a different legend, that the light of the world was determined by the happy souls and every time a soul got snuffed out the world became just a little bit greyer. But that’s only a legend and we all know legends are only partial truth.
The sun rose, and still the horse and the man didn’t move. Slowly, the girl got up and walked across her room, her heart heavy and her tears dried. The tower seemed to groan with her, understanding her anguish. The horse sat below, keeping its own watch, but unable to comprehend what it saw as the tower before him seemed to change to grey as if ash had seeped into the cracks and stained the white stone, changing it forever.
The girl sat on her bed, her demeanor as grey as the tower. She didn’t even hear when the horse clopped away.
Now here is where our story takes a turn.
For the young man found a spark. He found it that night when he managed to roll over and see a tower that was once white, seeming to cry grey tears as they seeped out of the stone, forever staining the pure white rocks. He found it when he sat up and realized that he lay in a shadow of a tower when it was night. It was magic, he thought, and with that a flicker of his soul came back. And with that flicker he pulled himself up and rode his horse into the kingdom.
He healed and he researched and within two turns of the moon he was back on the road. His spark was still small, but he nursed it each day and kept it alive. The more he traveled, the larger his spark became, and soon it was back to a roaring fire.
While traveling, he stumbled on a hunched old man tending to a fire. He felt as if he could taste the change in the air. With a weathered smile and a tired wave the old man motioned for him to lay his pack down and sit by the fire. Before the young man could ask anything, the Wanderer started to speak.
His voice was deep and seemed to vibrate the air around him as he spoke. “The world is made up of legends, but we all know that’s a legend, and legends are only partially true. First there was the legend that stitched together the sky, then there was the legend of souls that brightened the world….” The old man talked on and on into the night, sometimes listing legends, other times telling them. All the while the young man sat by the never dying fire and blinked slowly as he listened, enraptured by the spells that were woven by the legends.
Days passed and the young man learned the ways of the Wanderers. He learned how to listen, how to tell stories, and how to keep the magic alive in a world that was determined to hide it.
On the fifth day the old man sighed and looked off into the distance, as if a great weight was on his shoulders. Turning slowly he said, “There is one legend left to teach you, but this one does not have an ending.”
“How can a legend not have an ending?” the young man questioned, his voice a sweet lullaby compared to the old man’s.
“It all started with a curse. A curse that fated an innocent girl to spend her days locked in a tower, waiting for a knight in shining armor to save her and whisk her away to his far away kingdom to make her his queen…”
The old Wanderer told the legend long into the night and the young Wanderer sat and listened, a great stillness creeping over him as he remembered all those years back when his soul was snuffed out, but a spark emerged because of a tower that cried grey tears.
“How…how does it end?” the young Wanderer questioned.
“The ending is up to you.”
The young man closed his eyes and breathed deep as the old one had taught him, and when he opened them he was unsurprised to find the fire gone and the man as well. But in his place rested a cloak and a travel stick, and the young man knew without being told that he now was one of the Wanderers. One of the few who could keep the magic alive.
Picking up his travel stick and swinging the cloak around his shoulders, he walked into the unknown.
Now the girl, the girl finally gained enough courage to go and look back out the window, but even seeing that the horse and lump were gone she could not bring herself to care. And again she turned to the sky to curse the fates, and again only the stars blinked in response.
She didn’t even notice that the tower had turned grey.
The little hope she had had seeped out of her, and the tower plunged into total darkness. Almost as if the tower became part of oblivion. Not even the stars could be seen.
For months the girl lived in total darkness, with only the bones of the fallen glowing in the night. On a night much like the one when she had been sentenced to her fate, a bird perched on her windowsill. Its chirp startled her, and then to her surprise it flew into her room. She squeezed her eyes shut not having it in her to witness another death. Not hearing the slight rainfall of ash on her floor, she opened her eyes to the wonderment of the bird flying around her room. It circled twice before flying out into the world beyond.
And with that bird came back a spark. A spark that grew into a roaring fire. A spark that would grow to save her.
She didn’t know what had changed, what had made it possible for living things to come into her tower, but something had changed. Instead of sitting and cursing the fates, she sat and planned. She planned and she sang to the birds that had taken up residence in her room, escaping the new fallen snow, her spark roaring.
One day she woke up and the tower was no longer encased in shadow. The sun shone through, melting the snow that sat on her window. The air turned to spring and the vines started to grow again, and the more they grew the more the fire inside her roared until one day the vines reached her window.
Singing goodbye to the birds, she grabbed her pack and took hold of the vine and slowly climbed out of her window. As she climbed, the sun rose behind her in the most brilliant and vibrant sunrise the kingdom had ever seen. The kind of sunrise that meant a curse had been broken. The kind that was lit from within by a soul that had escaped and magic that freed into the air.
The man was on the road, maybe a few days’ walk from the tower, when he watched that sunrise. And he knew. He knew in his bones that the legend finally had an ending. The girl had saved herself.