A marriage between a scion of the ruling family and a gardener’s assistant was not the sort of thing that was likely to be met with approval. In fact, the grand duke had expressively forbidden the match, and had even gone to the trouble of posting guards outside his nephew Rupert’s room. Which was why Rupert was climbing out the window in the middle of the night. He twisted his hands into the ivy that covered the palace walls and dug his toes into the gaps between stones and very slowly made his way down. He wasn’t very athletic. He had always preferred to spend his days in the library, until one day, he decided to take his book outside to enjoy it in the garden. There he had met a girl with dirt under her fingernails, hair like straw and a smile that made him forget what he had just been reading. Gretha. She’d just been hired as one of the dozens who worked to maintain the palace gardens. In the years that followed he had taken a large number of books outside and returned them to the library unopened.
Somehow Rupert made it to the ground in one piece. Then it was just a quick dash across the dark lawns to the outer wall. There were guards at the gates, but they couldn’t patrol the entire perimeter, and he knew where the trees grew close enough to the wall for even a clumsy prince to scramble over. He had just found the first foothold when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He let out a startled yelp and spun around and found himself face to face with his grandmother, the dowager grand duchess.
“Running away, eh, Rupert?”
“Yes,” he said. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
“Everything and everyone in this family is my business.”
“I’ve left a letter explaining that I renounce all my claims. So I’m not part of the family anymore.”
She cackled. “You can’t get away from us that easily.”
“Call the guards then. I’ll be over this wall before they get here. And you won’t be able to track us, I’ll see to that.”
“I won’t stop you, and I don’t need guards to track you down and bring you back.” She leaned close and lowered her voice to a whisper. “You’ll come back to us before long, when you are cold and lonely and forgotten. You can’t run.”
She gave him a final, toothless grin and turned away. Rupert stared after her until the darkness swallowed her up and tried to ignore the chill he felt creeping down his spine. He turned back to the wall and climbed over.
Gretha was waiting for him, exactly where she had said she would be.
He thought of his grandmother’s words. But they were just that. Words. “No.”
They left the city hand in hand, and the grand duke did not send guards after them. If something else followed, it was invisible.
Boats and carriages could be traced, so Rupert and Gretha decided to walk. It gave them time to see the country and to get to know each other without Gretha working and Rupert having to pretend to be aloof and princely when someone was near. They followed forest paths and narrow, winding roads. Gretha would exclaim in wonder at the flowers and plants along the way and laugh when they got caught in a downpour or sank up to their knees in bogs. He told her everything he knew about how mountains were formed and how the stars and planets danced across the sky. At night, they lay curled together in the same bed, and he breathed in the scent of her hair. Every night the palace with its snobbish customs was further away, and he felt a little calmer. In time, he thought he might allow himself to be happy.
They avoided cities and stayed in small inns where no one knew that the grand duke had a nephew called Rupert, let alone that he had eloped with an assistant gardener. Spring turned to summer, and they stopped at a village that was nestled like a jewel in the folds of the mountains. There was a tiny cottage that was theirs for the season if they worked for it. Rupert taught the village children to read and Gretha dug a kitchen garden that was envied by all. They kept goats that crawled under fences and climbed over walls. Rupert grumbled and Gretha laughed as they roamed across the hillside to round them up.
One evening, they sat outside together. Gretha was knitting and Rupert held the skeins of yarn for her, carefully disentangling knots before they could form. The air was warm and heavy, and a thunderstorm was brewing up among the peaks of the mountains. When the first lightning flashed across the sky, Gretha got to her feet.
“I don’t feel well,” she said, putting her knitting down. “I’m going to bed early.”
She slept fitfully, and Rupert held her hand while the thunderstorm crashed around them, like a beast trying to tear the world apart. It blew itself out overnight, and the morning was fresh and still.
“How are you feeling?” Rupert asked when Gretha woke.
“A slight headache.” She frowned at him. “Why are you here? What if they find you?”
“Anyone,” she said. “The guards, your uncle, the other gardeners, …”
Her voice trailed away and she looked around the room with a frown. The shutters were open, and sunlight streamed in through the window.
“Where are we?”
“In our cottage.”
“A cottage? How long have we been here?”
“Nearly three months.”
“I don’t remember.” Gretha went to the window and breathed in the smell of mountain flowers and distant snow. “It’s summer outside. How is that possible? It was early spring yesterday. I was getting everything ready, to meet you tomorrow night.”
Rupert put his arm around her trembling shoulders. “We left together, four months ago.”
“Why can’t I remember?”
“You were ill yesterday evening,” he said. Headaches, fevers, they could cause forgetfulness. “It’ll come back to you, once you’re healed and rested.”
“What if it doesn’t?”
He kissed the top of her head. “Then we’ll just have to make new memories.”
Gretha’s memory did not return, but Rupert told her everything they had seen and done together since he left the palace. When they were running after the goats together, he could almost forget what had happened, until one morning in late summer. He woke with one arm around her. Dawn was just a pink flush on the eastern horizon and he tried to lie as still as possible so she could sleep, but she stirred and opened her eyes.
“I love you,” she said. “But your uncle won’t let us marry. You know that.”
“My uncle doesn’t matter, he hasn’t mattered for almost half a year.”
“What are you talking about?”
Rupert sat up and tried to ignore the cold dread that had settled into his stomach.
“Gretha,” he said, his voice low and urgent. “What is the last thing you remember? Please, just answer.”
“Yesterday evening, by the river, you asked me to marry you.”
Another month lost. He took her hands in his and told her everything that had happened since that night.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “Why is this happening to me?”
“I don’t know.”
She let go of his hands and gently brushed the tears from his face. “But you suspect something, don’t you?”
He nodded, miserably. “The night I ran away, my grandmother told me I’d be forgotten, and that I couldn’t outrun it. I didn’t really know what she meant.”
“The palace servants whisper that the dowager grand duchess is a witch,” said Gretha. “I suppose it’s true.”
“There must be something we can do.” Rupert got out of bed and flung on a thick cloak against the morning chill. “I think we should leave this place, and go as far away as we can. There must be a corner of the world where her power can’t find us.”
They left the same day, and made it across the high mountain passes before they were closed by snow. Summer lingered still in some of the sheltered valleys, and they enjoyed the blue skies and the green woods that turned golden around them. All the while they kept going south, as far away from the palace as they could. The mountain range marked the border between the grand duchy and a neighbouring kingdom. Gretha’s memories slipped away increasingly slowly. Sometimes weeks would pass between the loss of one day and the next. Rupert began to hope that his grandmother’s power was faltering or that they were outrunning her curse.
Three weeks later, Gretha lost two whole years. She sat in the clearing where they had made camp, gazing up at the moon and stars, and smiled as she had on another moonlit night, when they had walked through the palace gardens together and realised they were in love.
“What are you thinking of?” Rupert said, as he sat down beside her and took her hand.
She leaned her head on his shoulder. “How happy I am. But I know it can’t last. You’re a prince, you’re meant for higher things. Best to forget about me, while you can.”
He linked their fingers together and told her why he would never forget her.
When dawn came, they packed their meagre belongings and continued on their way. Before the last leaves had fallen, they reached the sea. There was a lighthouse on a rocky cape with a small village nearby. The lighthouse keeper was happy to have someone take over his duties for a while. They sat in front of the fireplace for hours at the time. Gretha had her head in Rupert’s lap as he told her everything he could remember of their life together. The sea raged around them, enveloped them, hid them from the world.
“You’ve lost so much already,” Rupert whispered. “How long until you don’t remember our love?”
She stroked his cheek. “I loved you from the moment I met you.”
The fire crackled in the grate. The wind howled around the lighthouse. And the sea roared and boomed. Darkness fell, and they rose to light the lamp.
“Promise me something,” Gretha said that night.
“Promise that you will find happiness again, after I am gone.”
The words stuck in Rupert’s throat. He shook his head. “We’ll find another witch. One more powerful than my grandmother.”
They travelled west along the coast. In one village, they found a wise woman who brewed a potion that made Gretha retch but did nothing for her memory. When they reached a city, they enlisted the help of the scientists at the university. A dozen men and women of science came to see the curious case of the woman who forgot her life. They spent days making detailed notes about everything Rupert and Gretha told them, before solemnly declaring that nothing could be done.
“We’ll find something,” Rupert said. He kissed Gretha gently, while he still could, while she was still his Gretha.
Gretha woke to find herself lying in a strange bed, grasping at the tattered remnants of her dream. It had been so vivid and strange. But she couldn’t lie in bed dreaming all day. She couldn’t be late for the first day of her new job. It was quite a step up for an orphan with no schooling. She threw back the covers and got up. Her eyes fell on a man who was sleeping in a chair by her bad. Who was he? And where was she? Were these the lodgings of the palace gardeners?
The man woke with a start. His eyes were brown and she had the strangest feeling that she had met this man before.
“Good morning, sir,” she said and was startled to see tears in his eyes. “Are you all right, sir?”