(Content Warning: strong language, mention of suicidal thought)
Through the thundering sounds of the waves beating the rocks, the distant clanks of metal meeting metal, the blood curdling screams of panic and pain still reached me as I lay in the shallow waters, with the taste of cold salt and warm iron mixing in my mouth as the waves washed over my body. Blood and seawater.
With the sting of the salty water in my eyes, it took time before I could make out the towering cliff face glistening in the night, and the dark waves shattering into myriads of obsidian shards upon meeting the black stone again and again, soaking into my clothes, and numbing the senses of my body. My mind was numb with shock too. Could I even hope we both had survived the fall..?
As I lay there, the sounds of the sea changed, ever so slightly by footsteps striding through, splashing my way, and a pair of hands dragged me onto my feet. The world was spinning and with the change of angles there came a change of sensation, a splitting headache and shooting pain in my ribs as I coughed and my knees buckled in agony as I tried to put weight on my right foot. I felt my stomach turn, and immediately after, its acidic contents in my mouth. The person holding me up tossed me back on the ground with a disgusted grunt as I threw up into the sea. Panting in pain, I rinsed my mouth with the dark, bloodied waters. I couldn’t see Fae, I could barely see anything at all. Find her, I wanted to scream, but everything faded into darkness as I was dragged onto my feet again.
When I opened my eyes, drifting briefly back into consciousness, I was draped over a horse, led by a man wearing a light cloak in the colour of sand.
I have seen that cloak before…
The ride was held on an unforgiving day. Large, fluffy flakes, whirled around in the cutting, cold wind. It was impossible to see further than a stone’s throw in the thickness of the whites, and I kept my gloved hands under the warmth of my horse’s mane, tightening and loosening my grip on her loose reins to keep my fingers warm, and wiggled my toes inside my fleece lined boots. The snow settled on top of my hooded cloak and over my horse’s topline like a soft, white blanket over her dapple grey coat. I could sometimes hear the voices of the other riders, as I was wandering through the woods, but the sounds closest to me were the crackling of ice and powdery virgin snow under my horse’s hooves and the raven’s caws and the ripples of wings. When I stopped and stood in my stirrups to tie my offering to the white raven high up onto an old tree, through the eerie silence and distant noises a strong voice, a song drawn nearer to me. The brand new verse of the Ballad of the Cursed Crown.
The young prince’s betrothed has run off,
His bed will have to stay cold, oh,
But who would be such a fool to choose
Our cross eyed, cursed and fearful boy?
You’ve dodged the bad luck, princess!
From the thick fog emerged a fine chestnut horse and a young man in a turquoise scarf blowing in the wind over his sand-coloured cloak.
‘Zephyr… Thanks for the sympathy.’ I sighed, recognising the crown prince of the desert.
‘Do you like this song? I’ve learned it on the way here.’ He grinned, his lips a shade of purple from the cold. ‘What, are you still sad about it?’
‘For a decade I thought I would marry her.’ I pouted. I wasn’t sure what hurt more, the rejection or the public humiliation that still lived on in the ballad.
‘Forget it. You didn’t know the girl. And, if you really can’t find a lover here because everyone is so scared of you being cursed, all you need to do is visit me. The girls haven’t stopped talking about you since you last came. They were very taken by “the golden-haired prince of Stormness.”’ He winked.
‘I don’t know whether my bad luck is contagious.’ I grimaced. ‘How is that girl?’
‘The one who kissed you?’ Zephyr’s smile widened. ‘She’s dead.’
I felt a chill down my spine and pulled my cloak tighter around myself. I didn’t want to talk about girls anymore.
‘Why don’t you propose to Ashdown?’
‘What?’ I laughed. ‘I can’t marry Felix!’
Zephyr raised a brow in amusement, his eyes fixed on my face like curious emeralds.
‘Is that so? I was about to complain about the weather and all, but now I’m so glad I was invited. Ayden Ravenbourne...’ Hearing my full name, I didn’t have to look at his entertained grin to know I made a mistake. ‘Obviously, I meant his sister.’
Despite the temperatures, I felt my face flush and I laughed it off nervously.
‘N-no way, Fae doesn’t like me at all. Well, I guess Princess Aliyah didn’t like me either…’ I looked away to avoid meeting his eyes.
‘So? Marriage is not about love. At the very least, not for us, future kings.’
‘Your father didn’t come.’ I changed the subject.
‘Rightly so. Do I look like I’m enjoying this? I can’t feel my face anymore!’
I gave him an apologetic smile. The annual ride to give our winter offerings to the white raven was an important ritual, but unpleasant at best, and deadly at worst: with holes in the ground and frozen puddles hidden under the snow’s disguise, our horses could easily step on dangerous ground and break a leg or maybe even their riders’ bones, if they were to fall on top of them. However, those were just risks on parchment. In practice, during all the years I took part, no accident occurred.
‘He is going blind…’ Zephyr said finally. ‘I think it's not long before I have to take the crown.’
‘You will be a good king.’
‘I’ll try. You should, too. And you should be more wary of what your people say about you. You may be heir to the throne, but you are only one man against many if they don’t want you to rule.’
‘It can’t be helped. If one’s cursed with misfortune–’
‘You don’t seem to understand–’
‘You don’t seem to understand!’
‘I just don’t want to make things worse.’ I said absently, as I heard swords meet somewhere close. Some of us must have gotten bored, using this time for practice, or just sparring to warm up. I glanced at Zephyr with his light cloak wrapped tightly around him. Shall I start a fight..?
‘Listen, if you don’t pull yourself together, and fast, you will–’ He could have been talking to the falling snowflakes, for I was following the distant shouts I couldn’t make out and trotted on to find the source of the voices.
We came to the edge of the steep bank of a snowed over, frozen lake.
‘Isn’t that your right hand man?’ Zephyr asked, narrowing his eyes.
Even wrapped in his winter cloak, I could never mistake him for anyone else: his long hair tied high with the Ashdown ribbon, catching in the cold wind as he was descending the steep bank on his black mare, Midnight. My champion.
‘What is he doing..?’ I squinted, and looking down, I noticed a sword, dropped on top of the snow on the lake’s surface. The breath caught in my lungs.
‘For heaven's sake… it’s not worth it!’ I cantered towards him along the bank, shouting. ‘Get back up! Dismount and turn back! You realise there’s a lake?!’
Midnight slipped just as Felix picked his head up at my voice. My blood ran cold in my veins as they slid all the way down. The sound of ice breaking under a horse, I didn’t know until then, and it was more horrifying than I could have imagined: the scream of Midnight through the loud crack as the ice gave in under their weight, the splash of the freezing cold water that waited beneath, and Felix calling my name, as he was plunged underwater. I never jumped out of the saddle that fast before.
Midnight was trying to free herself, struggling and breaking more ice, whilst Felix was trying to hold on, to her mane, and to the ice still intact behind him. He was trapped in the water, between ice and horse.
I threw the end of my scarf for him to hold on to, whilst Zephyr, catching up to me, grabbed the reins of the struggling mare.
‘The horse first, she’s in the way!’ He pulled on her reins.
‘Leave him! She’d kick him to death!’ I knew he was right, but it felt like eternity until Midnight finally caught the ground with her hooves, broke free from the frosty grasp of the lake and I could pull Felix onto the snow at last. He was coughing and shaking, his whole face blue, his clothes and hair dripping, soaked through with ice water.
‘Fuck me…’ I squeaked as he stumbled into my arms.
‘There’s other ways to warm him up.’ Zephyr smirked.
‘Save your jokes!’ I snapped, dragging Felix away from the water to strip him from his soaked clothes.
He helplessly closed his eyes, his teeth knocking as he shivered.
‘You better be.’
Felix nodded his head and grabbed the scarf I started rubbing him dry with.
‘I can do this.’
I squeezed as much water out of his hair as possible.
‘Just cut it, it's too wet..’ Zephyr suggested.
‘No… Don't you dare.’ I glared at him, and he put his knife back into his belt with a shrug.
‘You’ll freeze…’ He grimaced as I started to take off my clothes to share with Felix.
‘He’d freeze faster. Zephyr… Ride ahead, back to the castle. Ask the servants to prepare a hot bath and mulled wine, we'll be on our way soon.’
He tossed his own cloak at me before climbing back up the bank.
The air felt heavy with the sweet and musky smell of burning incense within the bedchamber I woke in. Filtering through sheer burnt orange curtains, the warm golden light of the setting sun lit up the room like a festive lantern. I was lying on my back in a bed of colourful silks and embroidered cushions, holding the loose ends of Felix's silk ribbon still wrapped around my wrist, watching the sparkly threads of the fiery ash leaves come alive on it in the golden hour glow. He would have found his sister dead after I pulled her down with me, when I fell off the cliff… My eyes burnt as the iron grasp of guilt squeezed my heart. How could I possibly look into his eyes after that..?
With a creak of the door somebody walked in, the bed dipped as he sat down beside me. Lowering my forearm over my eyes to cover them, I clenched my jaw — I didn’t want to see anyone and I certainly didn’t fancy a talk. Actually, if they could’ve just left me to die — that would’ve been ideal. The intruder said nothing, he didn’t even move nor made a noise. I held my breath for a couple moments. Time crawled and I lost all sense of it. Being this uncomfortable, I felt it’d been hours since my space got invaded, but it could’ve been just minutes. Slowly, I got more and more frustrated and felt my anger rise. I swiftly lowered my arm the same moment the other also lost his patience in waiting for me to acknowledge his presence and we spoke at the same time.
‘Are you playing dead?’
‘Get lost already!’
Zephyr's face darkened.
‘Oh, shall I?’ He punched me in the ribs with the side of his fist, and although he didn’t exert much strength I saw stars from the pain.
‘What an ungrateful thing to say to the selfless hero who saved your worthless joke of a life.’
You know it’s a worthless joke, why bother saving it? I didn’t ask you to, I thought and averting my gaze I continued to stare at the ceiling in silence.
‘I’ll get the doctor to look at you again.’
‘No… Thank you. I better go.’ I pushed myself up on the bed, feeling a sharp pain in my ribs and a dull ache all over my body. Zephyr raised an eyebrow but didn’t say anything, just watched as I struggled myself into an upright position. I had a splitting headache and even sitting up I knew I wouldn’t be able to put weight on my throbbing right foot.
‘Where are my clothes?’
‘I threw them out,’ said Zephyr simply, matter of fact.
‘I’m sorry, I think I’ve misheard.’ I forced through my teeth, grimacing from the pain.
‘You would really stand out wearing those, and they were so… dull and boring,’ said he with an innocent smile. I wanted to strangle him. Dull and boring my ass, it was Zephyr who dressed every single day of the week as if he was a mad rainbow peacock!
‘You…’ I growled, staring daggers at him.
‘If you are planning to say anything other than a “thank you” for the pile of fresh clothes I prepared for you, I advise against it. Even you would prefer them over nothing, right?’
I frowned. Risking all options of clothing getting taken away was not something I wanted to do by upsetting him too much. I pulled the clothes over and picking up one piece after another, had a good look at them. I wasn't being picky or critical, I was merely trying to figure out the what and how to put where first? Our kingdoms surely had very different dress codes. Whilst back home they were sticking to more neutral colours and practical garments, in Zephyr’s more prosperous land and warmer climate, loose and colourful, flowy silks and linens were the top choice, with all the clashing colours of the rainbow. Except for his travelling cloak, still draped over his shoulders, Zephyr was all bright colours, but of course the cloak’s purpose was to hide him in among the dunes.
‘Do you need help?’
‘No,’ I said, thinking I shouldn't ask the question on my mind — precisely whether the sash was strong enough for me to hang myself with. I looked Zephyr up and down for reference, and with a vague idea of what ties where I got up, balancing on one foot. It wasn’t an easy task to get dressed with fractured ribs and a broken foot, but I eventually got into the baggy, bright blue trousers and the teal tunic, before making a mess of trying to tie the long, terracotta sash as a belt, judging by Zephyr’s impatient snort.
‘What are you trying to achieve? There is a way to tie it.’ He got up to fix it for me, wrapping the fabric flatly around my waist. There was still a headscarf left, which Zephyr picked up before I could.
‘Don’t you have anything better to do?’
‘No, actually.’ He stepped behind me and I watched our reflections in the mirror opposite on the wall. I closed my eyes for a moment when Zephyr touched my hair and tried running his fingers through it… but he got stuck in a knot. I opened my eyes to see Zephyr’s smile disappear into a distorted face of frustration. With a couple quick twists of his wrist he wrapped my long hair around his hand, and gripping it tightly pulled back my head.
‘Gentle..!’ I protested. ‘Can’t we ask your servants to do this? Clearly, you have no clue–’
‘–what you're doing. ...What? Wait, what are you apologising for?!’ I tried to get away from him, but didn’t stand a chance.
Zephyr didn’t waste words to reply. With one swift slice of his dagger he cut off my hair above his fist. I could do nothing but stare. Stare at my reflection, as the short strands of hair fell into my face, released from the tight pull. Looking dishevelled, messy, short and in every way unlike what’s appropriate for a prince. Zephyr watched me in the mirror opening then closing my mouth like a mute fish pulled to shore. I never considered this could happen to me. My throat tightened and if I spoke I’d have choked on my tears. Zephyr got over it faster and proceeded to comb through my short locks with his hands.
‘Don’t touch me.’
He only stiffened for a heartbeat before he ignored me, continuing rushly and without a thought for being gentle, like he wanted it done and over with before I would come to my senses and really end him right there.
‘What about our fathers’ peace? What about saving my life? You are nothing, nothing but a cheating, two faced coward with no honour, you aren’t my ally…’ My lips trembled. Zephyr was trying to tie the scarf so fast he dropped it several times.
‘I hate you. From the bottom of my heart, and–’ Zephyr gave up and threw the scarf over my head, darting out of the room the moment my voice started to break.
I wasn’t saved by him. I was taken prisoner.