I finally made my way out of the celebration maze and came upon the archery range. And just as Renae had promised, a bow was waiting in my exact size, finer than any I’d ever beheld. Smooth, light wood, both strong and pliable, with fire-etched vines along its length. I nocked an arrow and steadied my gaze at a life-sized target of a man. I released my arrow with a clean zing and gasped at how smooth it sailed, embedding into a shoulder.
Yes, I would enjoy this bow. When I went to retrieve the arrow, I stared in confusion. Over the dummy’s heart was a deep crevasse, as if it had been struck there repeatedly. When my eyes searched, I found no other marks on the cloth body except the one I’d made in the shoulder. A quick look down the line of various targets showed more of the same. Only the bull’s-eyes had been struck.
“Of course,” I muttered. “My husband is a perfect marksman.”
I set my bow and arrow back down, shaking off a feeling unease, promising myself I’d return to practice each day.
I next headed for the hills with the forest beyond, beginning at a walk, and then breaking into a run. It felt good to stretch my legs. I ran as fast as my body could handle until I was deep in the swaying trees, breathing hard to catch my breath. When I finally settled, the only sound in the entire outdoors found my ears: moving water.
I walked until I found the stream. It was delightful, running clear over smooth stones. I slipped off my leather flats and stepped into the water, splashing about. But when I thought about crossing to the other side, the water came suddenly rushing up, and the landscape changed from rambling stream to deep river. I quickly swam back, landing in a pile on the bank. The stream was enchanted not to allow me to cross.
I let out a harrumph, standing and wiping off my bottom. When I went to pick up my shoes I noticed the water was already gone from my legs and dress. I was completely dry. Definitely enchanted water. I turned toward the trees and found that they had shifted and moved, creating a straight path out of the forest, back to the hills and the palace beyond.
I eyed the forest and gave the trees a grin. “What if I don’t want to go that way?” My feet took me between two trees on the side, their branches so low and entwined that I had to bend and work my body between them. A scream ripped from my throat when I felt something straight press against the back of my thighs, pushing me through the gap. Before I tumbled to the ground, roots shot out and spread, catching me in a makeshift cradle. I peered behind me to see the branch that had pushed me retreating. Laughter bubbled through me.
“Thank you?” I patted the roots and got to my feet, watching in awe as they retracted back into the ground.
At that point it became a game. I tried to wiggle my way through the hardest spots I could find, and to my delight, the trees played with me. They played with me! It was something from a dream. I climbed high in one tree as its branches moved round and round its enormous trunk like a spiral staircase. And when I got to the top, it wound vines around my middle and swung me down, making my belly swoop as I yelled with excitement. It was a far fall, but the tree never let me go. Then it swung me up and the next tree caught me.
By the time I made it to the other end of the forest, my face hurt from smiling and my entire body was spent. I was also sweating through my dress, and I loved it. I gave the final tree a hard hug and kissed its magical trunk, rough under my lips.
“I’ll be back,” I promised my new friends before trudging away, exhausted.
I fell against the side of a green, fluffy hill. I mean, really, what kind of grass was this? If we had this grass at home, we could drag blankets outside and sleep in comfort under the stars. There wasn’t a single bug in sight to sting or bite.
When my strength returned, I walked back to the palace. The doors burst open at my arrival and Renae’s voice fluttered out.
“Highness! Are you all right! Did they hurt you?”
“Who?” I asked. “The trees? Not at all! We had the most fun!”
“Fun?” She walked alongside me when I got to the hall, the doors shutting behind me. “But those trees have been known to mangle trespassers. They rarely let anyone see them move! I looked out the window and nearly died of the shock when I saw them so active! I even called to your husband—”
“You didn’t.” My heart gave a hard series of beats.
“I did, and I’m not sorry. He came immediately and laughed at my worry, assuring me you were quite all right, but I couldn’t imagine what all the fuss was out there.”
“What else did he say?”
“He said, ‘Worry not; they are entertaining one another.’” She said it in his same gruff voice, and I giggled. “Whoever heard of the trees entertaining? And a guest enjoying it!”
“Well, dear Renae, you’ll have to get used to it because I plan to visit them every day.” I smiled at her scoffing sound and ran the rest of the way to my bedchamber, loving the feel of dried salt on my skin. It reminded me of how I’d felt at home after a day of exploring and getting into trouble, tired and sweaty, my long hair tangled and wild.
But halfway through my bath, my dark mood returned. Yes, I’d adored every minute with the trees, but I couldn’t forget what awaited me. My mysterious punishment. As famished as I was from my day of play, I barely picked at the meal Renae left for me. And though it was still sunny out, I opted for a nightgown instead of another dress. I sat, staring off, my hair still wet and unbrushed, when the massive windows opened, and the presence of my husband came whooshing in. I wrapped my arms around myself.
“What is the matter?” He was standing over me. I shivered.
“It is more than that.” I heard him sit in the chair opposite me. “You were filled with joy when I saw you today.”
I peered down at the cushion I held on my lap, picking at the tassel. “You watched me?”
“I only had a moment to spare, but yes. I’ve never seen the trees behave that way.”
It felt strange knowing he’d seen me in that state of laughter and smiles, both things I withheld from him. It was like two parts of myself were clashing. I missed the old me. Being on guard and scared all of the time drained the life from me. I rubbed my face.
“Tell me what you want, Psyche.”
“I want my family.”
“I am your family now.”
His words were gentle, but my eyes burned, and I kept my hands over my face. “I want to know what your plan is for me. When you will finally hurt me. When the punishment will be fulfilled.”
He didn’t answer at first. I sniffed and forced my emotions down.
“I cannot ease your mind.” He sounded regretful. “Not with words. What else can I do?”
“I miss…” I stared out the windows. “Animals. It’s strange to be outside and not see a single bird or bug or animal.”
“Very well,” he said.
I peered at where he was sitting. “You’ll bring animals here? A puppy? Or a kitten?” A glimmer of glee trickled within me.
“That is simple. Tomorrow you shall have your wish.”
That easily? I smiled down at the pillow, and whispered, “Thank you.”
“May I brush your hair?”
“Um…” My face went warm and I looked everywhere except in front of me where I knew he sat. For some reason, the thought of having him brush my hair was even more intimate than allowing him to hold my face. I needed to be more careful. “I can do it.” And to prove my ability, I grabbed the palm handle of my brush from the side table and began to roughly drag it through my hair, pretending I hadn’t just denied him a simple thing. Why did I feel guilty? I had nothing to feel bad about.
My hair was mangled from today’s activities. I ripped out tangles until my scalp was tender, then I set it back on the table and cleared my throat. “See? All done. I should go to sleep. Is it nearly night yet?”
At my question, the sunlight disappeared, and the candles lit themselves around the room. “Thank you,” I told him, standing stiffly and rushing across the room to climb into the bed, pulling the blankets up all around me. No funny business tonight.
I sensed him move to the bedside. And then he began the slow stalking thing again. My teeth clenched in annoyance. I could see where the edges of the bed moved, the covers sinking down under the weight of his hand as he dragged it along the material. I thought about that hand. It’s tender warmth. Its strength. Its humanesque skin.
“Fear is an interesting concept, Psyche, is it not?”
I said nothing, my heart gaining speed.
“Sometimes,” he said, “we fear that which we should embrace because we do not know the full truth.”
I swallowed, shaking my head, closing my eyes.
“When I touch you,” he breathed, “your fear disappears. You enjoy my touch.”
“No, I don’t,” I ground out.
“Your lies are useless.” The covers flew back from my body, making me scream. He grabbed my ankle and pulled me forward. I tried to kick out, but he had both my ankles now and he was unbearably strong. When my body twisted, and I pulled at the covers, terrified, he hissed.
“Be still, Psyche. Lay back.”