Now I would make the ultimate sacrifice. Gods, help me.
The sun had not shown its face on our isle since the night our altar was destroyed. Papa’s builders worked day and night to create a new shinier, larger altar to the gods. In that time, my day of birth came and went, making me an official adult citizen. The altar was finished a day before the full moon. A day before I was to marry a monster.
I was the first to fall to my knees at the new structure. I didn’t cry, though all around me people wept. By now everyone knew of my fate. Everyone knew their punishment would be dealt through me. They cried my name, mourning their cherished princess, as if I were already dead. And perhaps I was. I surely felt it.
I hadn’t cried since the oracle had proclaimed my fate, her words slamming like a great stone against my nerves, numbing me completely. If I let myself feel, even for a scarce moment, my heart seized from sheer panic.
Tomorrow I’d be given to a monster. A serpent. An unknown mythological creature. And it was a cruel added punishment that the gods wouldn’t even allow me to know my husband’s identity. It allowed my mind—all of our minds—to create horrifying scenarios. There was no end of terrifying beasts in Olympus. Immortal humanesque beings.
Papa and Mother begged me to leave. They begged me to go in the dead of night. Papa knew people at the far ends of the land, people willing to let me hide away. They would feign my death, he said. As if the gods would not know. As if we’d not been foolish enough already.
No. This was the only way to lift the shade of darkness and bitter winds that hovered above our isle. I would not run from my duty to the people, especially now as their tears surrounded me, realizing the error of their ways. They had forgotten the power of the gods, opting to shower me with their adoration instead. And now they’d been reminded that their princess was very, very mortal. I felt their regret as stridently as if it were my own.
I would bring no finery to my new bridal home. Only myself. I gave all I had at the altar. After hours of worship, I retired to my room for my last night in the lavish home of my childhood. A sleepless night. Stormy did not grace me with her presence that night. Even the animals felt my doom.
In all the marriage celebrations I’d ever attended, I’d never heard the wedding lute sound mournful until this dark evening. Now and again as we walked the path to the mountain, the overfed clouds would move just enough for the full moon to show its ominous face, reminding us that it was, indeed, time.
I stood tall and walked with purpose, my face shrouded by a gauzy purple veil, but inside I shook like a loose feather in a gale. My fear was a thick, viscous thing inside of me, like sludge in my limbs, and I fought to overcome it. Not a single female face wasn’t streaked with tears; not a single males’ eyes were not wide with shock and horror.
And yet, we walked.
From the side of my vision, I noticed Boldar’s hand in a tight fist at his side. It must have gone against everything inside of him to allow me to go. He’d spent my entire life keeping me safe, more like an uncle than a guard, and now he marched me straight into danger. Pity made me reach down and squeeze his fist. His eyes moved to mine, and the pain I saw there, practically begging me to turn and run, sent a sharp sting through my breast. For once, I would not try to escape. No more playful running.
I swallowed and tried to smile, which brought a tremble to his chin. We both abruptly looked away and I brought my hand back to my own side. He couldn’t save me from the fate of the gods. Nobody could. Wind blasted us, lifting loose sand and whipping it against our party.
The path turned rocky, but the lute’s sadness never ceased. Its tune warbled through the dense air, surrounding all of us. Breathing became labored as the walk turned into more of a climb, requiring hands now. And when the peak came into view my sisters and Mother behind me began to wail in earnest. Even Papa let out a choked sound. I swallowed once. Twice. Three times, taking shuddering breaths. Boldar took my elbow on a sharp incline, though I didn’t need his help. It wasn’t my first climb to the peak of this mountain. But it was the first time I’d done it without joy.
He will have her as his wife.
My stomach gave a violent lurch and I paused to close my eyes. I hadn’t eaten in over a day and didn’t want my body to bring up the terrible acid that’d been churning in my stomach. If I began to heave, I might never stop.
“Princess,” Boldar said with worry, his hand gripping my elbow.
I blew out a breath and lifted my head. “I’m all right.” I continued my climb.
When it became too steep and the lute began to get choppy, I rushed to the front of the party. The music stopped. All eyes lifted to me as I faced their mournful faces.
“I will continue alone.”
Papa’s stern mouth tried to work, but nothing came out, so I ran to him. My family embraced me, shaking with their sobs, the five of us holding fast. Still, I did not cry. Their love and guilt were palpable things. I could not be angry at their past stubbornness or foolishness. I wouldn’t blame them or the people. My heart was too full of fear, leaving no room for anger or blame.
“I love each of you,” I said, taking in their faces one last time. Papa. Mother. Miracle. Dawn. Then Boldar. When I turned from them, Boldar tried to follow but I gave his hand a reassuring squeeze. “I must go alone.” I pulled my hand from his grasp, looking away from his desperate gaze.
I climbed the rest of the way, my eyes scanning the area with apprehension. Only rocks to be seen. The higher I went, the harsher the winds became, grasping and stripping my veil. I tried to grab it, but the winds took it, leaving my face and hair on display as I fell to my knees at the top of the rocks.
As the skies darkened further, I watched the lights of gas lamps and torches begin their slow descent. The path of light moved farther and farther away. And with each retreating step, my heart grew heavier, pounding louder. Hearing a noise, I turned, crying out, but I was alone. Just me and my terror. All around me became blackness, and as the last of the lights disappeared from sight, I finally let loose the emotions inside of me. Every single thing I’d been holding back rushed to the surface, flooding out of me, wrenching my voice from my throat.
On that rock I cried. I bawled, overcome with dread, sadness, and regret. My soul poured out the anger and blame I felt toward my family and the people. This could have been avoided. This should have never happened! This wasn’t fair.
I mourned until my strength was gone and I collapsed upon the rock, my face pressed against its cool, worn surface. And then a different wind came. Not cold or hot or rushed. This wind caressed me from toe to scalp, calming me into a deep sleep. And then the wind lifted me and carried me away.
I stretched in bliss as I woke, having no immediate recollection of what had happened. In that single instant I was fully rested, more comfortable than I’d ever been. At peace. My fingers lazily moved, twining with velvety blades of grass. And the light beyond my eyelids was as soft as happiness.
It all came racing back to me and I sat up gasping, heart galloping. Every scrap of peace I’d felt was thrown from my body, replaced by the panic I’d worn at the rock. But as my fingers gripped the grass on either side of me, and my head swiveled side to side, my mind couldn’t grasp what my eyes were taking in.
Lush waves of grass gave way to a mossy bank and a stream that rambled, clear as my own sea. The trees were massive with twisted trunks, making them look as if they’d danced themselves into those beautiful positions as they grew from saplings. Their leaves waved down at me, but none fell. In fact, the grounds were completely free of any leaf or branch debris. Everything about the woodsy area was perfect.
On closer inspection, the only sounds were the tinkling stream and the rustle of leaves clapping softly against one another. No birds chirping. No buzz of bees. No life other than the plants. The colors, greens, blues, and browns were too vivid and bright. This wasn’t my world.
I leapt to my feet, my heart refusing to settle. Where was I? Why was I alone? Where was my…no. I shook my head. I didn’t want to think about the beast. And I didn’t want to get my hopes up that this was really where I was supposed to be. Was I somehow being taunted? Teased with a peaceful surrounding before being thrown into a nightmare? It was possible my husband was capable of such cruelty. As much as I didn’t want to find out, my stomach gave an ache of hunger and I knew I had to move. I made my way tentatively through the trees, and I swore they moved ever so slightly to accommodate me. When I turned, they seemed to be in different positions, but I couldn’t remember exactly. I blinked away the strangeness and continued on.
At one point, I swore I heard soft footsteps behind me, but when I spun, holding my breath, nobody was there. This place—this entire situation—was making me lose my mind. I thought of my family’s faces when I’d left them, and suddenly I felt alone for the first time in my life. Truly alone. And though the air was not cold, I wrapped myself in my arms, holding tight against the internal shiver and longing for home.
I continued through the enchanted forest, unable to rid myself of the feeling of being watched, no matter how many times I stared about and saw nothing but trees. And when I came to the edge of the forest at the bottom of a valley where the trees gave way to rolling hills, my fingers fluttered up to cover my lips. At the top of the last vibrant hill was a palace. But not just any palace. It put my childhood home to shame.