Once upon a time there was a prince as ruthless as he was beautiful, whose callous acts forced his parents to lock him away in a chamber deep under the palace so that he may never assault those above.
This decision was not made easily, for the Prince was so charming and fair of face that it was said he could fell an angel with words alone. But his appetites were of such a strange and gruesome sort that to fulfil them would be the blackest sin. And so, to to save his soul and those of all around him the Prince was to be imprisoned for the rest of his days.
A servant was sent down to the Prince thrice a day with food and books to amuse him throughout the long hours of solitude, but save for their company he had no contact with another living soul. The King and Queen were in despair, for he was their only son and they had loved him, still loved him, in spite of his evils.
As they aged the need for an heir to the throne grew ever prominent. Over the years they tried to have more children, but each time the Queen became pregnant the foetus curdled in the womb or, in its first breath, drew its last.
Desperation sowed itself like a seed into the hearts of these unhappy parents, a growing darkness.
Then, one day, the Queen grew so weary of their plight that she said to her husband, “Is there no way to cure our son of his sickness? There is no one to take his place, nor will there ever be. Let us call every healer in the land to us and see if they may aid him.”
Thus the King and Queen invited doctors, wise women and medicine men in all their forms to tend to their son at whatever cost. They came in their thousands, forming lines for several miles to the palace gates in hope of vast reward.
Unbeknownst to them the Prince was aware of their arrival, having drawn the news from the lips of a servant he had turned to be his spy. The news displeased the Prince, for he did not wish to be helped in what was perceived to be his plight. He had no shame in his corrupt madness, looking gladly forwards to the day he would dance with the Devil as any good person thinks of Heaven.
Besides, the Prince saw betrayal even where it did not lie, and was convinced that the healers schemed to put an end to him and the scourge that he had brought to their cities at his heights.
The Prince’s servant, who had long fallen in love with his master, wept to think of him meeting his death at the hands of strangers. He went on his knees and offered to assist the Prince in any way he could, regardless of consequence.
“Very well,” said the Prince, delighted by this show of devotion. “Bring me the head of the witch that was hung to her death in one of the nearby villages this night past. With its aid, I shall be freed.”
Although bewildered and repulsed by this demand the servant went out to where the bodies of the executed were kept, and returned to the palace some time later with the witch’s decapitated head concealed within a coarse brown sack. Just as he was about to descend with it to the prison chamber the King happened upon him and asked what it was that he carried to the Prince in such haste.
“Only fruit for my Master,” said the servant. “Can you not smell its ripeness, sire?”
The King, not wishing to be seen as a fool, said that he could indeed, and so the servant went down to the chamber undisturbed.
The Prince was much pleased with him, smiling a mouth that promised many kisses. He took the sack and removed the witch’s head from within. It was still fresh, but as ugly as something dug up from the earth. Even so, the Prince placed his lips upon its vile forehead and drew back to watch as the hideous face came alive. It looked about, and then began to speak.
“Who are you, and what do you seek from me?”
“I wish to leave this chamber,” said the Prince. “I am trapped here, and there are many who seek to kill me. I must have my freedom.”
The witch’s head appeared to consider this.
“Very well,” it said. “I will help you, but first you must give me the three withered berries that grow on an unmarked grave three miles North of your father’s window.”
The Prince, unable to seek them out himself, sent his servant to gather them in his place. Once there, the man plucked the brittle fruits swiftly- one, two, three, nestled in his palm like fallen teeth –and rushed back to the palace chamber once more.
On this journey the Queen accosted him, wondering what the servant carried that he must run with it at such haste.
“Beans, for my Master,” he told her. “Have you not seen them grow in the fields to the North?”
The Queen, who was loathe to be perceived as unfamiliar with her own kingdom, assured the servant that she had indeed observed these fields, and allowed him to continue his quest.
The Prince, upon retrieving the berries from his servant’s palm, slipped them into the witch’s waiting mouth, one by one. It appeared not to swallow them, for there was no stomach for the berries to travel to, but when it spoke the mouth was empty again.
“Now, fair Prince,” said the witch. “You must dress in your servant’s clothes, if he is willing to give them.”
The servant was only too glad to oblige his master, although he was left naked and shivering, too much in awe of the Prince to don his royal attire in exchange.
“What now?” asked the Prince. “If I attempt to leave I will be recognised, even in this lowly garb.”
The witch’s head appeared to think for several long minutes, during which the Prince grew vastly impatient. Then abruptly the witch said, “I hope, young Prince, that you are as cruel and merciless as your reputation suggests, or else you may be unable to complete the next task.”
“Worry not,” the Prince replied. “I am both of these things, and more.”
The witch saw he spoke the truth, for the head smiled and said, “Very well, then. You must cut off the face of your servant and don it as a mask so that no one will know who you are until you are safe away from the palace. Only then may you escape unseen.”
The servant, who had promised all to save his Master, dared make no objection, but in his gut there lay a serpent of ice which twisted coils of panic tighter and tighter around him. The Prince, however, thought only of the lack of tools with which to do the deed. All manner of sharpened things had been removed from the chamber so that he could not inflict damage upon himself or those who tended him.
“Reach beneath my tongue,” said the witch. “Take the blade you find there. It is hewn of the berries you fed to me, the fruit of Death itself, so take care with it. Its bite is crueller than you know.”
The Prince, eager for the freedom that beckoned so closely, tugged the knife from the witch’s jaws with finger and thumb. He then turned upon his servant, whose features were quite dull with adoration, and slashed the boy from ear to ear, chin to temple, until the pretty face peeled away into his hands.
Blood ran like wine over both men, sweeter than any drink in its innocence.
The Prince clasped the face to his own where it fitted like a silk carnival mask, changing him in a moment. He saw in the eyes of the witch that even his own mother would not know him, and a thrill ran through the Prince at the wickedness of such a trick.
After licking his fingers clean of blood the Prince took the keys to his chamber door from the pockets of his dead servant. He felt nothing for the twitching corpse, nor for the blinking head settled nearby, so without further ado the Prince ascended from his prison.
The scent of fresh air beyond the chamber was as delicious as apples and honey to him, the first he had tasted of it in six years. But he did not savour it, for the Prince thought only of flight, returning to the dark places he had inhabited before.
In leaving he met the seething crowd of healers waiting to treat his sickness, all of whom were fooled by his guise. The blood on him was concealed by the dark of his servant’s garb, so they thought him only poor and unkempt, as befitted his station.
“The sick one lies below,” lied the Prince, gesturing to the chamber from whence he’d come. “Go to him. He has need of your talents.”
He watched them go, each hastened with the vigour of greed, and pitied them as man does all primitive creatures beneath him. Then the young Prince recalled what he must do and left the palace, heading out to his father’s stables.
A row of thoroughbred horses stood, their flanks gleaming like new coins, placid amongst the hay. As the Prince approached they whinnied and bucked against their tethers, eyes blank with terror, for they smelled madness on the youth, and feared it. He was not disheartened by their display, for it was not them he sought.
The Prince had a steed of his own which he had raised from a babe to share his tastes. It was locked in a stable of its own, away from the others, where it battered its head and hooves against the walls in a screaming frenzy. This beast had been known to tear its master’s enemies to pieces and eat children alive, flesh clinging to its hooves and mane like red petals. Its hunger never ceased, and it thought almost with a man’s cunning, wild and vindictive as scorn.
The Prince approached the creature’s stable and touched the solid door. It was hot with the breath of the animal on the other side of it; a miracle that it had not burned.
In a voice softened with love the Prince called, ‘Darling! Hush Darling. I have come to liberate you, my sweet.’
Darling- for that was the horse’s name, -quietened at once. It waited with unflinching obedience as its master set about freeing it with the servant’s key- which seemed to work for this door, also -and allowed him to pet its foul head. Gusts of putrid steam exhaled from the raw holes of the beast’s nostrils and its teeth, filed to carnivorous points, foamed with blood.
“Beautiful thing,” said the Prince.
With his infamous grace he pulled himself onto Darling’s great back steered the beast towards the stable doors. Then he whipped Darling into a violent gallop which rocked the ground with its weight, and they made away together across the palace grounds.
People going about their duties nearby stopped to observe their passage in a reverent horror. Some collapsed to their knees, sure that they saw the Devil himself riding before them. Others recalled the Prince’s evil and recognised him even with the mask of another man’s face. These people wept and begged their Gods to be spared of his brutality.
The Prince cared not for pleas nor worship. He drove Darling forward, and without mercy the creature massacred any that stood in his path like a berserker on the fields of war.
By this time the King had Queen had received word that their son had killed his servant and staged an escape, and were beside themselves with panic. They ran to the front of the palace in hope of apprehending him before he could flee.
Upon sighting them the Prince felt the great excitement of hatred well within him. Tearing the servant’s face from his own he said, “Mother, Father, you have mistreated me. I must avenge all that I have lost to you.”
“Take pity, dear one,” cried the Queen, and bowed until her golden brow touched the blood-soaked ground. “Do not harm us. We meant you no ill. We had no other options open to us .”
“We mourned for you,” said the King. “Forgive us what we have done.”
The Prince was disgusted by their grovelling, and at first thought to dispatch them at once. But presently a different evil occurred to him that would better serve his cause.
“Very well,” said the Prince. “I shall let you live. But only on the condition that you allow me to go about as I please, and take those I will, and make no attempt to stay me as you have before.”
Seeing that they had no choice, the King and Queen consented. The Prince was overcome with joy, for at last he could embrace the sickness that festered in the dried thorns of his heart.
He turned his back on the palace and made for the woods, that being place where all evil is drawn and grows in the gloom. But this forest was of particular interest to him, being a source of great and terrible power.
Upon travelling in silence for a time the Prince rode upon a gorgeous ruin, choked in the heavy blooms of wild roses. Within there was an impossible tower from whose window dangled the corpse of a beautiful girl, hung by the neck from a cord of her own flaxen hair. Such sights were commonplace in the woods, and so the Prince rode on.
After this he passed a melting slurry of chocolate and biscuit that might once have resembled a house. From its chimney came the stink of burning flesh and the cries of something dying, something old.
Two children sat like cherubs in the roots of a nearby tree. Their faces were smeared with icing, their fingers tipped with blood. They hailed the Prince as he passed them, which he, imperious, ignored.
Theirs was not the only act of murder the Prince came across on his ride. He observed a girl-child devoured by three savage bears, and a lady in red capelet despoiled by some heinous agglomeration of man and beast. It snarled at him as he rode by, its humanity rippling in and out of its features like rings in a stagnant pool.
The Prince made no attempt to intervene in what he considered acts of nature; indeed, they had envigourated him, and roused his own dark hunger. Yet he saw no true means to satisfy them until Darling took him to the centre of the wood where there was no light, save for a single lantern suspended in the branches of a black tree.
Beneath it huddled a group of diminutive people that, at first, the Prince took to be children, but were, in fact, dwarven folk, weeping over a shining, oblong object nestled in the grass at their feet. The Prince succumbed to his curiosity and dismounted to examine the receiver of their grief. To his astonishment he found that it was a coffin carved from crystal glass, marked only by a golden plaque at its foot enscribed with a peculiar name.
“Winter Rain,” said the Prince, aloud.
“Yes,” said one of the dwarves. “Winter Rain. She choked to death on some morsel and fell, cold and light, into the grave.”
“Frozen in youth,” said another. “As precious as the day she died. Look upon her for yourself.”
The Prince did so, and felt a net of fascination draw itself tight about him. Inside the coffin lay a gorgeous woman, pale as hemlock and nude as the day she was born. Her hair and lashes were plushly dark, and her lips, forever curled in a sensuous smile, stood out from her bloodless face as starkly as poppies in the snow.
Yet, even in this perfection of beauty, the Prince saw that she was indeed quite dead. A dusting of shadow at her eyes and throat, her glassy stillness, were proof of that.
But it was the woman’s lifelessness, not her splendour, that inspired a lust in the Prince. In days gone by, the Prince would plunder villages of their women and strike them dead before lavishing their corpses in splendour they had never known in life. He would lie with them on beds of scented reeds, ornament them in filigree jewellery, and whisper words of love into their un-heeding ears, blind to the writhing maggots and stiffness set into the limbs.
Yet the Prince had never desired any of them so greatly as he did this divine woman. She would remain preserved for centuries to come, still soft, still sensual, the perfect bride. The Prince imagined her chill form cleaved to him, limp beneath his hunger touch, and yearned for her. He was bewitched.
Slave to his vile and avaricious cravings, he turned to the bereaved dwarves and made his offer.
“I have fallen in love with this woman, and wish to take her with me to my palace as my bride. She will have all the riches of a high-born princess, and more. In return, I offer you the same.”
The dwaves crowded together and discoursed amongst themselves. After a time, one glanced up and said, “Is it wise that we give away the child we hold so dear to you? How do we know that you will not take our jewel and tear her to pieces? We cannot part with one who may despoil her, not for all the riches in the land.”
“Never,” the Prince declared. “I swear to you that I will cast out every weapon I own so that I will not be tempted.”
As proof of his sincerity, he removed the witch’s blade from his pockets and threw it away into the undergrowth where, one day, it would grow into a thorned tree. At this, the dwarves’ wizened features became transfigured with cunning, and they set about muttering again.
“If you will not harm her, who is to say that your steed will not?” one asked, gesturing towards the hulking black knot of muscle and hair that was Darling. “One day you may let it out of your sight, allowing it to rip our Winter Rain apart from spite. How could we hand her to you knowing what the future offers to her?”
The Prince, at this, was caught up in a great conflict, for although he wanted Winter Rain more than anything on earth he cherished his horse also. He looked from one to the other, his emotions at war, but beauty won over the beast.
Rising to his feet, the Prince took a bundle of twigs in his hands and lashed at Darling’s eyes, blinding it with such speed the animal knew not what had happened. It ran, whickering like a foal in a confusion of fear and pain, into the labyrinth of the woods, and remains there to this day, seeking its master in vain.
That done, the Prince appealed to the dwarves a final time.
“Please. She has my soul, and I am bound to her. I will be her slave for the rest of my days.”
The dwarves did not converse at all this time, but arranged themselves about the coffin, three at each of the sides, one at its head, and together they hauled away the coffin lid and laid it in the grass. Gasping in delight the Prince rushed forward and bent low over his prize.
“Be sure that this is your wish,” said the dwarves. “For in taking Winter Rain as your bride to take Death into your arms, sure and true.”
“I care not for that,” said the Prince, and with the care of one handling the most delicate flower he lifted the lady’s fragile head and kissed her sumptuous mouth.
As he did so, a stirring of life came back into her, and by then it was too late.
The moment the Prince’s lips graced her own Winter Rain spat out the sliver of poisoned apple she held in her mouth and pushed it down his throat. He writhed and choked, yet it was no use. The chemicals in it were too strong, and in a few hacking, strangling breaths the Prince fell down dead, cracking his skull on the edge of the coffin.
Winter Rain crouched lithely beside him, and stroked the still planes of his face with dainty fingers.
“My love,” she said.
Then she walked out of the wood into the light with the dwarves shambling in her shadow, Death and Her entourage, with a heart as hard and cold as virgin snow.