by Dusty Thorne
Long ago, in a golden palace atop a tall mountain, there lived a dangerous king and his captive queen, a woman whose beauty had so enticed the king upon their first meeting that he had conquered her entire village, just to possess her. He had married her almost immediately, and within a year, she had become pregnant with the king’s child, henceforth delivering a daughter on the night of the harvest moon.
Not all was well, however. As the queen had never wished to be taken from her home, she deeply resented the king for all he had done to her, though she never felt brave enough to say so to him. Instead, the queen focused on helping their daughter to grow up in the golden palace as well as she could, often by schooling her to understand and predict the king’s mercurial moods in order to avoid confrontations with him. Meanwhile, her daughter befriended many of the servants in the king’s palace, as she was not permitted to venture far beyond the palace, nor down the side of the mountain, and so she often grew bored and craved the company of others.
Eventually, when the princess was hardly a teenager, the queen was struck by a terrible illness, which drained the strength from her body and made her quite feeble, hardly able to even hold up her head. For her daughter’s sake, the queen fought the illness for nearly a year, but then, realizing one cold night in December that she was losing her battle with death's approach, the queen began to greatly fear that another woman might soon suffer the same fate that both the queen and her village had suffered: to be taken over by the king, without having any say in the matter.
Shaken by this thought, the queen called for the king and then begged him to only remarry if he were to someday find a woman who was as beautiful as the queen herself was, for despite her illness, she knew the king still believed her to be beautiful, and so she hoped he could not so easily replace her.
However, much to the queen’s surprise, the king agreed without complaint to her request, and then, shortly after the queen’s death, he began in earnest his search for a suitable replacement to drape across his arm.
Though the king’s attention did not at first turn towards his daughter, it became clear over a number of weeks that there were no other women in his kingdom who could so closely match the beauty of his former queen. Only the princess was as beautiful as his queen had been, and so, to fulfill both the promise he had made to his wife, as well as his own desire to possess the most beautiful woman in the kingdom, the king came to his daughter and proposed a marriage to her.
This crude and unwanted question shocked the grieving princess so greatly that she at first could not comprehend what her father had asked of her. Running far away to pretend she had not heard him, the princess went to seek guidance from the palace’s resident fortune-teller.
“This, I sadly foresaw,” the elderly woman softly told the princess, as they sat on opposite sides of the iron bars that surrounded the fortune-teller’s prison cell, where the fortune-teller was kept when her gift of foresight was not being used to assist the king in conquering more lands. On the elderly woman’s wrists were shackles so thick they nearly hid the traditional tattoos of her tribe, from which the king had stolen her decades before.
“But there is a way around it, still,” the fortune-teller continued, and then told the princess to request from her father, as a condition of marriage, the commissioning of a royal portrait, which was to be life-sized and painted by the most skilled painter in the land, a portrait artist whose paintings could appear almost as true – if not more true – than life itself. The artist was to use paints from every known country, and he must clearly display both the king and the princess on the canvas as members of the royal family.
Though the princess was unsure how a painting would help her to avoid the unimaginable horror of marrying her father, she brought the request to him all the same, to which he agreed. The royal portrait took nearly a week to gather the materials for, and then weeks more after that to make it. As the artist her father had snatched up from a neighbouring town carefully copied every small detail of the king’s face onto his canvas with a narrow, horsehair brush, the princess sat in her bedroom and began to devise a plan of her own.
That night, the princess asked her father if, when it was her turn to pose for the portrait artist, she could be allowed the additional security of a fully-armoured knight beside her, preferably one who would obey only her commands. She also requested a wig be made for her out of the softest, shiniest hair possible, and a set of hairpins emblazoned with the royal seal to hold it in place so that she could look her best in her royal portrait.
Seeing the logic behind these requests, the king agreed, and when it was the princess’ turn to sit before the artist and have her half of the royal portrait painted, she did so with a perfectly styled wig on her head. Meanwhile, a knight dressed in silver armour and wearing a helmet with a long, silky red feather atop it stood beside her. To break up the time, the princess would speak to both the knight and the artist as her portrait was being painted, and as the days passed, she built up camaraderie with them both. She learned, for example, that the artist worried greatly for his wife, who had been left behind in his fishing village when the king had brought him here without offering any warnings, and that the knight in silver armor possessed a deep, inner sadness, despite his relative youth.
When the princess asked both men one day if they thought her marriage would be as loving as the marriage between the artist and his wife was, their answering silence told her all she needed to know about what they thought about a man who wanted to marry his own daughter, no matter how wealthy or powerful that man may be.
This silence gave the princess courage.
A week later, while standing in the dew-covered rose garden where the final touches of paint were being applied to her royal portrait, the princess asked the knight and the artist if they would help her to escape her marriage to the king. At first, both men hesitated, and the princess’ heart plummeted into her stomach, horror filling her at the thought that perhaps she had made a fatal miscalculation, and that she would not be able to escape her father’s attempt to produce a male heir with her after all.
A moment later, however, the artist dropped his paintbrush into its little glass jar of coloured water, swished it around to clean it, and then said, “My wife and I have a daughter.”
Seconds after this declaration, the knight removed his helmet and placed it over the princess’ head, thus covering up the wig she had been using to hide how she had shaved her head bare.
In that moment, the princess had nearly fainted from relief, so glad to have people willing to stand beside her, but she still had one more task to accomplish before attempting to escape, and so that very night, she hid her body entirely within the knight’s silver armour and visited the prison cell of the palace fortune-teller. Standing against the iron bars separating them, the princess asked the old woman if the attempt to escape from her father would be successful, but the fortune-teller did not answer her. Rather, the fortune-teller only sat there in her rattling chains and ragged dress, watching with a small smile as the princess in her silver armour took the metal hairpins from her wig and used them to pick the lock of the fortune-teller’s cell.
Once the door was open and the shackles had been unbound from the fortune-teller’s wrists, the princess removed her wig and then placed it over the fortune-teller’s much lighter, nearly white hair to help hide the colour of it. Removing the wig allowed the princess’ own bald head and oil-painted false beard stubble to momentarily reflect the firelight of the torches on the basement walls, before the princess pulled down the visor of her helmet and stood up from the floor.
It is not known if it was at this moment that the fortune-teller saw a vision that the princess would someday become a powerful leader in the fight against her father’s rulership, or if the fortune-teller only hoped for this, but when the princess, disguised as a male knight, snuck out into the dark, moonlit forest outside of the palace where she had spent nearly her entire life, the fortune-teller was quick to follow her.
Meeting the artist and the knight at the edge of the forest that surrounded the palace, the princess and the fortune-teller dove into the shadows, having no light to guide them, but hoping they could still find their way.