“So, you’re the latest madman who believes he can cure my daughter?” the king asked, with no regal sophistication in his voice. “Do you even see what’s wrong with her?”
“I don’t know what it is,” Stock said. “It feels as if she’s not alone.”
The king’s face brightened slightly. “Maybe one in ten of you madman can see that. Her mother died in childbirth and the pain of that night drove her out of her mind. She raved, hated, and cursed her own unborn twins, and so they emerged cursed. I hardly noticed as she grew up, either because I was too busy or because she seemed like any other child, but the older she’s become, the worse. Now she lies in bed, torn apart inside, unless we can make right what my late wife made wrong.”
“But I don’t understand. What is she sick with? And does her twin have it?”
“She’s sick with her twin,” the king said. “The girls emerged as one body, for my wife’s curses must have been so strong that devils put the children together. Isabelle has been a sweet girl and she was the one we noticed, the one we called for until we realized there was another. My other daughter, Annabelle, lingered inside, unspoken to, unnamed, unattended, while Isabelle stole all the love. She became spiteful, vengeful, and my two children, the good and the bad, have been at war with each other.” The king looked up to Stock with bleary eyes, dragged deep into his sockets by age and a heavy heart. “Now, my new madman, do you still believe you have the cure?”
“I believe so, your majesty. I believe I can free Annabelle from this body. You’ll have Isabelle returned to you and Annabelle will be no more. In return, I wish to have your daughter’s hand in marriage.”
“Marriage?” The king looked forlornly to Isabelle. “But she’ll only have just been returned to me and surely a miracle man would want riches for his troubles. She hasn’t even had the chance to fall in love.”
Normally, Stock would have obliged the king, both out of a desire to have riches to give away and out of understanding for the poor princess. Whether it was the witch’s removal of his generosity or perhaps exhaustion from travels, he didn’t feel like compromising today. “I’ve told you my terms, your majesty. Take them or leave them.”
The king reluctantly acquiesced, before guards and servants, and all stood outside the room while Stock removed from box of freedom from his person. The princess lay twitching on the bed, at once fair and pretty, and then haggard and dry. “The princess will have freedom from this awful curse,” Stock said, in case he needed to instruct the box. He then lifted the lid, where nothing visible waited inside.
The princess shrieked suddenly, nearly causing Stock to drop the box. She twisted on her back, gripping the bedding enough to shred the wool, and then a body flung up from the bed, slamming into Stock. She resembled Princess Isabelle only in her height and frame, but her skin was blue and gray, her hair wild and grimy, her nails as long as daggers, and she screamed so furiously that women wept and men’s ears bled. A sword hilt knocked her in the head, letting her naked form drop next to Stock, and guards quickly lashed her unconscious form in iron chains before dragging her away at the king’s instruction, to the dungeons beneath the castle.
“Annabelle?” Stock asked, standing up and feeling shaken.
“I believe so,” the king said. “You told me she would be no more.”
“I freed her. That’s all I could do.” Stock pointed to the bed, where the prettier princess lay peacefully, with a smile on her lips. “Isabelle is free as well and I’m ready to wed whenever is most convenient.”
“She is free. And you may wed Annabelle whenever you please, if only to take her from our home.” Stock opened his mouth, but the king raised a hand, regaining his royal composure. “You said you wanted my daughter’s hand in marriage. I have two daughters and I offer Annabelle to be your bride. Whenever you want her, you may travel to the dungeon and claim her.”
The guards then escorted Stock to the main hall, where they were not to let him into the castle’s inner chambers again, but would happily escort him to the dungeon if he wished to be reunited with his betrothed. Stock paced the hall angrily, glaring now and then at the empty throne as servants hurried into the inner chambers, relieved to finally be allowed to attend Isabelle, their favored princess.
“The king is the same cheat I always believed to rule this land,” Stock muttered vehemently under his breath. “Even if I were to marry that animal, he would say she’s the younger sister. Isabelle’s husband would be king and I’d remain nothing. Married to that thing, I doubt they would even call me a prince, even in name.”
Stock remained in the hall for three days, pondering what to do. He had one freedom left in his box. The longer he sat, watching nobles, guards, and servants fret, the more he watched the king and Princess Isabelle govern from their seats, and the heavier he felt his anger, the better it seemed that he use his last freedom in vengeance.
Annabelle was a wild thing. Even if he had no intention of marrying her, he knew she’d likely want vengeance as well, having been trapped behind Isabelle’s face for so long. He waited until the middle of the night, when all the important people were asleep and only two guards watched the hall. Then he told them he wished to see his betrothed, shocking both of them.
“She’s become angrier and angrier each night,” one guard said.
“She screams to be released and I’m told she’s been at her worst tonight,” said the other.
“Nonetheless, she’s my bride,” Stock said. “Take me to her.” The guards obliged, as they’d been ordered to do by their king, and led Stock to the dungeons below the castle, where Annabelle remained bound in iron chains with a horse’s bit shoved into her mouth to muffle her shrieking, in a cage much like Stock’s cell in a distant village. “Release her.”
The guards laughed. “We’ll wait until morning, when we have more guards for that.”
“Then I’ll do it.” Stock reached for his box, with its last freedom inside, and hoped it would have the same effect as the witch’s free sample had on the guard when he himself was locked up. He lifted the wooden lid and the guards’ laughter ceased. They opened the cell door without pause and all of Annabelle’s bindings fell away.
Stock had meant to tell her to follow him then, that he’d lead her to the inner quarters where she could avenge her suffering upon her sister and father. She’d be blamed for the massacre and Stock could escape. Yet at the moment he opened the box and freed the wild woman, he didn’t feel like avenging anything anymore. He saw a poor, naked woman in a dank hole who didn’t deserve to be there and didn’t deserve to die tonight. “You should run away,” he said. “I’ll give you clothes and a little money, but don’t stay here where they can hurt you and don’t try revenge. It’ll only end your life.”
Annabelle shook her head and hurried past Stock. “I don’t want revenge—I want to stop my sister before she kills everyone!”
Stock stood stunned for a moment, and then followed closely. “Isabelle wouldn’t do that.”
“She’s been the angry, surly one, the one always in control except for the few moments I could try to be nice. She slaughtered cats and locked serving girls in storage chests, where they starved to death. Whenever she did it, she blamed me, saying she couldn’t stop Annabelle from performing evil acts.” Annabelle hurried into the main hall and into the inner quarters. “I smell smoke.”
Stock smelled it too and saw it soon after, a rolling black cloud thickening through the halls. He coughed and hacked at the burning fumes, but Annabelle went on running. “You knew she’d do this?”
“She’s been wanting to do it for months!” Annabelle cried. “I fought and fought to keep her down, keep her ill. She’s simply been waiting for everyone’s guard to come down and for a fine night without rain. Father? Where are you? I’m here to rescue you!”
Stock hated the idea of saving the king—the old man had lived his life. He was a cheat and a tyrant. Still, he couldn’t leave innocent Annabelle to her fate, and went chasing her past rooms of roaring fire and screaming people. When they reached the king’s room, they found him hunched over his bed and Isabelle stood beside him. She started at first, surprised to see Stock and her sister, and then her eyes gleamed as brightly as the dagger in her hand.
“Look, my father,” Isabelle said. “Look what Annabelle has done now!”
Annabelle glared, but the aged king didn’t notice either daughter as he hobbled to the door. “Help me, someone. The castle is burning down.”
“We’ll keep you safe,” Stock said, irritated. He took the king’s arm, beginning to lead him away, and then caught the wild flare igniting in Isabelle’s eyes. The dagger raised high and he shoved the old man into Annabelle. “Hurry out of here before the castle comes crashing down!” Isabelle’s dagger swung, missing the king, but slashing Stock’s arm.
“Do you think that old skeleton should live?” Isabelle asked. Stock stood between her and the hallway down which Annabelle and the king made their escape. “Let me kill him and I’ll marry you, like you wanted. You could be king, so long as he’s gone.”
“You want him gone so badly?”
“I want all of them gone. I want a new castle. I want everyone to know what kind of an age we’ll enter when I’m the queen—a time of blood and fire, like only my sister has known.”
Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
“I’ll lead you out, but you’ll be no queen,” Stock said, holding up the box of freedom. “You’ll confess what you did and relinquish your royalty. Otherwise, I’ll put you inside her with the very box I used to extract her from you.”
Isabelle shrieked with the same wild rage that swelled from Annabelle’s lips when she was released, except Annabelle didn’t have a weapon. The dagger dug into Stock’s gut, sticking deep into his flesh, and his arm twitched reflexively, clocking Isabelle over the head with the box of freedom. Both dropped to the floor in a daze. Stock remembered little of what happened next as he lifted himself weakly, then lifted the stunned princess into his arms, and stumbled his way down the corridor, toward the main hall.
Though the castle was made of stone, its ceiling beams and roof were built of timber, and so when the fire reached its peak, the whole fortress came crashing down. Fire roared through the night and into the dawn, but few had died in the night, and the king was safe to keep rule properly over the land. He would be seated in a trusted lord’s keep for the time being and refused to appear weak for his nobles, soldiers, or anyone with greedy eyes who might think to usurp his now buried throne. He accepted Annabelle as his daughter once she showed her good nature and once she was cleaned up, she looked like a proper princess.
Stock watched the father and daughter embrace, while the other daughter was led along in shackles to accompany them as they discerned what to do with her. Moments after the royalty had left, the peddler witch approached him and picked up the empty box of freedom from the ground. “I trust the box was to your liking.”
“It was a great gift, if only I’d used it better.”
“Had you offered something in lieu of empathy, I might have considered borrowing that. Or taking it. Did you do right, in the end?”
“Somehow, and yet I’m out of the castle,” Stock said. “Did you keep my generosity longer?”
“I couldn’t simply take it again,” said the woman who was not young, yet not old. “Besides, you were busy using it.”
“But I’d already used up the three freedoms in the box and I shouldn’t have had anymore.”
“No, sir,” the witch said, pointing to a body that was somewhat gutted and somewhat burned. “That escape was free.”