By Hannah Christensen
The fiery sunset seemed almost alive as it ignited the air above the distant forest tree tops. Its rays burst violently through the stone-framed window, kindling a gleam in Regina’s green and gold brocade dress and tracing a stream of light through the golden hair coiled about her head and flowing along her braid down her back. Regina in contrast seemed almost a statue in her stillness as she gazed westward, one hand lightly resting on the stone window frame.
Regina did not turn at the call from her lady-in-waiting.
“Your majesty,” Aithne insisted gently, stepping into the room. “His majesty awaits you in the great hall.”
Regina half turned from the window.
“Please inform the king,” she said softly, “I will await his pleasure in my chambers. I would dine in private tonight.”
Aithne sighed. Worry touched her gray eyes as she watched the young queen with slightly tilted head. The sun’s slowing rays reached the brass tracings of her dagger hilt and ornamented quiver. The patterned harness straps crisscrossed over her plain green satin dress. A leather strap bound her reddish brown hair behind her shoulders. “He needs his queen at this state dinner,” she said.
Regina turned to fully face her, her forehead slightly puckered in puzzlement and her mouth open in a small ‘o’ shape.
“I know, it’s all rather hasty. The kitchen has been in an uproar the last few hours with such short notice. I didn’t know if you’d heard, but my lady, I hated to disturb you.” Aithne slipped into the room and picked up a comb from the oaken table.
“Yes,” said a new voice from the doorway, rather dryly. “It’s a pity your majesty felt the need to leave before the messenger from Vandalia entered.”
Regina stepped back, startled, at the man’s voice, and Aithne whirled, half crouched, her fingers curled around the comb’s handle as though it were a weapon. The High Counselor Aldo stood a respectful two feet from the doorway.
“Perhaps,” he suggested with a look at the window, “The thought of someone from Vandalia struck you with homesickness. Or perhaps,” he said, turning his eyes on Regina, “You had already heard the news and came here to watch for arrivals.” He paused, studying her.
She lifted a hand to hover in front of her lips.
“They didn’t—surely not—war,” she finally whispered.
“No, not war,” he said, his gaze remaining firmly on her. “Not yet. More of a parley of sorts. Yes, a parley. Though not that official. Nothing’s official yet, not until Vandalia feels sure of her conquest. But your majesty’s absence would be keenly felt.”
Aithne stood straight and tilted her chin up at the First Counselor.
“My most gracious ladyship is even now preparing to make her appearance,” she told him. “Pray, depart. If his majesty had wished for men to wait upon his lady in her chambers, no doubt he would have found some eunuchs.”
Aldo’s mouth pinched slightly as he glared at Aithne.
“My lady looks quite presentable,” he said. “Her presence is awaited now.”
Aithne took a small, fierce step forward, but Regina stayed her with a quiet half lift of her hand.
“I will go,” she said. She shifted her hair forward, gently touching it as though to show a braid already bound it. “I am ready.” She quirked a small, quick smile at Aithne.
Aithne inclined her head, though her shoulders remained high and alert. As though on signal, six other ladies-in-waiting gathered in the room. Regina stepped forward, then wavered. Aithne favored Aldo with a pointed stare.
“My lady makes her passage,” she said primly.
Aldo bowed and retreated. After giving him a few moments to depart, Aithne swept out, leading the queen’s entourage to the banquet.
Regina would have preferred crossing from her tower to the Great Hall by the wall and slipping in quietly through the back door which led more directly to the king’s personal chambers, but Aithne firmly led the way all the way to the bottom of the tower and then to the tall doors at the front of the hall. Here she paused while Haduwig and Hildemar swung a door mostly open. Aithne stepped into the room first to ensure safety, then stood demurely to the side.
Slowly Regina glided through the doorway. Her eyes settled on her husband King Waldhar where he sat at the high table. His head shone like bright wheat in the firelight, tilted back in laughter. When Waldhar looked up, his merry eyes met those of his quietly approaching wife, and he arose with a smile. Jostling his way around the table, he drew near with outstretched arms.
“And here is the pumpkin of my eye,” he boomed, smiling. “We began to fear you had lost your way in the coming.”
Regina dropped her eyes. A slight pink touched her cheeks, but she laid her small hand on his rough, battle worn palm. He started to draw her close, as though to rest his bearded chin against the top of her head. A voice interrupted.
Regina stiffened at the trilling r, but her husband swung her to face the woman sweeping toward them. Burgundy satin swirled about her and dripped, Western style, from her elbows. Her black and silver hair swelled in an elegant curl on her head.
“Ah, Regina!” she murmured, when close enough to take Regina’s face between gloved hands. “All these months I have missed you since you were spirited away from me by these uncouth barbarians. Are you not glad to see you mother?”
Regina curtseyed gracefully.
“So long before your very own mother was able to see you again. Are you well? Are they treating you properly?” she cooed.
Waldhar guided them back toward the table.
“Did we not accept her very own foster mother, and with a fine banquet, too, just as soon as she could find her way to visiting?” He pulled out a seat for Queen Jutta.
“Her…move to the east has added a great many miles to travel, not to mention adding—complications.”
“That would be Beornheard,” Waldhar said. He turned to the hall and announced in ringing, formal tones, “Tonight, we bind ourselves together fellowship. Let our guest accept our hospitality and the bread of our lives.”
He offered Queen Jutta the ceremonial cup of barley beer. A strand of dried barley wrapped around its stem. She sipped and returned the cup. Waldhar tipped his head back in a big gulp before clapping it on the table and motioning for the meal to begin.
“You might suggest that he turn his war hungry gaze away from where it would do his foster sister harm.”
Queen Jutta frowned at hearing her son spoken of in this way, but continued to delicately cut her meat.
“I do not discuss the counsel I keep with King Beornheard with you,” she said sternly, then softened her voice. Her eyes lingered on the plain gold band on Regina’s left hand.“But Regina and I know his thoughts are never far from her, don’t we, my little la mâche?”
Regina stared down hard at the linen tablecloth. Beside her Waldhar coughed and choked on his bite of venison. She looked up at him through her eyelashes, remembering the last time he had tried to stifle a laugh at her foster mother’s pet name for her. The stakes had been high that day, too, as he hunched between blue and azure skirts and petticoats in her wardrobe. His cupbearer, Gervaise, hovered anxiously above him with a linen, the look of anxious frustration on his angular face crying out that he wished he had the courage to clamp the cloth over his sovereign’s mouth.
Queen Jutta cooly regarded Waldhar as he finally took the linen from Gervaise and scoured his mouth and beard.
“Your majesty appears to be ailing?” she said, arching her eyebrows.
“Not at all, not at all,” he said, giving his chin one last scrub. “But tell me, isn’t la mâche another name for that weed rapunzel?”
Queen Jutta’s lips pinched tight while she delicately lay her knife on the table.
“Rapunzel is indeed the vulgar name, though the well cultured recognize la mâche as a spring delicacy.”
“Among peasants, perhaps.”
“La mâche does indeed have its roots with the weeds along furrows of the peasant’s toil.”
Regina could feel a suppressed laugh from Waldhar. Instinctively she glanced toward the windows. The only windows in the hall were beside the door, high and narrow and safely inaccessible. Before she could force herself to relax, Regina’s eyes grazed over one of the Vandalian guards spread around the room. She quickly dropped her gaze to her food, but could not take a bite as she listened to her foster mother’s continued explanation.
“From even these humble beginnings its worth has been recognized and it has been elevated to the palace. With the touch of a master chef’s hand, it has the freshness to surpass any overworked dish on the table. I find it quite appropriate. Much better than the crude custom of using squash only fit for a serf’s table as a term of endearment.”
Waldhar hastily cleared his throat in an attempt for diplomacy.
“A most regrettable custom,” he said. Turning to Regina, he added in almost heartfelt tones, “From henceforth you shall always be Rapunzel to me.”
She picked up the linen rectangle from where he had dropped it on the table and firmly dabbed his mouth with it, but to no avail. She could not keep his chuckles in.
“You would make merry at a guest at your very table?” Queen Jutta asked.
“Oh, no, never,” Waldhar assured her, waving his hand expansively. “Come, make merry with us.”
The matriarchal queen laid her hands flat against the table and pushed herself up.
“It grieves my heart, daughter,” she said coldly, “That you should have eloped with such a buffoon. I see there is no point to attempting conversation at present. Until I may see you in private, then.” She inclined her head in keeping with etiquette, then swept out of the hall. The Vandalians all closed in behind her as escort.
“Is she always like that?” smiled the king. “How glad you must be to have escaped, my little – Rapunzel.” He touched her long braid. “And she hasn’t even touched on your haircut yet. Do you think you will need some support when she decides to corner you?”
Waldhar’s voice still roughened with laughter, but a glance tilted upward showed Regina that his gray eyes were serious.
“No,” she said. “There—I—my ladies-in waiting.” She indicated her escort with a curved flicker of her hand.
“Yes,” he nodded, “Good. In that case, I propose a toast to the queen’s ladies.”
When Regina reached for her goblet, her fingers were covered over in her husband’s larger grasp.
“To the queen’s ladies,” he roared, raising the goblet high as he rose to his feet.
Regina found herself swept up and onto her feet as well. She flushed as all eyes turned toward her and Waldhar. Waldhar brought the goblet to his lips, her fingers still trapped about its stem. He drank deeply, his eyes dancing down at her.
The apple leaves swung their soft morning shadows across the parchment Regina spread on the low stone wall beside her. Dark speared rosemary leaves almost surrounded the stool which had been set out in the herb garden for her visits. Holding the parchment firm in the breeze, Regina carefully dipped her quill in the ink pot perched at an angle on the wall top. She had one last line to add.
Finished, she studied it a moment, then tucked her quill away and drew out some sand instead. Sprinkling the calligraphy note, she held it up to the gentle wind, both hands on the parchment, eyes closed. Then she tucked it away with the rest of her supplies and slipped through the goose gate in the castle wall. The narrow path made its quiet back way down the steep northern slope and disappeared by a fishing pond.
Down near the fishing pond a bench sat, tucked between a footpath and a thick copse of trees. Though within bowshot of the castle walls, it felt private and isolated with a cliff’s height between. Regina made her way there now. She slowed as she approached, looking about. No one was within sight. The bench sat abandoned. Regina settled on one side of the bench and took out her note. Unrolling it, she slid it in a notch where the leg of the bench did not quite meet the seat. Once it was secure and mostly out of sight, Regina leaned her head back and closed her eyes. Birds chattered and called above; a fish stirred the water. Suddenly Regina’s eyes sprang back open. She glanced up the path in the opposite direction where she had come from. It was still empty up to the curve, but the scuff of footprints grew clearer. Regina bit her lip, then pushed her way into the underbrush until the leaves covered her. Next to her stood a low limbed yew. Bracing herself, she set her slippered foot on the lowest limb and began to climb.
The branches snagged at her dress and hair, and her slippers proved most slippery. With great effort she pulled herself up three feet, where she leaned against the branch in front of her and rested. Here the branches parted enough to reveal the pond and part of the footpath. To her left the tread of feet was most distinctive now, rounding the bend. The group now entered her view. All save one wore the sanguine and sable of Vandalian footmen. Queen Jutta wore crimson today, with a fur wrap as if expecting winter to come any day.
Regina moved only her eyes as she stared at the entourage. She watched as they passed by, but none raised their eyes so far as her hiding place. She lay her head down, and her legs quaked a bit.
Queen Jutta stopped.
“Here,” she said decisively. “It has the closest semblance to beauty I have seen here yet.” With a sweep of her gown, she sat upon the bench precisely where Regina had vacated. Now only the top of her head was visible.
“Unseasonably hot,” she complained. One of the Vandalians stepped forward and leaned forward to help with something. A long minute of relative silence followed. Regina’s knees wobbled.
From the right came the sound of an almost tune-deaf rendition of a song about a cat. Regina turned her head towards the sound, her eyes urgently searching for Aithne. Soon the lady-in-waiting meandered into view. Her song trailed off almost abruptly when she saw Queen Jutta’s company. Regina stared down at her urgently, holding a finger to her lips.
“Good day to you, your majesty,” Aithne greeted the Vandalian queen, curtsying.
“I see there is no place here where one can hope for a bit of privacy,” said Queen Jutta. “Perhaps I should retract my remark from breakfast. It may be that Regina kept to her room to preserve her one opportunity to peace rather than merely escaping from the swill served here.”
Regina looked down at the dark swirl of hair. She had thought that if she did not join Waldhar Queen Jutta might have no cause to break her fast with him, either. Just then, Aithne’s quick eyes noticed the young queen up in the tree, and Regina pleadingly pressed her finger against her lips harder than ever.
Aithne smothered the look of surprise which had started on her face and lowered her gaze.
“I hope that your majesty will find many moments of peace to treasure with Almangia,” she murmured, taking a discreet step back.
Regina urgently shook her head. Aithne, watching from the corner of her eye, paused. Regina pointed toward herself.
“I’m sure her majesty would wish no less,” said Aithne, carefully feeling her way.
Regina gestured in the direction of the castle, then pointed from herself to the castle to Queen Jutta, her eyes pleading with Aithne to understand.
“Though of course not when you meet with her.” Aithne ended with a slight question inflection, quickly glancing up. Regina nodded. She dare not let go again to point toward the castle, for her feet had begun to slip again.
“Perhaps now would suit your majesty?”
“Yes, now would suit. Inform your mistress that I await her here.”
Regina shook her head violently, but could not point in the direction of the castle.
Aithne was already interceding.
“Oh, but please do our queen the honor of visiting her in her chamber. Even now she waits for you to come away with me.”
“Always in her chamber, waiting,” said Queen Jutta. Regina could hear the start of a frown in her voice. She felt the branch slide around the arches of her feet as her heels dragged downward and she tried to quietly squirm into a better position.
“Do tell her outside is quite pleasant today; she should find it quite refreshing to come to me.”
There was a rustle below. Regina leaned forward, trying to see if Queen Jutta had spotted her parchment. Her feet skidded out, and she lunged downward. She managed to throw an elbow up around the branch her hands were clinging to, but banged her chin in the process. Blinking back tears, she franticly searched for a branch with her feet. Pressing her head into the branch, she hoped no one could see her. Maybe the attendants would not notice the noise or would think it was just a large squirrel.
“Oh, no,” Aithne said. “She insists that you come up to the castle. Right now. Let me show you the way.”
Regina could hear the scuffling of many feet and she hugged the branch tightly, her eyes wide.
“Thank you!” Queen Jutta sounded quite put out. “I am quite able to stand by myself, as you can see. Come, then, if the Queen is in such a hurry. No, leave it,” she snapped. “We appear to have urgent summonings. There is no time to trouble ourselves with such trivialities. Come along!” Her voice came now from slightly up the trail. “You did say we were expected immediately.”
Regina did not dare wait long. When her arms began slipping and her feet still had found no purchase, she let go. The bumping, sliding crash left her breathless, half caught by thick brush and saplings. Her face smarted from assorted scratches, and a stick tried to gore her ribcage. Regina scrambled to get her feet under her properly. She paused to touch the branch her feet had struggled to stay on. So low! What must have it been like for Waldhar when he had been shoved out of the tower window? Had the mattress she had managed to push out first done a better job of cushioning him?
She pulled herself away and stepped quickly for the palace. A sharp tug brought her back. Her braid was caught, snagged in a briar. Regina tugged and teased urgently, her eyes straying south. She must reach her chambers before her foster mother. Queen Jutta had gone back the way she had come. The rough goose path was shorter, but she would have to hurry.
Her hair pulled free, taking some briars with it. Regina wound her long hair into a bundle, hugged it to herself, and ran. She bowed her head and let the branches drag over her, snagging and snapping. Finally she broke through the trees. The walls stood in a straight stretch before her. She quickened her pace, heading for the kitchen door.
Regina ignored the stares and startled exclamations as she took a shortcut through the kitchen. She did not even pause to drop her bundle of hair. The closer she came to her chamber, the harder her breath came and the faster her heart seemed to go. Jutta would not have taken the back way, but gone around through the city. Still, she could nor help expecting to crash headlong into the dignified queen of Vandalia at any moment and be left trying to stammer excuses.
Four ladies-in-waiting were present when Regina tumbled into the room. They looked up, startled. Hildemar stood, straight and strong as a post of iron.
“Who threatens my queen?” she asked, her dark eyes cold. The others in turn exchanged their handwork for weapons and attitudes of defense.
Regina shook her head. She leaned against the heavy wooden door, trembling from her run.
“The queen,” she gasped, plucking at her soiled green dress.
Hildemar stepped forward, her brow puckered in concern.
“My queen is in distress,” she said. “Who has done this?”
Regina shook her head again.
“Jutta,” said Etta suddenly. She sat by the window, an arrow in her hand. “She’s coming, isn’t she?”
“In your own house?” Hildemar asked, outraged. “Fear not, my lady, she will never force her entrance into here.”
Regina squeezed her eyes in a hard blink, then looked beseechingly at her ladies-in-waiting.
“My dress,” she managed to say, holding out some of the battered skirt.
Etta understood. Slipping her bow and arrow away, she ushered the queen to a side chamber.
“We must not let her find you like this,” she said. “Haduwig? Could you find another dress?”
Haduwig sheathed her short sword and marched off to find something less torn.
Regina hesitated on the threshold.
“Tea?” she asked Hildemar.
Hildemar curtseyed low. “Of course, your majesty. At once.”
Once into the maid’s chamber, Regina sank down on a convenient stool.
“Have we time to brush, your majesty?” Etta asked wistfully. Regina shook her head hard. Etta touched the long braid gently, then slipped out for some water, assuring Regina of her immediate return. Haduwig followed closely on the heels of her return, carrying a silvery gray dress. They swished the stained dress off and whisked on the new one. Haduwig stepped back to block the doorway from any intruders and Etta smoothed out the dress and tried to do the same for the queen’s hair while Regina washed her face and hands.
Queen Jutta’s voice resounded from the outer chamber. Regina froze and Etta suppressed a wince. “Are you sure Hildemar shouldn’t just send her away?” she whispered, but Regina shook her head, her eyes locked forward toward the chamber where the Vandalian queen awaited. Etta pulled one last twig from the golden plait, then stepped back as Regina made her stately way forward. Haduwig moved to the side, ready to join the plump, little Etta as trailing attendant.
Queen Jutta sat in the chamber’s only chair, her back partially toward the window so that sunlight spilled around her shoulder, giving her satin gown the glowing life of a coal and flinging down a shadow just to the side of the cushioned stool pulled out opposite her. Regina spread her skirt in the touch of a curtsey, then settled herself on the stool. Cups had already been laid out for them, and croissants—Hildemar’s own touch—but the hot water was not yet arrived.
“Your servants seem to want polish,” said Queen Jutta. “They lack even in training on how to properly deliver a message. And they insist on bearing arms, but refuse to allow so much as one of my own men-of-arms entrance.”
“It is not not a public chamber.” Regina took an empty cup into her lap and curled her hands around it. “There—no men are allowed.”
“I suppose you need someplace to escape that lout of a king.”
Regina’s spine stiffened, though her eyes stayed down on her cup.
“He didn’t even invite you along on today’s hunt, I see. Does he think you under schooled?” Queen Jutta rapped the crusty end of her croissant against her plate. Golden, buttery morsels tumbled onto the plate, but she did not seem to see them.
“I did not wish to go.” Regina kept her voice sedate. She raised her eyes as far as Jutta’s ringed fingers.
“I dare say. The manners here are not as courtly as the aspired pastimes. Though that is a common fault among today’s royalty. Long did I search for perfection to match my Beornheard’s.”
Regina dropped her gaze again as the Vandalian queen continued to chatter.
“Even back then I could see there was none to be found. But you’ve turned out well.”
She reached out to pat Regina on the hand. Regina sat very still. Hildegard gently pushed a pot of hot tea water onto the table, and Queen Jutta pulled away.
“I can’t completely blame you for running off with that trespassing oaf. I may have kept you a little close in the tower, but I couldn’t risk an undue influence from the lower classes. Not that I believed the noblemen’s worries about peasant roots. You were a more perfect infant than any of their squalling offspring, and more perfectly brought up as well.”
Regina sprinkled dried leaves in the bottoms of the cups and carefully poured the hot water.
Queen Jutta critically ran her eyes over the room. “At least they haven’t let any cats infest your chambers.”
Regina lifted her cup up and blew at the curling steam.
Queen Jutta continued to talk. “They make good mousers, but persist in climbing higher than their place. If they insist on leaving the kitchen and cellars, all one can do is throw it back down.”
“No!” Regina brought her cup down in a clatter.
Queen Jutta started, then annoyance creased her face.
“Really, dear, I don’t understand why you continually insist on making such a fuss about that. I’m sure it landed on its feet. And,” she said, lifting her own teacup, “It should never have been up there in the first place.”
Regina looked aside and blinked hard. She sat in silence through the rest of the visit while Queen Jutta filled her ears with accounts of the glory of recent Vandalian tourneys and critiqued Almangian manners and appearance against the latest styles and habit adopted at the Vandalian court.
In time the visiting queen stood to take her leave. Regina arose and escorted her to the door.
“Ah, my little la mâche.” Queen Jutta wrapped her hands around one of Regina’s. “How you have grown—grown and spread your wings.” She squeezed Regina’s fingers gently. “Are you ready to wing your way back home?”
“Oh!” Regina started to bite her lip, then stopped.
“Your nest is always waiting, waiting for when you grow weary from wandering. Come home, Regina, do.”
Regina pulled back. She tried to smile, but worry dominated her brows.
“But, Mother, I am home.”
Jutta pulled herself up and drew a deep breath.
“So. But before I leave you, Beornheard sent a gift.” She pushed up her left sleeve to reveal a black cord tied by her elbow. Gold glinted against it. She cut the cord with her stag horn knife and caught the piece of gold as it fell.
It was a ring. Dragons circled, twining, around it. Each toothsome mouth gaped after the beast in front. Regina bent in to see the fine handiwork.
“He sends it as a token of his regard.” Jutta reached out for Regina’s hand. Regina pulled back, stood and balled her fist, trapping Waldhar’s simple ring of gold beneath her fingers.
“I will not accept anything Beornheard sends.”
Queen Jutta pinched her lips together. “Then he must needs come to you in person.”
She spun in a glory of crimson and sable, almost running over an approaching maid.
Regina watched her leave, silent and white.
That evening Regina did not go down to eat, but stood on top of the tower, watching the sun slip away. When only a leftover glow remained in the sky, she followed the stairs down to the floor which opened onto the adjoining wall’s walkway and passed along the battlement to the door on the far side. Inside, she quietly waited in the antechamber to the King’s compartments.
The voices and bustle from below faded slowly. Finally a pair of feet sounded along the wooden stairs. Regina stirred, watching the open doorway intently. She melted back to the shadows when Gervaise came through.
He did not see her first; he had come almost abreast when he noticed her presence and started back.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded.
Gervaise stared at the queen.
She started to drop her gaze, but her eyes caught on the cupbearer’s hand. He held the folded bit of paper she had worked on earlier that day and left outside, forgotten, in the wake of her foster mother’s visit.
“How did…those…they’re mine.”
“Are these your hidden messages?”
Startled, she met his distrustful gaze. She started to shake her head, then stopped and held out her hands instead.
A new set of footsteps came up the stairs. King Waldhar lumbered into view. He started across the room, then stopped and leaned against the wall.
“Regina.” He rubbed the back of his neck with the back of his hand. She looked over at him with round, beseeching eyes. “I thought maybe your mother had cornered you into taking supper with her when you didn’t show up.”
“Your majesty,” said Gervaise, stepping towards him. “One within your very walls is passing encoded secret messages to the Vandalians. I have every reason to believe…it may be quite close to home.” He looked over significantly at Regina. She cupped her hands in a plea.
“Messages?” Waldhar frowned and rubbed at his eyes.
“I found one folded and hidden right where the Queen of Vandalia sat.”
“I don’t expect she appreciated that inspection.”
“Sire!” Gervaise looked shocked. “I was merely letting her know victuals had been prepared, just as she had desired. Fortunately she left before finding it. I brought it for your inspection.”
“By all means, tell me what was in the message.”
Gervaise unfolded the piece of paper and cleared his throat. Regina looked down and blushed.
“Sunlight barred; rain swollen-stored
Embanks whole sky in one blight.
Thunder laughs; his golden sword
Flashes. Pierced clouds bleed sunlight.”
Waldhar tipped his head back and laughed.
“Sticking your nose into my love poems, are you?” He reached for Regina and pulled her to him.
King Waldhar took no heed to his servant, but leaned down to kiss his wife. Gervaise wavered for a bit before scurrying away, leaving his sovereign to his queen.
The next morning, before dawn proper, Queen Jutta and her revenue announced their departure.
“Good,” Waldhar told Regina. “I’m glad to be loose of her. I don’t know how much longer I could have been polite to her.”
Barely a fortnight later the messenger arrived. Regina could hear the horse’s galloping hooves pull to an abrupt stop at the gate. Distance muffled any voices, but soon the black-swathed rider disappeared back down the road.
Supper that night was hushed and functional. Regina came down to find people either engulfed entirely with their food or looking into space in concentration, as though eating was a mere mechanical habit. Waldorf looked up from where he was standing, a chart spread on the table, his trencher pushed to one side. He beckoned to Regina, devoid of his usual mirth.
“It came,” he said. “Vandalia has declared war on Almangia.”
Regina shivered and hid her head against Waldorf’s broad shoulder. He pressed her to himself in a quick, hard embrace.
“We’ll leave soon, head them off before their invasion can get anywhere. Don’t worry.” His voice gentled some. “It would have come eventually. You know that.”
Regina pulled herself back. Blinking, she inclined her head then sat. A servant slid her a bowl of pottage which she carefully took her time to eat.
Less than a week later the army was gathered at the city’s gate. The heavy gray sky had lightened just enough to mock the torches’ glow. Behind rose the dark shadow of castle and cliff. Regina stood soberly at the gate, her midnight blue gown straight and sober, but throwing wild glints where torchlight touched the silver embroidery.
Waldorf finished conferring with his captains and turned his dappled charger to come clopping her way. He circled to face the people, soldiers and citizens gathered to bid them farewell.
“My people,” he said, his raised voice reverberating. “I go. I go to defend your homes. I go to defend your families. I go to defend your land. But before I go, I present to you your queen!”
Regina stood stiff and still. All eyes turned to her. She did not speak.
“The queen will speak for me while I am away. She will keep my court. And in case of the invaders’ pushing their treacherous way onward, she will defend my own. Regina, I leave you my rod.”
With solemnity, he pulled from the green folds of his cloak his scepter. It was bronze wrought with the ridges and texture of a ram’s horn. Regina reached out to accept it. A shiver ran through her. She licked the tips of her lips.
“And I, Regina, accept this trust, hoping only to—to faithfully serve as I await your—”
Waldorf’s horse snorted at her, and she bit back the response along with a gasp.
“As I await—” she tried again.
“Let us keep you waiting no longer, then!” Waldorf cried, sweeping her up in front of himself.
“Oh!” Regina stared down at the hulk of impatient charger suddenly beneath her and squirmed to get off.
Waldorf laughed and pulled her face up. He kissed her soundly. She blushed.
“I couldn’t let the queen await her goodbye kiss.” He stroked the gleaming gold of her hair. “Protect my precious treasure.” He kissed her again, more gently, then spun her down to the ground.
“Keep watch for me, my rapunzel!”
She stood frozen, her eyes clenched shut and hands tight around the scepter.
Waldorf spurred his horse forward and shouted for departure. His army closed in behind him. When Regina pulled apart her eyes, the mass of men and horses and arms hid him from view as the fighting men marched out of Festundstadt.
Regina stood still, her eyes steady on the gate as the troops funneled out of the fortress. As the last footsoldier and packhorse departed, Aldo gently cleared his throat.
“The customary time for opening the Judgement Hall is at hand.” The High Counselor bowed. “Might I accompany your majesty to your seat?”
Regina turned and inclined her head. She forced her eyes back up to look the Counselor in the face, then gathered her skirts in her free hand.
Aldo turned to escort the queen through the streets. Over his shoulder, he signaled the guards left behind to close the gate. Regina’s eyes widened. She spun around. “No, don’t!”
Aldo raised an eyebrow.
“Keep it open,” Regina said. “In readiness for…for my lord’s return.”
Aldo dropped a scrupulous bow, then turned to the guards. They were already securing the doors open.
“It is as you wish, your majesty.”
Regina smiled tentatively up at him and gingerly lay her fingers on the offered arm of her escort.
When they entered the castle, her ladies in waiting enclouded her. Aldo watched as they swept her into the Great Hallway amidst the scent of lavender and chamomile and gently placed her on the Judgement Seat.
“They act like she needs a rampart,” Gervaise said from near his elbow. “Or a guarding troop.”
“Surrounded, perhaps, but aloof.”
Aldo dropped his gaze down to where the queen’s fingers still squeezed the scepter. Drawing a deep breath, he turned to fling open the public doors.
“We bind ourselves together as court that judgement might be done.”
Aldo glanced back at the queen. She did not seem to object that he had taken the proclamation into his own hands. Court progressed smoothly. The queen listened carefully to the supplicants, and then again to the counselors’ advice and debates. She rarely spoke. Instead, she would incline her head toward the man whose counsel she favored.
The presence of the ladies-in-waiting soon became an accustomed sight. Either Aithne or Haduwig constantly stood behind her, keeping watch, while two or three of the others arranged themselves at her feet, sewing and spinning. The queen herself became a more common sight, keeping to the public rooms during the day and available for both affairs of state and household matters. Only in the evenings did she make her way back up to her private chambers.
As the days passed, reports began to return from the west. The Vandalian army had felled trees behind king Waldhar’s army, hindering any future retreat. A forest waypost lay in ruins from a Vandalian raid. The Vandalian army stood at the edge of the forest, looking like a new growth forest for its vast, thick ranks.
One evening Gervaise came across Aldo near the entry stair, frowning at a newly delivered post. He looked up to see the cupbearer.
“I wish she would close the gate.” He slid it into his pouch for the morning. Queen Regina had retired for the night and would not wish to be disturbed.
Gervaise shivered. “I know what you mean. My wife says it lets in the restless spirit of the night forest. It’s foolishness, but you have to admit it is unsettling. Just thinking about that great, open mass of darkness makes it feel like it’s letting something in.”
“Enemy spies, more likely.” Aldo jerked the door shut, closing off the red sunset glow. Gervaise shrugged one shoulder and let go a half-nervous laugh.
“One does wonder what she does up there all night. When I get up in the night for sleeplessness, a light is always burning in the tower.”
A sharp sniff turned both men’s heads toward the passageway. Aithne stood there, holding a tray of pastries.
“Imagine, two men of the king’s own household, sitting around and wagging their tongues in idle rumors about their queen. If you can’t find anything else to do, get back to your spinning, you old women. Don’t you know a war’s coming?”
She shook her hair behind her shoulders and continued up to the queen’s chambers.
Gervaise scraped his gaze across the floor and away, scuffling towards home. Aldo tightened his mouth and pushed his way in to castle interior.
The very next afternoon a royal messenger entered the judgement hall in the middle of a case concerning poaching. His breathing came quick and deep as of a man who has just recovered from being out of breath. He seemed unaware of his disheveled appearance. Locking his eyes on Regina, he started forward, then paused, as though not quite daring to interrupt judgement.
Regina looked sternly at the counselor who had broken off in the middle of his dissertation on the proper uses of common land. He started, then wrenched his attention back to the case on hand. Stirrings and whispers spread through the room, but Regina continued as usual. Finally the peasant and his lord were dismissed and Regina beckoned for the messenger to approach. He strode forward and dropped to one knee.
“Majesty, Beornheard and his armies press forward. The road is held at present, but my lord’s troops have suffered damage. It is a matter of time before retreat will be necessary.”
Gasps and more whispers swirled about the room.
“Your majesty!” Aldo pushed himself forward. “You must close the gate!”
Regina stood slowly, carefully. Standing straight, she announced in a clear, firm tone: “Loose.”
Court dismissed, whispers burbled into full fledged speech as eddies and clusters of people drifted for the door. The queen sank back down and sat perfectly still, eyes closed. The three ladies-in-waiting present put aside their handwork and clustered around her. Gently they began to unloose her tresses.
Aldo stood directly in front of the queen.
“The gate, your majesty.”
He waited, but she continued to sit, silent and unresponsive under the ministrations of her ladies.
“I myself can attend to the matter. You need not trouble yourself over it.” Aldo bowed sharply and turned on his heel to go.
Aldo looked back around. Regina, eyes open again, met his gaze. He inclined his head gently, in a conciliatory attitude.
“It is a simple matter, no more than—”
“As a matter of security—”
Regina stood. The ladies-in-waiting fluttered about, collecting their things and draping the queen’s half-unbraided hair up where it would not drag.
“The gate remains open.”
Regina swept out of the room as regal as any queen could hope to be. Her ladies accompanied her, only Haduwig bothering to give Aldo a passing glare. He stood alone in the hall, taking deep, measured breaths. His hands were clenched into tight knots.
The queen bound together no court the following morning. Aldo found her in the food store rooms, inspecting the honey. Barley, wheat and apples also lay before her, and half the kitchen staff seemed to be hurrying back and forth on errands for her.
“Your majesty.” Aldo bowed gravely. “The council craves your presence. If we may shortly be under siege, there is much that must be done.”
Regina inclined her head peeked at the counselor through her eyelashes.
“They say your light never went out last night.” Aldo took a half step forward and reached a hand out toward the queen. “I know you must be weary, but the whole countryside is restless. They need to see their queen take action.”
Regina sidled back.
Aithne slammed down the flour sack she had brought out.
“Restless is right! How would they know how late my lady’s light was on? Did all Festunstadt stay awake last night passing rumors?”
Aldo frowned. “How can the city be quiet knowing at any time it and the castle itself could be taken with almost no effort by the enemy? The queen’s leadership is needed, and it is needed now. We must prepare for siege.”
Aldo started and turned to the queen. “What did you say?”
He stared at her. “Your majesty.” He cast his voice gently. “It is the care of the king’s land, his city, his home, that needs attending to.” He reached out to take her arm. “Come. You are not alone. We will be there to guide, to advise, to help. You need only—”
Regina yanked back.
“Comb.” She whirled around and hurried from the room. She paused to call back to the kitchen workers. “Comb!”
As the month went by, people streamed in from the countryside, bringing what goods they could carry. Laborers from the castle and Festunstadt went out to collect what supplies they could not carry. Queen Regina directed her ladies-in-waiting from her chambers. They organized and stored and kept the whole castle staff running from one place to another.
Gervaise heaved a keg of cider into place.
“At least someone is getting something worthwhile done,” he grumbled. “We have more profit in our combing the countryside in any of these last seven days than the queen has made in the whole week in combing her hair.”
Etta, the lady-in-waiting currently assigned to the cellars, smiled.
“She is you queen,” she said gently.
“She hasn’t attended one council meeting since then. Not one! There is a story that she caught the king’s heart with her hair, and sometimes I wonder—”
Etta reached up and laid a finger on his mouth. “Hush.”
A page slammed the cellar door open. “A messenger!” he cried. “There is another messenger from the king!”
“Oh, Gervaise!” Etta bunched up her skirts around her. “Do you think you can finish? Only hurry. I must go see the queen. We have so little time left.”
She scurried up the steps.
The counselors had already gathered in the hall and were in discussion when the queen entered. The plain white of her gown glowed against the green rustling sea of her seven ladies’ green. The bronze scepter flashed a darker gold than her flowing hair. The counselors got up from the bench in a shuffle, bowing. Aldo motioned for a servant to pull up the king’s chair.
The messenger was pushed forward.
“Your majesty, Turndal is taken. Beornherd moves his men onward. The most my lord’s troops can hope to do is harry them as they fall back. It may turn out to be choice between harrying the enemy and falling back to safety.”
Regina walked over to the chair and slowly sat down. She laid the scepter on the table. “The king,” she said. “What of him?”
“Wounded, my queen, but still horsed and in the battle. We hear that Beornherd has forbidden any of his men to slay him. He claims it as his right.”
“Brave words against a wounded man,” one of the men said, shaking his head.
“And now what do you say, your majesty?” Aldo slapped his hand against the wooden tabletop.
Regina twisted the golden band on her ring finger, then smoothed the skirt of her dress. She lifted her head and looked straight forward.
“It is time,” she said, her voice clear and ringing, “to bind up.”
Silence drifted over the table. The men watched as the seven ladies in green spread themselves out around the queen and fanned her hair out her. Carefully they began to divide it into strands. One by one, the counselors got up and left. Aldo stayed the longest, staring at the queen.
“Bind up? What does that mean!”
“It means,” said Aethne, stalking towards him in dangerous sinew, “You can go ahead and close your precious gate. It means to bind strength into the walls and fortify what’s weak. It means the queen has just declared the city and castle bound together in defense. It means it is time for you to go and use your self-expounded wisdom and fortify the walls! Go!”
Aldo tensed as in a coil, but turned and strode off, stiff-backed.
Once a day now Regina would take it on herself to walk the wall’s perimeter, both of the castle itself and the adjoining city Festunstadt. She kept her eyes down when not considering the wall itself. Her ladies-in-waiting always accompanied her, clearing a path when needed and keeping her hair from becoming soiled. Every day the tresses themselves where in a progressed state. First the strands were twisted into woven cords, then they were woven together as a whole. They took the form of a net, joined at the intersections by the mingling and interweaving of the strands. Day by day this net grew, and the loose flow of hair shrunk. Finally, the ends were doubled underneath and fastened to leave a net of hair that reached all the way down her back and doubled back up.
She was in the castle when news came that the enemy was coming down the road. Guards rushed about as the last bits of defenses and bolts were put into place. Mothers herded their children to make sure all were accounted for, and children ran and cried and yelled in the excitement of it all.
Aldo, laying plans with the captain of the guard, looked up to see Regina standing in the midst of the rush, wide-eyed and alone. As in a daze, she began to move forward. Only the gate itself seemed to hold her attention. None of the rushing people and flurry of activity seemed to impact her path toward the gate. She only stopped when standing directly in front of the tall, wooden barrier. She laid her hand against the brass bound gate.
“Majesty.” Aldo spoke from where he had come up behind her. “The gate is shut.”
Regina dropped her hand and stepped back.
Aldo’s eyes narrowed. “Is that why you gave permission for the gate to be shut? Because the king is coming?”
Regina shrank from him. Turning, she fled back to the castle.
The Vandalian troops arrived first. Every man left in the city, and a number of the women, strove to exhaustion against the constant sweeping attacks on the city wall and gate. Manpower dwindled through death and wounds and exhaustion, while the enemy continued to swell in ranks. Attempts at bringing a battering ram against the gates had failed so far, but time would tip the balance of power there. Neither Waldhar nor Beornheard had yet been sighted. All eyes strained east, hoping for the added strength of King Waldhar, fearing the greater adversity from King Beornheard.
Through all this Regina stayed within her tower. Sometimes she was seen walking on top, other times she sat before her window. If she received someone, it was in the lower chambers of the tower, not in the great hall. Few came to her now; all were busy on the walls.
She was spinning when the word surged up from the city: a troop was coming. Regina grew still, letting her spindle slow and begin to wobble.
“No one knows who it is yet,” said Rosagar. Flushed with excitement, the youngest lady-in-waiting leaned forward to the balls of her feet. More hair than ordinary slipped the leash of its binding around her face.
Regina put her spinning aside and crossed to her window. Putting her hands against the sill, she leaned forward. The vanguard of a troop was indeed approaching along the Western Road. She stood, trying to peer into its dark mass. In time, the body of the troop followed. Packed tightly, it seemed a massive body of some dread beast. Where the road opened out to approach the city walls, the soldiers spread out and pooled to the sides to let their comrades pass.
The attacking force began to shift, taking note of this arrival.
As the main body of arriving troops emerged from the trees, something fluttered above them. A banner unfurled.
“The golden ram!” cried Rosagar from where she peered over the queen’s shoulder. “The king has returned! Oh, if he can just win the gate. We should have enough strength to turn away all the armies of Vandalia then.”
Regina put her hands over her mouth. Tears trickled down her cheeks.
“Do you think?” she whispered. “Do you think?”
Aithne laid her hand gently on her arm. “He’ll be all right.”
Boom! The ground shook, sending shivers all the way through the floor.
Regina staggered away from the window, clutching at her chest.
“What?…” she whispered.
Rosagar dashed away to find out.
Beornheard had not fallen behind Waldorf. He had circled around and crept up to the east wall of the castle itself. There the hill was steep, but not sheer; defendable, but not when all defenders were called down to the city. The earth shook again as Beornheard’s mines exacted tribute from earth and stone. Hildemar, Haduwig, Bertha and Ethelind went to help defend the castle wall while Rosagar ran to get help from below. Aithne pace the room, head down and shoulders back. Regina floated to a stool, where she sat staring into nothing.
“Is he here yet?”
Aithne frowned and looked over in puzzlement. Etta shook her head.
“They are still making for the gate.”
Regina nodded and fell silent. The windborne noises from the battle sounded unreal and removed. Only the sounds of the room—the whir of Etta’s spindle and the tread of Aithne’s feet, had the weight of reality to them.
“Is he here yet?” Regina asked as Etta wound up her newly spun thread.
“Not yet. They have made the gate, and the guards are trying to slip them in.” Etta watched out the window as her hands worked. “There. The king is in. His army follows. No, they have had to shut the gate to keep the enemy out. Only half made it in. But the others are enough to stand a chance. Look, they are circling the wall. Perhaps they plan on attacking Beornheard from the rear.”
Regina returned to the window, but did not watch the cut off soldiers. She leaned out to watch those who had made it in as they hurried through the town, heading for the guardhouse which connected the city and the castle. Already the foremost were out of sight to the south.
A groaning crash shook the air.
Aithne spun to face the windowless east.
“The wall has been breached!” she cried. She turned and knelt before Regina.
“My lady, do not leave the tower. I must go and make certain the way from the Great Hall has been made secure.” Aithne jumped up and ran.
Regina stood still for a few moments. The sounds of battle coming through the window grew louder.
“Oh, Etta, I must see! I must go to the roof.”
“Then we shall go to the roof.”
Etta twisted her yarn to the side and put her spinning aside. Taking her bow, she left the room with Regina.
The stair spiraled up past the next floor, and then out onto the roof. Men swarmed over the spot of rubble and into the courtyard. Some had begun assault on the Great Hall door. Regina’s wide eyes followed one man as he strode purposely toward the tower stair. He was tall and broad, his dark hair bordering on black. He wore the Vandalia’s royal dragon. Before he reached the stair, another man ran from the guardhouse to meet him, sword high. Dirt and blood dimmed his blond hair, but the golden ram across his chest still blazed bright.
The two kings met with a clash of swords. They pushed apart, neither seeming to suffer damage. Waldorf circled around to block his adversary’s path. Blow by blow, the two struggled to claim the stairway. Slowly Waldorf was forced to give way. His right arm sagged in the two handed blows until he was forced to fight with his left hand alone. The rest of the Almangians had begun to catch up with their king, but could not reach him to bring aid. Though the Vandalians did not interfere with their king’s fight, they blocked the path for all others.
“Etta, shoot,” cried Regina, clutching her own dress by the neckline.
“I cannot. They are too near the tower. At this angle I might miss.”
“Then…I must go.”
Etta turned to go with, but Regina put out her hand.
“Stay. Watch for me. Below is not any better shooting.”
Worry wrinkled Etta’s face, but she stayed as her mistress went below.
Regina walked quickly down the stairs. She unfastened the ends of her hair as she went, draping the woven locks over an arm. Aldo stood in the entryway, drawn sword in hand. Grime covered his face and clothing and a cloth bound around one hand was stained in blood. He frowned when he saw Regina.
“Your majesty, you cannot go out.”
“He…he is here. He needs me.” Regina hovered by the doorway, her eyes on the outside door.
“There is nothing here you can do. With your hair you can only be a hindrance.”
“Please, Aldo.” Regina quietly walked toward him and the door. “I must.”
Aldo planted himself with his back to the door. He crossed his arms and said nothing as Regina drew near.
Regina tentatively laid a hand on his arm. “I must.”
“Aldo!” Gervaise leaned panting in the doorway. “Quickly!”
“I cannot let the queen leave.”
Gervaise made an impatient gesture with his hand. “I need your help now.” He came over to shove the high counselor into action. “Besides, if she goes out, maybe Beornheard will take her away and leave us alone.”
Aldo scowled, but it was not clear whether the scowl was directed at the queen or the cupbearer who pulled him away.
Regina waited a trembling heartbeat for them to leave before undoing the bolt to the castle’s strongtower. Harsh noise and heavy smells volleyed down on her through the open doorway. Regina took a deep breath, stepped out, and shut the door behind her.
Neither of the kings noticed her arrival. Their strivings had pushed them against the stone wall of the stairs themselves. They fought almost directly below Regina. One light footstep after another she slipped down toward them.
Beornheard pushed Waldhar farther back, angling his heavy righthanded blows to crush the Almangian king against the wall. Waldhar stumbled back a step. Beornheard lunged and Waldhar staggered back again. He tried to push himself a pace away from the wall, but that backwards step had taken him to where the side of the step no longer reached up to his shoulder. Weary and wounded, he did not keep his balance. Beornheard raised his sword and stepped forward to finish his foe.
Regina skittered down the last few feet to draw even. She took the ends of her hair and threw.
Beornheard jerked back as his head and shoulders suddenly became enmeshed in a net. Regina slipped and fell on top of him. They crashed to the ground. Regina sat up on her knees and tried to pull away. Her hair held her by the Vandalian king’s side.
Waldhar pulled himself to his feet. He limped over, his sword almost dragging on the ground. Regina tugged hard, but remained crouched at the stunned king’s side. Tears pulled at the corners of her eyes. Waldhar brought his sword up with both hands and swung it back down, hard. Golden strands clove apart. The new ends sprang wide in the beginning of unravelling. Sanguine colored blood seeped between the strands. Regina fell back, panting. The angled edge of her hair brushed against her shoulders, soiling her dress.
When the Vandalians saw their king was fallen, confusion ensued. Some pressed forward with cries of rage. Others began to retreat toward the breach they had entered by. The Almangians took the occasion to press in and attack.
Waldhar bent and brushed back the golden net. He picked up the head.
“Throw this over the wall and let them see they are defeated.”
As the battle began to change, he turned to Regina. She stayed on her knees.
“My lord,” she whispered. Her eyes stayed down on the tangle of fallen hair.
Waldhar wiped his hand clean along his leather leggings.
“Rapunzel.” He reached out and tipped her face up. “My treasure is safe.” Amidst the lined maze of gravity and exhaustion, faint crinkles dimpled the corners of his eyes. “All of it.”
Regina sang softly to the creak of the cradle she rocked with her knee. The loom before her was arrayed in strands sparkling in the visiting sunbeam like gold. She paused in her work to lay a hand on the stirring baby.
“It is forming, little parsnip, it is forming. When you are a man, you shall have a hero’s cloak. For that is what you will grow into, like your father.”