Light streams into the single tower room, onto the bed. Too much light, too bright, too harsh. I don't want to see my mother's emaciated face so clearly; I can't bear to see the hollows that formed in her cheeks while I was gone, or her dark eyes, staring at me with such fierce longing.
I've hated my mother for half my life, but watching her die is killing me. I stand up and hurry to the window, nearly running to grab the heavy curtains. Outside, warm sunlight streams down onto the forest below us. This was my only view for years, my only outlook onto the world. Beyond the trees, the bright pennants atop the castle flap, blown by a summer breeze. The depth of my bitterness takes me by surprise when I see them.
My life is good, now. I have to remind myself of that, my hands white-knuckled around the curtains. I can't see my cottage from here; it feels like a dream from which I've too-suddenly awoken, not the reality to which I'll soon return. Back home, my husband and our children are waiting. They're eating vegetables fresh from our garden, and the youngest children are playing with the dogs all day long, then snuggling up with them on the hearth as if they're puppies themselves. Whenever I see them like that, so tender and helpless, I feel as if my heart might break from wonder, fear, and envy. I've never experienced that freedom, that trust.
"Leave the windows open," Mother says. Her voice is cracked and weak, nothing like the harsh commanding tone I used to hear. "I need to feel the fresh air."
"Yes, Mother." I step back obediently, clenching my fists, and look away from the blue sky.
Life is carrying on outside, but here I am, back in my tower again, with the person who kept me imprisoned until I was nineteen years old.
At least she's coherent, now. When I first arrived, she was babbling, lost in the middle of one of her old hate-filled rants. I almost turned and ran.
"I remember," my mother says dreamily. "When you were a little girl, I used to braid your hair for hours. It was so soft. Like golden silk in my fingers."
I have to hold myself back from reaching up to feel my short, cropped hair. I never let it grow long anymore. "Can I make you anything to drink?" I ask. "One of your potions? If you tell me which herbs to mix—"
"No," she says. "No, I'm fine, now that you're back. Come, sit down."
She pats the mattress beside her with a blue-veined hand. Her knuckles have swollen into rocks.
Fighting all my instincts, I sit.
"We did everything together," she says. "The only person you ever wanted was me."
My mother is dying. I tell myself that. I use it to hold back the rage that wants to spill. The words of poison that want to pour out of my mouth and beat at her ravaged face the way she beat me with her fists, the first time I ever tried to find love away from her.
My prince is long-married to a suitably highborn bride. If I had known anything of the world, I would never have believed his promises.
But how could I possibly have known?
"You never even let me see anybody else," I whisper.
She blinks and pats my hand. "I kept you safe," she says. "You didn't understand. I wouldn't let anybody get close enough to hurt you."
You would never let me breathe.
I bite my lip so hard that I taste blood. "Maybe you should get some sleep," I say. "I'll work in the garden for a bit, cook us some dinner—"
"Everything outside is so dangerous," she says. Her eyes have gone unfocused; they move back and forth, searching—for what? "People everywhere. Waiting. Waiting to rob you. Hurt you. Take you away."
"Mother." I swallow. "I think you're getting too excited. Why don't you just close your eyes?"
But she doesn't seem to even hear me. "He said he would do it."
She's shivering, even though the air is warm. I reach over and pull the covers up around her. She tries to grab my hand. I pull it back.
"My prince!" Suddenly I'm breathing hard. I'm seventeen again, suffering the lash of her voice, her blows. "That was me, remember? My life, not yours!"
"They burned the house down," she says. "My mother, screaming. The prince and his men. They laughed. And then he looked at me."
Tears stand in her pale blue eyes, trickle down her cheeks. Nausea twists my stomach.
"You're upset," I say. "We'll talk about this later, when you're feeling better. I'll—"
"It hurt," she says, and it turns into a moan. "It hurt so much!"
"And he said, if I whelped—"
"I ran," she whispers. "I ran and ran. To a different kingdom, where he would never find me. And I built the tallest tower, to keep my baby safe. So no one could ever take her away. No one will ever hurt her. Ever."
Tears burn behind my eyes. She's gasping for breath as she talks.
"Shh," I whisper. "Please, Mother."
"But she's gone," Mother says. Her voice rises. It spirals into panic. "He took her! He hurt her! Where's she gone?" Her head jerks back; she twists it around on the pillow, eyes wild. "Where is she? Where's my daughter? Tell me! Where's my daughter? I need my daughter!"
"I'm here," I whisper. My chest is so tightly constricted, it feels like it's about to break apart.
"Stop lying to me!" she screams. "Where's my daughter?"
"It's all right." I force out the words through a throat clenched tight and burning. I reach out, through the memories. I reach through the beatings, through the suffocation and the mania. I make myself reach toward the girl who was hurt so badly, the girl who let fear warp the shape of her life.
I reach out and take her shaking hands, and I fold them between both of mine. "It's all right now, Mother," I whisper, and I watch her face tremble with longing. I look at the old woman I've been afraid of for so long. "See?" I whisper. In the distance, in the future, my husband and children are waiting for me. I'm not imprisoned. Not anymore. "I'm right here. With you."