The morning after the wedding, the morning he left, he took a lock of her hair with him.
She woke up alone in the marriage bed. The sunlight spilled through her window, and the breeze smelled of violets, of roses, of summer wheat and bruised new peaches. Her bed was soft enough to feel a pea through the mattress. There was a pitcher of cool water on the table by the bed. It sweated in the warmth: each droplet on the glass held a million rainbows.
And he was gone.
The princess rose and put on clothes, dressing gowns of rich silk and silver the like of which she had never owned before she was wed. She bound her midnight hair in cords, without the help of her unfamiliar chambermaids; she was long accustomed to tending her own needs. All but the one lock, which dangled too-short and raw-edged onto her alabaster cheek. She fretted at it all the way down the stairs and through the halls, searching for her husband.
He was not in the kitchen; the cooks serving breakfast and preparing lunch bowed deep to their newest charge. He was not in the great hall; the petitioners from the town stared at her until she fled through the doorway and into the bright day. He was not in the stable, and neither was his horse, his sword, or his sturdiest traveling gear.
"A one-night widow," she said bitterly, and went to speak to the king.
The king was an older man, tolerant and quiet and a touch lame on his left side. When he saw the tears in his new daughter's eyes he closed the court and beckoned her close, sat her on the dais which was perfumed with roses, and leaned close so she would not have to speak above a whisper.
"My husband is gone," she told him. "One night, and he has left me."
The king sighed and chuckled, but there was more sadness in it than joy. "Of course he is gone, my daughter," he said. "My son is a hero, and he must ride the countryside building bridges, slaying dragons, and defending the people who call our land home."
"And what of his wife?" she said, and the breeze no longer smelled of peaches but of autumn, and barley rotting in the fields.
"His wife waits," the king told her, "as my own wife would have were I not lame and housebound. As father and mother have waited every summer for these many years. We wait and rule and defend the town, and keep to our own responsibilities. But at least we wait together, and take joy from each other in his absences," he said, and laid a hand on her head in comfort. "We thought you knew."
She had known. She had known of his duties before she knew his heart's desires, and when he laid his hand on the small of her back she had felt strong enough to bear it. She had felt strong enough to ramble the hills herself, to take up his sword, to defend and protect and be a guardian by his side. What had waiting been to that?
She shook her head and rose, and went back to her rooms. For the first time, the princess began to think she had not quite understood what required the more strength.
The new princess had not had finery nor company nor subjects, but knew the duties of a royal wife. She gathered the unfamiliar ladies into her sitting-room, sent for a lunch, and started to spin for her weaving.
She had left the tower because her mother loved her, and in that love would not let any daughter of hers fall or fail. She had left the tower because he had called her down with honey and bells in his voice. It was not his promises that drew her down, as the ladies believed: it was the stories that he told her at night, his weight precariously balanced between hair and bramble and stone, whispering of his adventures in her ear. There had been riches awaiting her; riches were nothing compared to him.
He had seen the world beyond her tower. And in all the world beyond her tower, he said, he had found nothing that moved him to tenderness more than her. He wanted to give her his world; he listened to all the tales of hers, small and cramped and stunted as they were, and repeated the words, savoured them on his own tongue. For months they spoke history, philosophy, love to each other, until the princess imagined him as not a man, but a voice in the darkness, a pressure upon her scalp, a wind-whisper. After twenty years of a hot, stifling love, a love that kept you too close and stepped on your toes in the kitchen and watched you day and night, his cool love made her heart quicken.
They plotted her escape over three nights, and then he rode away.
The prince fought a game of riddles with a giant, from whose head he took three iron-rope hairs as his prize. He sought out and smashed a wizard's secret token to gain the favour of a wood-wife, who wove the ropes into a ladder. A year and a day passed in this manner, and then he returned to his lover's tower.
She had not forgotten him. She packed a bag with her few sturdy dresses, her comb and brush, and the toy she had slept with as a child. She did not leave a note for her mother: her absence would be message enough.
Slowly, silently, vibrating with terror and yearning and the sense of destiny fulfilled, she climbed down the ladder. Her feet touched earth, and it felt strange and soft and right against her soles, so unlike the twenty-steps-by-twenty of stone she had paced day after endless day. The stars were so very far away.
She held his hand for the first time, and it was warm and dry in hers. They fled past the fences, past the fields, through her mother's rampion patch, and they did not care a whit for the crops they trampled. She had always hated rampion.
"Sing to me," he asked when they were mounted on his horse, well and truly away, obscured by the darkness of three hours 'til sunup, with the road stretched before them.
She sang of freedom, and of night, and of how the safety she felt in his arms was different from the safety of her tower. She sang him a love song.
By sunrise, they had agreed to be wed.
Summer was reaped into autumn and quieted into winter. The prince did not come home. The smell of his hair on the pillows faded and wisped into nothing, and the princess took to lying with her face buried deep in them for so long that the chambermaids feared she would do herself an injury.
The princess wove tapestries and curtains. She corresponded with others, long chatty letters full of news and sunshine and well-wishes. She learned to supervise the kitchen, to care for the accounts, to tend the flowers in her private garden. She sent a tentative letter to her mother's tower, and hoped for the first time since her flight that perhaps they might be reconciled. She did not learn to sleep alone.
When midwinter night ended and the sun rose pale and watery in the sky, she dismissed her ladies and bent over her wheel and loom.
She wove a cloak, and it was tough and light and flowed green in the wind. She wove a dress, and it was sturdy and brown and unbecoming a princess, but strong enough to withstand days upon the road. She wove a satchel of rough fibres that blistered her fingers when spun, large enough to hold rations to keep body and soul together. And she wove a winding-sheet, white and long and filmy, in case she did not find him after all. On the first day of spring she donned her dress and cloak and filled her satchel, and once again went before the king.
"I am going on a quest," the princess said. "I am going to find my husband and bring him home, whether he be in peril or merely lost along the way."
The king's eyes darkened into sadness, and the queen clutched his hand. "Are you sure?" she whispered. "Are you sure?"
The princess tightened her hands around the walking-staff she had cut from the garden that morning, all the while whispering thanks to the young birch beneath her knife.
"You have a family," the king said. "You are loved here." We have lost enough children, his eyes pleaded, but he saw her hands and her eyes and knew deep inside that she could not be swayed.
"I know," the princess said, and bowed her head to him. "But it is his love I need, and I must know what has become of him."
She set out at midafternoon without well-wishers or fanfare: she had waited only long enough to stock her satchel with food that would not spoil, and no proper send-off could be mustered. The kitchen maids patted her hands and gave her the last of the winter apples, the hardiest cheese, the freshest bread from the ovens. Our princess knows her will, they whispered through the long nights that followed. She'll bring him home right.
She set out, and the farmers did not look up to notice her, absorbed as they were in bringing the cold earth back to life. The children ran and made mischief through the fields, too giddy with spring to mind the sharp warnings of their parents. The breeze lifted, smelling of soil and new life to come, and it lifted some of the chill from her heart.
Half an hour down the road, she realized she did not know which way to go. For the first time since she had conceived of it, her adventure, her search seemed nothing but a half-grown woman's foolish mistake. She leaned against the fencepost of a freshly tilled field and tried to hold in her tears.
She was there a few minutes before a farmer, making his last check upon the boundaries of his land, noticed her and the set look upon her face.
"Child," the farmer said, not recognizing a princess outside of her finery. "What's wrong?"
"Has the prince passed this way," she asked him, "on his fine charger?"
"West," the man said, and pulled straight his working clothes. "He went west. But you'd do best to stay home, find yourself peaceful work and loyal friends. No good ever came from chasing after princes."
She smiled, and thanked him for his kindness, and turned her face to the west.
It had been a long time since she had walked the roads of the land; either they had grown harder or the princess softer. Her feet blistered and limped before they grew tough again, feet which had never touched earth for twenty-one years and now touched it all too often. Her stomach cramped and twisted before she remembered what both mother and husband had said about roots and berries and which ones would nourish. Both his tales and her correspondences served her well in that time: she now knew which kingdoms bordered which, where the weather was sunny or cool, the ground high or low. The breadth of her knowledge surprised her.
Everywhere she stopped she asked for rumour of the prince. Everywhere they pointed her west, west, farther west into the sunset, and spoke of the good deeds he had wrought along the way. Her prince had quelled tyrants, dug wells during drought, negotiated peaces and helped bring the crops in when the weather loomed threatening. She felt proud: of course. This was the man she had fallen in love with, and this was part of why she had fallen in love with him. Not all of her was proud.
Spring turned into summer, and her satchel grew light and empty, and she tired of sleeping by the roadside.
The princess picked in orchards for a night's supper and sleep. She cared for colicky babies and washed dishes for harried farmwives. She was not a skilled woman: she did not know herb lore or magic or heroism, but she knew all there was to know of patience. Her hands grew as rough as the soles of her feet, muscular and strong.
She worked her way westward, and the rumours grew dark.
There were tales of a tower in the west, ringed with a moat so deep it touched the centre of the earth, the only bridge guarded by a knight whose name was as dark as his arms. Great evils often arose in the land, but they were often undone: the tale of the tower rung in her ears in every town and village in a month's wandering, and the princess knew where she would find her prince.
It started a terrible fear moving in her body, and a relief that was yet more terrible.
The princess did not know about great deeds. That had never been her province. Dark knights were defeated with blood and fire and magic, and none of those were among her skills. She had no illusions as to her power: she may be a princess, but she was far from home, and her station would not keep her from peril.
I'll figure it out when I get there, she told herself, and once again set out upon her way.
The princess reached the tower as autumn was turning into winter again, the leaves fallen from the trees and the ground firming up into stone. It rose dark against the cloudy sky, solid and foreboding and impossible to topple or breach. She shivered and pulled her cloak close against the changing wind, wondered if perhaps this was how her own tower had appeared to her beloved the first time. She wondered if he thought of this one as a home.
She circled the moat at a distance, around and around, and there was indeed only one bridge. She stared at the bridge for an hour, and the dark-armoured knight who stood where it touched the earth did not budge or shuffle. She tried to assemble cunning plans, but night was falling and it was too cold to move swift and silent. The princess huddled in the scrub by the road all night, but the knight did not shift even to eat or drink.
The sun came up watery and faint, its light devoured by the murky moat. Exhausted, the princess stumbled into the open, no longer caring if the knight saw her face. "I am here to see the prince you hold captive in this tower," she said. "I wish to speak to him."
The dark knight looked at her, and laughed. It sounded hollow and chained beneath his helmet. "And who are you, wanderer-woman, stained with the dust of the road and dress in tatters, to make demands of me?"
Perhaps her dress was stained and torn. Perhaps it had been a week since the streams had turned too cold to bathe: winter was coming fast. "I am his wife," she said, "and you have kept him away from home for a year or more. You owe me one conversation."
"The wife of a prince," he said, "come questing."
"My embroidery is poor," she shot back, even if in truth it was as fine as any other's. "And my courtcraft has brought me no pleasure."
The dark knight laughed again, booming and stifled and amused. "Very well," he said. "But with what shall you pay me for your conversation? Do you draw, so I may ask a portrait? Have you magic you can give me, or knowledge, or a fine singing voice to keep in a box?"
"I have none of these things," she said. "I have waiting and that is all."
"Then you shall not have your conversation, for what good to me is waiting?" said the knight. "What threat to me is waiting?"
"I waited twenty years before I left the tower of my mother. I waited another before I sought out my husband, and yet another while I traveled. I can wait here until you fall dead on the ground," she said.
The dark knight looked at the calm in her eyes, the grip she kept upon her walking-stick, the leanness of her frame, and stepped aside.
She crossed the bridge to the tower. It did not sway under her feet.
The top of the tower was round and cramped: a pallet, a table, a prison-window facing homewards. Her prince was sitting on the pallet, worn and tired and thin. At the beginning of her journey she would have cried out at the sight: now she merely sighed. "I've come for you," she said, and leaned exhausted on her walking-stick.
At first the prince did not recognize her, this raggedy-haired wife with exhaustion in her eyes. Her face was blurry in his memory, but the voice was the voice of a darkened tower in the woods, her laugh the laugh of stolen midnight tales. Her hair was dark as the depths of the ocean, and he could see the short piece grown long where he had taken his love-token two years before. "Beloved," he said, and his voice was hoarse from disuse. "How are you here?"
"I've missed you," she said, and nothing more.
He took her in his arms and held her tight, every second of their two years apart visible in his eyes. "Don't worry. I'll take you home. With two of us, we can surely defeat the knight."
It was bravado. It was foolishness. She had seen the knight's sharp weapons, and even if her husband was a prince, she had no magic, or woodcraft, or great deeds in her fingers. The princess had seen the world beyond her tower now, and she knew when someone was lying to reassure her.
"If we do you'll be home to stay?" she asked instead of all those things, and her voice was so full of a year's roaming wind it was almost inaudible.
He looked down at her, and sadness filled his eyes, and he shook his head.
"This is not what we were to have," she said, knotting her hands in the roughness of her stained dress, her voice just as rough and timeworn. "This was not what we dreamed."
"You knew who I was when you took me," he said gravely, but there was no blame in it. "This is why you took me."
"I know," she said. She could not in fairness ask him to give it up. He was a good hero; nothing would be served by forcing the both of them into waiting, imprisoned behind walls of paperwork and spinning and home. Nothing would be birthed but resentment. More resentment: the tower walls grown higher around her heart. "But you knew who I was too."
He shook his head. "I don't understand," he said. "You bore it well before we met; you bore it well while I traveled to find our ladder."
Her hands tightened in the skirts of her dress. "I had nothing to miss before I laid eyes on you."
He let out a breath, slowly. "Oh, my love," he said, and shook with indecision. "I don't know that I can give it up."
Her hands gripped her skirts so hard they ripped.
"Then you should have left me there," she screamed, even though she never meant to raise her voice to her beloved. There were to be no tears in their household: they had promised this the night before they were wed, secretly giving and taking private vows. No tears, no secrets, no more grief. It was to be a place of light. "You should never have brought me down. You should never have—"
But the words were so hard in her throat that they choked her and she could no longer speak. The princess coughed and cried and reached for the hilt of her hunting knife, a kitchen knife discarded by a village wife, turned to her use in the wild. It drew soft and keen, a maid's weapon, a peasant's weapon, but still a strong one: with one clean cut the midnight mass of her hair fell crumpled to the floor.
"A lock for every year," she told him when she could breathe again. "A lifetime of absence for you to remember me by." She pulled the winding-sheet from her satchel and flung it at the pile of hair; it floated like gossamer, like a summer afternoon. "An eternity of cold beds and cold hearts and nothing for you to hold to your breast."
For a long moment he was silent. And then: "You don't mean that."
She could not tell if it was a statement or a question, or a prayer.
"No," she whispered, and fell into his arms.
His hands soothed, caressed, found again the small of her back as if they had never left it and settled there, warm and strong: taking strength, giving strength. It no longer made her feel powerful.
She pulled away.
"There is your ladder," she said. "By my hands, you are liberated from this tower. Go out and do your deeds. Be free."
He did not move. "What will you do?"
"Think," she said, and shouldered her satchel again. It felt lighter without the winding-sheet. Her head felt lighter without the weight of the hair she had borne forever: she thought she might float away from the lack of it. "Go somewhere quiet, and think."
"I still love you," he said. "I love you more than anything."
"I know," she said, and meant it.
They were silent for a time.
"How will I find you?" he said.
The princess paused at the door. "Braid a rope of hair and night songs and promises, when you are ready to be a husband to me. When you are tired of traveling, tired of great deeds. When you want to be in my arms again, hang it from the tallest tower in the kingdom, and I will soon come home."
"You want to leave me," he whispered low.
"No." Her voice shook, and she hated herself for it.
"You're hurting yourself, then."
"Yes," she said. "But it will hurt worse later if I let you kiss me again."
The princess left the tower and crossed the bridge, and walked past the dark knight into the woods. She walked east, and it was only when she was far from the tower that she let herself cry.
The winter was harsh. The princess sheltered in towns and farming villages, cooking and minding babies and spinning strong new cloaks for the merchants and farmwives. Those who had sheltered her on her journey to the tower recognized the quiet face, the ceaselessly busy hands, but did not ask what had happened to her long, soft hair. She slowly worked her way east, but there was no longer a pull to keep to the road. There was no urgency in her ramblings.
She still dreamed of him. But she dreamed of other things now, too.
One summer day she looked up, and realized she was outside the city that held the palace of her prince. She leaned against the fencepost by the side of the road and shifted her aching feet in her shoes. From here she could see the highest tower, and there was no flag of hair upon it.
"And a welcome back to you, miss," said a voice, and the princess turned to see a familiar farmer on the other side of the fence, tending his growing crops. "Still chasing after rainbows and princes?"
She shook her head, and remembered words given her a lifetime ago. "Peaceful work and loyal friends, these days."
The farmer laughed, a twinkle in his eye. "I've tasks that could use an extra hand if you wish," he said. "Nothing grand. Kitchen things. Planting things. That is, if you're looking for somewhere to stay for a while."
She smiled, tentative at first, and ducked under the fence into his fields. "A while," she said. "But perhaps not forever."
He followed her gaze up to the highest tower of the palace. "Waiting for a sign, are we?" he asked.
The wind moved through the barley, and smelled of plants, of warm and good things, of summer, of peaches.
"Waiting until I'm ready to look for one," the princess told him, and dropped her eyes from the horizon. There were chores to be done inside.