Part One: Once Upon a Time

I find myself at a crossroads.

I stumble slightly, disoriented from traveling by magic.

“Where are we?”

“A road on the outskirts of Skaran,” Aurora tells me.

Skaran. A country that at least acknowledges magic, even if they don’t entirely trust it.

“And what is my task?”

Aurora straightens, a serious look coming over her face. “Nova, you have been my apprentice for 10 years now, studying magic and the responsibilities of a sorceress. Today you will face your final test. Do well and you will finally become a sorceress. I will use my magic to observe you. Your task is the beggar woman. Disguise yourself and wait along this road. Test the first person you meet, pass judgment, and punish or reward that person accordingly.” Her stern expression softens and she smiles at me. “Best of luck, Nova. I have faith in you.”

With those ominous words, Aurora vanishes.

I take a deep breath and survey my surroundings. The road stretches in four directions, but each path soon disappears into the dense woods.

It strikes me as oddly symbolic, the location of this test. I’m at a crossroads, both literally and metaphorically. Simply waiting. I will either become a sorceress or all the years I’ve spent as Aurora’s apprentice were a waste.

And I only get one chance.

I can only hope the first person I meet is some kind soul I can quickly reward so I can be on my way.

“The Beggar Woman” is one of the classic tests every sorceress’s apprentice learns. She disguises herself as someone in need of help. When someone comes by, she asks for help. She passes judgment based on their actions and either rewards or punishes the person. It sounds easy enough, but it’s surprisingly difficult. Does a person stop out of genuine concern or mere duty? Does she pass by because she doesn’t care or because she is delivering medicine to a sick child? Does he foolishly give more than he can afford?

I gather my magic around me like a cloak, discarding my 25-year-old, and in my humble opinion, rather beautiful, appearance. I grimace as my body changes. The transformation isn’t exactly painful, more itchy than anything, but it’s disconcerting to feel your body change shape. I take the form of a decrepit old woman. It’s one of my least favorite forms. My joints ache, my posture is hunched, and my bones creak whenever I move. I much prefer the ‘beautiful sorceress’ appearance. It dazzles and awes people. The old woman form only inspires pity and scorn.

I’m pulled out of my thoughts by the thudding of horse hoofs. I listen carefully. It sounds like more than one horse.

I hesitate at the side of the road. Traditionally, “The Beggar Woman” is targeted at a solitary person, not a group. I don’t know what to do. The pounding grew louder. I have to make a decision.

I finally choose to stand off to one side. If anyone from the group approaches me, I will test them.

I hobble to the edge of the road and sit under a tree.

Three horsemen appear around a bend in the road, well-dressed and loud. At first I think they don’t see me, as they show no signs of stopping. Then the middle horseman stops and nudges his horse to the side of the road. He’s extraordinarily handsome, his clear blue eyes studying me closely.

“Well, well. What have we here?”

The other two riders stop, shifting uncomfortably in their saddles. “Come Heinrik,” one says. “We’ve no need to waste our time here.”

I bristle at his words, but force myself to stay calm and continue the charade I’ve created. “Spare a few coins, sir, for an old woman.”

“We’ve nothing to give,” the third man says shortly. “Be on your way.”

My eyes narrow and I try to keep my anger under control. After all, if my emotions overwhelm me, my magic becomes…unpredictable. I gleefully consider the different curses I can cast on the two rude horsemen. I think I’ll spare the first, as he did stop.

The first one, Heinrik, smiles as he dismounts. “Do you pester all who travel along this road, hag? Or have you singled us out because we are rich?”

Well, perhaps I should reconsider my course of action.

“I-”

“Do you know who I am?”

I shake my head.

“I am His Royal Highness, Prince Heinrik, heir to the Skaran throne. Your life is meaningless compared to mine. Why would I give you anything? You are nothing more than a drain on society. The best thing you can do is die.”

The other two riders flinch at his speech. I begin to wonder if their harsh words were their attempt at avoiding this confrontation without crossing the prince.

I let go of my fragile control, magic snapping and crackling in the air around me.

“You, Prince Heinrik, have been tested and found wanting.” My voice echoes with power as I drop my disguise. “According to the laws and traditions of magic, you shall be punished accordingly.”

The men seem awed by my transformation from hag to beautiful young woman. Still, the prince manages to sneer at me.

“I am a prince! What right have you to punish me, witch?” He draws his sword.

With a wave of my hand, I freeze them in place. How dare that little ingrate compare me to such a crude practitioner of magic! Dragon’s teeth, being a witch is worse than being magicless.

“I am no witch, but a sorceress. As such I am above your country’s laws. None would argue with me in this case.” I decide to leave out the vital information that I am nearly a sorceress, not actually one. The distinction is slight and would likely be lost on him. He’d probably just accuse me of being a pretender. Or a witch again.

“And what,” I say, walking up to the immobile prince and patting his face, “shall I do with you?”

Prince Heinrik has enough control to contort his face into an ugly grimace.

“Now, now, make that face long enough and you’ll ruin your pretty looks. It’s a shame really. If only your soul reflected the beauty of your face.” I smile slowly. “There’s an idea.”

I step back, collecting my thoughts. In the space between us, I begin to create a shadowy creatures. I make the form, but let my magic fill in the details; a monster as ugly as the prince’s soul. The creature takes form. It’s a large bear, but more frightening. Its eyes are red, its sharp teeth protruding from its mouth. Its fur is matted and dingy, somewhere between gray and brown.

All three men gasp in horror as the beast approaches them. It merges with the prince, who begins to writhe in agony. My heart twinges with a chord of pity, but I can’t lose my resolve now or the magic will go haywire. The pity quickly dies as the prince starts to threaten me, shouting curses. The other two men keep their distance and eye me warily.

As I glance around, the setting sun gives me an idea. The prince has now transformed fully into the creature. It looks at me with sad eyes, yet still manages to appear terrifying. I nudge the magic and as the sun disappears beyond the horizon, the beast becomes the prince again.

“What have you done to me?” he whispers, on his hands and knees.

“This is your curse,” I tell him. “By day, you will be the beast, a creature as ugly as your soul, yet as sweet as your human appearance. By night, you will return to your human form. Until you know love, real love, you will remain this way.”

In the stunned silence that follows, I make myself invisible, but I don’t leave. I’m curious to see what happens next. I’m not the only one either. Aurora is by my side. She frowns.

I allow the magic holding the men in place to dissipate and they stagger.

“What are you going to do, Your Highness?” one of the riders asks. “What if the sorceress’s words are true?”

“We have to assume she spoke the truth,” Heinrik says with a frown. “I can feel that evil beast inside me. What did the witch say will break the spell?”

“Finding love, Your Highness.”

Heinrik smiles coldly. “Well, that won’t be hard.”

Before either man can ask what he means, another horse appears, pulling a cart. An older man drives it. He slows and stops as the prince’s men wave him down.

“You there,” the prince says. “Do you know who I am?”

“Yes Sire.” The man bows from his seat.

“Have you any daughters?”

All three men give the prince questioning looks. “Y-yes, Sire, I have three daughters.”

The prince turns to the taller of his companions. “Karl, return to this man’s home with him. Bring one of his daughters to my hunting lodge.”

The older man’s face pales. “One of my daughters? But Sire-”

The prince’s eyes narrow. “You can either allow Karl to escort you and choose which one of your daughters will go with him, or I can have you arrested for disobeying me and take all of your daughters. I can make sure you never see any of them again. Am I clear?”

“Yes Sire.” The man’s shoulders fall and her turns his horse and cart around. The two other riders exchange looks, but obey without questions. The one called Karl mounts his horse and follows the horse and cart.

Aurora finally turns to me. “You let your anger get the better of you.”

“Does this mean I’ve failed?”

“Not yet. You are responsible for him, and now this girl he’s taken. If you can see this to a satisfactory ending, you will pass your test. Otherwise you will fail and be stripped of your powers. You may not use your magic to break the curse. You will let the spell run it’s natural course. And you will spend as much time as you need. Am I understood?”

“Yes Aurora. I’ll be in touch.”

She vanishes and I kick a nearby rock. It startles the two horses and their riders look around warily as they remount and ride off.

Still invisible, I use my magic to conjure wings. I fly along the two horses, listening to the two men.

“Where are we going, Your Higness?”

“My hunting lodge. No one will disturb us there. When Karl arrives with the girl, you two will stay out of sight. I don’t want her distracted. Do you understand me, Lars?”

“Yes Sire. But who will cook and clean?”

The prince pauses. Obviously he hadn’t thought of such things, the spoiled brat. Spells and curses, the poor girl will be living with a cursed moron. How will she survive?

“When we get there, go hire a woman from the closest village. Make sure she knows to keep our presence a secret.”

That’s my way in! I can pose as a housekeeper, use magic to do the chores, and keep an eye on them all. Perhaps I can even befriend the girl and advise her.

As we near the hunting lodge, I fly toward the village. I set down on the outskirts and drop my invisibility spell, staggering slightly as I feel the toll it took. Taking a few deep breaths, I gather the remnants of my magic to cast a permanent disguise on myself. It will use less energy, but I will remain in whatever form I choose until I cast the counterspell. I make myself old, but not as old as before. I aim for matronly and comforting. I wait for a while, trying to look like I belong. Finally, Lars comes into view. He stops when he sees me.

“Excuse me, ma’am, do you know of any women looking for employment? I am looking for a housekeeper.”

“I have been looking for such a position for some time.”

He breathes a sigh of relief. “Good. You must come at once. Your employer is…eccentric. You will only see him when the sun is down. You will look cook and clean, as well as look after a young lady who will be arriving in the next few days. I and another man will patrol the grounds.”

“Why must you patrol? Is it unsafe?”

“Not exactly. There is a…creature, your employer’s pet,” Lars stumbles over the words, “that roams freely during the day. We patrol to make sure it doesn’t leave the grounds and scare anyone.”

So he’s worried about how safe the beast is. I bite my tongue to keep from telling him that it’s harmless, despite its appearance.

At Lars’ insistence, I gather my belongings and we set out immediately. I walk beside his horse. It’s a long walk, made harder by the lack of light. By the time we arrive, the moon has set. The hunting lodge is small as far as royal buildings go, but it’s still large. Three stories high and containing nearly 20 rooms, I’d wager. I’m ushered into a large, empty hall. A fire burns in the fireplace on the far wall. Next to the fireplace stands the prince.

“What is your name?” he asks, back still to me.

“Marta, Your Highness.” I have to force myself to be respectful, even bowing, though he can’t see me.

“Your duties will consist primarily of caring for the girl who will soon arrive. Has Lars told you about the beast?” he asks through gritted teeth.

“He said you have an unusual pet.”

The prince glares at Lars, who grins apologetically. “It roams freely during the day. Try to avoid it. If you feel at all threatened, call Lars or Karl.” He finally turns to me. “I doubt you will be needed for more than a few days. Try not to bother the girl too much. If you need anything, talk to Lars. He will show you to your quarters.”

He waves his hand, obviously dismissing me. Before I can leave, or give in to the temptation to make something fall on his head, a ray of sunlight breaks through the curtains and lands on his hand. The hand turns hairy and deformed, growing claws. The rest of the prince’s body follows suit. The beast stands there for a moment before ambling off.

Lars turns to me. “I suppose we can’t keep it from you. Prince Heinrik has been cursed.”

I examine my fingernails. “Perhaps I got a little carried away. I may have been harsh, but you can’t argue that he didn’t deserve it.”

“You!” Lars draws his sword, but hesitates. “You…have a point. And to be honest, I can’t really argue with what you’ve done. The prince needs to learn to start looking outside of himself. But that does not mean I agree with what you’ve done.”

“Well, we must make do with what we’ve got. I’ve been tasked with watching over the girl and making sure this debacle ends well. Can I count on your help? And your silence?”

He nods.

“Good. I can conjure furniture and any supplies we may need. If, by some miracle, the prince notices and thinks to ask where they came from, tell him you bought them at the village. And as miserable as it may make the poor girl, you and your friend should stay away from her as much as possible. If the girl is to fall in love with the prince, she can’t be around the two of you. Or any other male, for that matter. We need to make him as loveable as possible. Between your counsel and influence and my magic, we might just have a chance at making this work. Perhaps we can teach our prince a lesson.”

Lars finally sheathes his sword and leaves to keep watch. We don’t know how the beast will behave, but I personally expect it to be a loveable thing, if it’s to be the opposite of the prince.

I move from room to room, creating sparse furnishings for most of the rooms. I try to be creative, to give the girl options for entertainment. I make a music room, a small library, and a comfortable room with a desk, fully stocked with paper and pencils, some embroidery and sewing supplies, and a chess board. The only exception to my frugal decorating is the girl’s room. I make it as lavish and as comfortable as I can. The poor child is being torn away from her family and I’m not too proud to admit that it’s partly my fault. But only a small part.

I run into the beast a few times, and as I guessed, it’s a gentle creature. It seems to be ambling aimlessly, exploring its surroundings. It sniffs me curiously when we cross paths, but doesn’t show much interest otherwise. I avoid doing magic in front of it. I don’t know if the prince will remember his time as the beast, but I’d rather not take the chance. I don’t want to risk him finding out I can do magic. He may make the connection that I’m the one who cursed him. And I certainly don’t want him to think I’m trying to help him. It’s not as if I’ve done something wrong and am feeling regret. I simply want to pass my test.

Shortly after I conjure and deliver lunch to Lars and the beast, Lars yells for me. I scurry to the front hall to see the other man, Karl, holding a small bag. A girl stands next to them, shrinking in on herself as she looks around.

Our prisoner has arrived.

I approach the girl and smile. “Hello, dear. My name is Marta. Welcome.”

“I’m Ingrid,” she whispers. She’s certainly striking. Unlike most people in Skara, who have blond hair and blue eyes, Ingrid’s hair is dark brown, nearly black and her eyes are brown. Her eyes are empty, though that might be due to suddenly being ripped from her previous life. The poor girl looks like she could burst into tears at any given moment. I take her arm and Karl, who gives me a confused look before dropping her bag and going outside, presumably to find Lars.

I lead Ingrid to the room I’ve chosen for her and set her bag next to her bed.

“This is where you’ll be staying. I think you’ll be quite comfortable here. If you need anything at all, just ask me.” Ingrid sits lifelessly in front of the mirror. I think furiously, trying to come up with a way to make her feel even a little better. “You know, legend has it this hunting lodge is magical. My mother worked here before me and she told me about rooms that would appear and disappear without warning, musical instruments that could play themselves, and sometimes even fairies roaming the halls. She always said that if you could catch a fairy, it could tell you anything you wanted. But it would only answer one question. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent in these halls, hoping to catch a fairy to tell me who my true love would be.”

“Did you ever find one?” Ingrid asks. Her eyes have brightened a little. She’s obviously intrigued by my story. I’m almost convinced it’s true. I didn’t realize I was so good at this.

“No, sadly. That’s why I never married,” I say with a wry smile. She laughs a little, giving me a slight smile. “Now, what would you like for dinner? I can make anything you like.”

“I’m not very hungry.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Very well. Do you want me to show you around?”

“No, I think I’ll stay here. I’m very tired. I just want to sleep.”

“Very well dear. Ring the bell on the table if you need anything. I’ll see you in the morning.” I leave, but stop outside the door. I can hear the poor child’s sobs through the thick wooden door. I walk away, allowing her privacy to grieve. I walk around idly until the sun sets. As soon as it’s dark, the prince finds me.

“Has the girl arrived?” he asks.

“Yes.”

“Where is she?”

“Her room. She was quite upset when she arrived.”

“Bring her to me,” he demands.

“She’s probably asleep.”

“I don’t care. Bring her to me!” Has no one ever denied the royal pain before?

I hesitate. She won’t want to leave her room, I’m nearly certain of that.

“Go!” he yells. Dragon’s teeth, he’s impatient.

I hurry down the hall to Ingrid’s room. I knock gently on her door. “Ingrid? It’s Marta. May I come in?”

I hear a muffled voice, which I think says yes. I slowly open the door. Ingrid has moved from the chair to her bed, her face stained with tears. I sit next to her and stroke her hair.

“Did Karl tell you why you are here?”

She sniffles. “Not really. He just said that Prince Heinrik wanted me or one of my sisters to come here. Is it really the prince? My sisters thought it was some sort of scheme.”

“Yes, the prince is really here. In fact, he would like to speak with you. Will you come?”

“He’s the prince. Do I have a choice?” Her voice is slightly bitter. Good for her. A little opposition will be good for His Royal Stuffiness.

We walk through the long, lonely halls until we reach the room I met the prince in yesterday. Ingrid hesitates and I give her a quick smile of encouragement.

The prince glares at me as we enter. “You may go do…whatever it is you do.”

What I’d like to do is hex his mouth shut. Instead, I simply roll my eyes as I leave. I stop outside the door, casting a spell to let me see and hear the two inside.

“Do you know who I am?” The prince sounds rather full of himself. I think he’s trying to look pleasant and agreeable, but he simply looks pained.

“You are Prince Heinrik.”

“I am. If I were to ask you to marry me, what would you say?”

“What would you want me to say?”

The prince frowns. He’s rather good at that look, though if he isn’t careful, his handsome face will soon have permanent wrinkles. One can only hope. “It doesn’t matter what I want you to say. What do you want to say?”

“I-I’m afraid I don’t understand what you’re asking.”

The wrinkles deepen. I could plant flowers in those ruts. “Have you ever been in love?”

“No, Sire.”

“Well, you must love me.”

That seems to be the final straw for the girl. I had thought she was timid, but it appears she has some spirit in her. Her back straightens and her eyes light up with the first flashes of emotion I’ve seen since she got here. “I beg your pardon? You may be the prince, but you have no right to tell me how to feel. Do you know anything about love? Do you even know my name?” He shakes his head, momentarily speechless. If only he would stay quiet. “Well no wonder you have to resort to kidnapping innocent girls. No respectable woman would consider loving you.” She turns and begins to storm out when the prince regains use of his tongue.

“How dare you! I am your prince. You speak of rights? You have no right to speak to your future king in such a way. I could have you executed. You are nothing compared to me. Nothing! But you will kiss my boots and be grateful for the chance by the time I am done with you. Woman!”

It takes me a moment to realize he is calling for me. I swing open the doors. Ingrid still stands with her back to the prince, her face white and her eyes filled with tears.

“She will not eat until I see signs of regret for her rude and unacceptable behavior. Give her no luxuries, no new clothing, only a little water. Take away any possessions she brought from home. Allow no communication with anyone.” He smiles cruelly. “We will see how long it takes her to realize her true feelings.”

I hurry the girl back to her room. “Poor child,” I croon, holding her in my arms. I rub her back as she begins to sob again. “I will bring you food, only you must not tell the prince. It will be our little secret. And as long as he doesn’t see you in the nice gowns in your wardrobe, you can wear them during the day. He’s only around after the sun sets. While the sun shines, you may do whatever you please. I won’t let him starve you.”

Ingrid nods and I cast a quick sleeping spell on her. Goodness knows the girl needs to rest after the day she’s had.

I lock Ingrid’s door behind me and seek out the prince. I cast a spell for invisibility so that I don’t have to actually interact with him. He’s right where we left him, pacing and kicking at the few pieces of furniture I placed in the hall. I watch, rather amused, as the prince tries to reconcile being told ‘no’. I wonder if it’s ever happened before. From the tantrum he’s throwing, I’m inclined to think not. He suddenly stops. His eyes narrow and he quickly leaves the room. I follow, quiet and unseen, hoping against hope that he isn’t seeking out the girl. When I hear him muttering about an “ignorant chit” and “like to see her try”, I realize I’m not so lucky. He’s trying to find her.

Well, that’s something I can prevent.

A simple spell cast on his feet confuses his sense of direction. No matter how hard he tries, no matter how many turns he takes, he will be unable to find the girl’s room. It’s actually commonly used as a punishment for travelers who fail tests. Being hopelessly lost gives a person time to reflect on their actions. Sure, more often than not it just makes the person angrier, but I’ve always found it entertaining. And I’m not disappointed tonight. The royal brat storms through the lodge, bursting through doorways and generally causing a commotion. I have to cast a silence spell to keep from him disturbing the girl or alerting his men. Of course, I can’t stop a laugh at his expense. He hears it and looks around, but doesn’t see me. His frustration only makes me laugh harder.

The prince stops in the library, takes a deep breath, and looks around. “She has to be on this floor,” he mutters. “But I swear I’ve checked every room here.” With a kick at a nearby table, he leaves the room to start searching the rooms for the third time. As funny as I find this, it’s starting to get a little repetitive. Confident he won’t find his prey, I leave. When I reach my room, I pull out a blank book. Aurora has a similar one. Whatever is written in one will show up in the other. It’s a common way for magic users to stay in touch.

I summarize the day’s events for my mentor. Before she can reply, I fall into bed, exhausted. Between keeping the girl company and keeping an eye on the prince, I don’t think I’ll be getting much sleep in the future.

I venture out when the sun has fully risen. I peek in on the girl, but she’s still asleep. There isn’t much to do, so I wander the halls. I find the beast in a small room, rather like a study. Books line the walls and a fire burns in the hearth, making the room cozy. The beast has managed to curl his mass up in front of the fire. It raises its head and looks at me curiously. It sniffs and a look of recognition crosses its face. It amazes me how expressive it is. I cross over to it and hesitantly pat its head.

“Well, my beast, I hope you fare better with the girl than your counterpart did. He nearly frightened her to death. And now he’s trying to dictate her emotions. He’s in for a nasty surprise, don’t you think?”

The beast nods its head, but I don’t know if it agrees with me or simply has an itch.

“She’s a nice girl, Ingrid. Perhaps a little slow, but she has spirit. She’ll be a challenge for the prince, that’s for sure.”

I tidy up the room, but there isn’t much to do. I check on the girl periodically and she finally wakes, just before lunch. I conjure a tray of food and knock softly.

“Come in,” she calls.

“Good morning, dearie. I’ve brought breakfast. I hope you’re hungry.”

She nods and digs in with gusto. I’m a little shocked. “When did you last eat, child?”

She swallows. “Breakfast yesterday, before my father came home.”

“I’ll be having a word with those men,” I mutter darkly. “How they expect you to survive without food is beyond me. Thoughtless, muscle-brained idiots!”

The girl finishes her breakfast and I step outside to vanish the tray. I wait while she changes. She opens the door and steps out in a beautiful light blue gown.

“Would you like me to show you around this morning?” I ask. “I don’t have much to do today in the way of chores, so I can help you get familiar with the place.

She hesitates. “The prince is gone?”

“Yes.”

“And the animal they told me about?”

“We can avoid it if you wish, but to be honest, it’s much better company than the prince. It looks rather fierce, but acts like a pet dog. It’s very gentle. I’ve never once felt threatened by it.” I didn’t add that I had only interacted with it twice.

“I don’t know. Let’s not look for it. I’m sure we’ll stumble across it eventually, right?”

“Of course, dear. Whatever you want. Now, where would you like to begin? The library? The music room? The kitchen?”

“Well, I do like music,” she says uncertainly. “But I don’t know how to play any instruments.”

I wink at her. “These instruments don’t need you to play them,” I say. “Remember what I told you about this being a fairy castle?”

Her dark eyes brighten. “Can we start there?”

We head downstairs and through the hallways until we reach the music room I made. It’s bigger than the other rooms, with enough space in the middle to dance. The girl sits in a chair close to the instruments and watches raptly as they begin to play. Enchanting objects to move on their own is an easy spell, one of the first a sorceress learns. It surprises me, but watching the girl enjoy the music so much fills me with  pride and happiness. It’s nice to have my work appreciated.

After a while, the beast ambles into the room, probably curious about the music. Now there is one who doesn’t care for my spells. It stops abruptly as it sees the girl, who also freezes. I don’t know what to do. Introductions seem useless, but neither is moving, or even blinking. I wonder if they’ve somehow been turned to statues. Even the instruments stop, as if they sense no one is listening.

I’m about to break the silence, when the girl rises. She slowly approaches the beast and places her hand on its brown shaggy coat.

“I’m Ingrid,” she says. “I think I’ll call you Bear.”

I suppose it makes sense. The beast looks mostly like a bear. If the bear was feral. And rabid. But maybe she’s trying to make it seem less scary.

Bear nudges her hand with its head. She laughs.

“You like that name? Good! Will you sit with me and listen to the music?”

I don’t know if she actually expects the beast to understand her, let alone answer, but it shambles over to her seat and plots down next to it. The girl laughs in delight and sits, resting her hand in its warm fur.

Well that went better than I expected it to.

I leave the two in peace and seek out Lars and Karl. They’re patrolling the grounds, arguing about whether this plan will work.

“Of course it will work,” I snap and I appear behind them. I have to admit, I enjoy the way they jump in surprise. “But only if we work together. That prince of yours is hopeless.”

“Surely it can’t be that bad,” Karl protests.

“Last night he ordered her to love him, threatened to starve her until she does, and insulted her. He didn’t even bother to ask her name. I had to keep him from finding her room after she left because I was worried for her safety.”

The men look shocked. I suppose they expected at least some manners.

“Then again, it’s not all that surprising, considering you didn’t even feed her yesterday,” I say to Karl pointedly. He has the decency to look ashamed.

“Has she encountered the beast yet? It will probably scare her more than the prince does,” Lars says.

I snort. “She’s made it her pet. She even named it Bear. I left them happy in each other’s company.”

“Incredible,” Lars says. “Maybe if she and the beast form a friendship, it will carry over the prince’s human form.”

“I doubt it,” I mutter.

“It’s a start,” Karl insists. “They must begin somewhere.

I agree, but it seems like a weak start. Perhaps too weak. For the first time, I think I might actually fail my test.

The rest of the day passes uneventfully. The girl seems to have taken a liking to the beast, which is surprising but good. If she can care for such a terrifying creature, then perhaps the prince stands a chance after all.

He crushes that hope as soon as he regains his ability to speak. After listening to him shout “Woman!” for about five minutes, I finally track him down.

“Where have you been?”

“I’m sorry, Sire, I didn’t realize you were calling me.”

“Who else would I have been shouting for?”

“Forgive me, Your Highness,” I said with a curtsy. “But I did not hear you call my name.” I wonder if he even remembers what my name is.

“Bring the girl to me.”

I find her in the music room again, tense and jumpy. She didn’t even notice me enter.

“Ingrid?”

She jumps.

“I’m sorry, dear, I didn’t mean to startle you. The prince would like to speak with you.”

She nods and follows me back to the prince’s room.

“Good evening, Your Highness,” Ingrid says with a curtsy.

“Have you changed your mind?”

“No, sir, I haven’t,” she stutters.

The prince slams his hands on the table. “Why not? We could be done with disaster if you would just love me!”

“You can’t command my heart, Sire,” Ingrid says softly. Her hands are shaking, but her voice is sure. “No one can. My heart will choose to love, the same as anyone else’s. No amount of ordering or threatening will change that. If I could end this and go home by making myself love you, don’t you think I would?”

The poor girl is nearly in tears, but the prince doesn’t seem to notice.

“I’m not sure you would.” His eyes narrow. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you? The attention, having me begging for you affection. Well I hope you know that as soon as this…debacle is over, you will only ever see me from a distance. You will never speak to me again. You will go back to your farm and your family and nothing will have changed. You will be a nobody and I will be a prince.”

Goblin’s feet, did the prince of tantrums listen to anything I say? He has to fall in love with the girl as well to lift the spell. And at this rate, I might as well resign myself to losing my magic and living a mundane life.

“Get out of here. Perhaps another day with that beast will change your mind. I’m sure you’re anxious to get away from it.”

“At this point, I think I prefer’s Bear’s company,” the girl mutters. Unfortunately, the prince hears her.

His face turns purple with rage. For a moment, I can see the beast’s face in his own. It sends shivers down my spine. His fist turns white and his muscles tense. I quickly grab Ingrid’s elbow and pull her from the room. I don’t trust the prince to control his temper. And the look on his face says he would like nothing better than to hit something. I can’t risk it being either one of us.

The prince roars in anger, again reminding me of Bear, and I cast another spell to confuse his feet. He will not be able to find either of us tonight. Ingrid doesn’t say a word as I lead her back to her room. Her face is white and her hands shake.

“Would you like me to sit with you a while, dear?” I ask we reach her room.

“Would you, Marta? Just until I fall asleep? I know the door locks, but-”

“I don’t mind one bit. Prince Heinrik can be a little intimidating, can’t he?”

She nods.

“You change into your nightclothes. I’m going to go grab some mending. I’ll lock the door and I have the only key. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Ingrid nods again and I step out. Luckily, I don’t really have to go anywhere to retrieve the fictitious mending, I can simply conjure some. But I want to give Ingrid some privacy to put her emotions back in order. After a few minutes pass, I knock on her door.

“It’s only Marta, Ingrid. May I come in?”

“Yes.”

I pull the door closed behind me, making sure the girl can see me locking it. She’s already in her bed. I pull up a chair, sit, and begin stitching closed a hole in one of the conjured shirt in the dim candlelight.

Despite her nerves, the girl falls asleep in a matter of minutes. I cast a spell over her that will alert me when she wakes and leave. I stumble a bit in the hallway. With all the magic I’ve been using, I need a few hours of sleep to replenish my energy. And if I can help it, I’ll only cast basic spells tomorrow. With those promises firmly made, trudge back to my room and sink into the sweet oblivion of sleep.

The girl must have been exhausted, or my sleeping spell stronger than I thought, because she’s still asleep when I wake. It’s nearly mid-day. I eat, conjure a tray, and knock on the girl’s door.

“Good morning,” I say cheerily as I go inside. Ingrid stretches and blinks at the light streaming in the window.

“Good morning Marta.”

“What would you like to do today? Listen to more music? Visit the library? See the gardens?”

“I don’t know. I’m not really used to doing nothing. I have chores at home to keep me busy.”

I choke down a snort. The poor girl has more time than she knows what to do with. If only I had that problem. I can think of a whole list of things I would do if I only had more time. Sadly, it is the one spell that even the most accomplished of sorceresses cannot perform. Time is something that cannot be tampered with.

“Well let’s start with the garden. It’s beautiful this time of year,” I say as if I know.

“Will Bear be out there?”

“I don’t know. If you like, we can look for him before we go out.” I have a hard time calling the beast a ‘him’. Then again, I have a hard time considering the prince a person as well. The beast has more of a heart than he does.

We wander the halls until we see Bear’s lumbering form. Ingrid calls out to him and he pauses while she runs up to him. She hugs him, burying her face in his shaggy coat.

“You’re lucky you don’t have to put up with the prince,” she mutters. “He’s about as mean as you look.”

Bear snorts.

“Exactly! To be honest, he scares me. Not because he’s a prince or anything like that. Last night, I thought he was going to hit me.”

A low growl floats by.

“I know. I don’t think he’d mean to hurt me, but he has a temper. And I don’t think he’s used to not getting his way. He is a prince, after all.” She shakes her head and straightens. “Marta and I are going to see the gardens, do you want to come?”

It’s absolutely amazing. Not only does she seem to think the beast can understand her, she is under the impression that she can understand it. The three of us make our way outside. I catch sight of Karl ducking around the corner to avoid us. I guess he’s taking the prince’s warning seriously.

Lucky for me, I was correct. The gardens are stunning. I didn’t put any of my magic into them, so the beauty was entirely natural. And yet, the girl barely spares the scenery a second glance. She walks beside the beast, chatting away. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say she lived here. For all her talk about feeling uncomfortable, she looks right at home.

I sit on a bench in the sun, enjoying the peace and quiet. I’m beginning to dread the sunset and the drama it brings.

 

Part Two: The Cursed Prince

 

Aurora,

Things continue much as they have for the past week. The girl and the beast continue to bond while the prince alienates her further. I don’t know how to bring this situation to a happy conclusion. I’m at a loss. Please, Aurora. Can I not just cast a spell that will make them feel like they love each other? I don’t see why I should be responsible for their actions.

Nova,

Please. It has only been a week. Of course the two aren’t getting along yet. How many times must I tell you that there are no shortcuts in magic? You know that love takes time to grow and adversity only makes it stronger. Prince Heinrik and Ingrid must learn patience. Apparently you need to as well. If, in one month, you have seen absolutely no progress, we can discuss how you might hurry things along. 

Please save me! This child is driving me to the brink of insanity. She whines all day because she has nothing to do. I’m beginning to think that she may be an idiot. I tried to teach her how to play chess today and she is hopeless. She can’t even remember what the pieces are, let alone how they move or what sort of strategy to use. I offered her use of the library only to find she can barely read and has no desire to learn. The girl refuses to do anything productive because she is forced to do chores at home and doesn’t want to do anything she doesn’t need to. So she spends her days listening to music, telling Bear about her life, or walking in the gardens, so long as she can keep her fancy gowns clean. I think she is enjoying this ‘imprisonment’ more than she lets on. I’m sure her life at home was not this fine and carefree.

The prince doesn’t get on any better. He continues to ask the girl, night after night, if she loves him, yet he makes no effort to make any sort of personal connection with her. She spends no more time with him than he demands and he demands only a few minutes after the sun sets before chasing her away in anger. When his outriders try to offer him advice, he ignores them.

I am at my wit’s end! I have no idea what to do to make them fall in love. They are hopeless. I will never be a sorceress!

Stop being so dramatic, Nova.

I had hoped to at least have your support, if not your advice. I see I am alone in this endeavor.

Don’t be angry with me, child. I’m simply trying not to interfere. If you want to be a successful sorceress, you must learn to come up with creative solutions to difficult situations. I know this is hard, but I wouldn’t push you if I didn’t think you could do it. You are a talented magician, Nova. I have no doubt you can do.

Thank you, Aurora. Sometimes it’s easier to believe in myself if I know there’s someone else out there who does. It’s been almost two months. You said we could discuss ways of hurrying the two along if nothing happened, but I also agree that love takes time to grow. I think I will give them a little more time before trying to interfere. We are settling into a routine here and I have even noticed a softening in the prince. He seems more sad than angry now, though he still roams the halls each night, angry and violent. I worry for Ingrid’s safety. The prince still asks her if she loves him each evening and her answer is always no. I need to find some way to encourage him soon. Hopelessness is a dangerous thing that even magic has trouble combating.

Can you give me any advice?

Stay with him tonight, through the anger, and see what comes after. It may surprise you. 

I doubt that anything the prince does will surprise me, but who am to question my mentor? Perhaps when I am a full sorceress, I will understand how to give cryptic messages and confuse apprentices.

I follow Aurora’s advice that night and follow him after the girl again says she doesn’t love him. I let him wander aimlessly, following invisibly and silently, as he prowls through the dark hallways. He’s angry, kicking furniture and slamming doors. I don’t know what it is Aurora thinks I’ll see, but she seems to believe that His Royal Highness, the Prince of Tantrums is experiencing some emotion other than anger. I don’t believe it.

The prince stalks the corridors for hours on end. Finally, as dawn approaches, there is a change. He stops walking and crumples to the floor. I slowly approach, trying to see what he’s doing. His shoulders have begun shaking and he pounds the ground weakly with his fist.

By the great magic, he’s crying.

I’m shocked. This arrogant, self-assured, confident prince has been reduced to a weeping mess. A sense of pity stirs my heart. I can’t believe it. Does he have have emotions after all?

I hurry around the corner and make myself visible. Then I approach Heinrik.

“Excuse me, sir,” I say cautiously. “Is there anything I can do?”

He doesn’t bother to look up. “Not unless you’re a witch too,” he says with a dry laugh.

I freeze.

“A witch cursed me. She says I have to find true love in order to break it. I don’t know anything about love. You’ve seen me with the girl; I lose my temper whenever I speak with her. I don’t know how to act!” He looks at me imploringly. “Will you help me?”

I’m speechless.

“I know you probably think I’m just some spoiled prince who gets anything I want. And it’s true, I suppose. But I don’t know how to talk to people without ordering them around. Please, help me,” he whispers. I can see how much the request pains him.

“Well,” I say hesitantly, “I’m sure your men know more about wooing a young lady than I do, but it might help to get to know her. Do you even know her name?”

“No,” the prince says, thunderstruck. “I didn’t think of that. What is her name?”

“Ingrid,” I tell him. He whispers her name under his breath, probably committing it to memory. “If there’s nothing else…?”

“No, that will be all.” I turn to leave. “Thank you…Marta?”

I smile and nod, glad he remembers my assumed name. After he leaves, I poke my head out the nearest window and whistle sharply. In a few moments, Lars walks up.

“He’s ready for advice,” I say.

“Are you sure?”

“He doesn’t know how to ask for it, but he needs the two of you. I’d guess you are the closest things he has to friends. Leave him be for now, but find him tonight. He may only need someone to talk to or he may want advice. Just be there for him.”

“Why the sudden change of heart? You sound almost sympathetic.”

I glare at him, but he knows by now I don’t use magic recklessly. “He’s finally starting to care about someone other than himself. He asked me what her name is.”

The day passes quickly. Ingrid no longer seems to dread her encounters with the prince, which is some small progress, I suppose. Ingrid enters the large hall and I leave, watching with magic as I always do. Hopefully, Lars and Karl were able to speak with him and advise him. And maybe, just maybe, he listened to whatever it was they said.

“Are you happy here, Ingrid?” The girl and I are both shocked that the prince has strayed from his habitual question.

“I suppose so, Your Highness,” she says cautiously.

“I’ve been thinking about the circumstances around your arrival. I realize you didn’t really have a choice about coming.”

“I am happy to serve the monarchy, Sire.” Her reply sounds forced, rehearsed.

Heinrik smiles tiredly. “I’ve made a decision. If you would like, you may return to your family tomorrow. You are welcome to stay if you wish, but I won’t keep you against your will. You don’t have to decide right now, and if you say and change your mind later, you may go. You are free to leave whenever you choose.” He turns his back to her, and after a moment of hesitation, she leaves. I meet her in the hallway.

“What’s the matter, child? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”

The girl blinks, dazed. “He-he told me I could go home, if I wanted.”

“And do you?”

“I don’t know. I like it here, I think,” she stutters. “But I don’t know if I can stay. He asks me every night if I love him. What if I can only stay if I tell him I love him? What if he’s trying to trick me?”

“I don’t think it’s a trick, dear. I’m sure he just wants you to be happy.”

“But I don’t know what would make me happy! I miss my family, of course, but….”

“But you’ve gotten used to living in a castle,” I finish. “I can understand that. You have a good life here. You get along well with Bear.”

“What do I do?” She looks at me imploringly. “How do I choose?”

I’m torn. Ingrid and Heinrik have made progress, small as it is. I doubt he would seek out another woman if she leaves. I don’t want her to leave, but it isn’t right to keep here against her will.

“Maybe you could ask to visit your family before you decide,” I say slowly. The more I think about it, the better the idea seems. If I’ve learned anything about this girl in the time she’s spent here, it’s that she loves the life of luxury she’s been exposed to. I almost never hear her talk about her family, so I don’t think she misses them as much as she thinks she does right now. “Go see them for a week and then decide whether or not to return.”

My words calm her. “That’s a wonderful idea! I’ll have a clear head and be able to think more clearly.” Ingrid stops, unsure of herself. “Should I tell him now?”

“No,” I say. “It would be better to wait until tomorrow. Think about it and make sure it’s what you want.”

Ingrid nods and wanders off to bed. I return to the prince.

“Did she tell you what I offered?” he asks in a low voice.

“Yes. I must say, I was surprised.”

“I spoke with Lars and Karl,” he admits. “They suggested I consider her point of view. I tore her from her family and I haven’t exactly been kind. Do you think she’ll leave?”

I hesitate. “I don’t think it’s my place to say, Sire. She asked me for advice, but I don’t know what she is going to do.” Heinrik seems to shrink at my words. I can’t help but offer him some hope. “She hasn’t made up her mind yet, but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s likely she’ll stay.”

I leave before he can question me. I don’t know if he’ll like the idea of her leaving to visit her family. I doubt he would trust her to return. A strange sensation comes over me and it takes me a few moments to figure out what it is.

It’s guilt.

For the first time since I cast the curse, I actually feel regret. I stop walking, utterly shocked. I rush to my room and grab my communication book, frantic to hear from Aurora.

I scribble a quick note to Aurora, telling her I need her advice as soon as possible. I don’t expect an immediate reply, but apparently my cryptic message catches her attention.

Have they fallen in love?

I struggle to put together words.

No, they have not. Heinrik has offered the chance to go home if she wants. She will ask to visit home before making her decision, but I think it likely she will come back here. She has grown accustomed a life of luxury. And despite her complaints, she and Bear have formed a close friendship. I believe Heinrik is even beginning to grow on her. But that’s not why I need your advice.

What is the problem, then?

For the first time, I feel guilty. Not just about the way he kidnapped Ingrid. I think I may have made a mistake cursing the prince like this.

There’s no response. I fidget nervously. It may be that I’m about to fail my final test. The thought that I might never become a sorceress is crippling. Aurora writes back, but the lines blur together and I can’t read it, even if I want to. My breathing grows faster and more shallow. I don’t know what to do anymore. I just don’t know what to do. The words repeat in my head, over and over, and I realize I’m saying them aloud.

“I don’t know what to do. What have I done? How can I fix this? What am I supposed to do?”

A gentle hand begins rubbing my back. I stiffen. Ingrid can’t see me like this. It would bring up too many questions. Besides, when I lose control of my emotions, it makes it harder to keep using magic. My disguise has completely disappeared.

“Oh Nova. You poor child.”

It’s Aurora. She must have gotten worried when I didn’t respond to her message.

I look up at her through bleary eyes, at an utter loss.

“I never told you about my own sorceress test. I think it’s time I told you that story.”

“But I thought you weren’t allowed. The tests are sacred. Apprentices can’t know what sort of thing to expect.”

Aurora nodded. “That is…partially true. Most sorceresses don’t discuss the tests with their apprentices for that reason. But I had other reasons for avoiding the subject. Pride, or embarrassment, perhaps. In this case, however, I think the help it might offer you is worth the unpleasant feelings.”

I sit up and listen with rapt attention.

“My final test was to identify a person in need and help. I found a young girl, a nobleman’s daughter, but her parents had both died. She lived with her abusive stepmother. This girl, Ella was her name, was resigned to her life. She was such a kind and gentle creature, I couldn’t help but want to aid her. I was so confident, more than I had reason to be. I’m afraid I went too far.”

“What do you mean?”

“I arranged to send her to a ball, a masquerade. I…influenced the prince, so that he only had eyes for her. The magic was so strong, I could only keep it up until midnight. I managed to warn her and she got away before the magic wore off. I had just enough power left to cause her to lose a shoe. The prince found it.”

I look at my mentor with new eyes. Every person on the continent knows the story of the servant girl who became queen with the help of a kind fairy godmother. It’s the type of sorceress I’ve always aspired to be. And Aurora did it as an apprentice.

“I made a terrible mistake, Nova.”

“What do you mean? I know how the story ends. Everyone knows how it ends. It’s a legend!”

“Well, it is now. You don’t know how much of the story is left out.”

“Left out?”

Aurora sighs. “I overestimated the intelligence of all the people involved. I should have left something other than a shoe! The prince was so infatuated with the girl he met at the ball, he insisted he would marry whichever girl fit the slipper left behind. Of course, the shoe fit nearly a hundred women, from young maidens to widowed grandmothers. He had no way of knowing which girl was the one he fell in ‘love’ with. There were riots in the streets and the monarchy almost collapsed.”

I can’t even blink, I’m so entranced. “What did you do?”

“I was lost. But then my mentor told me the story of her final test. You probably know it. The mermaid who wanted to be human? She caused a lot of trouble with that ruse. But she told me something that helped me figure out what to do. I’ve never forgotten her words, and whenever I perform magic of any kind, I keep them in mind.”

“What did she say?”

“Magic cannot change the nature of the world. It can only enhance what is already there.”

The words sounded like a spell, there was so much power in them.

“I suggested to the prince, in disguise, that he hold another ball for all the women the shoe fit. Perhaps he would recognize his love if he saw her in the same situation. I gave Ella a new dress, but I didn’t cast any of the spells to catch the prince’s eye. I left it entirely up to her. Fortunately, her experience at the first ball gave her all the confidence she needed to approach the prince. He recognized her, they got married, and the rest is history. So you see,” she says, gently stroking my hair, “magic isn’t the way to have them fall in love. Get to know them, but more importantly, help them get to know each other. They may even learn something about themselves in the process. You might learn something too.”

Aurora’s voice fades as she disappears and I fall into a deep sleep. I wake the next morning, refreshed. The events of the night before seem blurry, as if I had dreamed them. I shake off the haziness and check on Ingrid.

Part Three: The Broken Spell

Ingrid is quieter today, obviously thinking about what to say to Heinrik. She even avoids Bear, who seems lost without her company, wandering aimlessly. The whole castle simply seems sad. Ingrid hasn’t left yet, but it feels like she’s already gone. It’s almost a relief when the sun sets and I walk her to the hall to speak to Heinrik.

“I don’t know what I want to do yet,” Ingrid tells Heinrik when he asks what she’s decided. “But if you would allow me to, I would like to go home for a week. At the end of the week, I’ll make my choice to stay home or return here.”

“Why?” he whispers. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was trying not to panic.

“I feel like I can’t think clearly here. My head and heart disagree. I need some distance to sort things out.”

“I understand. You’ll leave tomorrow, then. Karl will escort you.”

“Thank you.”

“Do you-do you think you’ll return?” Heinrik forces himself to ask.

“I don’t know,” Ingrid whispers. “I really don’t.”

“Ingrid, you know I ask you the same question every night, but I have a different one for you tonight.”

There’s a pause. “Go ahead,” Ingrid prompts.

“Are we friends?”

Another pause.

“I hope so.” Ingrid leaves after these words, so she doesn’t see the light she ignites in Heinrik’s eyes. He looks so painfully hopeful.

“She can take anything she wants from here,” Heinrik tells me. “Any of the dresses, or items around the house she’s gotten attached to. Tell her that.”

“Of course.” I return to Ingrid’s room to help her pack. She sits on her bed, eyes unfocused. I sit next to her and wait for her to notice me.

“Do you think I’ll come back?”

Her question shocks me. Why on earth would she expect me to have an answer if she doesn’t? “Heinrik never told you why he brought you here, did he?”

She shakes her head.

“I can’t tell you all the details, it’s his story to tell, but it is very important to him that you are here. There is something that needs to be done, something the rest of us cannot do. I know it’s a lot to ask of you, especially when we can’t tell you exactly what the task is, but if you are Heinrik’s friend, you would be doing him a great favor by returning.”

Ingrid nods thoughtfully, then shakes her head. The deep thinking is probably too much. Her usual happy demeanor returns and she cheers up at the news that she can take anything with her. She immediately pulls her favorite dresses out of the wardrobe. She doesn’t ask for anything else from the house, which doesn’t surprise me. We pack quickly and I leave her to sleep.

I spend the rest of the night keeping an eye on Heinrik. He wanders the halls and for the first time, I don’t bother casting a confusion spell. If he wants to seek her out tonight, I won’t stop him. Interestingly enough, when he finds himself out side her room, he turns around. It seems he will let her go without a fight. I wonder if he’s begun to actually care about the girl. To be honest it surprises me that he’s learned to think about someone other than himself so quickly. I suppose forced isolation will cause a person to reach out to anyone around him.

Gryphon feathers, I hope he doesn’t try to bond with me while she’s gone. I’ll have to tell his men to keep him company so he has someone to talk to.

Karl and Ingrid leave just after the sun rises. She bids a reluctant goodbye to Bear, who seems to sense that something is wrong. He woefully rubs her hand with his head. She throws her arms around his massive neck and buries her face in his fur.

“I’ll miss you Bear,” she says, near tears.

She pulls herself together and gives me a quick hug before walking quickly out the door.

Despite the vast size of the lodge, not to mention the fact that in the time we’ve lived here, there have never been more than five people in it at once, Ingrid’s absence seems to leave it feeling even emptier. After three days of nearly tangible sadness, I decide to act. It’s simply unbearable. I must do something to cheer up Heinrik.

I never thought I’d say that.

Unfortunately, I can’t get through to the beast so I have to face the man. I enchant a mirror to show people who are far away, but only for a short time. As the sun sets, I track down the prince.

“Begging your pardon, Sire, but there’s something I think you should see. I was cleaning one of the smaller rooms when I found a strange mirror,” I explain as I lead him to the room. “At first it seemed normal but then I was thinking about how much I miss Ingrid. Next thing I know, I’m looking at her in the mirror! It must be some sort of magical artifact.”

“I don’t know why you’re dragging me down here,” he grumbles, but his eyes are bright with interest. It’s the most animated I’ve seen him since Ingrid’s departure.

“I thought you might be interested in seeing how your family is doing,” I lie. Well, not completely. He might want to check in with his family. But I’m hoping he wants to see the girl. But I know if I say that he’ll only protest.

Men are so stubborn sometimes.

I leave him to the mirror and quickly cast an invisibility spell on myself and sneak back inside.

He stands, motionless, for a while. When he finally opens his mouth, nothing comes out. Eventually he manages to make a noise, a whisper.

“Ingrid.”

The mirror shimmers briefly and Heinrik’s reflection disappears. A small room appears, cluttered and unkempt. Ingrid sits on a broken chair, out of place in her elegant dress. She leans on a small table, careful to avoid the mess on it, and sighs.

“Ingrid,” a shrill voice calls, “are you going to sit there all day? Make yourself useful!”

Ingrid grimaces. “I don’t want to ruin my dress!”

“Then change into something else! Honestly, ever since you came home, you’ve been so full of yourself. You’re no better than the rest of us!”Heinrik clenches his hands, his knuckles turning white. Does he feel defensive of her?

How interesting.

Ingrid’s father appears in the doorway of the room. He sits heavily next to his young daughter.

“You’ve been avoiding me the past few days. Will you please answer my questions?”

Ingrid nods.

“Are you going back?”

Ingrid frowns. “Do you want me to? I thought you were happy I came home. Don’t you want me to stay here?”

“Times are hard, Ingrid,” he protests. “I struggle to earn enough money to feed our family. Your siblings are able to bring in a little extra money, but not enough. As much as we have missed you, it has been easier with one less mouth to feed. And it puts me at ease to know you’re being well taken care of.” He doesn’t say more, but I get the impression that Ingrid was chosen to go to the prince because she contributed the least. As much as her father loves her, I think he sees her as a burden. And by the look on Ingrid’s face, she’s come to the same conclusion.

“I’m only here for the week, Father.”

“I see. Are you happy there?”

“I suppose I am. I didn’t think so when I was there, but that I’m gone, I miss it. I miss Bear, and Marta, and Lars and Karl.” Her voice becomes so soft, we almost can’t hear it through the mirror. Heinrik and I both lean forward to catch her words. “I even miss the prince.”

“Does he treat you well?” her father asks with concern. “What does he want with you?”

“He is very kind, though I don’t think he means to be. I still don’t know why I am there, but he leaves me alone. I’m quite bored most days, to be honest.”

“And who are Bear and Marta?”

“Marta is the housekeeper. She’s very kind to me, but she’s busy, so I don’t see her as often as I’d like to. Bear is my pet, I suppose. I think the prince gave him to me so I wouldn’t be lonely while he’s gone during the day.”

“Very well.”

The image and sounds fade as the mirror’s magic runs out. Heinrik leans his head against the mirror, looking thoroughly defeated.

I follow him silently as he wanders for the rest of the night. He mutters to himself, happy that Ingrid has decided to return but confused by the rest of her words.

“What does that mean, I don’t mean to be kind? I don’t mistreat her. I would never be unkind to her. I hardly ever see her. I barely speak to her. And why wouldn’t I want to be kind to her? Does she think I want to be cruel to her? What could make her think that?” He stops, deep in thought. “I’m a prince, not some peasant. I was raised to be chivalrous. Do I seem like a cruel person?” The thought unnerves him and I leave him to his musings.

I do believe our beast of a prince is slowly becoming human.

The days speed by, now that we can look forward to Ingrid’s return. Before I know it, the rest of the week has passed and Ingrid walks through the front doors. I hug her, startling both of us with my enthusiasm. The beast must have smelled or heard her and he comes barreling into the front hall. I’m afraid he will crush her, but he skids to a stop before running into her. Ingrid laughs and throws her arms around him. The two head off to entertain themselves for the day. I set about my daily chores. Out of sheer boredom, I’ve begun to do some of the work without magic. I’m actually beginning to enjoy it.

Dragon’s teeth, I hope this curse is broken soon.

The sun sets and, for the first time, Ingrid is waiting for Heinrik in the dark, empty hall. He smiles at her warmly. He’s a handsome man, but the smile brings a warmth to his face that makes him seem more welcoming.

“Welcome back, Ingrid. I hope you enjoyed your visit home.”

“I did. Thank you, Your Highness.”

An awkward silence settles over the room.

“Did you need something?” Heinrik asks.

“You usually ask me to come here. I thought I’d save Marta the walk,” Ingrid says.

“Oh. I actually wasn’t going to send for you tonight. I thought you might be tired from your journey.”

Another uncomfortable silence.

“Do you have any siblings?” Heinrik suddenly breaks the quiet.

“Yes, I have four older sisters and an older brother. I didn’t see my brother when I was home, though. He married and moved away from home a few years ago.”

“How did your father decide to send you to me?”

“My oldest sister is betrothed and my other sisters all have suitors. No one knew how long you wanted a companion and I was the only one with nothing to lose if I were to be gone for a long time.”

He nods thoughtfully.

“You have a younger brother, don’t you?” Ingrid asks.

“Yes, I do. I’m not very close to him because there is such a large difference in our ages. Also, as heir to the throne, I have many duties and responsibilities that keep me busy, and he has his studies.”

“I’m not very close to any of my siblings either.”

I smile and leave the two as they begin to have their first real conversation.

I write to Aurora to tell her of the progress the two have made. I’m hopeful that they might soon become friends. And maybe more.

My prediction turns out to be true. I no longer have to fetch Ingrid for her nightly visits and she stays longer than the few minutes she used to. In fact, a week after she returns, Heinrik summons me shortly after midnight to help Ingrid back to her room as she was unable to stay awake any longer.

The next morning, I’m forced to maneuver around Bear to get to Ingrid’s door with her breakfast tray. Ever since her return, he has been sleeping in the hallway outside her room, waiting for her to emerge in the mornings. He grunts impatiently at me when I don’t let him in.

Ingrid has just woken up and is quite happy. “Good morning, Marta!”

“Good morning child. You were up quite late last night. Were you enjoying your conversation?”

“Oh yes! Prince Heinrik was telling me about some of the places he’s traveled. Other than here, I’ve never been anywhere but home. I think it would be wonderful to see the world,” she says with dreamy eyes.

“Perhaps you shall, someday. Now, up you get! That Bear of yours will break down the door if he doesn’t see you soon.”

“Very well.”

She gets up and, after dressing, opens the door to greet a relieved Bear. She absentmindedly pats him on the head as she walks down the hallway, not bothering to see if he follows. He lumbers after.

I’m sweeping the library when I hear a thundering roar, followed closely by screaming. I run through the house, remembering only as I arrive that I have magic.

I’m so out of practice that magic isn’t a natural response anymore.

I find a furious Bear outside Ingrid’s room. I cast a spell that sends Bear to an isolated room and seal the door. Karl and Lars run around the corner, but I wave them away.

“The beast is locked away,” I tell them. “I don’t know what’s happened yet, but I can hear the girl crying.”

They nod and disappear around the corner, but I doubt they go far. I knock on Ingrid’s door.

“Ingrid, are you well?”

“Marta? Is that you?”

“Yes dear. I heard a scream. Was that you? May I come in?”

“Yes.”

I push the door open and gasp in horror. Ingrid’s room has been torn apart. She’s huddled on her bed, bleeding. I rush over to her.

“Ingrid, what happened?”

“I’m not sure,” she sniffled. “I was tired, so I came back here to take a nap. Bear wouldn’t leave me alone, he pushed in after me. I tried to close the door, but he got angry. He hit me. I screamed, and I think it scared him. I managed to get the door shut.”

I examine her closely. She’s only got one cut, but it’s on her face and fairly deep. It just misses her eye and runs the length of her cheek. “This isn’t good. I need to go get something to clean you up. I also need to let Karl and Lars know to watch Bear, so he doesn’t come after you again. I’ll only be gone a minute or two.”

Ingrid nods in understanding and I leave. I pause outside the door, happy to hear the lock click into place behind me. I conjure clean cloths and a healing salve, infused with enough magic to take the sting out of the cut. I can’t fully heal her without giving away my magic, but I can do my best to alleviate the pain.

I knock on the door and Ingrid lets me back in. I wash her face off and apply the salve. She won’t let me bandage the cut because it covers too much of her face. It astounds me that she can be concerned with her looks when her beloved pet has attacked her, but to my surprise I find it more endearing than annoying. She finally settles down to take her nap and I go looking for Bear.

I unseal the door and enter the room where I trapped him. He lifts his head, gazing at me with sad eyes. I think he understands that he hurt Ingrid. I think he may even be sorry.

“Careful, Heinrik, your human side is showing,” I mutter as I pet Bear’s head. I have rarely been alone with Bear and I take the opportunity to study him closely. He’s changed since I first cursed him. He’s lost the ferocity that made him so terrifying. If I were to encounter him in the woods now, I’d assume he was a normal bear.

I wonder if the reflection spell is adapting, changing as Heinrik does. I can see a softening in his personality and it’s showing in Bear.

“Well, my boy, you aren’t going to be seeing Ingrid for the rest of the day. I wouldn’t be surprised if she avoided you for the next few days either. I can’t imagine what possessed you to do such a thing. You could have killed her!”

Bear grunts in what I assume is agreement.

“Exactly! In case you haven’t noticed, you are at least twice her size. You need to be be careful around her.” I tap him on the nose rather forcefully, casting a spell that will alert me if he tries to get violent again. It should stop any attack he makes on her as well.

I should have thought to do that the moment Ingrid arrived.

Ingrid stays locked in her room until well after the sun sets. For the first time, Heinrik seeks her out. He knocks quietly on her door. I watch, as usual, curious about how he’ll react.

“Come in,” Ingrid calls when he knocks.

“What happened?” Heinrik asks when he sees her injured face. He hurries to her side and hovers, unsure what to do.

“Bear got angry with me today. It’s not as bad as it looks,” she reassures him.

He tries to hide the look of pain that crosses his face, and Ingrid doesn’t seem to notice. I think Heinrik is happy he can’t remember his time as the beast for once. He cautiously sits next to Ingrid, inspecting the cut.

“It might leave a slight scar, but it will heal quickly,” he tells her. He takes her hand, a new look in his eyes.

Could he be falling in love with her?

I freeze as a realization washes over me.

By the great magic, I have no idea how this curse is supposed to be broken.

Aurora, I’ve just realized I have no idea how the curse will be broken. I think Heinrik is beginning to really care for Ingrid, but I’m not sure what will trigger the end of the curse, I write frantically in my notebook.

What is the exact wording of the curse?

I have to think hard to remember exactly what I said. I was upset and didn’t follow the general guidelines fore spelling out a curse and how to break it.

As best as I can remember, I said “By day you will be a beast, whose face reflects the ugliness of your soul and whose soul reflects the fairness of your appearance. By night you will have your human form. Until you know love, real love, you will remain this way.”

Know is an abstract word, so it’s hard to say. My best guess would be that Heinrik has to admit that he loves someone other than himself. It doesn’t have to be romantic love, but that would probably be the easiest kind for him to admit. From the sound of it, he has developed feelings of some sort for Ingrid. Encourage him to figure out exactly what those feelings are. I believe your test is nearly over.

My test is nearly over. I may soon be a sorceress. The thought gives me pause. I’ve rather gotten used to this life. After I pass my test, I’ll spend most of my time traveling to the different places where I’m needed. I’ll have a home, but I won’t be there often. And despite my many complaints, I’ve come to consider this place home.

Spells and curses, these two children have somehow wormed their way into my heart.

I kick at the table next to my bed. How did I get myself into such a mess?

I leave them alone for the night. I no longer fear for Ingrid’s safety, at least not at Heinrik’s hands, so I see no need to watch over them. Their conversations should be their own.

Ingrid is happy when I arrive in her room the next morning. She chatters on about something Heinrik told her about. After a while, her face grows serious.

“Have you seen Bear this morning?”

“I’ve locked him out in the gardens. You don’t have to see him if you don’t want to.”

“Thank you. He really scared me yesterday. I don’t know what happened to him.”

“I don’t know either, child.”

Sadness hangs over her like a cloud. I rack my brain for a way to cheer her up. I’m reminded of the day she arrived and an idea forms. I push a few tendrils of my magic out into the hallway and pull a few sparks from the torches. I make them dance around outside her door briefly, just enough to grab Ingrid’s attention. Her eyes snap to the pieces of flame, following their flickering path. When they disappear from sight, she stands.

“Did you see that?” she asks.

“See what?”

“There was something in the hall. Something small flew past my door. Do you think it was a fairy?”

“Maybe it was. Go and find out,” I encourage her with a smile.

“Aren’t you coming? You said you always wanted to catch them.”

“I’m too old to chase fairies now, dear. You chase them for the both of us.”

Ingrid takes off down the hall and follow after making myself invisible. I keep the lights within her sight but always out of reach. When she reaches the great hall, the sparks change course. They fly upwards, swirling around the high ceiling. Ingrid watches in awe, laughing with glee. Eventually the sparks fade and Ingrid is left alone. She seems much happier than when she was thinking about Bear. Her cheerful mood stays with her the rest of the day.

I’m surprised when, after going to see Heinrik, Ingrid returns to her room in a matter of minutes. I wander towards the part of the lodge where Heinrik usually roams and run into him fairly quickly. He’s fuming.

“What’s wrong, Your Highness?”

“I’m sending Ingrid home tomorrow.”

“Why? I thought she had decided to stay.”

“She’s being idiotic. I won’t let her remain here.”

I can see I’m not going to get any useful information out of him, so I head to Ingrid’s room to find out more. To my surprise, she’s angry as well. I’ve never her seen her so upset. Sad, yes. But never angry. She’s always seemed too gentle to get mad.

“Ingrid?” I ask cautiously.

“What?” she yells.

“Is something the matter?”

“I don’t know. Heinrik is angry with me.” She deflates, more confused than angry now. “I was telling him about the fairies I saw today. He accused me of making it up, but I didn’t! When I told him that, he started yelling at me. He-he told me he was going to send me home. But I don’t want to go!” She bursts into tears.

I rub her back and send her to sleep.

Ingrid can’t leave. Heinrik is nearly in love with her, he must be. I’m sure if he has time to cool off, he won’t want Ingrid gone, but it won’t happen in one night.

A smile steals across my face. Time is something I can give him.

Luckily, winter is well on its way. It’s a simple matter to gather the cold air and water necessary to create a blizzard. By morning, the snow is knee high and falling fast. Ingrid spends the day alone, mostly staring out the window. She holes up in her room when the sun sets. I seek out Heinrik.

“Did Ingrid leave?” he asks.

“No, the snow was too heavy for her to leave.”

He nods. I think he looks relieved. “Good. I don’t really want her to leave.”

“May I ask why you were so angry with her?”

“Ingrid said something about fairies and magic. I was angry, but I was scared too. What if that witch who cursed me has come after Ingrid? What if she is trying to sabotage me?”

I weigh my options and decide honesty is the best way to handle him. I drop my disguise, rolling my shoulders as I adjust to my natural form. It’s been a while since I’ve spent time as myself. I raise a hand as Heinrik steps toward me, freezing him in place. Anger distorts his face.

“You!” he snarls. “You couldn’t just leave me alone? You have ruined everything!”

“What have I ruined?” I’m rather irritated now. After all I’ve done for the that ungrateful little brat, he has the audacity to accuse me of ruining his life. I have never done a thing to harm him!

Aside from the curse, I suppose. But in the long run, that will make him happier.

“Heinrik, please calm down,” I say, trying to do the same.

“Calm down? How can I calm down? You destroy me, my life, and you have the gall to live under my roof?”

I pinch the bridge of my nose, taking deep breaths. “You insufferable boy. Now I remember why I cursed you. You have no consideration for others. Maybe I should let you send Ingrid away.”

Heinrik struggles against the invisible bonds. “Don’t even think of it witch!” he roars. “I won’t let you take her from me.”

“Are you even listening to yourself? You’re the one who wanted to send her away. I’m the only reason she’s still here! Do you think I want you to stay cursed together?”

He stills. “You don’t?”

“Of course not, I’m not heartless. I want this debacle over as much as you.”

“Oh. I didn’t realize.”

“No, you didn’t. You didn’t think about anyone other than yourself.”

He hangs his head. “Maybe you’re right,” he whispers. “I essentially kidnapped Ingrid. Lars and Karl have families they haven’t seen in months. I don’t know how to make things right.”

“Well, you could send everyone home.”

“I don’t want to do that. Maybe it’s selfish of me, but I can’t.”

“You can’t let them go? Or just Ingrid?”

“Just Ingrid,” he whispers.

“Why is that, do you think? Have you finally made a friend?”

“Ingrid means more to me than that.”

“Is she more like a younger sister, then? I can understand that. She is quite adorable, quite lovable. She won’t have any problem finding a good man to marry,” I say cheekily. I know I’m treading on dangerous ground, but if I can prod him into admitting his feelings now, the curse will break and we can finally be done with all of this.

“No! She can’t get married!”

“Why not? She wouldn’t be happy going home and she can’t depend on you forever. One day you will break your curse and return to your duties and life as a prince. What will become of her then?”

“I’ll marry her if I must. But I won’t let anyone else.” His face grows thoughtful. Now that he’s said it, the thought is stuck in his head. And he doesn’t seem to mind.

Heinrik has finally calmed down, so I release the magic holding him in place. He grabs me by the shoulders.

“You must break the curse,” he orders, shaking me.

“Now why would I do that?” I try to keep my voice even, but the boy is vexing me.

“Because I can’t marry Ingrid if I’m cursed! I have to be free so we can be together.”

“I didn’t realize you were so eager to wed. Didn’t you just say you would marry her if you must? You made it sound more like a duty than something you actually wanted to do.”

“No, I want to marry her.”

“Why?”

“Why do you care? Why does it matter? I want to, that’s all!”

“Why do you want to marry her, Heinrik?” I ask again, more gently.

“Because I love her!” he shouts. It takes a moment for his words to sink in. “I love her.” His eyes widen.

I smile as I feel my magic begin to work. Aurora was right. His admission of love broke the curse. A haze of light surrounds Heinrik, dissipating after a few moments. He inspects himself then looks at me.

“What happened?”

“The curse is broken,” I tell him happily.

“You broke it?”

“No, my prince, you did.”

“What do you mean? How?”

I sigh. “Do you never listen? By the great magic, you’re thick-headed. When I cursed you, I said it would be broken when you knew love. Admitting you love Ingrid broke the curse.”

Dimwit.

“It’s really over? I won’t become that…that monster again?”

“Correct. You are free to live your life as you wish.”

“Good. Now leave.”

His words are harsh, but I expect no less. I vanish, leaving a note in Ingrid’s room saying goodbye. I transport myself to Aurora’s current home. Though by the looks of it, it won’t be her home for much longer. She’s packing her things when I get there.

“Nova! What a pleasant surprise. What brings you here?” she asks with a knowing grin.

“The curse has been broken. Heinrik didn’t want me around, so I thought it best I make myself scarce. I wasn’t sure where to go, so I thought I’d see if you were still here.”

Aurora hands me a scroll.

“What’s this?”

“Your first assignment from the Council.”

“Does this mean…?”

“You passed your test, Nova. Congratulations. I’m so proud of you!”

I take the scroll, amazed. It’s finally happened. All my hard work has paid off.

I am a sorceress.

Epilogue: Happily Ever After

I open my book wearily. Although it’s been two years since I earned my title of sorceress, Aurora and I still keep in touch. I’m happy to see there’s a new message from her.

Nova, I have a favor to ask of you. I know you have only just finished your assignment, but you are the closest person to a couple who needs help. I meant to go, but the situation here is more complicated than I thought and I can’t get away. 

I need you to attend a baptism. One of the child’s parents has managed to offend a local witch, who is planning to curse the poor child.

I groan. I’ve had very little time to myself since my first assignment, but I can’t refuse Aurora. I owe her this and more for training me.

I skim the rest of her instructions and prepare to travel via portal. I arrive outside a large church in the midst of a crowd. I disguise myself, picking my favorite form: Marta. I can’t see or hear anything due to the crowd. I can’t even get in the doors.

This must be a very important family, some lord or knight, perhaps.

I can feel the witch gather her magic for the curse and I use my own to force my way into the church. The witch feels me coming and begins to lob spells at me, but my magic is stronger. I bind her and drag her to the front of the church.

I stop short at the sight of soldiers. Whose child is this?

“Marta?”

Well, there’s my answer. I turn and see Ingrid clutching a bundle that must be the baby.

“What are you ding here, witch?” Heinrik thunders.

Spells and curses. Here we go again.