A TWISTED BRAID is a short story, and Rapunzel retelling. I put it together in three days. Keep in mind a few things while reading, please. 1. I have never written a short story, so this was a first. I’m sure there are all kinds of things wrong with my structure and craft, haha. 2. I don’t write horror. I write romance, so writing a gruesome retelling of a fairytale was difficult for me. And, 3. This is what my work looks like as a rough draft. It is barely edited, and in the raw form. Enjoy! If you have comments for making it better, I would love to hear from you. Maybe together we can turn it into something else, something better.

A fog, black as oil, wound its smoky, twisted fingers up the stone walls of her prison. Not a normal fog, she knew, but a living one.

A dangerous one.

Every second ticking by it choked out the fading beams of sun until the forest was shrouded in a darkness that whispered her name.

            Rapunzel…

The wind kicked up the sound, carrying it through the lone window of the tower. On a breeze full of promises, full of death, it beckoned.

She ignored it, as she had every night since being imprisoned on the eve of her twelfth birthday.

            It was time already. Another day surrendered to the darkness, she thought and moved quickly to her candles, lighting them. Some were for warmth, more for protection. Night fell much too soon this time of year. But then again, the Dark was winning. She could feel it.

            Shoving the heavy braid she wore over her slender shoulder, she grabbed the tassels of the worn rug, pulled it back to reveal deep gashes in the scarred wood. Kneeling, she pulled free from her golden mane a small, iron stake, forged by her own hands, through the Dark. It had cost her, she knew, opening the connection she shared with the Souless. Now, she could feel them when they were close, and they were always close. Their bodies corroded, she could feel their pain, and yet worse when they feasted, when she could feel their pleasure.

            “I had no choice,” she reminded herself, dragging the point across the floor to mark another night. One more would join them before they came for her. Until she’d risk ripping open the connection, and her own fate, to escape. She wished for death over capture. They could not have her, she vowed.

She moved to the window, braced against the sill to look out over the night. The fog swirled and changed directions sensing her presence. It swirled in a heavy cloud blocking her narrow window. It couldn’t enter, not with her charms, but she stepped back as if it burned her skin.

            “You can’t have me or what I am,” she spoke aloud, needed to, though she knew it could read her thoughts just the same. Hearing her voice was a comfort against an evil with no face.

            Not yet, no. But soon, you’ll see. They thirst for your blood, hunger for your life. You are a part of us, and a part of them. They are eager because of it.

            “I’ll not give you what you want, but take my own life instead,” her voice trembled, but held, and yet, she took another step in retreat.

            The hunters’ cries rang out, one at a time until the night was full of their wails, a sort of victory call for the first night’s kill. The fog hissed, hungry for flesh, for blood, and dissipated to go claim its rations.

Pain had her sinking to her knees as the Souless began to feast on their kill. She wept for it, and for the life lost. Her body shook with their pleasure, a sickening temptation that made her yearn for death, and release.

***

 Dawn broke quiet and calm over the land, the hazy beams of light flickering over her closed eyelids. She woke late in her bed, sweat-soaked sheets twisted around her body. The reminder of the pain and terror of the night still slicked her skin. She’d have to hurry now, to prepare for the enchantress. She freed herself from her sagging mattress, and set to work.

She was just finishing tying the band that secured her braid when the Enchantress’ voice called to her. Nearly tripping in her haste, she tossed her braid out the window, braced her body for the Enchantress’ climb.

            “Stand, girl.”

The hoarse voice raked over Rapunzel’s ears. Head down, she obeyed, standing straight and still while she was studied. She didn’t flinch at the touch, as the bony finger lifted her chin so her gaze had no choice but to rest on a wrinkled face she knew had been beautiful once. Greed and power had robbed that beauty so that all that remained were merciless, black eyes, in a wrinkled, ugly face. That’s why she had been captured, her beauty and youth sought. After all these years the Enchantress’ attempts to claim both for herself had failed. Now she would live long enough to serve another purpose, unless she could escape.

She had to escape.

“You look a little tired dear, aren’t you sleeping?” That bony finger slid over her cheeks, hand moving to erase the symptoms of fatigue. She felt the warmth, a trace of magic being used, repair and couldn’t help the sigh in relief.

“You need to look your best tomorrow. It’s a big day. For both of us.” The smile matched her eyes, and pulled the skin tight over her face. Reminded of death, Rapunzel turned her face away.

“Don’t be that way, child. You’ll soon be a woman now. All grown up and ready to fulfill her purpose. I brought you a gift, in honor of your birthday.”

Rapunzel watched her pull a dress in deep emerald from the basket she had carried. Even knowing its purpose she couldn’t help but reach out to touch the fine silk.

“Yes,” the Enchantress nodded. “You like it then, I knew you would.” She thrust the dress into Rapunzel’s arms. “It matches your eyes. They will be pleased.” Shaking her cloaked head, she made her way to the table. “Now be a good girl and fix us some tea.”

Long after she was alone, Rapunzel sat draped over her window sill, dress draped over her lap. Not a bird sung in her forest this day. So she began too, in hopes of luring them back with the song, and with the light. She sang a happy song from her youth, when the Dark hadn’t yet been tainted. And when the melody turned somber, she sang for her death, and wept for all that could have been.

The rustling in the thorn bushes below had her pausing. Not a bird, but something else, she wondered and used the dress to wipe away the last of her tears. Nothing stirred, even the light, not here, but her heart held hope as she yelled out in greeting.

A voice met her ears, much deeper than her own. Hope swelled.

“A man! You are a man!” She called, already winding her braid in her hands.

“I am, yes,” he shouted back, “a man of blood and bone and my heart belongs to the light. May I come up, princess?”

A golden rope fell to him, and he climbed.

If he was surprised that the rope was of her hair, he made no notion. He fit his lips with his best smile and bowed near to the floor. “Princess.”

“Who are you? How did you find me? Are there more?”

Laughing, he took the dress she had grabbed, that she was twisting in her hands, and laid it across the bed. “Do not be afraid…”

            “Rapunzel,” she offered. “My name is Rapunzel.”

            “Rapunzel,” he said, liking the way it sounded off his lips. “I was a prince once, though my kingdom is long burned. Overrun now with Souless and their faceless hunters. We are a few hundred now, herded like cattle in a fortress a few miles from here. I seek survivors, and heard your song.” He extended his hand and bowed his head. “My name is Flynn.”

            She put her hand in his, surprised when he brushed his lips against her skin. “I have never known a man before.” She drew back her hand, thumb caressing the spot warmed with his kiss.

            “And I have never known a woman as beautiful.”

            Her lips lifted in a smile, unused to flattery, and she grabbed his hands to lead him to the small table. “Sit, there’s not much time before the Dark comes. Tell me about the outside.”

            “Have you never been?”

            “No, not yet.” Tomorrow would change things, she thought. Today was a gift.

            “You’re safer here.” He leaned forward, eyes intent on hers. “Out there, nightmares walk freely even in the light. And cursed is your soul if you’re caught when light is swallowed.”

            “I know it, I can feel them, the Souless.” She put her hand on the table between them, turned her palm up.

            “You’ve been bitten!”

She winced at the roughness of which he yanked her hand closer to his face, and looked away as he ran a finger over the choppy white scar. He dropped her hand so suddenly she gasped, and pulled it back to rub where the knuckles had his the table.

Eyes wide and alarmed, met hers. “Yet, you’re a woman before my own eyes, not turned. What magic is this?”

            “Not Dark!” She joined her bruised hand with the other balled in her lap, and tried to ignore his hand on his weapon. She was not a monster, she would not be treated this way. Furious with the tears that slid down her cheeks she pushed away from the table and began to pace. “It was love that my parents blessed me with before the Souless took their lives, took our kingdom. And it is Light that I am filled with.” She would fight to keep the Dark out of her heart for as long as her body held breath. As if she had summoned it, the taint of the Dark slithered over her skin, the temptation to draw it in, to wield it, overwhelmed her and she cried out clutching her head. Every hour drawing nearer to the day of her choosing, it would persist. It will not win, she vowed. “Not Dark,” she repeated aloud for herself.

            She didn’t know she had started crying until her dampened cheeks were pressed to the white linen of his shirt. Startled by the hug, and the press of a firm body against her own, she tried to pull back but his arms had encircled her. She had no choice but to sway as he rocked her, his gentle soothing helped push the Dark back.

“I,” her mouth had gone unnaturally dry; she had to clear her throat to start again. It was difficult to concentrate with his hand stroking her back. “Would you like to hear a story? I’m afraid it doesn’t have a happy ending.” She felt the scruff of his chin rub against her cheek as he nodded. She hoped they would break apart and head back to the table, but he only continued to sway with her body pressed against hers, her cheek resting in the curve of his neck. She tried to focus, and with a calming breath, began.

 “Not to stray, they had told me, but I was young. Foolish, really, and wanting an adventure. I climbed the wall. So brave and strong, I thought then, when I stood high on the stone to watch the guards ride out into the next wave of battle. Night descended quickly, though it was barely past midday.

I remember seeing so many people rushing forward. Shadows really, and as they grew nearer their eyes held no life. I knew them for dead even though I had yet to learn their true name. They moved so fast, and they let go their hunters, hounds that weren’t dogs and they moved even faster.” She shivered, remembering, watching the scene unfold in her mind through the eyes of a child. His hands moved up her arms, and he pushed her back enough to look into her face. There was strength in his eyes, and she drew on it to combat the fears that lived in her.s. She had to finish. Had to say the rest out loud. Maybe then she could make peace with it. Thirteen years trapped in this god forsaken tower, she thought, and left only with the company of her gruesome memories. She had to finish it if only for herself.

“The guards were slaughtered before my eyes,” she murmured, her eyes holding on his.

“There was blood on the wall,” she said slowly as if seeing it before her. “I lost my footing, and fell over. A guard heard my screams, and traded his life for mine. My parents summoned the Enchantress, the one person who they trusted with me since my birth, but I had already been bitten, my blood tainted. She knew it immediately, she told me so, though they didn’t. They thought she had defeated the Dark in me, but she healed the wound sealing the Dark in.”

“She betrayed them, and you,” he said. “A pawn to be used when the time was right.”

A pawn. A sacrificial lamb, what was the difference. “The kingdom was lost. My parents died with honor, with love, and they blessed me with their Light.” She pulled the talisman wound around her neck, tapped a finger against the glowing emerald that sat, fat and heavy, in the middle. “Their Light lives here. I am bound by it, in it, until tomorrow, the eve of my 26th birthday, when their protection will vanish and I’ll be free to walk my own path. Dark or Light, it is my choice. Not really my choice,” she added. “The Enchantress still lives, and she will make sure I choose Dark so she can rule the Souless. Rule me.”

Her quivering voice broke his heart, without thinking of the consequences he reached for her and drew her back into him. Surprising them both, he pressed his lips to hers in kiss meant to offer comfort, to soothe.

Her mind blanked. Riding on a rush of emotion, she clung to him. And when her lips parted, both were lost.

 His arms encircled her waist, molding her against hard muscle. While earlier he had held her in comfort, now he held her with a hunger she didn’t recognize. She didn’t know if it had been him or her, but a sound torn from desperation escaped, as they held on and demanded more from each other. There was no war raging beyond the stone tower. No Dark fighting for her to surrender. There was nothing but two hearts beating as one, and it was if she had been created for this one man. When he drew her away, she trembled, and knew love. Its strength filled her, and a new hope bloomed.

He let her go, afraid that if he didn’t now, he would never have the strength to. “I’m sorry,” he straightened his sword in its sheath at his hip, ran a hand through his dark hair. “I couldn’t stop myself, I wanted, you looked…” He breathed out, took a moment to calm himself and tried again, “Your have stolen my heart with one kiss.”

“One kiss, and you have stolen mine as well.” She smiled, a little light-headed and waited for her own breathing to slow. So handsome, she thought looking at him, so brave. Together, they could escape. She would continue to believe in that. She motioned to the chair, “Sit, and do not apologize for what I hold most treasured. There is much to discuss and to plan.” 

***

                    He left with a promise to return sealed in a kiss. She spun in a dizzying circle, overjoyed. Caught up in her happiness she didn’t see the black rat scurry from under her bed and nearly spun right into the smoke that began to form. Gasping, she knelt before the figure appearing could fully appear before her. Bones creaked as they snapped into place, the rat that had been was burned into the wood, its stench so ripe she pinched her nose closed to keep from gagging. Bits of greasy blonde hair fell to the ground, and she shook her hand free of them. Magic cost her more these days, Rapunzel knew. Maybe there was a way for her to exploit that weakness.

            “Did I frighten you, child?” The Enchantress wheezed.

Rapunzel lifted her head.  “Not frightened, just a surprise is all.”

            “Such beautiful hair,” the Enchantress said in return, stroking a hand over Rapunzel’s golden mane. A light shot from her fingers, white hot to sever the thick braid. It thumped to the floor beside Rapunzel.

            Forgetting her training, Rapunzel rushed to her feet, hands running through the golden locks that now barely touched her shoulders. On a cry ripped from her heart, she dived for her braid only to fall into a pile of ash instead.

Tomorrow was lost; she began to weep for it.

            The Enchantress’ breath wheezed in and out on a laugh. “Oh, child. How naïve you are. Did you think I wouldn’t know about your plotting?” She tsk’d, circling Rapunzel as she lay crying in a heap on the floor.

            “Thirteen long years, I’ve been waiting. Do you think I would waste them? Now rest. Rest, child. I will wait for your prince.”

            Rapunzel tried to get to her feet, tried to fight the fatigue that was rolling over her, each wave pushing her down, down into the dark. She said his name before the world tilted, and light was banished.

***

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.” The prince called to his love the next morning. Her golden braid answered his call.

            “I could think of nothing but today, are you ready?” Gripping the window, he began to pull himself up. “We must go, night will fall early this day, and when we are safe, then we can celebrate your birth-” The braid turned to ash in his hands as he reached the window sill, on a curse he hugged the window to keep from falling.

            “This is a bad time, sweet prince. I’m afraid you’ve made the journey for naught.”

            “Witch! What have you done with her!” His boots scraped at the wall, knuckles whitening against the stone. Bony fingers gripped his, holding him in place. He struggled against her hold, but her grasp held, and he cursed her name. “I swear in this life or the next, I will kill you for touching her.”

            “What a fine soldier you’ll make for the Souless.”

He watched her lips peel back in a smile. “Time for you to meet them.” She released her hold prying his hands free from the sill and laughed until his screams faded, and quiet descended once more.

***     

                  Memories twisted like sharp vines in her dreams, their jagged edges scraping against her consciousness until she had to fight for breathe. She came awake on a cry, fingers tearing at the blankets that had twisted around her body like a vice. She fell from the bed, free, and lay panting on her back.

            One thought penetrated the fog in her brain, she had to get to Flynn.

            Though her lungs burned, she pushed to her feet, nearly tripping on the silk train of her emerald dress. She couldn’t remember putting it on, and in fear, rushed towards the door. It flung open, knocking her back.

            “Where is he, what have you done with him!” Why was her throat so hoarse as if she had been screaming for hours. She clutched it.

            “Shh, child. There now.” The Enchantress let her scramble back to her feet, but held up a hand in warning. “Aren’t you going to thank me for bringing you home?”

            “Home…” her eyes swept the room, heart constricting as every familiar piece came into view. “My bedroom,” she managed, before her eyes filled, but didn’t spill.

            “There will be no time for more tears. We have to look our best, don’t we? Come now. It’s your birthday after all. We can’t keep the party guests waiting.” The Enchantress walked out. She didn’t see the tears dry in Rapunzel’s eyes, or the cold rage that replaced them.

            “What have you done with Flynn,” she asked as they walked out into the courtyard. Night had fallen already. She wondered how much it had cost the Enchantress to use magic for so long.

            “Never mind you of him, you have an important role on this night. It’s your time.”

            Dead, she knew then, and allowed her heart one second of mourning. She would need the anger, not the sadness, to help her survive.

            In silence, she let the Enchantress bind her wrists behind her back. She tested the knot only to find it unforgiving, the rope biting into her skin. She couldn’t feel her own pain, it was miniscule next to what she could feel of the Souless. As they approached, the pain intensified. Biting her lip to keep from crying out she sank to her knees in a circle drawn in blood. Her own, she knew, but didn’t know how it could be. The Enchantress retreated behind her, and looking out over the lawn, together they waited.

            The fog came first, swirling towards her like a storm. Her name wasn’t a whisper this time, but a scream against the blackness that followed. Out of it rose the undead, the Souless, the corpses swaying, eyes unseeing as they drew nearer. She shut her eyes, drew on her talisman for strength, she would need it for what was to come.

            “Brothers, spare me,” the Enchantress called, “I have brought you a sacrifice, the one you so desire.”

            Rapunzel staggered to her feet and turned to face her capture. “What sacrifice do you speak of!” Eyes wide and fearful she twisted her head around to watch the Souless come. In all directions they came, spewing from the ground, their hounds at their heels, for now.

            “Foolish girl, did you think I would put my fate in your hands?” She spat blood, wiped her mouth. Magic was costing her much, Rapunzel noted. “I would not give them a queen! For surely you would by undoing, and I intend to live.”

              Rapunzel could only stare. Everything she’d been preparing to fight had been a lie. “When midnight strikes,” the Enchantress went on to say, “you will choose the Light, as I’ve always known you would, and when you do – they will kill us both, unless I trade your life for mine.”

The Enchantress’ voice rose, she spread her arms wide. “Now I offer her to you, when the hour strikes, and spare my life for this gift I have given.”

            Rapunzel could feel the taint building, she looked out over the land and thought of her prince. It was love that had cursed her, and it would be love again, she thought.

            She made her decision, and hoped it was the right one.

The talisman burned like a torch against her chest, and she felt the binds of her freedom give at the midnight hour. The path to walk, the life to embrace, was now hers to make. Her brow dripped sweat in her effort to hold the Dark at bay while it fought wildly to fill her heart. She reached inside for the Light, pushed it through and merged it with the Dark. If she were to succeed she had to open her heart to both, and know that with Dark and Light living within her she still had the control to walk the path she wanted. One could not control her unless she allowed it.

She sunk back to her knees in her efforts of controlling both, of not submitting fully to either side. Her head drooped, golden hair shielding her face.

“What are you doing!” The Enchantress’ shriek echoed over the laboring breaths of the Souless. She stepped forward as if to intervene, but stopped in her tracks when Rapunzel lifted her face.

The rope that had bound her slid from her wrists and pooled at her feet as she stood, then lifted off the ground. She peered out of eyes that glowed, unseeing, yet they saw all. This was her payment for opening the link with the Dark, her punishment for choosing to embrace both in her heart.

“No!” The Enchantress yelled, and she turned to flee straight into the arms of the Souless. The hounds began their cry.

Rapunzel lifted her arms to the sky, and felt the power of the Dark pumping through her. When she spoke, her voice bellowed over the land.

            “Brothers, I command you. Leave my kingdom. Go now, find my prince, and return him to me.” There was magic she was willing to tamper with to restore to her what was lost. The Light would help guide her in the ways, with love as her anchor, she could not fail.

She never flinched when she felt their retched bodies heave. Or with the smell the blood that dripped from their mouths as they stood from their fresh kill and turned to obey.

            “I’m home. Finally” she said, as she stroked the fog that caressed her legs. “I will have love again,” she told it, as she walked towards the castle.

“With my prince by my side and Dark and Light my free will, I will rule.”     

             

 

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