Short Story: A Blessing And A Curse

                It was meant as a blessing, but it was far from it.

                My parents meant well.  They loved their “darling daughter” and wished to make her life better than their own.  They did not have much.  My father was a laborer, my mother a seamstress whenever she could get work.   They saved every penny so they could grant me a gift. 

                The sorceress came through the village once a year.  If you offered her enough money, she would bless you.  My parents speak of the day with a kind of religious reverence.  Humbled they were that the sorceress even stopped to speak to them.  They offered her the coins — shiny — they had stayed up all night scrubbing them clean.  She took them and did as they asked.  “Bless our child that she might have a greater life than our own.”

                I live in a castle now with beautiful gowns and never an empty belly.  By all reckonings, the sorceress fulfilled her side of the bargain.  She blessed me with the ability to see intent.  Yes, intent.  It was great at first, especially when I played with other children.  If a child was teasing me, I could feel if they meant it maliciously or if they were just following the other children.  I could even sense the deep emotional patterns of someone who was deliberately trying to be mean.  Underlying their words, I saw their pain and their intent – which was simply to dispel that pain somehow, no matter how cruelly, or how little it helped them as time went on. 

                Knowing such things helped me not to hold a grudge.  Even if I wanted to, like now.  I want to be angry with my parents as I stand by the king’s side.  But I cannot.  Their intent was pure. 

                I listen as the man before the king speaks of a great grievance that has fallen upon him and how he wants justice.  I lean in and whisper into the king’s ear.  “He wants revenge and deep down there is a sense of shame.” 

                Yes, that is my job.  Stand here and listen to everyone who speaks to the king.  Tell him if they are friend or foe, or if their complaints are worth looking into or not.  Day in.  Day out.  I am not allowed to leave. 

                My name is Seraphina and I am the king’s slave. 

***

                It was meant as a curse, but it was far from it.

                My parents own the tavern in our little town.  I was just a boy, three years old.  I hear it was quite the scene.  Stories are still told of the witch who came through.  It is said she was unstable from the moment she walked in to get a drink.  Mother says the witch seemed distraught.  The more the witch drank the more Mother thought something had happened to her, but you do not pry in the affairs of witches.  Unpleasant things happen if you do.  Witches are not that powerful, unlike a sorceress, but they do have displeasing personalities that show up when you get on their nerves.

                The witch became erratic, murmuring things under her breath.  A glass turned into a frog.  One of the guests toppled to the ground as their chair shrank.  A man’s long beard vanished.  Songs are still sung of his great weeping. 

To avoid further chaos my parents asked her to leave.  She disliked that, so she cursed them.  Or rather, cursed what was most precious to them.

                The witch had seen my mother check in on me between rushing drinks to her patrons.  I was in the corner, asleep by the serving area, the noisy crowd my lullaby every night. 

                “Throw me out?!” she screamed.  “Then I curse your child, I revoke his vision in the day and make it so he will only see at night! Ha ha!” 

She passed out a moment later.  My parents carried her out of the village, wrapped her in a nice warm blanket on the edge of the road, with a basket of food by her side. 

                The next day my parents let me stay up late.  Those patrons from the night before returned out of curiosity.  My surprise was evident.  How was the witch to know that I was blind, and she had actually blessed me with sight? 

                My name is Warrick and I am the night Gatekeeper.    

***

                The evening wind whipped around him as he clutched his cloak, pulling it tighter against his form.  The gate was tall.  Steps led to the top so Warrick could sit and observe outside Valente for anyone wishing entrance.  He became the gatekeeper when he turned seventeen.  That was nine years ago.

                Laughter and movement still lingered on this side of town, the tavern several paces from where he sat.  He could imagine his parents inside, bustling about, keeping everyone happy and in line if needed.

                Warrick was vigilant in his task as Gatekeeper, ever watchful, despite the black which rolled out past the gates.  The forest that lined the path appeared like shadows of giants.  He squinted as he saw motion. 

                The brightness of the woman’s dress shone like a beacon in the night, a thin shawl across her shoulders the only thing between her and the chill.  She rushed for the gate and raised her arm to pound on the door, but Warrick was already there.  He opened the slot in the middle of the gate’s door.

                “What is your business here?” he asked as he did every person who begged entrance.

                “Shelter for the night,” she said, her voice elegant and refined despite her chattering teeth. 

                “Enter,” he said as he closed the slot and opened the door.  The woman stepped inside, her body half frozen.  She appeared unsteady, as if her journey had required many miles.  The hem of her dress was filthy, and pieces of fabric torn despite the refinement of the apparel. 

                “There are rooms available at the inn,” he said.  He removed his cloak and put it around her, which startled the girl, yet she did not object as the warmth eased her shivering.  “The inn is to the right, four buildings down.  Once you are settled by a fire you may have one of their messengers bring me back my cloak.”

                “Thank you.  I will hurry there, so you get it back quickly.”  Warrick watched as she hastened toward shelter.

                Despite his long-sleeved shirt, goosebumps already appeared on his skin. He walked the steps and sat, once again taking his post.  Minutes later, his cloak was back around him and he wondered how she had managed so long without one as his bones were already like ice.

                As hours passed Warrick did his best to not think of the girl, but the scent of lavender was on his cloak.  How peculiar her arrival had been, and he hated his desire to see her again.  To see her.  But by the time morning came and she arose, there would be only darkness for him.  He chuckled, laughing at himself.  What a gift, to see anything at all.  How ungrateful I must be, he thought, shaking his head in self-disappointment. 

                Warrick sat up straighter and leaned over the gate.  Having one person come to town this late was worth noting.  Yet another approached.  No, not one.  A group on horseback.

                A knock pounded.  Warrick answered.  “What is your business here?”

                “We are servants of the king.  We have orders to search everywhere for a runaway maiden who has wronged the king and must be brought to him.”

                Warrick did not hesitate.  “No one has passed through here, but please, come and rest yourselves and do your search.”   He opened the gate, letting the men in.  “My parent’s tavern is just there; they will give you food and drink.  Tell them I sent you and they will take care of you.”

                “Thank you, Gatekeeper.  We have travelled for many days on this search.  A good meal and some ale will do us well.”

                They made their way to the tavern.  Warrick knew his parents would not flinch at his sending the unexpected visitors.  Whenever something was amiss, they knew they were the first point of contact to keep the uncertain company occupied. 

                With earnest steps he went to the inn.  “Where is the woman that came tonight?” he asked the innkeeper. 

                “Upstairs, third door.  Is something wrong?”

                “Maybe.  If men come looking for her, do not tell them she is here.” 

                “Of course.”  This was the joy of growing up in the same place all your life.  There was trust and loyalty.

                Warrick took a candle to light his way up the steps and knocked on the door.  No answer.  He knocked louder.  No answer.  He called out, trying not to wake the other guests.  “My lady?”  It was then he heard a faint reply.

                “Come in.”

                He entered but the room was empty.  He heard her voice at the window.  “Here, please help me up.”

                Warrick went to the open window and saw the woman, hanging by her fingertips.

                “What are you doing?” he asked as he took hold of her arm and brought her back in. 

                She took a moment to catch her breath.  “I got scared.  But I heard your voice and I knew you meant me no harm.” 

                “Running away from a problem rarely helps.”

                “Neither does doing nothing.”

                He nodded.  “Men arrived.  They are in search of a woman.  Are they looking for you?”

                She sat on the bed slowly like she just aged in an instant and pulled the blanket over her shoulders.  “Yes.  They have been after me for weeks.  But I must keep going.  The moment they catch me, I know I will never be able to escape again.”

                “Escape?”  His brow furrowed.  “Did you wrong the king?”

                Her eyes flashed to his and Warrick expected to see anger there, but instead they were soft as if she knew his heart even though he had not spoken it.  She told him why she ran.  He paced back and forth in the small room as he concentrated on her words.

                “It is not a job,” she continued.  “I do not get to go home.  I must be there for any moment the king deems worthy.  I have been pulled in the middle of the night to verify if the queen is lying to him.  The queen!  The queen who is so good.  He has grown paranoid and used to having the comfort of knowing everyone’s intention.  He will never stop looking for me, so I search for the one way to relieve my suffering.  I search to rid myself of this blessing.”

                “How can you do that?”

                She gave a disheartened laugh.  “I went to the sorceress and she told me, but it is very difficult.  The only way to get rid of a blessing, is to find someone with a curse.  The sorceress said they cancel each other out.  A simple spell and they are both free.  But only lowly witches give curses, and most of them are not even powerful enough to do that.  It is so rare; I fear I will be on the run forever.  Better that though, than to not be free.”

                Warrick froze, swallowing hard.  “Would that be strange to you?  You say the king has gotten used to it, but have you as well?”

                “Yes,” she whispered.  “I have.  The only reason I speak to you now is because I heard your intent when you spoke and knew I would be safe.  I will have a difficult time trusting people at first.  But I am willing to go through that struggle to be free.  After all, everyone else lives without it, I can learn too.”

                Warrick sighed.  “What is your name?”

                “Seraphina.”

                “I am Warrick.  Come Seraphina.  The men will be here soon to rest, and no doubt will check every room.  You may sleep at my house.  They will search it tomorrow, but we can hide you before then.”

                She stood, the blanket still around her, and stepped closer to him, puzzled.  “You are going to help me break the blessing.  How will you do this?”

                To speak it aloud… It was too soon.  He needed to come to terms with his own decision.  “Do not worry about it for tonight.  Let us go.”

***

                Seraphina laid in Warrick’s bed.  Last night he gave her implicit instructions.  “Do not move anything.” 

                When she woke, he was still sleeping in the corner on blankets he had laid out.  She pulled out the bread from a basket and brought it to the table, slicing two chunks off for their breakfast.  She laid the knife by the bread and checked the cupboards for butter, but found none.  She took a deep breath trying to manage the anxiousness that rose within her.  The king’s men would be there soon.  Warrick’s home is on the edge of town, she told herself, so they most likely will search it last. 

                Warrick stirred.  She grabbed the pitcher and poured him a glass of water.  “Good morning,” she said as he stood.  He nodded to her and took a step forward, pulling out a chair to the table.  As he sat, he moved his arm to rest on the table, but it caught the knife that laid there.  Flipping, the knife cut Warrick’s arm before toppling to the ground. 

                He swore as Seraphina jumped in surprise.  “Rag!” he said in urgency as blood dripped down his arm.  She grabbed one from his cupboard and held it out, but he did not reach for it, instead just leaving his hand extended.  She placed it in his hand, and he moved it to his arm.  When he spoke, his voice was calm.  “I told you not to move anything.”  

                “I am sorry.  I was just…Warrick, what happened to your sight?”

                To Seraphina’s surprise, he laughed.  “Please put the knife away and have a seat.”  She bent down, brushing up against his leg as she retrieved the item, wiped it off, and put it back in the cupboard.  “Did you move anything else?” he asked.

                She shook her head, but then realized her error, and spoke.  “No.  I mean, there is bread on the table.  I cut us each a piece.  And a cup of water and the pitcher.”  Warrick held out his hands, the rag now tied around his forearm, and she put the bread into one palm, the cup in the other.  It was then that she got a clear view of his eyes.  No longer the rich brown, instead, a ghostly white.

                “Please put everything away,” he said as he began to eat.  She did so, and then sat at the table beside him. 

                “Warrick?” she asked confused.

                “All is well.  I was meant to be a blind man and I know how to be…especially when no one moves things around in my house.”  His voice was teasing.  “The witch who cursed me did not realize the gift she was giving.  I see in the night only because she thought she was blinding me in the day.  Wording matters, and she, in her drunken stupor called upon powers she might not have usually possessed.  At least that is what my father thinks.  I will travel with you to the sorceress and free you from your blessing.”

                “No, I… it is supposed to be a curse, but this is … I cannot ask it of you.  You barely know me, and you would give up your sight?”

                “You know, when I was a boy, I wanted to be a hero.  A knight even, like the men who search for you.  But that is not possible with half sight.  I am the Gatekeeper because I wish to use my vision in service of my home. To watch over them while they sleep and not let anyone pass who brings trouble.  But I always felt like it was borrowed sight.  Borrowed time.  I am a blind man and I can work as such.  I know how to make rope and nets without being able to see, and I know how to make ale on my own. 

                “Yes, I just met you.  But if I can help grant you your freedom, then I should.  I was never meant to be like this, and it is the right thing to do.”

                “I cannot accept.  It is too much to ask.”

                “You are not asking.  I am volunteering.”

                Never had Seraphina felt an intent as strongly as she did in that moment.  It was a fierce resolve mixed with a pure longing to do that which was honorable. 

                “When do we go?” she asked softly.

                He smiled.  “I will travel better by night than by day.  The king’s men should be gone by then.  We will go to my parents and get some new clothes for you before we leave.  Besides I wish to see them one last time.”

***

                “We will go through the forest instead of taking the path,” Warrick said as he adjusted the satchel on his shoulder and picked up his walking stick.

                “Are you sure?  It is so easy to get lost, especially at night.”

                He chuckled.  “Trust me.  I know the night and I know the forest.  Hopefully the king’s men will continue on horseback and get ahead of us instead.”

                “We can hope.  They have been on my heels for so long, it would be a nice reprieve.” 

                “Just a little longer and your burden will be made light.”

                They stepped into the forest.  Warrick heard the scurrying of little animals, inhaled the earthy scent, and felt the soft ground underfoot with a sense of familiarity.  As a boy he wandered these lands, going as far as he could, with just barely enough time to return home before he no longer could see.  As a young man, he wanted to travel and see other places.  His parents took turns running the tavern alone, so the other could take him to villages and towns around the area, and to see the wonders of the land.  To climb cliffs, to swim in great waters, to ponder existence while in awe of the stars.  They had wanted him to see everything he could.

                “Warrick,” Seraphina said.  “You move too quickly.  I can barely see and fear I might walk into a tree.” 

                “My apologies.  Here,” he said, holding out his hand.  “Let us avoid such a fate.”

                Seraphina took his hand and Warrick was surprised with how easily they fell into a rhythm as they walked.  Their shoulders brushed against each other as they ventured the dark forest together. 

                “Your parents are nice,” Seraphina said.  “I am surprised at how easily they accepted your decision.”

                “They do not have your gift, but they do know me, and they trust me.”

                “Yes, I could feel that.  A sense of trust and faith in you.  It is not as common as you may think.  Someone may say in words but have doubts in their mind.  They had no doubt.  That is very rare.”

                “What does it feel like?  Is it more like words?  How does the impression come to you?”

                “It is like a subtle wave of emotion.  I usually feel it in my feet first, as if the intent is being drawn down from the person and then up into me.   Not yours though.  When you came to my door and spoke, I felt it in my hands first.  And with the knights that chase me their intent is like murky water, surrounding me.  Probably because it is all of them at once.”

                “I thought the person had to speak for you to feel it?”

                “It is just easier, much clearer.  With the knights speaking amongst themselves about the chase, with all of them being of the same mind, it comes when they ride.  They want to gain favor with the king.  They know I am valuable.  And, I know there is a little fear underlining it all.  If they go back empty handed… the king will not be pleased.”

                “Do they fear for their lives?”

                “Yes.  Like I said, the king has become paranoid, always wanting me to verify who he can trust.  And then I wonder why he trusts me.  I could easily lie to him.”

                “But you do not.”

                “No.  Lies are nasty things.”

                “Yes.  My mother used to say ‘lies are like quicksand.  You think you are on stable ground, but they quickly drag you down.’”

                Their whispered conversation turned to silence as Warrick held up his hand and paused, bringing her down to a crouch.  Seconds later a fox ran past them and Warrick breathed a sigh of relief.  He had worried it would be something more dangerous.  One thing he knew, he was not a fighter.  Sure, he could throw a few punches and take a few hits, but he was not the caliber of a knight.

                They continued their journey.  Seraphina now wrapped one hand around his upper arm.  She shivered and pulled the cloak tight that his mother had given her. 

                “Seraphina, if they discover us in the night, we will be better off sticking together if we can.  But, if they discover us in the day, you must run.  I will not be able to flee.   Promise me that you will get yourself to safety.”

                “No.  You are giving up your sight for me and you want me to let them kill you?”

                “They might have mercy on a blind man.”

                “If that blind man is with me, I doubt it.”

                The wind picked up as the night carried on.  They conserved their energy by withholding conversation, instead clinging to one another so they could share their warmth and lean on each other when the wind beat too hard upon them. 

                When dawn approached, they welcomed the reprieve from the wind and anticipated the warmth of the sun. 

                “The cluster of trees here,” Seraphina said.  “There is some brush by them too.” 

                Warrick looked around.  “Yes, it is a good place to hide and to sleep.”  He took off his pack and pulled out a cloth, laying it down between the brush and trees, tucked away.  “I will sleep out here in the open.  I doubt they know yet that I am with you.  I will merely appear as a resting traveler.” 

                “They will still find it suspicious.  It is their job to.”  She stared at the ground, almost like she was embarrassed.  “We can fit if we are…close.”

                “Let me look around, perhaps there is another good spot close by.”  He set the pack down and took several steps before stopping.  He let out a heavy, defeated breath.  “Seraphina, I cannot see.”

***

                It was snug but Seraphina was content.  Her head rested on his shoulder as she laid on her side, half her body practically on top of him.  He had been such a gentleman as she laid down, being very careful with his hands, which he usually used in place of his sight, but this time he just let her place them down so he would not accidentally offend her. 

                He was warm and comforting, making her feel safer than she had in a very long time.  After weeks of running, it was nice to no longer be alone. 

                She thought of Warrick’s parents.  She had told him the truth of their intention.  That they believed in him, trusted him.  But there was something else. Woven so delicately in their intent that she could have missed it, but she had too much practice in recognizing the intention of others, of deciphering the impressions she received.  Their intent held the tiniest of hope that maybe Warrick could love this woman he was willing to sacrifice his sight for.  That maybe she could love him, too.  She wondered at it.  Why?  Warrick was too good to be overlooked by any woman even with his sight being only half there. 

                Maybe they thought if he gave up his half-sight then it would be harder for him to find a wife.  To marry.  To have a family.  She wondered if perhaps this hope came from that fear, a fear they probably had when he was first born blind. 

                How could she do this to him?  He was honorable, so how could she take something this impactful away from him?  Her stomach twisted inside.  She had lived in a castle.  He lived in a small town.  She had had plenty to eat.  She wondered if he ever missed a meal.  Her room had been larger than Warrick’s home.  She wanted to be free but at what cost?  She had been willing to simply run away, forever running.  It was selfish to agree so readily to Warrick’s offer.

                Why did she do it?  And yet, she knew why.  She felt it when he spoke to her.  A desire to help her.  The intent to do the right thing, knowing he was never meant to see.  But was it the right thing?  She used to think so, but not anymore. 

                The temperature dropped as the moon rose. 

                “We can go,” Warrick said.  She shivered as she removed herself from him.

                Warrick retrieved a loaf of bread from the satchel before gathering their bed cloth and shoving it inside.  He broke a piece of bread off for her and took one himself.  “If the sorceress lives in the mountainside as you say, then it will take about a fortnight to get there.  Three villages between us.  We can resupply at each village.”

                “I have changed my mind, Warrick.  This is wrong.  Let us go back.  The knights are up ahead now, and I can find some rest back in your town before departing.”

                He raised an eyebrow at her and gave a half smile.  “That is not happening.  You will just be on the run forever. You said it yourself, the king will not stop.”

                “But –“

                Warrick took her by the arm and pulled her onward.  “Come now, there will be no talk of such things.  Let us continue.”

***

                Seraphina tried more than once on their travels to convince him to go back.  He just kept walking.  At one point he thought perhaps she would be stubborn enough to stay sitting by that trunk, but eventually she came.  They already made it past two of the villages.  Things were moving along smoothly, and Warrick hoped the knights were far beyond them, their horses pushing them forward to catch up with the girl who was actually with him.

                Morning peeked, and Warrick’s walking stick became his guide as he moved it back and forth to direct him.  “Perhaps we have been taking too much of a risk.  Walking in the sun,” he lifted his head to the sky.  “It feels good, but a bad habit.”

                “Do you lack trust in my ability to find an appropriate spot?  I have been on the run longer than you and I have done a pretty good job the last few nights.” Her voice was light, teasing him as it floated in the air. 

                “Yes, you have.” 

                She had done well.  They had been walking in the daylight until Seraphina noticed a spot and Warrick was glad of it.  It was better to utilize as much time traveling as possible, get there as quickly as they could before Seraphina just decided to leave him altogether.   He knew she was troubled, but words failed him.  How do you comfort someone who feels like the price for their freedom is too much?  You do not speak.  You just move.  Move toward the destination and show her how comfortable you are being a blind man.  It was not such an awful fate, especially when given the curse of sight and he could conjure up her image in his mind, along with a thousand other images he had spent his life acquiring.   And the colors!  Oh, the vibrance he could bring up in a moment’s desire. 

                He remembered darkness, before he had any sight.  He remembered distorted images because he lacked understanding, being so young at the time, gaining depictions from what he held in his hands.  Now though he had an array of beauty in his repertoire; he could return to his blindness with gratitude.  But how do you tell a woman that?  Especially a woman like Seraphina.  Who knows your sincerity but disagrees with your sacrifice?

                “Let us eat,” he said.  He used his stick with ease to find a tree to lean against.  Running his fingers along the trunk to the base, he sat.  He pulled a couple apples from the bag with ease and held one out in her direction.  He knew basically where she was, he had heard her footsteps follow him, but she still stood.   He tilted his head toward her. 

                She gave a light disbelieving chuckle.  “I am always amazed you know where I am.”  He felt her fingertips slide along his palm as she snatched it from him before sitting down. 

                “I told you, my other senses do well for me.”  The crunch from the apple and the flooding of the sweet juice onto his tongue made him sigh.  It almost felt like they were already free, that their vigilance was unnecessary.  Just two travelers.  “Seraphina, the king could just pay the sorceress to give a blessing to a willing servant, right?”

                “No.  Sorceresses are very particular.  There is an unspoken rule that they do not take money from people in positions of power.  They do not wish to feel an allegiance to anyone.”

                “That is wise.  How do you know this?”

                “She told me, when I visited her the first time.”

                “Was it scary for you?  To go alone to see such a powerful being?”

                “Of course.”  He heard her shifting. 

                “Was she nice to you?”

                “She was distant.  I suppose she must be, or she would be taken in by every sad story at her door.  It is not like a sorceress has endless energy to expend.  She cannot help everyone.”

                “I suppose —“ he stopped, holding up a hand to let her know he had heard something.  His voice went to a whisper.  “We are no longer alone.  Hide.”

                She moved like a black shadow along his already darkened vision.  The shuffling of her dress and the scraping of her shoes along the bark told him that she climbed the tree he leaned against.  

                Taking hold of his stick he pulled himself to standing as the beating of hooves came through the trees.  Not many went off the path.  The clinking of metal confirmed his fear, the knights who searched for Seraphina.  They should have been long past us.  They must have turned back around when there was no sign of her.  They came to a halt at the sight of him. 

                “You there,” the one said.  “Have you seen —“ He stopped himself.  Warrick recognized the silence in the air, it tasted of disregard.  “Never mind.  Let us go.”

                The knights began to move past him, but then pulled up once again.  “Wait, have we met?”

                Warrick froze.  “I doubt it good sir.”

                Metal sang in the air, sliding from the horse, and stopping right in front of him.  The knight smelled of sweat and sage.  “I do know you.” 

                His comrade called from his horse.  “We have only seen blind beggars.  Let us go.”

                “No,” said the first knight.  “No, I do recognize him.  You are the Gatekeeper from that town.  But you were not blind then.”

                “My brother,” Warrick said.  “My twin.”

                “I doubt that.  You said your parents were the tavern keepers.  They spoke of their only child.”

                “Perhaps your memory is incorrect, sir,” Warrick continued.

                “It is my job to remember such things.  Anything could lead to the one we search for.”

                “I am sorry, you are mistaken.”

                Warrick could feel the grin on the man’s face as he spoke.  “No, I am not.  Very odd for a Gatekeeper to be so far from his post.  Where is she?”

                “Who?”

                “Please, no games.   You will lose.  The last trace of Seraphina was in Valente.  A piece of her dress clung to the outside of a window in the inn.  Now you are here?  It does not make sense unless you are helping her.  Where is she?”

                “I am afraid I do not know.”

                As Warrick fell to the ground, the rusty taste of blood in his mouth, he wondered.  Does it hurt more when you cannot see it coming or less?  If you do not know you are about to get hit, you do not tense yourself which could very well make it hurt less.  Or does it hurt more because you have no warning to brace yourself for the pain you are about to experience?  He suddenly wished he had gotten in more fights to find out. 

                “Just tell us,” the knight said, looming over him.

                Hooves clopped on the ground and the horses whinnied, wanting to continue their search.  One of the knights, still atop his horse, sounded annoyed.  “Let us go.  He is just a blind man.  Are we so infuriated with this girl and the king that we take it out on the unfortunate?”

                “It is him and since I am in charge you will hold your tongue while I interrogate him.”  The knight pulled Warrick to his feet, his walking stick fallen from his hands.  “I know it is you.”  Spit flicked onto Warrick’s face as the knight held his collar tightly. 

                “Alright,” Warrick said.  “I was with her.  But she decided to go off on her own.  A blind man is less than suitable company when you are trying to get as far from the king’s men as possible.”

                “He could see before.  How is he blind now?” Another knight asked. 

                “Tell us,” the knight demanded as he still held on to Warrick.

                “An accident,” Warrick said.  If they did not know already then that meant his parents, and everyone else in Valente, had kept the story to themselves.  He might be able to use that to his advantage. 

                “Which way did the girl go?”

                “How am I supposed to know?”

                It was with less force this time, but the back hand that hit his cheek stung.  “There is no talking back to me, Gatekeeper.  We have been searching for this girl for weeks.  We are unable to go home to our families until we find the traitor.  We are done being nice.  We want her.  Where did she go?”

                Warrick swallowed, blood trickling down his throat.  “She left when we were at the village to the north.  She went east.  I have no idea where she is going.” 

                He could feel the hot breath from the knight.  “Bind him up.  We will take him just in case he is lying.”

                The shuffling of men began.  Warrick pulled away as hands took hold of him.  “Please, do not take me.  I am not lying.”  He struggled and felt a few jabs in his ribs from the men now surrounding him.  If he was taken, how would he find Seraphina again? They needed to be together to break the blessing and the curse.

                “Please,” Warrick said.  “I am headed to the next village.  I will be staying there for a while.  If you think I have deceived you, just come there to find me.”

                “Do we look foolish enough to take chances?  Besides, it will waste time.” 

                Warrick flung his fists in the air, guessing where his mark was.  He hit flesh, not metal.  He was grateful at first, until he was suddenly down on the ground being pummeled by his captors.

                “Stop!”  The cry rang in Warrick’s ears and pained him more than the blows that suddenly stopped. 

                “Well, well, well.  You are quite the liar.”  Warrick felt a kick in his stomach.  “Come down girl. It is time to go home.”

                “I will come willingly,” Seraphina said, surprisingly calm.  “Just promise you will leave him alone.”

                “My men have punished him enough.  We will let him be.”

                “Your word, sir.”

                The word of a knight.  Honor.  He hesitated but finally agreed.  The sliding on bark and a slight pounce on dirt, then metal on metal as Seraphina came down and was captured.  Warrick sat up slowly.  He was powerless.  He could not overtake them. 

                “You should have stayed quiet,” Warrick said, but even to himself he sounded defeated.

                “May I say goodbye to him?” Seraphina asked.

                “No.” 

                Moments later they were gone, the racing hooves headed back to the castle, making her a slave once more.   The sound echoed in his mind mingled with her shouted goodbye.  “Thank you, my friend.  It is alright.  I will be alright.”

***

                There was no fighting from her.  No trying to escape.  Seraphina had felt guilty for days, walking toward her hope of freedom.  Now that she was no longer stealing anything from Warrick, she was at peace.  Though trapped in a life of servitude, she would remember a time when the intent of someone to help her was so genuine he was willing to give up something precious. 

                She had wanted to say more to him.  But it was probably best the knights pulled her away, tearing her from his presence.  What would she have said?  That the idea of being away from him made her stomach feel empty?  Hollowed out and alone?

                She closed her eyes as they rode, trying to impress upon her mind every conversation.  Every moment she clung to him in the chilled night.  Every time she laid against him.  Every touch of their hands.  She missed him already and needed to solidify every memory so she could call upon them in her times of despair.  She knew she was doing the right thing, but that did not blind her from the ache she would feel trapped in the castle.  She had experienced too many years of it, but she hoped now that the memory of Warrick would ease her suffering.

                It took several days to get back to the castle.  Days of being bound, her wrists raw.  She wondered what kind of wrath the king would unleash on her when she returned, but she found his fury directed elsewhere; instead he was angry that she had been bound so tightly.  He coddled her.  Clung to her, his eyes wild, his movement sporadic.  Yes, paranoid and now completely eager for her to resume her position and tell him who was against him and who was not. 

                He put her to work immediately.  First in his counsel as they discussed the affairs of the kingdom.  Then to handle the dozens upon dozens of grievances that were brought before him.  He had made everyone wait while she was away.  At the end of the day she laid down and the despair, which she knew was coming, covered her like a suffocating blanket.  She turned to her side and pretended the pillow she laid upon was the strong shoulder of the one she ached for. 

***

                Warrick ran through the forest, walking stick in hand.  It had been three days since Seraphina was taken by the king’s knights.  Morning would come soon.  He already passed through the village.  If he hurried, he might be able to make it before daybreak. 

                There, an opening.  He stepped out of the forest, a mountain before him.  Tall and strong, a silver door encased in it.  He pounded on the structure with all his might.  No answer.  He pounded again.  And again.  And again.  Minutes ticked by and still he waited, refusing to leave.  Refusing to be ignored. 

                A sliver of light.  Then darkness.  He felt his eyes change in an instant.  He raised his head up, his shoulders back, and lifted his walking stick to the sky in defiance.  “I will not leave, Sorceress.  Rid me of this place with your magic if you wish, but I will just return.  Forever haunting you until you give me an audience.”

                A voice pierced the air.  “The spell on you is not mine.”

                “No,” he said, slowly lowering his staff.  “It is not.  But I need your help just the same.”

                There was an eerie silence, but he felt the wind from the pressure of the door against him and knew it had opened.  Her presence brought the scent of roses and he could feel the warmth she radiated. 

                “What brings such persistence to my door?”

                “A woman came to you.  You gave her the power of intent.  You told her how to undo the spell.”

                “Yes, I remember her.  Ungrateful for my gift.”

                “It came with burdens no one could have expected, not even you.  I have the curse she needs, but the king’s men have taken her back.”

                “I told her; I cannot undo it unless you are both together.”

                “We know.  We tried.  Please.  Would you come with me to the castle?  If we meet her there, you can reverse the spell and tell the king she is of no more use to him.”

                “Castle grounds are forbidden for my kind.  It invites other sorcerers to make assumptions.  There are rules.”

                “Then what should we do?  I cannot leave her there a slave.”

                Silence.  Her presence felt different than when others were near him.  Without her voice he was uncertain where she was, her warmth seemed to be everywhere.  “Are you still there?”

                “Your curse, it feels… familiar.”

                He felt her fingertips on his cheek and a tug as she removed them.  He blinked, then blinked again.  For the first time in his life, he could see during the day.  It was bright and made him squint, unsure.  The vastness of the light made everything more vibrant.  Beautiful, he silently sighed in awe.  The sky was blue.  He had never seen blue skies.

                The sorceress was older, though her voice sounded young.  Her black hair streaked with ash laid over her shoulders and hung down to her hips.  She wore an elegant silver gown made of lace with sapphire accents.  She rubbed her thumb over her fingers and a purple shimmering light appeared.  As the color dissipated, his vision withdrew once more into darkness.

                “I know this magic,” the sorceress said quietly.  “Fate can be a strange creature, but it must favor you.  This magic belongs to my sister.  The age of it feels of the time when she left us.   Even as I say it, I know that is not really what happened.”  Melancholy.  Warrick’s black vision seemed to hint of a blue hue, as if the sorceress’s sorrow was penetrating his view.  She continued.  “She left willingly, but our parents were displeased that she would not have the power of a sorcerer like them…like me.  A mere witch.   How heartbroken she must have been.  But here you are with a spell that a witch could not have given, at least not given and then sustained for so long.”

                She cleared her throat as if she realized she gave too much information.

                “My parents,” Warrick said softly.  “My parents treated her kindly.  They have always spoken of her with respect.  And our town, they too.  You cannot witness a miracle and not honor the one who gave it, even if she meant it as a curse.”

                He felt the sorceress’s arms around him.  It seemed out of character with all he knew about her.  She whispered into him, “Thank you.  I loved her dearly.  I miss her still.”  She pulled away from him.  “Now, you.  Your spell was cast by my sister, which means our magic comes from the same source.  If the magic is from the same source there are two ways to break the spells, and both can be done without my presence or my sister’s.  One, each of you cut a palm, let the blood pool and then press your hands together.  The intent to disperse the magic must be felt in that moment.”

                Warrick breathed out his disbelief.  They had the power to break their blessing and curse all along.  “We can do that.”

                “Ah, well, I think you will prefer the second method.”  Warrick felt the smile on her lips through her words.  “You know, fairytales have such improbable endings, but they do get their ideas from somewhere.”

***

                Seraphina sat on the right side of the king.  His queen to his left.  One by one people were escorted in.  They were still making up for the time of her absence.  It was getting late.  They already paused for dinner but continued afterward because the king insisted.  “We must get caught up.”

                She did not mind.  She wanted to avoid going to bed where her mind would wander. Thinking of Warrick helped her to know she had done the right thing to return but thinking of him and wishing… that was another thing.  One she was not expecting.

                She leaned in and whispered to the king, the two women before them, waiting.  “Both of them are certain they are right, your highness.  Neither are malicious, they just want their children cared for.”

                He nodded before addressing them.  “One grew the wheat, the other made the bread.  Together you paid for the medicine.  Now there is only enough left for one child.  You are good subjects to work together as you did.  Both of you go to my apothecary, tidy his shop as payment, and then you shall be given the medicine you still need.”

                “Thank you, your majesty,” said one.

                “Thank you, sire.  Thank you,” said the other.

                They left with smiles on their lips and relief in their countenances.  Seraphina smiled, too.  He was paranoid without her.  But with her, he felt confident in his decisions.  Indeed, he was a very good king when he did not doubt anyone’s motives.  She wished he trusted himself.  She wished he trusted his wife.  She wished Warrick were there.

                She stared at her hands in her lap and took a deep breath as she heard the king call for the next person in line.  When she looked up her heart skipped a beat.  She almost stood but stopped herself. 

                “Your highness,” Warrick said as he was being guided by a servant on one side and using his walking stick on the other.  The blind and lame were always taken first, and not made to wait in the line.

                “What is your grievance?”  The king asked.

                “Forgive me.  I wish for an audience with Seraphina.”  His head turned toward her, and she wondered, could he smell the lavender soap she used? 

                The queen sat up straighter.  The king shifted in his seat.  “How do you know my Seraphina?”

                “I met her, while she was away.”

                “You are the blind man in the forest.  The one who tried to hide her.”  The king said, his voice hard.

                “Yes,” Warrick said.  He shrugged.  “But a blind man cannot do much damage, can he?  You have her back.  I merely wish to speak to her.”

                “No.”

                “Please, your highness.”  Seraphina could not keep the pleading from her voice.

                “Darling,” the queen said.  “If they stay in the castle, what can it hurt?”

                His brow furrowed.  “You may speak, but only if you do so in my presence.”

                Warrick grinned.  “Of course, sire.”

                Seraphina willed herself to walk to him despite her desire to run, not wanting the king’s possessive nature regarding her to flare. 

                “Hello,” she said once she stood before him.  What could she say here?  In front of her king?

                She glanced at the throne and the king leaned forward, watching carefully.

                Warrick reached his hand up and felt her face.  Not uncommon for the blind to do.  His thumb rested on her chin and he stepped forward.  It seemed as if time slowed down as he came closer to her and then he stopped as she watched his white eyes regain their color.  His eyes penetrated hers with such intensity.  His intent…a desire for her to be happy.  To be free. 

                “Night,” he said.  “What good timing.  So, I could see you one last time.”

                In her peripheral vision she saw the king and queen’s bewilderment.  The king stood and started toward them.  But she soon forgot of their existence as Warrick pressed his lips against hers with such fierceness, his desire for her freedom becoming a clear intent for the magic between them to vanish.  And for a moment, his intent became her own.  If only they had met without a blessing and a curse…

                Just as quickly as his lips had been there, they were gone.  She felt herself get thrown back, a force more powerful than any man’s.  Seraphina stared across the room, Warrick several feet away from where he had been standing.  The king stepped back, shocked. 

                “What happened?” she asked.

                “That is what I would like to know!” the king bellowed. 

                Seraphina’s eyes widened and she let out a cry.  Warrick was on his knees, feeling for his walking stick.  She ran to him and when his eyes met hers, the color was gone.  “Warrick…”

                “It is alright,” he said as he found his staff.  He stood.  “I spoke to the sorceress.  You are free now.”

                “But how?”

                “Fate.”

                “What do you mean she is free?”  the king asked as he came toward them.  Suddenly he stopped, a silver light twirling in front of him as a parchment appeared.  It floated in the air until he took hold of it.  “It cannot be.  No!” 

                The queen went to him and read.  “The sorceress has confirmed.”  She looked at Seraphina.  “Your power is gone.”

                “No, no, no!  What will we do now?” the king asked wildly.  “How will we know who to believe?  What is right to do?  You!”  He stepped toward Warrick, but his anger turned to hopelessness, turned to exhaustion and he collapsed to his knees in despair. 

                The queen motioned for Seraphina and Warrick to leave.  Her voice was tender as she knelt beside her husband.  “Darling, you have always been capable of discerning for yourself.  It may not be perfect, but you can do it.  You…”

                Seraphina held Warrick’s arm as she guided him out of the throne room.  He told her how the spell was able to be broken without being with the sorceress.  She could hardly believe it.  “I am speechless.   I do not know whether to be angry you gave up your sight or grateful you came back for me.”

                “You can be both,” he said with a half-smile.

                “Thank you seems trivial.”

                “How miserable have you been since you returned?” he asked.

                She sighed. “More than I would like to admit.”

                “Then it was worth it.  How do you feel now?  Now that you are void of feeling intent as one speaks to you?”

                “Off balance, but also peaceful.  I did not realize how much noise intention made until now.  It is almost too quiet.” She swallowed.  Without feeling Warrick’s intention, it now made her more vulnerable.  And that made being alone with him more — intimate. 

                “You will get used to it,” he said softly.  He paused but then leaned forward, using one hand to guide him; he kissed her cheek.  His face lingered inches from hers for but a moment before he stepped back.  “The hour is late.  I suppose I should head to an inn.  Rest up before my journey home.”

                Seraphina’s eyes began to sting, and she blinked back tears.  She inhaled a steadying breath before she spoke.  “I should gather my things and settle back into my parents’ home.  I imagine they will be less than pleased at what we have done, but I am.  So, thank you again.”

                Warrick gave a slight bow.  He paused a moment, as if he were gazing at her, before leaving the castle grounds.

***

                He dreamt of Seraphina and laughed at himself for it.   A half blind man would have little chance with such a woman, an actual blind man, none.  He smiled sadly. He had kept his intent pure, so that would be all she felt.  It was easy.  Sure, he felt a desire to be with her, but there can be no intent to make it come true when there was no possibility in the first place. 

                Still, as he went toward home, walking stick in motion, he remembered the kiss that released them from the magic they were under.  Her lips were cracked, still chapped from the nights of travel in the cold.  Yet, they felt perfect just the same.

                He tilted his head, fast footsteps taking him away from his thoughts.  Running.  Then the sound stopped beside him, heavy breathing as the person tried to catch some air. 

                “You left earlier than I thought you would.”

                Seraphina. 

                Warrick tried to shake himself from his surprise.  “I…um…” 

                “Do you mind company?” she asked eagerly. 

                He shook his head.  “No.”  He hesitated for a moment as hope rose in his throat, but he could not let it overtake him.  “May I ask for how long?”

                He could sense her shifting, unsure, and then it halted as if confidence had pushed all reluctance aside.  “Is always long enough?”

                A grin slowly spread as the meaning of her words took hold in his chest.  “It is a start,” he breathed as Seraphina put her arm through his.

Art by Sarah E. Harder

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