Iron Henry

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Henry swigged a melting mouthful of the hearth witch’s tea and clutched his chest. Eyes bulging, beet face glistening, he waited on the precipice. A grand suck of air. A glimmer of gritted teeth. The medicine took. After his affliction smoothed its feathers and he could breath again, Henry slid down the wall of the well and grated a coarse hand across his shining brow.

A bit of cold water would have gone a long way, but Henry knew better than to stick his hand into the iris of the well to freshen his face. And yet…Henry peered down into its mirthless depths for one look, but the frog was gone again. Plucked. Stolen. The well witch’s pincers had dragged him back down to her breathless underworld. Was his prince happier with that sea serpent? He couldn’t be. What a silly idea. Henry repeated these mantras as uncertainty sickened his mind with hypothesis and jealousy. He rapped on his chest three times with four knuckles like knots in birch and lumbered up from his seat wondering when his prince would appear again.

“Fool,” Henry said, the word lush with longing.

The next day Henry again squished through the rank marsh to the green-furred well and called down into the water, watching his pleas ripple across its glutinous surface.

“Prince! My prince! Your man calls you,” he sobbed. The forest responded first, laughing at poor Henry. Birds shrieking slurs, dripping hot white fervor to the forest floor. But a pale specter grew out of the well’s thunderhead. An emerald body rose. A horror. An extraterrestrial sun in the familiar night sky.

“My prince! Ah,” Henry said, doubling over as his heart swelled against its cage. His cry held the power of resurrection. A hand shot up thin and bare as a wintered branch to pull the frog down, down, down to the bottom of the well.

Henry slid to the damp grass and nestled his head against the mildewed stone, salting it with fresh loss. When a long time later he lifted his face to the darkening day, Henry found himself staring at the witch, her arms hooked over the sill of the well to pillow her brown, waterlogged cheek as she looked sidelong at the man and clucked.

“Poor Henry,” said the witch. “I am sorry.”

“You aren’t though,” Henry said, too weary to brew stronger poison. “You have him and you couldn’t be happier.”

“Oh Henry, it’s not that simple,” the witch said as she brushed a water moccasin away from her face to peer at the man with avian ferocity.

“I’m confined here. You’ve known love while I’ve known nothing so deep as my own well. My heart will never find home with another, but at least I’ll have a companion now.”

“So you have spoken. Now leave me be,” said Henry, clutching his heart.

“It was unfortunate that you and your prince came along, but that can’t be helped. I’ll not spend my centuries alone,” the witch said, trailing off. She studied Henry. “What have you done to yourself, Henry?” she said. “Something in you has changed.”

Henry grimaced. “I had the blacksmith cage my heart in iron,” he said. “To keep it from bursting.”

The witch sighed as Henry rallied. “What if I offered you a deal?” the witch said. “A chance to regain your beloved’s life.”

Henry’s spine snapped into place. “I dare not believe–” but the witch stopped him with one uplifted hand.

“Even if you succeed, you won’t get all that you want. But your prince will be free. He will recover his true shape and a life outside my well.”

Henry stood. “Tell me then. I have nothing to lose and my true love’s freedom to gain.”

The witch, leaning too far over her well, cringed back. Henry drew close to hear.

“There is a princess in the next kingdom. It was her ancestors who banished me to this well. If I find her a prince to marry, my spell will be lifted. Should you convince her to take the prince for a husband as he is, his spell too will be lifted. But you must not tell her his true identity and they must remain husband and wife or he will be called back to me. And if that should happen, your prince will turn frog again, never surfacing to see you.”

Henry said nothing for a long time. “It will be done,” he decided at last. “My prince will see the sun again, if not his faithful Henry.”

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The princess was out walking in a brightly scented meadow. Every now and then she slowed her step to toss a ball into the air. High above her the golden orb gleamed, dazzling the sky as its gems caught the sun’s fire. It would have put the queen into a spin to see the princess toss her hard-won golden egg, but the young woman knew her mother wouldn’t notice if it went missing for an hour or so each day, and she took wicked pleasure in using the priceless treasure as a plaything.

With a thrill of jubilation and daring, the princess flung the egg as hard as she could up to the sky and as she did a shadow fell over her. Before she could even sound her alarm a fury of feathers swooped down from the sky taking hold of the egg with precise talons.

“Oh no,” the princess cried, chasing the bird through the woods. She barely looked down from the hunt until something heavy fell on her shoulder and pulled her back.

“No, princess,” warned a low voice.

“How dare you,” the princess spat at the man who had clapped his hand on her shoulder.

“The well,” he said, and the princess looked back and saw it then. The chase had so consumed her, she had almost tumbled heel over head into the black pool.

“You saved my life,” she breathed. “But, oh, my egg,” she wailed.

“Your egg?”

“A golden egg all crusted with jewels. Like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

“But I think I have seen it,” he said, holding out his palm. The other hand held hawking gloves, but that was behind his back.

“Ah,” the princess gasped. It was the egg, as perfect as ever and even more so for having been found. As the princess reached for her prize the man pulled back.

“I will return your egg to you on one condition,” he said.

“I’ll give you my pearls and my jewels,” the princess huffed. “I’ll even give you the clothes on my back–just give me my egg.”

“I don’t want your pearls or your jewels. And I’d ask that you keep your clothes on. All I want is the promise that you will accept my prince as your companion. Let him sit beside you at your golden table and eat from your golden plate and sleep in your golden bed and promise to love and cherish him.”

“A prince,” the princess said, disguising her interest with coyness but too late. “Is he as beautiful as you?” asked the pouting coquette.

“He is,” said the man, and there was such sorrow in his voice, it drove the princess ravenous.

“I’ll have him,” she said and snatched up her egg. But when the prince, all green and gray brindled, rose to the water’s surface the princess shrieked her disgust and fled into the woods.

“Wait, princess! Your promise,” Henry called after her  gauntlets pressed to his heart. But she was gone.

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The princess was dining on pheasant with the king and queen when a knock traveled to them from the castle door. The king left their table to discover the meaning of the interruption and returned with a young beauty and a frog.

“This man says you broke a promise made to him,” the king said to the princess. “Is this true?”

“He tricked me into promising my companionship, my plate, my bed, and love to that creature,” she said and scowled at the intruders.

“What trick was this?” the king asked the young man.

“No trick,” said Henry. “I only recovered the princess’s golden egg when she lost it.”

“Golden egg?” said the queen. “Excuse me.” She left the table and returned with the golden egg. “This golden egg?” she said.

“The very same,” said Henry. And the queen gave the princess such a look as would make any daughter or son wish for the earth to gobble them up.

“And did you agree to the promise?” the queen continued.

“I did, but that was before I knew his prince was a frog,” the princess insisted.

“It matters not,” said the queen. “You have made a promise and you will keep it.”

“Father,” the princess wailed.

“Listen to your mother,” the king said, tucking back into his plate. “You will not besmirch our name with your dishonesty.”

The princess opened her mouth but one look from the queen snapped it shut. Henry felt the cord pressing the frog against his hand, pulling him back toward the well, snap beneath the princess’s surrender. He gingerly placed his prince near the princess’s plate and left their company gasping at the pain housed within the iron cage.

“Push the plate close to your companion so that he may share your meal,” the queen said with a tidy, icy smile.

Empty stomach and barren of appetite, the princess took the frog to her room under her parents’ orders. But when she felt the slimy skin against her own and heard the rusty croak of her bedfellow she cried out and flung the frog against the wall. So great was collision that the witch’s enchantment smacked clean off the prince and he was freed from his froggy form.

Eyeing the prince in true flesh, the princess flew to his aid, her heart pounding with new love. The prince, seeing himself in her looking glass, pushed the princess aside and escaped the castle in search of Henry. He found him pale and clutching his heart by the well, the witch stroking his auburn hair. They started at the sight of the prince.

“My prince! You’re whole again,” Henry said embracing his other half.

“The spell was lifted when the princess threw me against the wall,” said the prince.

“Threw you,” Henry raged.

“Ah,” said the witch. “Tricky business, spells. I’m sorry to say that you’re still tied to me, frog or not. Even now the enchantment pulls you back to my well.” And the prince had moved incrementally closer to the witch and the water.

“Wait,” cried Henry. “I have a proposal.”

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The princess heard a knock on the castle door and flew to the window. Just as she’d hoped, it was him. She flung the door wide and embraced her prince on the doorstep.

“You have returned. I knew you would. There is no princess–or otherwise–fairer in the land and now you know and I forgive you,” she said, pulling him in.

“Wait, princess. First you must sever my ties to the well witch. I cannot be yours until you do.”

The princess squared her shoulders. “Then sever your ties I will,” she said. “I have no fear of well witches. Let us go directly.”

They found the witch waiting, hooked to the ledge of the well by her chin, which rested on a soft bed of moss.

“What do we have here?” the witch said through her teeth.

“The princess has come of her own volition to sever my ties,” said the prince.

“Then so shall it be,” said the witch. “Come closer, my dear, and let me tell you how it’s done.”

The princess looked at her prince who nodded encouragement. She lifted her chin, strode to the witch, leaned over the well and splash! In went the princess and off went Henry and his prince to live happily ever after.

Inktober and NaNoWriMo Prep

It’s inktober–31 days and 31 drawings! I’m comboing my NaNoWriMo prep with my 31 drawings, world-building and developing character sketches as I set myself up for a (hopefully) productive November of writing.

Here’s my first sketch for inktober. It’s a scene and a shard of story from my upcoming NaNoWriMo project.  

Christmas Aunty guides lost children through a war-torn kingdom.

I’ll also be continuing #ReadtoDraw, which also pairs nicely with this month’s challenge. I just finished H is for Hawk and might try my hand at drawing a goshawk.

Anyone else participating in inktober?