Sometimes the way home isn’t obvious.
The braid went slack in his hands, and the prince knew.
He’d been deceived.
In the moment before he fell, when he hung suspended in the air, the prince confronted the thorns that would steal his sight.
He refused to blink.
The pain was an exquisite brightness, the blood hot and wet. He clambered to his feet, drew his sword, and swung blindly.
The cackle of the witch’s laughter echoed in the air.
The prince stumbled across the countryside, sword unsheathed. He whirled in panic at the cries of birds and rustles in the underbrush. And always, as he walked, the faint whisper of the witch’s laughter followed him.
At last, his feet found a crossroads. The earth was smooth here, and his boots met nothing other than small stones and gentle ruts. He paused and sniffed.
A ripe, earthy scent rose up, warmed by the sun, the air filled with promise.
The marsh beckoned. The prince turned and left the road behind.
He was days into his trek when the cries of an infant accompanied his walk. His legs were weak with fever, and so too, the prince reasoned, was his head. Whatever promise had led him into this marsh eluded him.
The prince sank into the muck only to hear a startled cry moments later.
“My love? Is it really you?”
His lips were so dry that he couldn’t utter her name. Rapunzel knelt beside him, her tears bathing his face, easing the pain in his eyes. He raised a hand to stroke her cheek and missed.
He saw nothing but brightness and shadows. Of all the sights the thorns had stolen, he would miss the intelligence in Rapunzel’s gaze the most.
“Come,” she said, “come with me now.”
“Can’t what, my prince?”
“I can’t rescue you.”
“Can you walk?”
With her words, his legs found their strength. “I can walk.”
“Then come meet your son … and your daughter.”
With time, the prince’s feet learned which paths to take in and out of the marsh. His fingers became adept at finding and patching holes in the thatched roof of their little cottage. His children grew, and although he couldn’t see them, his son smelled of lilacs and morning dew, his daughter like wild roses and rain.
Each day, he ventured farther from the cottage, all in hopes of finding the crossroads once again, of finding rescue, and what that might mean. A true marriage. Proper schooling for the little prince and princess. He could resume his place in the kingdom.
It was the king’s own counselor who found him, standing in the center of the crossroads one hot, summer day. Despite his blindness, the prince recognized the king’s most trusted advisor, and the man rejoiced to have found the long, lost prince.
His feet knew the marsh so well that the prince raced to the little cottage without care. He found Rapunzel and swung her around, then hoisted the children to his shoulders.
“We are saved!” he cried. “We can go home.”
“Home?” the children echoed.
“To the palace, where we will live the way we were meant to.”
Rapunzel remained strangely silent.
“My dear,” he said. “Are you not happy? Haven’t you only ever wanted to escape?”
“Yes. Escape.” Her words were soft and hollow, and the prince barely heard them over the clatter of the carriages arriving to bear them to the palace.
Was it the noise that struck first, or the stench? Both swirled around him like a thick, damp cloud. So many voices, and all of them demanding something of him. So many smells. Waves of perfume. The dank scent of mildew. The hint of refuse that never left the air no matter where he ventured in the palace.
Nursemaids commandeered his children. Ladies-in-waiting swept Rapunzel away. The king prattled about diplomacy and trade routes and political alliances.
At their welcome home feast, in the clatter of dishes and hearty toasts ringing out, the echo of the witch’s cackle rose thin and high, a taunt meant for his ears only.
The prince knew.
This time, he’d deceived himself.
That night, he ran his hands over every inch of his chambers. His thoughts fractured each time the witch’s cackle sounded in his ears. Even if he could escape, how would he rescue Rapunzel and the children?
What caught his attention first? The scrape of leather on stone? The delicate gasp of exertion? He knew the moment Rapunzel burst through the window, landing with a soft thud on the stone floor.
“Come,” she said. “Your children are waiting below.”
“How is it you—?”
She silenced his question with a gentle finger to his lips. “Your children have stolen all the silk sheets from the royal beds.”
If he could not see the glint of intelligence in her gaze, he caught it in her tone.
“My father’s included?”
“And I have braided them into a ladder, your father’s included. Do you remember, my prince, how to scale a tower wall on a braided ladder?”
Indeed, he did.
“Come,” she said.
He let Rapunzel take his hand. At the window’s ledge, he cupped her cheek.
“I have been so blind.”
In answer, she merely kissed him.
And yes, his hands did remember how to grip a braided ladder.
Together, they raced through the palace grounds, into the forest, until—at last—they reached the crossroads.
The prince stood there with his little family, the warmth of the sunrise touching his face. Something earthy and ripe rose in the air. He turned toward its source.
The marsh beckoned.
The Way Home was first published at Long and Short Reviews.