Two Sisters

There was once two sisters, as different as night and day. The eldest, Lilith, had hair as black as midnight and a temper to match, whereas her sister, Rosamund, was golden-haired and kind-hearted, if a little quiet. However, if people had seen how her sister spoke to her in private, and pinched and slapped her whenever she felt out-of-sorts, they would have understood the reason for her timidity.

One day, the king of the land came calling on Lilith and Rosamund’s father, who happened to be an important lord. His younger brother, Prince Rufus, accompanied him, and the ladies of the castle made much of the two handsome men. Lilith, however, only had eyes for the king, and soon the hapless man found himself ensnared in her wiles. He asked her father for her hand in marriage, and there was a great feast when their engagement was announced.

The night of the feast, Rosamund – who had been kept out of sight during much of the king’s visit, so as not to distract from her sister’s ambitions – was left to wander the rose gardens, alone and unobserved. She was happy that her sister would now be leaving, as she would not have to endure her cruel words and deeds any longer; however, she also felt worried by a casual comment her father had made. He had apparently promised her to a friend of his, a man well into his fifties and known for his lecherous behaviour. Rosamund shuddered, and her fair face was uneasy as she contemplated her future.

“Tis a sad cloud that hides such a radiant face.”

 

Rosamund looked round with a start, only to see Prince Rufus sat half-hidden in a small bower. Hurriedly, she dropped a curtsey.

 

The prince did not know her, but he recognised beauty when he saw it, and he was indeed enchanted by the lovely young woman standing there.

 

“Were I the wind,” he continued, standing and pressing a kiss to her cold fingers. “I would blow those troubles away in an instant.”

 

“But is the wind not wild?” Rosamund said in barely a whisper. Prince Rufus grinned and leaned a little closer, still holding her hand.

 

“True, but a little wildness never hurt anyone. What is your name?”

 

“Rose, Your Highness,” she replied, not daring to reveal her true identity.

 

His smile grew. Releasing her hand and reaching up, he plucked a white rose and offered it to her.

 

“Its beauty is but a poor comparison. Nonetheless, a rose for a rose.” The prince offered Rosamund his arm. “Walk with me?” Shyly, she accepted.

━━━━━━━━┓ ✠ ┏━━━━━━━━

Tracing a snaking path through the gardens and down to the lawn that overlooked the silent inky lake, Prince Rufus asked many questions, trying to discover who the strange girl was. By clever means, however, she turned the conversation back to himself, time and time again.

The prince noticed but said nothing. He had seen that her dress was only second-rate, and that she wore no jewels. He observed the hesitant way she spoke, and the ease with which a careless comment could tie her tongue and make her falter, as though she were not used to conversation or compliments.

 

But gradually his charm and kindness began to win her over, and she did not protest when he fastened his fur cloak around her shoulders to keep away the cold.

 

She still did not dare risk her sister’s wrath by admitting who she was, avoiding a query about why he had not seen her dancing inside the hall with a question of her own.

 

“Why aren’t you inside dancing, sir?”

 

“I don’t like to.” He glanced down at her and winked. “I’m shy.”

Rosamund burst into giggles. “I wish I was shy like you.”

 

Smiling sheepishly, the prince drew them both to a halt. They were stood on the velvety sward, with the water before them a black, glassy brilliance. Far behind them perched the castle, and the only light came from a thin crescent cutting through the clouds.

In this sparse moonlight, the strange girl stood out with eerie sharpness, making Rufus wonder if she were even real or just a dream. His arm slipped around her middle, and the slender warmth reassured him that she was, for the moment, actually there.

 

“Do you like to dance, Rose?” he asked quietly. She threw him an odd look.

 

“I suppose so.”

 

“Dance with me then.”

It was a peculiar dance, not one particularly recognisable, and frequently interrupted by Rosamund’s laughter. When it was over, and Prince Rufus pressed a chaste kiss to her lips, she did not complain. Her face fell, however, and her worried eyes lifted towards the castle.

 

“What is it, Rose? Tell me,” begged the prince. Rosamund gazed up into his handsome face.

 

“It is getting late. I must go.” She began to undo his cloak to give back, but his hands stopped hers.

 

“Keep it till next time. Please say I can see you again.”

 

“I- I don’t know…” His expression was distraught, and she gave in. “Yes, maybe.”

 

With an ecstatic look, Prince Rufus kissed her, not quite as chastely as before. Eventually, she broke free of his embrace and turned to run away, pressing the rose into his hand as she left. As he watched her go, it occurred to Rufus that he did not even know where he might find her again; all he could hope was that she would come to him.

 

━━━━━━━━┓ ✠ ┏━━━━━━━━

“Where have you been?”

Lilith’s harsh voice rang out as Rosamund’s dashed along the torch-lit corridor that led to their chambers. Coming to a halt, the breathless girl unconsciously drew Prince Rufus’s cloak tighter around her neck.

 

“In the garden, sister.”

 

Lilith stepped out from her doorway. Behind her, Rosamund could see two of her usual companions, equally unkind in character.

 

“She’s been with a man!” One of them hooted and pointed. “Look, she got his cloak on!”

 

Rosamund quivered with fear as her sister sucked in a sharp breath. Suddenly, hard hands were upon her as Lilith and her friends span her round, tugging at the cloak and pushing her.

 

“Nasty little cat, sneaking around with a man!”

 

“Probably not a proper man. Was it the stable hand, little sister? Old Ned, with no teeth and even less wits?”

 

“You should tell your father!”

 

“Please, Lilith!” Rosamund burst out at the last suggestion. “It’s not what you think-”

 

Her words were cut off by a sharp slap across the face. Rosamund fell back, cowering upon the floor as a furious Lilith loomed overhead.

 

“Tonight was supposed to be all about ME! MY night, the night I am announced as the future queen. Do you have any idea how embarrassing – how dangerous – it could be, if it gets out that my sister has been messing around with a man in the gardens?” She paused, and a cold sneer lifted her lips. “You know, I think father does need to be told. He won’t allow you to spoil this opportunity for our family.”

The three girls dragged the unfortunate Rosamund all the way to the lord’s private chambers. When they burst in, throwing Rosamund to the floor before her startled father, they failed to notice the king, stood in the doorway to an adjoining room.

 

“My shameful sister has been caught fooling with some boy in the gardens!” Lilith announced triumphantly, waving for her companions to leave, which they did so reluctantly.

 

“Lilith…” her father began, but she cut him off.

 

“Aren’t you going to punish her, father? Look – she’s still wearing the scoundrel’s cloak!”

 

“Lilith?” The king stepped into the room, a puzzled look on his face. Rosamund heard Lilith gasp behind her, while she stayed on her knees; it seemed the safest position.

 

“Henry, my love,” Lilith breathed, dancing across the room to take his hands. With a bemused look, he bent so she could kiss his cheek.

 

“Your sister? I did not know you had a sister.” He frowned, his gaze fixed firmly on Rosamund. “I recognise that cloak.”

 

“Do you?” Lilith asked. She wound her arm through his, trying to re-capture his attention.

 

“Perhaps it is one of your soldiers, it does not really mat-”

 

“No, it is my brother’s.”

━━━━━━━━┓ ✠ ┏━━━━━━━━

There was a brief commotion at this turn of events, and Prince Rufus was sent for to hear his side of the story. All this while, Rosamund remained on her knees, silent and trembling.

 

When the prince arrived and he saw Rosamund, his face lit up.

 

“Rose!” he cried, leaping forward to snatch up her hands and draw her to her feet. His brow clouded a little as he took in the red handprint still showing on her cheek.

 

Rosamund,” her father corrected heavily.

 

The prince gazed confusedly around the room, while his arm snaked around Rosamund’s waist. Trembling, the exhausted girl leant into him.

 

“What is going on?”

 

Her father, somewhat exasperated, stepped forward. “You were with my daughter in the garden, unsupervised, Your Highness.”

 

Rufus looked quickly at Rosamund, and his heart leapt at having discovered her identity. “Why didn’t you tell me who you were?” he chided gently.

 

Rosamund’s eyes darted guiltily to a stony-faced Lilith. Instantly, the queen-to-be hoisted a smile to her lips.

 

“She is simple-minded. That is why father kept her out of sight for this royal visit; we did not wish her to embarrass herself or our family. We try to prevent her falling into the hands of those who might wish to take advantage, but, well…” She shrugged, and Rosamund coloured with shame.

The prince glowered angrily at his future sister-in-law. “You are wrong. Rose is no more simple-minded than you or I. As for taking advantage – if you were a man, I’d call you out!”

 

“Rufus…” growled the king. His brother glanced at him before taking a deep breath. He dipped his head in a small bow to Lilith.

 

“I apologise, my lady. I should not have spoken so abruptly just now. But the facts remain.”

 

“The fact is my daughter’s honour is compromised.” Rosamund’s father said shortly. “Who will want to marry her now?”

 

“I will.” The words slipped as easily from Rufus’s lips as water from a sieve. He cast a small, shy smile down at the astonished Rosamund. “If you will have me, that is.”

 

“I-” Her tiny whisper was cut off by her quick-minded father.

 

“She will.”

━━━━━━━━┓ ✠ ┏━━━━━━━━

So it was that a great double wedding was held, and Lilith was crowned queen. Despite the golden crown on her head and the heavy jewels now clustered upon her fingers, her heart still curdled with hatred as she saw Rosamund standing at the front of the congregation, alongside her handsome prince.

King Henry, on the other hand, was delighted that his brother had found such a pleasant wife, and he heaped many gifts on the young couple. This made Lilith resent her sister even more, and she was heartily glad when they departed for Rufus’s castle in the north.

 

Gradually, the two couples settled into domesticity, but now Lilith was plagued with a new worry. Her position would only be secure once she had provided a son and heir. More than anything, she did not want her sister to fall pregnant first.

 

She, therefore, took into her employment a sorcerer called Korschei the Deathless. Many aeons ago, this necromancer had hidden his soul in the eye of a needle, and over the years he had grown so thin, he was able to slip through the air unseen.

 

The queen gave her instructions. “Watch over my sister from afar, and if she falls pregnant, see that she loses the babe.”

Korschei bowed his head low. He fashioned a mirror from the souls of three black cats; in this way, he was able to see all that passed between Rosamund and Prince Rufus.

 

With pale blue eyes, the sorcerer observed the love that grew around the far-away couple. He watched, unmoved, as an adoring Rufus lay next to his sleeping wife, his hand curved protectively across the tiny bump of their first child. And he neither smiled nor wept as he saw Rosamund, lying in a bed of blood and crying with pain as she passed the dead foetus.

 

Queen Lilith’s eyes danced with glee when she heard, and she presented Korschei with a brooch made of a ruby as large as a hen’s egg. He bowed silently and continued to watch over the grieving prince and princess.

 

After several months had passed and the queen had still not fallen pregnant, she heard the disquieting news that Rosamund was expecting again. She sent for Korschei, who assured her all was in hand.

 

This time, Rufus was even more devoted in his care, even tenderer in his ministrations, but it was to no avail. In his magic mirror, Korschei watched a physician – the front of his apron stained a deep red – enter the room where the prince was waiting and shake his head sadly. The prince’s eyes were red-rimmed with grief, his shoulders slumped as he approached the bed where his wife lay.

 

Rosamund was asleep. Her lovely face was the colour of milk, and Korschei had to squint to make sure she was actually still breathing; her movements were that slight. She had lost a lot of blood this time, and Korschei could see the fear in the prince’s eyes as he sat by her side, holding her colourless hand.

 

When she woke, Rosamund cried and cried. Her tears eventually ceased, though she was still wracked with dry sobs. Rufus wrapped his arms around her, but she tried to turn away.

 

No.” Korschei read the prince’s lips as he spoke. “This is our grief, we will share it together.” Rosamund gazed up at him with ravaged eyes.

 

I am sorry,” she began, but Rufus shook his head, gently smoothing her hair. He laid his cheek next to hers, and Korschei was unable to make out any more words as their heads turned away. Stretching his neck, he rose and left to report to Lilith.

Upon being told the news, the queen dipped into her jewellery chests and pulled out a belt of thick gold chain. Blinking solemnly, the sorcerer slipped the belt on. He had to wind it many times around his waist, by which time he looked like a golden bobbin.

 

Still, the evil queen was not satisfied though. She could not conceive herself, and King Henry began to take notice of first one serving maid, and then another and yet another. Lilith dismissed the maids as fast as she could, but when she received reports of her sister’s third pregnancy, she screamed with rage.

 

“Korschei, kill this spawn and close up my sister’s womb so she is as barren as I am. If she dies in the process, good.”

 

The sorcerer nodded and this time, he wrought a spell so grievous it almost did kill Rosamund. Her golden hair was streaked with silver by the time she recovered, her cornflower eyes blank and unseeing. Rufus was changed too, the charming and playful prince replaced by a stern, slow-to-smile man.

 

The queen was so pleased by this news, this time, her gift was a heavy silver chain, threaded with sapphires, which she draped around Korschei’s neck herself. He bowed in silence before departing.

━━━━━━━━┓ ✠ ┏━━━━━━━━

After this, Rosamund and Rufus did not try to conceive again, but they kept to the same bed, to everyone’s surprise. Rufus would instead spill his seed on her belly, and he refused to listen when she begged him to take another wife so that he might have children.

 

“You are my beloved Rose. I have no room in my heart, nor any desire, for another woman.”

 

So they settled into a kind of peace, and when Rosamund woke in the mornings, she would be greeted with his private smile. The princess threw herself into charitable deeds, especially those involving children, and she became well-loved and respected for the quiet dignity with which she performed this role.

Several years had passed since the double wedding, and a semi-drunk, bloated King Henry – beginning to feel the effects of his dissipated lifestyle – decided to invite his brother and sister-in-law to court. Lilith’s dark eyes festered with rage when they arrived, but she comforted herself with the knowledge that at least they did not bring a troupe of brats with them.

 

The king commented on this childlessness while he and Prince Rufus were enjoying a pitcher of wine one night.

 

“It seems we made poor decisions when we wed those two sisters. Your wife cannot hold a child, and mine cannot even bud one!”

 

Rufus stiffened at his brother’s thoughtless words. “Still, I would not give up Rosamund for anything.”

“Truly?” Henry slurred in disbelief. Rufus, who had drunk a lot less, nodded firmly.

 

“Truly.”

 

The king shrugged. “Well, I suppose you can always plant your seed elsewhere. Lilith causes such a scene every time she catches me with another woman. I tell her, if she cannot give me an heir, I must plough my furrow elsewhere.”

 

Although he did not particularly like the queen, after what Rosamund had told him of her cruelties, Rufus was still shocked that she should be spoken to and treated in such a callous way. He began to wish he had thought up some excuse and they had not come to court at all, as he did not recognise his brother any more.

 

“I would not dishonour my wife so. I know how much she has suffered, trying to give us a child.”

But the king only chortled at his gallant words, emptying his cup and letting small rivers of wine trickle down his chin as he did so.

The next day, the queen found her husband with yet another maid. What made her shame even worse was that the entire court, including Rufus and Rosamund, was with her when they walked into the great hall and saw King Henry sat with the girl on his knee.

 

Lilith gave a shrill scream before collapsing to the ground. Hesitantly, Rosamund stepped forward, but her sister gave her a sharp shove, almost sending her tumbling over.

 

Quickly, Rufus rescued his wife, while the queen began to bemoan and belabour the king.

 

“How could you, Henry? I have loved you! I have done my duty and been a good wife and queen, and this is how you repay me?”

 

King Henry set the petite blonde to one side and stood up. His once-handsome face was flushed and jowly, and he seemed to have some trouble pushing himself up from his throne; at only thirty-five, he was already an old man.

“Calm yourself, woman,” he said gruffly. “Tis only a little sport.”

 

“A little sport!” Lilith sprang to her feet, fists balled tight. “You are wicked, Henry. Wicked, cruel and, worst of all, stupid. This slut is young enough to be your daughter; they all are! Can you not see how it is your power and favour she lusts after?”

 

“In which case, she is no different to you, ma’am,” he growled in response, and a shocked gasp ran through the agog onlookers. “That was why you married me, was it not – for the position of queen. And you have not done your duty. You have not done the one thing expected of you as queen – given me a son! In fact, I begin to think you cannot do so.”

 

“Perhaps it is not me who has the problem, but you!” An icy thrill settled over the room, but Lilith did not seem to notice. “After all, none of your whores have dropped a bastard yet. And your brother is capable of making a child, is he not?”

 

“It is your sickly blood that is to blame!” the king roared, advancing several steps. The small crowd of spectators backed away; only Lilith and Rufus stood their ground. “Your sister is unable to carry a child past a month, and you cannot beyond one day!”

Rufus had drawn his arms tight around a trembling Rosamund, his face cold and angry. At the king’s words, the princess turned her head towards his chest and began to weep.

 

“I think we have heard enough.” Rufus’s deep, powerful voice rang though the hall. “Brother, we will take our leave of you, and pray that you and the queen come to peace one day. Come, Rosamund.”

 

“Actually, it is not entirely true what His Majesty says.”

 

Everyone turned at the unknown voice. A small middle-aged woman, no more than a simple maid but with curiously intense eyes, stepped forward. She continued to speak.

 

“I cannot speak for the queen’s fertility, but as far as I am aware, Princess Rosamund is not to blame for her losses.”

 

“Of course she is not to blame,” Rufus pronounced icily, his grip tightening on his wife. “It is nature, no-one can help such things.”

“Oh yes, they can,” the strange woman said with a smile. “The queen, for one – she knows how to help such things along.”

 

“Martha, how dare you!” Lilith hissed, her face chalk-white. “You will leave, at once!” Rufus’s sharp gaze flicked between the queen and this ‘Martha’.

 

“No,” he rumbled. “If it concerns my wife, I think we should hear what this lady has to say.”

 

Lilith was furious. “I am queen, you do not countermand my orders!”

 

Rufus looked at his brother. “Henry?” The king shrugged, secretly relieved that attention had been diverted from himself.

 

“I would like to know what all this is about. Pray, continue – Martha, was it?”

 

“Yes, Your Majesty.” She gave a small curtsey. “Perhaps you might remember my daughter, Bella? She was a maid in the queen’s household just over two years ago.”

“Bella… Bella.” The king stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Long dark hair and a birthmark just here?” He touched just above his heart, and a scandalised look passed over the crowd of onlookers. Martha merely nodded.

 

“Yes, sire. She was a beautiful girl, nearly grown into her womanhood. It pains me to say this but you seduced her, Your Majesty, and when the queen found out, she threw her out on the streets.”

 

King Henry had the grace to look first ashamed and then shocked at what had befallen the unfortunate girl. He glared accusingly at his wife before turning back to Martha.

 

“I am sorry, ma’am,” Henry rumbled. “If I had known what my wife would do, I would – well, I would – ”

 

“You would have still seduced and ruined her.” Martha’s smile was pained. “Tis the nature of men. But the queen acted worse. When she discovered the affair, my poor child – quite out of her mind with fear – confessed that she thought she might be pregnant, with your child. Queen Lilith forced her to take a draught prepared by an enchanter, causing her to lose the babe. She then dismissed her, and Bella returned home to me and her father. She died less than a month later.”

 

“If this is true – ” King Henry began in a terrible voice. His wife threw herself to the floor at his feet.

 

“She is lying – about the baby and the enchanter. Why did she not come forward at the time? Why wait till now?”

 

“Because I knew I could not prove it,” Martha replied calmly. “I only had Bella’s confused account of what had happened, so I decided to come and work in the castle to discover the truth. Since then, I have been inching my way closer to the queen, watching her every move.”

 

Rufus’s dark eyes were beginning to fill with rage, but his voice remained steady. “When you said my wife was not to blame for our losses – what exactly are you implying?”

 

“It is no secret that the queen hates her sister; she could not bear it if the princess were to fall pregnant first. Especially if she could not give birth at all, as it would mean her nephews and nieces would be heirs to the throne. So, every time Princess Rosamund fell pregnant, she instructed the same sorcerer as before to kill the unborn child.”

 

There was a deathly silence, broken only by Rosamund’s tiny whisper.

 

“Lilith – ”

 

“It’s not true!” the queen shrieked. “Henry, I swear on our marriage – on our love – ”

 

“Our love died a long time ago,” the king bellowed. His gaze flickered to where his brother stood, and his frown deepened. “Rufus…”

 

Pushing Rosamund to one side, Rufus had unsheathed his sword, and he began to advance upon the queen. She took one look at his grim, dead expression and opened her mouth to scream:

Korschei, help me!

━━━━━━━━┓ ✠ ┏━━━━━━━━

There was the smallest puff of air, a ripple of goosebumps over the skin, and stood before them was the sorcerer, Korschei. He smiled a little wanly and shook his head at the crowd of people.

“You summoned me, my queen?”

 

Lilith pointed at Rufus. “He is going to kill me! Stop him!”

 

Turning to face Rufus, Korschei’s eyes began to flicker with a kaleidoscope of colours, hypnotising the young man and halting him in his tracks. However, Martha had delved deep into all that was known about the sorcerer, and she knew what to do.

Reaching into her pocket, she drew out a small pouch of cinnamon and flung the contents into Korschei’s face.

 

Immediately, the sorcerer was bent over, screaming in pain and rubbing at his eyes. The spell broken, Rufus snapped back to life, with Rosamund rushing to steady him as he swayed on his feet.

 

Meanwhile, King Henry was shouting at his soldiers.

 

“Arrest my wife and the sorcerer! Cover his eyes so he can work his magic no longer.”

 

The queen was seized and, with a shriek, dragged away. The men approached Korschei more cautiously. He looked up, his eyes red and streaming, and his lips twisted in a gruesome smile. He then spun on the spot.

 

His magic and extreme thinness meant that, no matter how hard they stared, the people were unable to see his body. However, the jewels that the queen had given him for slaying Rosamund’s children showed quite clearly.

Hefting his sword high, Rufus strode forward and plunged the blade directly below where the ruby brooch hung in mid-air. He heard a gasp and felt a tremor run along his sword.

 

Quickly, he withdrew before slicing through the air with a great broad sweep, just above the gold belt. A terrible cry was heard, and blood splashed out of nowhere.

 

Finally, and with a terrible roar, Rufus swung his sword at the sapphire-and-silver chain. A dreadful thump was heard, followed by the lighter sound of something rolling away. A needle fell, tinkling, to the ground; swiftly, Martha seized it and snapped it in two, thus bringing to an end the sorcerer’s power.

━━━━━━━━┓ ✠ ┏━━━━━━━━

King Henry never really recovered from the shock; that, along with his near-constant drunken binges and gluttonous lifestyle, saw him die in his bed five years later. As he had two young women with him at the time, Rufus liked to think it was a reasonably happy ending.

Rufus and Rosamund were duly crowned king and queen, and their reign proved long and popular. The new king was wiser than his brother, stern but fair. He relied heavily on Rosamund to tell him when he was being too stiff-necked, and there was one other person who never failed to lift his heart.

 

James Rufus – born nine months after the curse was broken, and whose favourite place in the castle grounds was outside in the rose garden. Here, he would run and play all day, watching new love grow beneath the hanging bowers and deep within its hidden corners.

©2020 by Nicola Niemc