The world was darkness, and fear. His father was dragging him along with one massive hand gripping his arm, squeezing too tightly, walking too fast for his shorter legs to keep pace. Beneath his bare feet, roots reached out to trip him, and long branches whipped at his face and body, snagging at the ragged shirt he had lain down to sleep in. Occasionally he stumbled, only to be dragged back to his feet. His eyes, still heavy with exhaustion, were wide and bright with primal, instinctive terror. But he knew better than to complain.
To complain was to anger Da, and that meant punishment.
Questions swam sickly in his mind—what was happening? Why was Da doing this? Where were they going?—but he tamped them down. Da hated questions, hated him asking them.
Hated, he knew, in the eerie, wordless way of children, him. For taking away Da's Màiri, for living, when his mother had had to die to give him his life. Moreover, for being strange, for causing the strangeness to come into their home, into their lives. Da hated the strangeness, raged that the strangeness was evil, and didn't care that he tried to stop the oddness from showing, or that it hurt, holding it inside so tightly so that none could escape…which, of course, made it explode away from him.
And now, Da was dragging him along, through the darkness, away from the small, dingy cottage they lived in. Towards the fire, huge and malevolent, that had been built in the clearing just beyond the village, towards a dark mass of people who shouted and jeered and crowded too close. He wanted to cringe from both, wanted, most of all, for Da to turn around and take them both back to the cottage, even if it meant he was punished.
But he struggled to keep up with Da, trotted uncomfortably beside the man who was his father, and forced down the betraying shudders that were fear, bone-deep and driven by instinct.
Far to the North, in the Deibh Pigeán Mountains, where the trolls still sometimes roamed and the dragons still guarded their secret lairs, through the darkness of a forest that belonged to little more than demons and other dark ilk, a sorcerer and his steed bore their precious bundle. Blankets wrapped the child, hid all but her pale, fragile face, and corn-silk blond hair that framed that delicate oval.
She was no babe, not with seven winters past her, but she was very young to be in such arms as his. This sorcerer had a reputation, and like the forest he lived in, it was a dark one. A seducer of virgins; a practitioner of the darkest of arts; the master of the demons he dwelt amid. Perhaps, it was whispered, he was one of them himself, a Greater Demon who took human form. He looked the part, anyway.
The child he held remained blissfully unaware of these charges. She knew nothing of their destination, nothing of the events that had conspired against her to put her in his dubious clutches. She knew naught that he shooed curious darklings out of the way, nor did she move when he dismounted from his black courser, Muir, and placed her gently upon a pile of fresh hay while he made the horse comfortable. She did not wake as the stallion went, docile as a lamb, into his stall; didn't stir as the sorcerer released Muir from his leather harness, nor when he set the saddle and bridle in their appropriate place, and fed the loyal horse the oats he deserved for walking the night through which two burdens on his back.
The child, named an unlikely Rapunzel, merely turned her face to the sorcerer's shoulder when he lifted her again and went even more deeply to sleep as he carried her up a daunting number of stairs, their forms watched by two huge, glittering yellow eyes. She stirred for the first time at the rumble of a deep voice speaking in an unrecognizable language, woke more when strong arms set her down, this time on a bed.
Bright, crystalline blue eyes opened, blinking in the unexpected light. Though it was lightening outside with the dawn, the soft white light in the tower was artificial, fueled by magic. She spotted the dark shape that turned silently away, and moved without thinking, a sudden terror of being abandoned again making her swift, catching the sleeve of the person who was leaving.
He paused, almost in spite of himself, staring down at the little girl who was now his responsibility. This mite of humanity, he marveled uncomfortably. This tiny child with the big, guileless eyes was the catalyst of thievery and deception.
"Where's Mama—or Da? Who are you? What's happened?"
Ah, he thought, questions. Awake not half a minute, and already she had asked the questions he would never be able to answer.
She stared up at the man. She didn't know him—they had had precious few guests at her parent's cottage, and she would have remembered this man. He looked strange, younger than her Da, but old too, older even than Grandfather. She had never seen eyes like his—an odd silvery color, like the knife Mama used to chop vegetables. His hair was strange too, long enough to fall over his shoulders and dark as pitch, when all she'd ever seen was her family's fair blond hair. He was a tall man, with a body that leaned towards slenderness, and long, beautiful hands.
She was too young, too naïve, to recognize a mage mark when she saw it—not from his face, where a mage's marks were less clear, and required a deeper kind of sight. Nevertheless, she knew this was no ordinary mortal.
"Have you seen Mama? She—she told me to stay in those bushes. And I meant to, but there was a demon, so I ran away, because you're supposed to run away from demons. Then I got really tired and fell asleep, and now—how will she find me? I have to go home—" Panic was beginning to tighten around her stomach again, as it had in the brush after her mother had rushed away and the demon with a wolf's body had begun to advance on her, red eyes gleaming wickedly. Her grip on his sleeve tightened, her entire body beginning to quake with terror. Hot tears were threatening to fall from her eyes; she fought them, refusing to behave like a baby in front of this tall stranger.
Something that could have been termed a conscience needled him at the sight of the stricken look in innocent eyes, knowing that he had caused it—her mother's flight, her sleepiness, the demon, and of course, the kidnapping itself.
"You—you are safe here," the sorcerer murmured awkwardly. The bloody contract was fulfilled, he had her. But what would he do with her now? He couldn't simply let her go. "Your parents know you are here in this tower…and—they've said that you should…come and live with me for a while, Rapunzel." It wasn't a lie. Not exactly.
A small, curious frown knitted graceful blond eyebrows as the tears began to disappear again. "How do you know my name, my lord? Mama said never to tell anyone I didn't know."
He blinked. "I am a—a friend. I was…I named you." To mark her as his, to claim her as payment due.
The little frown smoothed. "Oh." A smile bloomed, slowly, sweetly, like a flower opening in the sun. "Thank you!"
There was a creaking sensation, a bittersweet pain, where he might once have had a heart. No, he assured himself. Allowing such things for an unknown entity was a bad idea, up near the top of the list of bad ideas, right under needless regret. There would be no more of this bittersweet aching.
He ignored the pain. "You're welcome."