And now, at this castle at the end of the world, where he is insensible to my shamefully piteous cries, I remember with a tangible pain of longing the night that came after...
I remember how he came to me and found someone willing to make promises beyond words. Someone whose body seemed to have some sort of knowledge beyond what lay in her mind. Someone who not only willingly but eagerly climbed atop him as before and this time with no clothing or misgivings to separate us. I remember how it felt to feel him pierce me, his tenderness and restraint. The initial sensation of pain giving over to only pleasure as our hands found each other and we held on while climbing higher together, swearing a silent yet sacred oath to never be parted.
Curse my mother for her insistence on finding out my secret. Curse my curiosity for being fed by her words and heeding her advice. After my marriage to Bastian, he was so kind to let me go and visit with my family. I mourned the prospect of the loneliness that would be brought by the absence of both him and my nighttime visitor, but I felt it my duty. He warned me not to let duty cross into the realm of listening to those who would harm me; I just never imagined that he meant I ought to avoid speaking with my mother, listening to her advice.
"Take the magic candle. You've only to wave your hand over it three times to light it. See the face of the man who is in your bed, see the face that the child within you will bear. Find out who he is, the man who has taken you, to whom you've given yourself like a harlot. See his face..."
And then the wax spilled on him and he woke, and distracted me from gazing upon the loveliest visage I could have imagined. I loved him already- what cared I for his appearance? I loved Bastian as well and his appearance was misleading- body of a bear, mind of a scholar, heart of a true, true man. But the man in the bed was so far beyond my dreams of a handsome face, I was dumbstruck until he knocked the candle from my hand. And then he spoke and somehow, I realized what I must have known all along and not understood, not allowed myself to understand. When he spoke, it was his voice as I'd heard it in the dark all along, but it was also the voice of Bastian, of my Bear, of my savior. That my lover and husband were the same man- how could I have not seen it before then?
Then came his tears, his recriminations, his pain at how little I'd trusted him. His explanation that, now that I'd seen his face, the pact was shattered, the spell become a curse- now I'd seen his face and the trolls would fetch him to the ends of the earth, to their own castle that is east of the sun and west of the moon. I'd never see him again, and our child would never know their father, and he would have to stay in that place forever. He would wed a troll, a creature vile and repugnant to every sense. We were doomed.
When I awoke alone, in the forest, the Bear's castle having disappeared, I knew what I must do. I fought so long, walked so far, progressed so slowly. But I made the journey. I had come to the castle none said I could reach- I had bargained with hags, I had ridden the winds, and finally washed up on the shore. The first golden token one of the hags had given me, I easily traded with the troll princess to buy a night here, in my own lover's bed. And he was not even aware.
The battle to get here had cost me so much, and in this moment I feel, for the first time, that it has all been for nothing.
Now, beaten, tired, at wit and journey's end, I hold him in my arms and he does not wake. I cry to him and he does not stir in response to my voice or my pleas. Having nothing left to do, I wend his arms around me and curl up, as I've always done, in the circle of his arms. I wrap him around me like a blanket, and to my shock, he moves slightly- as if his body, even with his mind unconscious, remembers this dance and will go on doing it. One of his hands goes to my belly, where it protrudes, and caresses it in a way that seems loving.
Not knowing if he can hear, I tell him of my journey. I tell him of the fact that the baby moves and I feel it within me. I tell him that I know he's still my Bastian- my lover, my husband, my sworn love- and that I won't let something as trifling as a drugged stupor fool me into giving up hope. I promise him that I've come this far and I will not surrender now. That for his sake, for mine, for the life growing within me, I will win this thing.
The next day I bargain again for a night with the prince, and am granted it in exchange for another of my golden trinkets. The troll princess is so greedy, her bulging eyes growing somehow more red as she eyes the golden comb. She nods her head in agreement to my asking price, and slime flies off of her skin to land on mine, burning where it touches. She slithers away, back in to the castle, indicating that I should come in through the same secret door as I had the previous night, and I thank her, simperingly.
When she is gone, when no one can see, I slip through the secret door and explore the castle as best I can. I keep carefully keeping hidden, not knowing exactly what I'm hoping to find, except that I hope. The hope is that I can learn something about my enemies, the trolls, which will help me defeat them.
"You are the one who cried..."
There is no one around, no source for the voice. I think I see a movement across the hall from where I am and turn- only to see my reflection in a mirror. Can the trolls see me? Did they hear my cries the night before? I imagine they would only delight in hearing the sounds of my pain. Are they speaking to me now, tormenting me further?
"Who is there? Where are you? Show yourself!"
"We cannot. We have no form, but you are looking at us..."
"You are... in the mirror?"
"Yes. We are in the mirrors, we are the mirrors. We are the true lords of this castle, and the trolls cast us into the mirrors when they took our home. They could not make us leave, they could not cast us away completely, but they bound us in this form and here we stay, always watching and listening..."
"You saw and heard me last night?"
"Yes. We know your story now. And we can see the purity of your heart- the strength and truth of your love, your love that brought you here to this castle that none can visit, this castle that none can leave..."
"Do you know how to kill the trolls? Do you know the secret of how I can free my husband and take us all away? Can you help us?"
"We can help you; we know how to defeat the trolls. You are the one who can do it; you are the one who can free us all..."
"Tell me! Please tell me!"
" A sacrifice is necessary to break the spell, to overcome their evil, so part is already accomplished. The journey you made, the perils you faced, that was your sacrifice. And the sacred bond of your marriage is not one that can easily be broken- the trolls are too vile to understand something sacred and holy, and they do not understand such power that lies beyond themselves. That is the power you have over them. That is the power that shall become their undoing. The rest is so simple, so trifling that you may laugh, but you must believe us...
"Your sacrifice, your power, and your love are in your blood. Your blood is the key. One touch of your blood, and the trolls will dissolve into nothingness. They will cease to be if they touch something as pure as your sanctified blood. You will see your lover again tonight, we know, we heard the one they call a princess when she spoke of it. She thinks it will be nothing of import, because she will once more give the prince a sleeping draught and he will never know that he has seen you...
"When you go to him tonight, he will be asleep again. Go to him anyway, tell him your story again, remind him of the entire tale, of the bond between you. Place his hand upon your belly, let him feel the child move. A part of him will know what has happened, even if he does not realize. Tomorrow is the day when the trolls bring him to the mirrored room. They like to make him dance while they watch, they make him dance until he bleeds and they laugh at him all the while, though they are captivated by someone so beautiful and wholly different from themselves...
"When he is in the mirrored room, we will speak to him. We will tell him not to drink anything given him by the trolls. We will tell him of your presence, and he will know we tell truth because part of him will remember the sensation of his child moving beneath his hands, his arms around his true love, the sound of her cries in his ears...
"When you come to him tomorrow, he will be awake...
"To break the spell, to kill the trolls, you must cut yourself and bleed upon his shirt. The next day, he must contrive a way for the troll to touch the shirt, and when your blood touches her skin, she will melt and dissolve. When she is gone, her hold over the prince will be as well..."
"And the other trolls? How should I dispatch them and set you free? It would not be just for me to free my love and not you as well- if only in repayment for you telling me all of this. If I am the one, the only one, who can help you, I want to do it."
"Are you frightened?"
"No. I am only determined."
"That morning, while the prince is using your blood to dispose of the princess, you must sneak away to the room where the trolls eat. After their food is set out, but before they arrive, you must prick your finger- one drop of your blood in each glass will be enough. They will drink your blood and it will kill them..."
I visit the bed of my love that night, and again his body is there, breathing and seemingly asleep- with the sleep deep enough to have only been caused by a drug. I can't help crying again, but I do as I did the previous night- I lay in the circle of his arms, touch his hand to my midsection, and tell him our story again. And the waiting is tortuous. I wonder why it all has to go as the mirrors said, why we could not move sooner to complete the plan, but perhaps they know something I don't (moreover, they certainly know many things I don't), and the timing could be everything, and so I wait.
The next day I walk the beach, and I search the stones there until I find one sharp enough to be almost like a knife. I then sit outside the troll princess's window and I play with my golden apple. She, once more, fails to ask the pertinent question- in this castle beyond the known world, what is a ragged, dirty human girl doing playing in the castle yard? Her eyes see only the golden apple, her mind cares only for her acquisition, and I see the truth of what the mirror said, that trolls understand nothing beyond themselves and their own limited world.
The third night, he is awake. He's like a coiled spring that is about to be sprung- he paces, he shouts so that I can hear him through the walls as I approach. I enter, and he falls to his knees. I rush to him, flinging myself at him, gathering him to me, my heart breaking free from its moorings when his arms embrace me almost too hard and he says my name again and again.
"True, it's all true, it must be true, here you are and I can't believe it and I couldn't- they told me, but I didn't really believe... in my arms again..."
I wrap my legs around his waist and we hold each other, weeping with joy, muttering gibberish as people do when their hearts are mending, when broken pieces melt back into whole, and the world begins to have color and light after the absence of both for far too long.
In that dreadful place we make good, once more, on our vows of love. Like a holy ritual we knit together, and in the height of our passion, the cries the mirrors must hear from other rooms are the cries of two souls finding their way once more to the Eden we had previously forged for ourselves. In that place we are safe, we are protected, triumphant already, and know that we shall never be parted again.
When all is said and done that can be accomplished in the span of a night lasting so few hours, I take the rock from the pocket of my dress. I drag it across the skin of my arm until blood comes forth, and spread it out upon his shirt. He distresses to see me bleed, and also to see that I do not so much as flinch from the pain. He touches my face, a questioning look in his pained eyes.
"What has my love been forced to endure in order to rescue me? What hardships have been forced upon the person whose life I hold more dear than my own?"
"None but those she brought upon herself for not trusting you enough to not look. Had I trusted, truly, completely; had I not been tempted at the thought of seeing the face of the one I loved, the spell would have broken in its own time and this would not have been necessary. I did this- and with my blood, I now undo it."
I leave him, and we agree to meet once more in the room of mirrors. The mirrors in the halls direct me to the dining room. I bleed into the cups set there, then follow the mirrors once more, until I find the Hall of Mirrors. There I sit, surrounded by own reflection, multiplied a thousand times over. I wait.
The walls begin to echo with a noise more hideous than even I have ever heard. There is a keening sound coming from a room far away, the room where my love was tasked with making the princess touch the bloody shirt. It is high-pitched like the whistle of a kettle, and it grows only louder yet somehow lower at the same time, until it is a growl, guttural and painful, shaking the walls. More groans and screams, unnatural and painful to my human ears: this coming from the room where they all eat. An unholy cacophony rising and lowering simultaneously, causing the walls and floors to shake so much that I fear the whole place will tumble and all will have been for naught.
And then the noises combine and become a sort of ringing, the sound growing ever higher. I am curled into a ball, hands over my ears,then arms across my stomach, fearing that the sound will hurt even the ears of my child. I think I feel something pouring from my ears and look at my hand- the noise has made my ears bleed. Just when I think it is all too horrid, that somehow a sound will kill us both, will kill us all, it goes even higher, beyond my hearing, but I feel it in the air. The air shakes and reverberates with some hideous noise that I am thankfully spared. The mirrors aren't, though- they shatter- bursting, spraying glass like blood all over the room, and I hide my face again, but none of the glass cuts me.
The silence that follows the breaking of the mirrors is deafening. Still I cower, unable to believe something else won't happen, arms curled over my child, counting the seconds in heartbeats.
I have learned that the trolls slither and leave trails of slime, they have not feet for stepping. So it is that footsteps, approaching footsteps make me lift my head. I see a man, woman, and girl come toward me. They are dressed in finery of a long ago time, and they hold hands as they approach. The girl touches my face with the hand not clasped in her mother's, and I look into eyes that are weeping.
"You have saved us all, brave Constance. We are free."
They help me to my feet, and I am heartily embraced by them, and I embrace them back, weeping, unable to say all the words to thank them for their help. And then someone else is embracing me from behind, and they clap my husband on the back and thank him as well before stepping back and away from the pair of us.
Then I turn in his arms, to see my husband's face. Before now, it was only seen by me in the light of a small candle, and then in the dim firelight of his chamber. In the full light of day, I am taken aback at his beauty once more. This face that has kissed me, that has been with me all the while but that is so new, so much more than I would have dreamed. I would have loved it just as much had there been any flaw upon it, but I see none as I look. I see only the skin that is dark like the bear's nose, hair that has the paleness of his fur. His eyes are so light, so blue, that light shines through them as they look at me, and I know they see all the way to my soul; just as they light the way for me to see all the way into his.
His arms are about my waist, holding tight to him, as if afraid to surrender me up, and I feel like I speak for both of us when I say,
"I cannot believe that this is over, that some other calamity is not waiting to fall from the heavens to afflict us again. Can it be so simple that I truly have everything now? That my Bastian Bear should be my nighttime love, that by wedding the one I wed the other- that I can embrace both by holding the one, is more than I would have imagined could be true."
"I was forbidden to speak of it- the spell prevented me telling you all that I wanted to say. And I had such things I wanted you to know. Always on the tip of my tongue but never spoken."
"I was too in love with both of you to think it possible that anything could be better. I could not look beyond my own happiness to dream that more was in store for me."
And then the words become lost as we merely hold each other, kiss each other, and weep tears of disbelief that, perhaps, our trials might finally be completed. After a time that is so long it felt not nearly long enough, a cough makes us come back to ourselves. We turn to the three others in the room and I blush that I've forgotten them. But so great is all of our joy, they simply smile indulgently; as people will do in the presence of lovers who are reunited.
"You have freed us, and now you are free as well. The best thanks that we can offer is to send you back to your home. When the trolls died and the spell was broken, the prince's castle was restored. Shall you go there now?"
They lead us to the one mirror that hadn't broken- it seems to glimmer and shine somehow, as if producing its own light instead of reflecting it.
"This is a portal. It will carry you to where your heart most wishes to be. Go, and with you take our blessings and thanks." There is much embracing and thanking on all sides, and we all still seem to feel a daze after our individual and combined adventures.
And so it is that Bastian's arm goes around my waist, mine around his, and we step through the mirror, back to our own home. One might think that our tales are over- for, when a girl has married a polar bear and rescued a prince from the castle that lies east of the sun, west of the moon, what other stories could compare? But, for us, everyday is a new adventure, every moment of serenity worth recounting, and every embrace grows sweeter than the first. Children will come, and add their own tales of challenges met and dangerous overcome.
But those are stories for other times, other days, other daughters and lovers to tell. My part of this tale has concluded, but the story itself never does.
Author's Note: This has been my favorite fairly tale for most of my life; I can only hope I've done it justice. My favorite incarnation of the story is in the picture book with George Dasent's words and illustrations by P.J. Lynch. If you haven't seen it, you ought to find it. The illustrations are gorgeous beyond compare. I feel like I ought to also mention the version of this story in novel form by Sarah Beth Durst, which was called Ice. Credit where credit is due: the notion that once the Bear turns back into human form he retains his black skin and white hair is hers. I hope it can be taken as the homage it is meant to be that I included it here. It's one of those details that, once I read it, entered into the canon of the story for me.
One million and one thanks to Lexy, for being my dauntless supporter and ceaseless help. She is the best of friends and someone without whom... well, I'd rather not think about it.