Far Too Late
By Jenny Dickinson
Pale green eyes opened, and focused on the dusty, broken surroundings. It looked as if this room had not been used for many years, yet he was within it. He sat up, and looked about, watching as glimmering motes whisked themselves off his personage as he moved. The room was thick with lost, broken, and forgotten child's toys. He blinked, and dusted himself off, and stood. He'd been lying upon a sort-of divan, a soft thin blanket lovingly tucked up to his chin, but still he was thick with dust and cobwebs.
The blanket slid away, and he looked at himself in a tarnished and broken mirror. An astonished pale white face, with deep auburn locks, falling clear to his knees stared back. He was dressed in a tattered and old-looking soldier's uniform, and between the dust and the moth-holes, it was no longer decent to wear.
Unerringly, he walked to a costume trunk, and after a few moments of digging through it, he managed to locate a cleaner and more serviceable outfit. The dark blue silk shirt and soft black velvet coat and pants fit well enough, and were devoid of both dust and moth worryings.
Now attired better, he used the shirt of his old clothing to get the majority of the dust from his face and hair, before having a look about. Oddly enough, there wasn't a door, just a few windows so covered in grime nobody could see outside of them. Yet he was drawn back to the mirror again. It seemed to rest a bit askew, and on a whim he adjusted its positioning. There was a faint click, and the mirror swung in, and to one side, revealing a hallway, and stairs beyond. With another curious blink, he stepped through, and stalked down the steps, not knowing, or caring particularly, where he emerged.
He emerged out into a bedchamber, empty, but dust-free and well-used. The bed was draped in multi-colored silk scarves and thick velvet throws. Here too, were broken toys, but toys meant for a much older child. A chess set with parts missing, books with torn-out pages, jewelry that gave him clues as to the occupant who dwelled here.
A young lady.
There were portraits and pictures of her, with her coal-black hair and red-lipped smile. She was truly a beauty in her own right. With a soft smile, he laid down this last painted desk-portrait, and examined a few of her books. Romances, fairy tales, and nursery rhymes. But tucked among them was another book, one of magic. He sat quietly at her desk and began to read it.
It was many hours later, when the door opened behind him, and the lady in the portraits stepped inside. "Who are you? What are you doing in my rooms? Get out!"
He stood quickly, half-bowing, and looked at her, and loved her all at once.
"You may call me Nathaniel, since it's all I know of myself of current. As to why I am in your rooms, dear lady, it is because I awoke in another room adjoining this one, and the door and path led me here." He paused, she'd calmed a bit, and was circling him like some gilded shark in her gold brocade dress and crown.
She smiled at last, seeming fully satisfied with things, when her nanny came in, looking at him as if she'd seen a ghost. She covered the look soon enough, and sat the tea-tray down to give Nathaniel a proper looking over. "You're full of dust. And you smell like the attic. From whence have you come, young sir?"
He shrugged, and sat back down in the desk-chair, looking the nanny over. Knowing her, but unable to know why. "I assume the selfsame attic, M'lady. Do you know how such a thing came to be?"
The princess looked at her nanny, and stamped her foot. "I want breakfast, and my walk... NOW nanny! He's filthy... and tattered. See that he bathes, and gets into suitable clothing. Mayhaps we can find him a place in the palace staff."
Nanny sighed, leaving his question hanging, and led him to another room to clean up. He assumed she had taken the surly young princess off for her breakfast and walk.
They returned for him later, and the nanny smiled, he was scrubbed clean, and dressed in blue, black and grey suitings, fitting for the period. Again the princess swirled about him, as if inspecting a fancy chocolate or sweetmeat before she ate it. She nodded, and stepped away.
"He'll do. Let him be my page then, until I can find another usage for him." The nanny nodded, and led him to the side as the princess stepped out.
"You don't remember me, do you?" she asked softly. When he shook his head, she continued. "You are my child. Just as she is... yet not. She is the daughter of the king, but my charge as well. You, you however, are truly my son. Take good care of her... she needs tempering and patience. I cannot make her see, or teach her this. Perhaps, with your fine young face, you can manage something." He nodded, hugged the lady who claimed to be his mother, and smiled.
"I will try my best."
She stepped back, to follow the princess. "Pray that your help comes not too late, my darling."
So years passed, summer bleeding into fall, then winter raising her icy head... only to give way to bright spring and her flowers. The princess went from young girl to young woman. Nanny aged considerably, yet Nathaniel did no such thing. It was as if he were untouched by time itself. He taught the princess all the proper virtues, and she became a charming, compassionate lady, the surly brat princess buried away.
She was at last of an age to be married. As fond as she was of Nathaniel, he wasn't royalty, so she could not wed him. But still Suitors came and went, each failing to meet her qualifications. Nathaniel stood silent to this, being her confidant and closest friend as she worried over each man like a dog with a bone. This one was too thin, that one too portly, another was too smart, and a fourth was simply too rude. It seemed none of them were what she wanted.
Her father waited patiently, then a revelation came to him. His daughter was rejecting the suitors so she could avail herself of the strange pageboy, Nathaniel. Enraged and figuring that he and the nanny were conspiring together with the princess, he cast them out of the castle, never to return.
When the next suitor came, a spoiled terrible tyrant of a man, but handsome and well-spoken, he forced the engagement to his daughter, and pledge to his kingdom they were to marry within a week's time. The nanny, and Nathaniel, who stood in the crowd, gasped in dismay, because the princess had indeed loved him, and the nanny had helped them to stay together for so long. The old lady couldn't take the stress, she collapsed into her son's arms, and cried.
"It's too late! The book... your salvation is in the book!" And then, with a shuddering sob, she perished.
Night fell, and Son buried mother. Nathaniel said such kind words, birds and animals of the forest came from hiding to hear it. Chief among them a wolf, a large deer, and a small cardinal. Each beast offered its help in getting him back to the castle. The rest of the beasts found mud and leaf and twigs to disguise his fair form as a curious beast, that he at least might hide in the kitchen as staff. So, with on back of the deer, accompanied by the wolf, and the bird singing at his shoulder, he went back to the castle. He knew the book he had to find, and hoped it would lend him answers as to what he needed to do.
The princess, ever hopeful that her young friend would return for her, stalled as long as possible. Seeing her sadness grow, and depression set in, the king ordered the strange beast from the kitchens, who was kind and gentle, to serve her meals, and try to cheer her up before the wedding. The bird, perched on his shoulder went to her room that first time with him.
She never guessed it was her old page Nathaniel, nor that he had come to see her and hopefully steal her away to marry him in secret as they'd wished. He entertained her with the bird, his wit, and antics. She was pleased, and offered him anything he wished. He asked for her hair ribbon.
She gave it, and he tucked it away in his clothing, returning the next day with the wolf, repeating his performance. This time, he asked her for her favorite ring. This too, vanished into his clothing.
On the third day, he returned, this time with the deer. The performance was even more spectacular than before. And this last time, he asked for the magic book.
"It is very dear to me, since it was my nanny's. She taught me some of it when I was young. She saw I was lonely, and created for me a thing, to keep me company. As I got older, I forgot him, and he went away. He returned for a time when I was older, but my father cast them out. I will never see the man I loved again." She sobbed, and the deer placed his head in her lap, and Nathaniel stood, crying also.
"You will see him yet again, so long as you do not marry this prince. Demand to marry the man whom you gave the ribbon, ring, and book to. I will give them to your beloved, and he will come to you with these things. All will be well. I swear it."
The princess smiled, and pulled the creature in close to her bosom. After a fierce happy hug, she handed over the book, and let him go.
Nathaniel spent the eve reading the book, and re-dressing in his finery from the castle. The wedding was to be on the morrow, and the town entire was invited to the occasion. The book told him what he was, a construct of love, blood, bones, and flesh. Not any more real than a toy. The spellšs terms were set so that if he did not marry the princess, he would perish on the eve of her wedding night. There was a second spell he could work, one to set him free. A potion to drink, and turn him into a real man at the same hour of the night.
Unsure if his plan would work, he made the potion and tucked it into his shirt pocket. If the wedding went as planned, he would at least live afterwards, and perhaps find a way to love his princess from afar. And that, he thought, was better than death.
The wedding party was to cross a bridge to get to the church, and he planned to meet them there. He did not know that his princess would be wed already within the castle's chapel, to renew the vows in the town church.
He stood on the other side of the bridge, dressed in black, and blue, and grey, waiting with a smile upon his face as his princess crossed the bridge to meet him. She was crying, and whispering to herself, and Nathaniel knew not why. She raised her eyes to the sun, gave one last sob, then threw herself into the cold, swift river below her feet.
Everyone gasped in shock, but it was one figure, in grey, black, and blue, who leapt into action. Nathaniel leapt over the bridge, and dove under the currents to find his lover. The wolf, deer, and bird who'd come with him from the woods, kept the guards, king, and prince at bay.
After what seemed like forever, he drew himself, and his princess from the chill and watery almost-tomb. Both were soaked to the skin, and shivering with cold.
"Why... why did you save me? I am wed to the prince I did not love, Nathaniel. You came for me too late. Far too late to save me, or yourself."
Nathaniel blinked back tears, and pulled out the vial of potion, looking at it. With a choked sob, he cast it away, and held his princess closely.
"If we cannot have each other in life, then we shall have each other in death." The pair slipped back into the icy river, and both drowned. The prince, feeling cheated, dissolved the marriage, then demanded half of the king's realm. When the king denied him, a war was waged.
That evening, a great sorrowful cry, much like a wolf, was heard to filter across the river. Both armies heard it, were disheartened, and went home. No war was fought, not battles planned or waged.
And years passed, the king grew old and died, the entire city crumbled into ruins, and only a quartet of sad beings lived there ever after. A wolf, a deer, a cardinal, and a pale young man with long red hair.
For, with the marriage annulled, he lived on forever, because his princess would never marry anyone ever again. He'd buried her in the castle garden, and walked its ruined halls with his companions until they too, perished. So alone, he lived for years in the castle, yearning for company, and love, and a princess he would never, ever have.
design ©2001 by Cindy Rosenthal
Far Too Late © 2002 by Jenny Dickinson
Read the review!
What is copyright?