She took another step and the sand moved beneath her. Her balance abandoned her, and before she could right herself, her knees hit the earth and then her chest. The dress she wore was hardly a match for the sun-baked sand as it radiated its stored heat straight onto her skin. The pain was immense, and yet Rapunzel’s will to resist had left her. She lay, face down, weeping into the sand, amazed all the while that her tears did not immediately evaporate.
“My poor child,” a voice said above her.
Rapunzel stopped crying. For a moment, she simply lay there, wondering if she had indeed heard another person speak. There had been no one near her when she fell, or at least she thought there hadn’t.
Her thoughts were interrupted. “Don’t be afraid,” the voice said, as if its owner had somehow heard Rapunzel’s whirling thoughts.
Weakly, Rapunzel lifted her head. Standing directly in front of her, a few feet away, was a man. He was hardly dressed for the harsh heat of a desert. Head to toe, he wore black. A heavy cape flapped in the wind. He wore a vest with a shirt beneath it, trousers that reflected the light like leather, and a pair of heavy boots. He looked, all in all, like a member of an autumn hunting party who had badly lost his way.
"You’re surprised to see me,” he said with a smile.
Rapunzel studied his face for the first time. His skin was pale, as yet uncolored by the sun. From where she lay, the color of his eyes was uncertain, but Rapunzel knew they were light. They struck her with their remarkable beauty. So like her prince’s, she thought.
“Who are you?” Rapunzel croaked from a parched throat.
The stranger smiled. “I’ve been looking for you.”
Relief flooded Rapunzel’s weakened body until she shook with it. Her tears flowed afresh. “For me? Oh, bless you!”
At this, the stranger frowned. “Please,” he said. “None of that.”
Saved, and by one so modest! Rapunzel found new energy and pulled herself up to her feet. “I can never thank you enough,” she exclaimed. “But how are we to find our way home?”
The man frowned. “I said I’d been looking for you,” he answered. “Not that I’d come to take you home.”
Rapunzel felt as if a pane of glass had shattered in her chest. She dropped to her knees once again, threw her face to the sky, and released the deepest howling scream she had ever produced.
Instantly, the stranger was at her side. “Now, now,” he said, taking hold of her hand. “None of that either.” He helped her back to her feet, whereupon he produced a handkerchief from his breast pocket and handed it to the weeping woman. “I may not be able to bring you home, but I can certainly help you.”
“Help me?” Rapunzel repeated. The wetness of her face felt cool in the unrelenting wind, providing small and welcome moments of relief.
“Yes,” said the man. “But first, I need to know why you’re here. What happened?”
Rapunzel blinked and tilted her head. “But surely you know already if you were sent for me.”
“No, no, my dear,” the man said. “I was not sent. I came to find you of my own accord, and it is of great puzzlement to me that I should find you here in this place.”
Rapunzel felt no clearer on the issue, even after such an explanation. Still, she could see no reason not to tell the man her story.
“My mother once kept me in a tall, tall tower in the middle of a wood. Each day, she would visit me and climb my long hair up to my window.” As she spoke, she reached behind her for the hair that wasn’t there anymore. Whenever her fingers brushed against the cut edges just beneath her shoulders, she had to stop speaking for a bit before she found the strength to go on.
“My mother was not my only visitor,” she continued. “A beautiful man who called himself a prince appeared one day. I let him up and we were lovers at once.” She smiled at the memory of her lover. His touch was soft, his lips sweet. Their love was one of passion. No bridge had been left uncrossed.
Her smile faded as she went on. “Mother found out about us. You see….” Her hands came up to her abdomen. Gently she stroked her own stomach. “I am to have a child,” she confessed. “I am no longer pure the way my mother would have me.”
“And so she cast you out,” the stranger said. It was not a question. He nodded his head slightly as if confirming his own suspicion.
“Yes,” Rapunzel said. “She but took me under her cloak and I was here, where you find me now.” Her lip quivered and tears once again wet her cheeks. “And surely I will die out here.”
“Nonsense, child,” the stranger said. “I am here to ensure your survival. You see, I have a vested interest in such things.”
Rapunzel looked at him pointedly. “What difference could it make to you whether I live or die? You do not know me.”
“This is true,” the stranger said with a nod, “but I would certainly like to. You see, you have something I want.”
An uneasy feeling crept over Rapunzel. ‘What is that?”
The man smiled, his eyes twinkling. Their color was still undefinable, even as he stood so close. “Absolute purity of the soul,” he answered. “There’s not another girl like you in all the world, Rapunzel.”
Rapunzel’s heart leaped into her throat. “I didn’t tell you my name,” she said.
“You need not,” said the man. “I knew it before you were born. It was I who whispered in your mother’s ear, filled her with the desire for what grew in the garden next door. I needed them to make you. They made you for me.”
“I don’t understand,” Rapunzel said. Confusion now reigned, blocking out even the pain from the sand’s heat.
“When the old woman took you as her own, I came to her. I asked for you then, but she refused. Wicked old witch! She was lucky I didn’t take back the power I gave her. Into the tower you went, the high tower with no door. Do you know why?” The man made direct and unavoidable eye contact with Rapunzel. “It was not only so that you could love her forever, but also so that I could never take you away.”
Rapunzel suddenly felt cold. Her mouth dropped open and a gasp of air flew into her lungs.
“And,” the man continued, “it was I who lured the prince into the forest that day, in the form of a fox. I have many forms. He believed in what he saw. Then, when he found you in your tower, I knew my plan was taking shape.” His eyes gleamed as he looked down at her. A kind of hunger burned in his expression. “And now you’re here.”
Rapunzel was dumbfounded. The words were entering her ears, but none of them made any sense. Was this man admitting to somehow orchestrating every major event in her entire existence? Why? What could he possibly want with her?
“Sir,” she said, softly, unable to raise her voice. “You frighten me. I have never seen you before….”
“No,” he said. “But others have. Many others. I’ve made deals with them all, just as I’m going to offer you a deal now.”
“A deal,” she repeated. “What kind of deal?”
The man stepped closer. The air between them swam with an intoxicating scent. Notes of flowers and chocolate drifted to Rapunzel’s nose, along with something metallic and saline that she could not quite place.
“My little offer for you, my dear, is this,” the man said. “I will be happy to provide you with shelter, food, water, and even some form of entertainment should you want it for the entire duration of your stay here in the middle of nowhere. In my estimation it should be about a year.”
“A year?” Rapunzel repeated absently.
“Yes,” the man confirmed. “That’s about how long it will take your prince to find you.”
Tears welled in Rapunzel’s eyes once more. “My prince? He’s coming?”
The man grinned. “Of course, he is my dear! And with my help, you and your offspring will be in perfect health when he arrives.”
Rapunzel darkened, remembering the deal involved. She narrowed her eyes. “If…?”
“If,” the man repeated, “you bear me a child as well.”
Rapunzel stiffened. It was the last thing she’d expected to hear. Her hand floated to her stomach where even now a child lay waiting. She remembered when her prince had made a similar request. He explained to her how such a thing as creating a child would be done. The memory of that night was ecstasy, even now. Again, she looked at the man before her. The thought of committing the same deed with him chilled her to her very bones, despite the burning heat.
“My heart is pledged to another,” she said.
“I didn’t ask for your heart,” the man answered. His eyes locked on hers and his smile faded.
“But I am already with child,” Rapunzel said.
“Yes.” The man smiled again. “A little boy. He belongs to your beloved prince.”
“A boy,” Rapunzel repeated as she rubbed her stomach again. A surge of love coursed through her for the child that lay there unborn.
“You are not heavy with him yet,” the man said. “There is still room within you… for our daughter.”
The words came out before Rapunzel could think about them, almost as if some other force were speaking through her. “But what do you want with a daughter?”
The stranger laughed quietly to himself. “Trust me,” he said, “any child of mine is going to change the world and alter the course of history.”
A chill ran up Rapunzel’s spine. Something in that promise seemed dark and bloody, but she could place the feeling in nothing specific the man had said.
“How?” she asked.
The man hesitated. “Do you really want to know?”
“Yes,” said Rapunzel, not at all certain about her decision.
The man signed. “Very well, then.”
He reached out and took her hand. Instantly, Rapunzel’s vision clouded over. Images began to emerge through the haze. She saw what appeared to be a street filled with people. They screamed all at once, their voices rising high into the air and mingling together into a chorus of pain and suffering. She saw people of all ages, shapes, and colors. They pushed and shoved each other. Some took weapons to others. Some were bleeding.
Rapunzel gasped at what she saw. What was this? A glimpse of the future? What did this have to do with a baby girl? Surely she couldn’t be the cause of all of this misery. No. Perhaps she was a rescuer of some kind? A savior?
Yes, that must be it, Rapunzel decided. She could see no other way.
“What do you say?”
The stranger’s voice snapped Rapunzel back to the present place and time. The scorching sun once again beat down on her blistering skin and pain renewed its hold on her.
“And if I refuse?” Rapunzel asked weakly. The answer, she admitted silently, was one she already knew.
The man clicked his tongue against his teeth. “What a shame that would be,” he said. “What a terrible end for the girl who lived in a tower, to wither away and die like a fallen leave on a blazing fire.”
Rapunzel felt the fire of her surroundings. The thought of succumbing to it, and suffering every second until she did, was unbearable. The way, for better or worse, seemed clear.
The deal was made. Blood was drawn. The contract was produced and signed.
As a lover, the stranger was rough and greedy, not at all like the prince had been. As Rapunzel lay with her back upon the sand and the stranger’s weight pressing down onto her, she imagined what she would say if she ever saw her beloved prince again. How would he react? Perhaps he would be glad to think he was father to twins: a boy fit to inherit a kingdom, and a remarkable, exceptional little girl.
Written by Jdeschene