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Chapter 13
By Setcheti Posted in Story on 16 November 2021 3110 words
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In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 13


Jack had decided that he rather enjoyed running about on his own. He was full-sized in all his glory while walking alone through the woods and over the roads and paths, and if he were to change back suddenly he knew he was not alone any longer. Not to mention, in dwarf form his cloak covered him completely with no ducking, which had led more than one vagabond to run away bruised and bleeding with the idea that the forest he’d been lurking in was haunted by vengeful ghosts.

In short, while Jack wouldn’t want to do it all the time, being alone was currently fun for him.

He’d encountered more than one lost child, escaped princess, runaway farmhand and troubled milkmaid while he was out, appearing to some of them and to others simply whispering advice or providing protection while invisible, because being mysterious was fun as well. And so the crying girl he encountered that day was no real surprise to him, and he’d become blasé enough in these situations that he merely tossed back the cloak and tutted at her. “Really, you are quite the mess, my dear. What has let you get yourself into such a state?”

She was surprised to see him, but she didn’t run away or scream. “I’m…I’m cursed, and they wouldn’t let me stay.”

He cocked his head at her. In his human form the look would be elegantly considering, but he knew that in dwarf form it was more ‘cute’ than anything else. So annoying, that. “They?”

“My…my parents. And the…and their ministers.” She started sobbing again, and he winced when she wiped her nose on the sleeve of her dress. “They said I don’t…belong there anymore.”

“Well, you certainly do not look as though you belong there right now,” he observed, and shook his head when she gave him an outraged look. “No. Just no. One’s appearance should not be the sole indicator of one’s worth, but the appearance of care is important! Especially among the nobility. This,” he indicated her general disheveled appearance with contemptuous wave of his hand, “does not serve you. Are you a princess or no?!”

Now she was really offended. “Of course I’m a princess!”

“Then act like one,” he sniffed, and trotted over to her with a frown. “I will help you, if you like, but the work after that is yours to maintain.”

Her blue eyes widened. “What do you mean?”

He waved at her appearance again. “You did not make this mess out of your dress in a single night. Look at that hem, so bedraggled! And when was the last time you brushed your hair, it is a bird’s nest!”

“But I’m cursed! It doesn’t matter!”

He shrugged. “You do not look cursed to me. What is this curse to you?”

“I’m a monster!”

“When?”

She made a face at him. “At night. Some nights…well, one night a month. But still!”

Jack huffed. “Do you want to stay in the woods?”

“No, of course not!”

“Do you want to live in a hovel like the hag you appear to be trying to resemble?”

She sniffed. “You’re so mean! Why should I care what people think?”

He patted her hand. “You should care what people think of the respect you show for yourself. This, this is not respect, and so on seeing such, people will see no reason to give you the respect you do not have for yourself.”

The princess just blinked at him. “But, my curse.”

Jack cocked an eyebrow, only slightly resenting the fact that it made her smile. “One night a month, you can be as much of a mess as you like. But otherwise, your appearance should say that you have enough self-respect to take care of yourself and your things.” He gingerly picked up a fold of the dress. “This is silk, sewn with skill, embroidered with taste, and the lace was also made by a person who put care into it. Who are you to destroy their fine work so carelessly?”

“They’re just…peons.”

He huffed and turned away. “Enjoy being a hag.”

She actually let him get halfway out of the clearing in her shock. “No, wait! You said you would help me!”

He turned around. “Do I look like a ‘peon’ to you?”

“Um…no?”

Well, he would excuse her hesitation on that one—most people didn’t quite know what to make of his current appearance. “Is that how you should speak to someone who has offered you aid?”

She was sulky now. “No.”

He came back, looked up into her face. “Then why would you indulge your temper this way, hmm?”

She sighed. “Because I’m a spoiled brat. But I don’t know how not to be!”

Jack hopped up on the log she was sitting on and started poking at her tangled hair. “Well then, you are in luck, because I do. So let us begin your lessons…”

Teaching the Princess Serena—and Jack had never seen a child so badly misnamed in his life—not to be a messy brat was a frustrating process. She did not know how to brush her own hair, and did not like to have it done because it hurt. When he pointed out that it only hurt because she didn’t do it regularly, she pouted but finished combing out the tangles, and then pouted again when washing the hair put many of them back. “You are being silly,” he scolded her. “If you lived in a house, would you let it fall down around you rather than taking care to maintain it? Would you let the garden which gives you food grow tall with weeds, or the floors become thick with dirt?”

Which, as it turned out, she would. There was actually a little cottage back in the trees which Serena had been banished to when her presence in her parents’ palace had become too much for them to bear, and she had done nothing to keep it up in the time she had already been there. Jack refused to do the work for her, or even to help until she’d done all that she could on her own. He taught her to sweep floors, wash dishes, weed her garden and even patch her roof. He showed her how to air her bedding, clean and mend her clothing, and weave a basket to hold things. Cooking was…well, he gave up on that as a bad job early on, because she had no knack for it at all, but he taught her to do enough just well enough so she wouldn’t starve. And on top of all that, he taught her to take care of herself. “You will feel better when you are clean and neat,” he insisted. “You have fine hair and delicate skin, you must take care of them if they are to look their best. And why would you leave your nails ragged and dirty when it takes so little to maintain them, so that they do not rip at your clothing and skin?”

Serena didn’t like it, but grudging acquiescence gradually gave way to dull acceptance and finally—finally!—to the admission that she actually liked being clean and not having tangled hair and filthy clothes. And the first time he caught her looking around the freshly-cleaned cottage with pride, he was almost bursting with pride himself. It was a pleasure, actually, to be able to pass on what he had learned from living in a home he had to help maintain, even if that home had been a false-fronted cave.

The evening of the full moon eventually arrived, and after one considering look around her tidy cottage Serena walked off into the woods to wait for moonrise. Jack followed her invisibly, choosing to perch in a tree overlooking the clearing she’d finally plopped down in; he’d been proud as punch but still covered his eyes when she’d removed her dress and stockings and shoes and placed them carefully out of the way. And then the moon rose, and she transformed with a howl into a surprisingly large wolf.

Which promptly sat down and cried, prompting Jack to have a moment of complete stupidity and drop down out of the tree, barely noticing that he’d landed in his human form. The wolf stopped crying to stare at him, and he stared back…and then the black nose sniffed and the huge furry head gently butted against him and he tentatively stroked the wolf’s fur. It was soft, silky even. Serena was not a werewolf per se, she was a Moon Princess—the result of a were infecting a complete innocent who was pure of heart. “My goodness, look at you,” he said. “What a lovely creature you are, Princess. A curse this may still be, but it could have been much worse.”

The wolf blinked up at him, and then cocked her head as though asking a question, and he nodded. “Yes, quite.” It was as much as he could say, as the curse itself didn’t allow him to actually tell anyone what the curse entailed or even that he was under one, but the wolf-princess seemed to understand and she nuzzled him again.

Jack ended up sitting beside the wolf far out into the woods, where a rocky promontory gave them a beautiful view of the full moon sailing through the clear night sky, and he amused himself by singing along with her howls. He walked her back to the clearing as the moon sank and the sky showed signs that morning was drawing near, checked to make sure no one had been about, and then retreated behind a tree until she came looking for him. They walked back to the cottage in silence, and at the door she gave him a long, thoughtful look before going inside. Exhausted, Jack shrugged it off and went into the little hut he’d built beside the garden to get some sleep.

It was midday before he woke up, and he methodically went about his toilette the same way he usually did, but this time he had the disconcerting feeling that she was watching him. He let that go too. Jack wasn’t sure how much Serena remembered from her time in wolf form, but he’d always heard that the human recalled very little of the wolf’s activities—it was why the Seven had never set out to kill a were unless they’d had no choice. Still, the looks she kept giving him were…odd, so he finally brought it up while they were working on dinner. “You keep staring at me, Princess.”

She blushed. “You…I didn’t realize you were cursed too.”

He shrugged. He’d apparently been told wrong about the human remembering, or perhaps Moon Princesses had it differently. “The nature of mine means I cannot speak of it to anyone.” He indicated himself. “It was a punishment, though, and I did at least somewhat deserve it.”

Her mouth made a little round ‘o’. “I…I was just bitten.” It came out in a rush, then. “But I…sort of deserved it, because I’d snuck out of the palace to play and ended up wandering too far into the woods.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “You were how old?” When she blushed, he pretended disbelief. “Oh really now!”

“Fifteen,” she admitted, shamefaced. “I’m the youngest, and they just didn’t…nobody really had time for me, because I wasn’t pretty the way my sisters were so they said I would only be good for a political match and not the really rich kind a breathtaking beauty like Nerissa or Celia could attract. And by the time someone realized I’d gotten pretty enough to be more valuable in the marriage market…well, I was a wild little disgrace with no sense of either decorum or propriety, according to Daddy’s chief advisor. And then the wolf bit me, and…” She plopped down on her heels with a huff. “They did try to keep me at home, in one of the towers that only gets opened up when there’s a packed house for a royal wedding or something.” She shuddered. “I hated it, being a prisoner, and I kept trying to get out…and eventually I fell trying to climb down out of one of the windows that hadn’t been barred and when I woke up I was here at the cottage with a letter that said since I didn’t want to stay home and behave I could just…” she raised the back of her hand to her mouth, trying, he thought, to keep the sobs in, “…I could just stay in the woods like the animal I wanted to be.”

Jack almost immediately felt some remorse for the way he’d begun their relationship. “Well I am quite the cad then, aren’t I?” he muttered. “I told an abused, abandoned princess that she was a spoilt brat with no self-respect.”

“I didn’t have any,” she corrected. “I had no…they were kind of right, you know. I didn’t see the need to go along with what my parents and the advisors wanted and ‘behave’ just so they could get a better offer for me. But I was disrespecting myself just as much as I was rebelling against them.” She reached out and turned his head so he was looking at her. “Jack, you saved me…from myself. I’d have died out here.” She quirked a smile that was softly amused. “Or become a hag living in a filthy hovel.”

He smiled back and took her hands, noticing absently that she’d done her nail-work earlier in spite of the short day. “Or you might have gotten so wild, and so angry, that you went back to the palace one night as a wolf to make them pay for abandoning you. And they might have even deserved it, but many people would not have seen your actions in that light and then hunters would have been sent for. Your curse means you must be extremely careful about allowing anger build up within you—it is as I told you when we first met, you should not indulge your temper just to be doing it. Anger should be used with purpose, else you are just wasting your energy and, in your case particularly, potentially putting yourself in danger.” He let go of her hands then and went back to stirring their dinner in the pot. “So, what do you wish to do now?”

She was confused, and it showed. “Besides eat dinner?”

“Now that you are not a wild future hag,” he said. “Do you want to stay here, do you want to go somewhere else, or do you want to go back h…”

Her soft hand over his mouth stopped the word before it could come out. “The palace isn’t…it was just where I lived. This is home, but…”

Jack propped up the spoon and gave her back his attention. “But?”

“Am I safe here? Especially…now?”

“Ah. Well…honestly, no. Not alone, anyway.” He made a face. “I have kept an eye on the road, and the surrounding woods, and I have seen only one or two travelers and those were hurrying.” He suspected, now, that her parents or their snooty advisors might have posted warnings about a beast in the woods, so he chose his next words with care. “This cottage is well into the woods, and even the smoke cannot be seen from the road, so I do not think anyone simply passing through would intrude upon you…but there could be those who come here with purpose.” She just blinked at him, and he mentally damned her parents straight to the pits. “Hunters, Serena. Hunters who trade in pelts, or those who hunt the weres for bounties. Eventually, even though you harm no one, one of them will come here seeking you.”

She’d gone pale. “But I’m…I’m human most of the time!”

He looked away because he couldn’t look at her and say it. “That would make it even worse for you. A beautiful young woman alone…these are rough men, who have no respect for anything save their appetites and the hunt.” He gave the stew a rather vicious stir. “No, you are far less safe here now, and that is my fault. But I am not sure what to do about it. Will you come with me, traveling the road that has no end? Many is the time that I have only remained safe because I can make myself invisible. I could take you to the Black Castle, where I have been doing a good many things out of boredom and a desire to help my friends, but it would be trading a cage of marble for one of stone, and I would not do that to you.”

Her eyes had gone wide. “You live in a castle?”

Jack snorted. “I live…well, some of the time, now. My home that I lived in with my friends for several years is built within a cave. Safe enough, and comfortable, but it is in the middle of nowhere—beautiful nowhere, but still. Would you want to live in such a place?”

She looked around the cottage. “You mean, like this one?”

He had to laugh. “Point.” He considered it. “I will take you home with me, if you wish me to. You can be my baby sister.” Honestly, with her coloring she looked enough like his human form for that to be easily believed, and he wouldn’t be cursed forever. “And at least there I would know you are safe.”

“Would your friends mind?”

He snorted again. “They did not mind when the Red Shoes princess came and hid there, even though she came in quite uninvited.” He nodded, more to himself than to her. “Her room, it is still there. You could have it, she would not mind.”

“She wouldn’t?”

He had to smile. “No, she has returned to her real home, and her true name. Let me tell you the story of Red Shoes…”   

 


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