This is one of the few stories I have ever written in present tense. I'm not a huge fan of present tense in fiction, but I figured I should keep it the way I wrote it (hey, I was in college; atypical narrative techniques were cool!).
* * *
Madeline leans over the table, running her fingers along the stem of her wineglass.
An elderly witch stands on the dais at the far end of the hall.
She coughs and queries: "The baby?"
The king holds up the little prince. The old witch's voice over-rides the coos and chuckles of the guests.
"I give him loyalty," she says.
The guests clap. Madeline sighs, releases her glass stem and claps once.
The young man on her left also claps, leaning over to whisper, "Bit tedious, isn't it?"
He is a lieutenant.
Another witch rises from the audience. She is younger than the first, draped in silver cloth.
The witch on Madeline's right--Leona--says, "Lorine always likes to make an appearance. You'd think she was still in the theatre."
"I wouldn't know. I've never seen her on the stage."
"No, you're still young, aren't you? Barely a century."
The lieutenant chokes into his drink.
"You're a witch?" he says to Madeline.
She ignores him. Leona chuckles. The lieutenant flushes.
"What are you going to give the prince?" Leona says to Madeline. "Courage is popular if you haven't decided yet."
"I'm opting for vivacity, myself. That is--" Leona looks sly "--if Yenna doesn't take it first."
On the dais, Lorine announces: "I give him strength."
Madeline spills her drink, reaches for a napkin.
"I'll get that," says the lieutenant.
"No," Madeline says, "I'd rather you didn't."
He takes the napkin, carefully wipes the table. Madeline leans back, closes her eyes.
"Here I go," Leona says.
She leaves the table.
"Are you feeling well?" the lieutenant says to Madeline.
No. Madeline opens her eyes. The lieutenant smiles gently.
Why not? she thinks. Who cares if he dies next week, lying in a field, buried under bones? Why should I let that stop me?
Leona returns, sparkling: "Go on, my dear."
Madeline beckons to the lieutenant. He rises eagerly, taking her hand. He escorts her down the hall between the tables to the dais. Madeline climbs the steps alone, stands before the king and the little boy who bounces on his nanny's lap: a loyal, strong, vivacious little prince.
"I give Prince Mark nothing," she says.
The guests are shocked. The other witches murmur, their eyes disapproving.
The lieutenant still waits at the foot of the stairs. He watches Madeline, puzzled.
Madeline wants to explain, to say, It hardly matters what I give. The prince will die. All our men are born for death, for the black pit of war.
She looks at the prince.
Bright eyes, she thinks. He has eager eyes.
"No," she says. "I curse the prince that if he ever touches a sword, a spear or any weapon, he will die instantly without ever having fought or led, without honor."
The king shouts. The nanny sobs. Madeline leaves the dais, joins the lieutenant. He takes her hands.
"Yes?" he says.
A witch rises from a nearby table.
"Madeline," she calls, "come sit with us."
Madeline refuses. The witches are her sisters, mothers, daughters, but they don't understand her. They think she should be detached, indifferent.
"You want to come with me now?" she says to the lieutenant. "Have an affair? Get married?"
Idiot, she thinks. Kind, lovely idiot.
They leave. The king still roars.
The lieutenant dies, guiding a battalion through a sweeping mass of enemy infantry. Madeline mourns, briefly.
Only Leona comes to say she is sorry.
"A nice, young boy," Leona says.
"I'm ages older that he was, Leona. In twenty years, I'll still be ages older and still look ages younger. And he dies and the next one dies and the next one."
Leona says, "The other witches don't like your relationships with men."
"They are afraid for you. Because you think it is important to have a lover." Leona is uncomfortable. "You are a witch. Other women worry about such things. Not witches."
"My lovers die, Leona, like slugs in salt-water." Madeline thumps the sides of her chair.
"So, you cursed the prince to show them, is that it?"
"I saved the prince, Leona. He won't have to be another general, another soldier, another commander like his dear papa. Won't have to die. All that waste," Madeline cries.
Prince Mark breaks his fist on another boy's face. He rushes after his father, reaching for his father's sword.
His father, the king, holds the sword out of reach.
"I want to help my papa."
Mark bursts into tears. Around him, soldiers keep their faces blank.
Mark flings himself forward, clutches the horse's leg. Straps jangle; mud splashes over Mark's face. The king flinches.
"He can't die," the king apologizes to his generals.
"I want to be a great commander," Mark bellows. "I will," but the king shakes his head and rides away.
Mark hoists a flag on the castle's tower. Far beneath him, the ground shimmers with troops. He watches them march through the castle gates. He sits on the stone ledge, leans into air, that fragile nothing. He swings his legs up and around, stands. There are a thousand men beneath him, rumbling the ground with their feet. He could fall. He doesn't care. He isn't afraid.
He has a charmed life, people say. He considers that, balanced on one foot, one leg crossed over the other. Perhaps, he does. Any man who can't fight has a charmed life.
He tilts his head, arms spread to catch the wind, almost about ready to be blown over.
He leaves the tower. In the great hall, the king is briefing his generals.
Mark calls to him: "Father."
The king silences immediately, stiff and watchful. Mark sways slightly from foot to foot.
"General Hodin," Mark says, "how are things on the front?"
General Hodin doesn't answer, only pulls at his gloves, his hands shaking.
"Hodin, I order you to answer me."
"That is classified information," Hodin says.
Good answer, thinks Mark, give him that. Why should I know? I'm less important than a soldier; army baggage carries more weight.
"Son," says the king.
Mark says, "No one ever said I would die from information. I think I'm in a position to know the details of your battles, don't you?"
"The enemy broke through our front line, sir," Major Curtis says. "We have a better cavalry, but they have more men."
"Thank you, Major Curtis," says the king. "You are dismissed."
Major Curtis bows to Mark.
"You are all dismissed," says the king.
They vanish through doorways. Mark raises his eyebrows.
"Major Curtis will be discharged," says the king. "Or demoted."
"For me? Now you're discharging good military officers for my sake?"
"I don't want them to talk to you. I have told them again and again not to talk to you about the war. Why must I constantly repeat myself?"
The king pounds the floor with his feet.
"I should know what's going on. I'm twenty years old. You treat me like a child. I ought to be their commander."
"It's not my fault."
"No, you're just the keeper, just the tender of the cage."
"Take it up with Madeline. Don't take it up with me. It's not my fault."
Madeline visits. Mark and the king receive her in the sitting room. Mark ignores her. The king stoops over her hand.
He says, "Hello, Madeline."
"I've noticed the witches are packing," the king says.
Mark crosses to the window, hunching his shoulders. Madeline watches him.
"I hoped they would show more confidence in the army."
"Witches aren't miracle workers, you know that. We have to protect our traditions."
Still she watches Mark. He meets her gaze.
"How are you?" Madeline says. "You look well."
The king whispers in her ear, "He's not happy. I could involve him in the councils, but I'm so afraid. I don't want to take any chances. If you would remove the curse entirely--"
"She won't," Mark says. "She likes playing with men."
The contempt in his voice sketches a line between his eyes.
"I gave you more options, that is all," Madeline tells him.
"There are no options. You created a nothing, Madeline. Unable to help my people, my father--I make no impact, you understand? Turn your head, and I vanish."
He leaves. Upstairs he breaks things, smashes glasses and candlesticks and lovely gifts against the heavy stone walls of the castle. Downstairs, Madeline winces.
The prince visits Madeline at night; haunting her, he calls it. He lies beside her, one hand on her stomach.
"You are beautiful. I forgot that."
"You never noticed before."
"Oh, well," he shrugs. "Got to do something with my time."
"You've got lots of time," she says.
When he is silent, she insists, "The generals tell you what is going on?"
"General Gale and Colonel Curtis keep me informed. I give them advice. The commander invisible."
"Isn't that enough?"
He is restless, pushing back the covers.
"I'm smarter than most of them," he says.
He rises swiftly, kicks the nightstand, sits, head in hands on the edge of the bed.
Madeline says, "You men and your wars."
He studies her. She cannot see his eyes, it is too dark. She throws up her arms.
"They're not as important as you think. All your time and energy--your lives--spent for what? What are your wars worth?"
"Better my wars than your lovers."
"The wars killed my lovers."
"Everything kills lovers. You didn't plan to freeze-dry them, did you, Madeline?"
He snorts, lies back. She is almost asleep when softly, he questions her, "How long did you have to wait for me, Madeline?"
She chokes back a cry, doesn't answer. Finally, he sleeps, his hands tucked between his knees.
"We're not doing well," says General Gale.
His face is covered with blood and sweat. He runs a hand through his hair.
"We're losing?" Mark says.
"I suppose you might say that."
Mark studies the maps Colonel Curtis brings him.
"I've taken in four groups of men in three months," the general says. "Lost every single man every single time."
"That's too much," Mark says. "You shouldn't lose that many."
"It's nothing I do. They have more men. They have more artillery. We're fighting with nothing. We're scrapping the bottom of the barrel. I'm telling you. Farm boys."
"The only ones left at the end of this are going to be you and the witches," the general says. "And you, at least, won't last long."
"So, we just wait," Madeline says.
"That's stupid. We should leave."
"Where?" Mark faces Madeline, arms flung wide. "Where?"
And now, she thinks, now.
He shrugs. She watches him pace.
"Leona and the other witches are leaving," she says finally. "If we go with them, we'll be safe. No one can touch the witches."
"I don't want to go with the witches."
"I'm a witch."
"Then I don't want to go with you."
She bites her lip to keep words from tumbling out. Her eyes follow the tilt of his chin, the line of his back, the sudden jerk of his head as he glances towards her.
"How about you, Madeline? Want to die with me?"
"I don't want to die," she says.
"You can't even see what you have," she says.
"A final stand--sword in hand even as I fall. Your conditions, Madeline, your curse. My definition."
He whistles between his teeth, leaning on the window-sill, waiting.
She can't argue with him, stops trying.
"Leona," she begs. "What do I do?"
She thinks, Life is dripping from my hands, life shatters in my hands.
Leona is older, now, sadder.
She says, "It's all Jenny's fault for giving him determination."
Madeline laughs a little.
"I want him alive, Leona."
"Bring him away with us."
"He won't come."
"Bring him anyway."
Three days before the enemy reaches the castle, the witches leave, passing through the soldiers unhindered. Between them, they carry a covered stretcher. Madeline walks beside it, a hand brushing the cloth. Beneath it, the prince rolls with each step the women take. He breaths softly, his hand curved, his fingers slipping along his cheek.
Madeline dreams of the time ahead.
The smoke piles upward into the air behind them.
In his dreams, Mark hears his father screaming.
In his dreams, Mark dies.