“Is this truly alright…?” the young witch asked, holding onto the hero’s hands as he pulled her to her feet. She was scraggly, malnourished, weak. The hero lifted her into his arms, holding her with all the ease one would carry a pillow. “It is a Hero’s job to slay witches!” she said, specifically referring to the hag who held her in this prison tower. Not that there was any more hag to keep her under lock and key, for in her place lay a corpse, cut down instantly with a single flash of steel.
“If it is a Hero’s job to slay even a single pure heart then I will never be a Hero,” he replied. Her heart trembled in her chest. “I will then do the job of all good men,” he said as he carried her from the tower, giving strength to the woman so ill-taken care of that she couldn’t even walk.
“And what is the job of all good men, Savior who refuses to be a hero?” her weak voice asked.
“To shatter the night and bring light to the pure such as yourself,” he replied, reaching a door he could not open with her in his arms. So he shattered it with his foot.
“…I am not a maiden,” she said with some self-loathing and despair.
“Your womanhood is not your purity. Your heart is.”
The Hero found a home for the Witch and found her a job as an alchemist’s apprentice, and she began a new life. She wanted to thank him for everything he had done, but the very next day after speaking with the alchemist on her behalf, he had vanished into the night, without a trace.
In her new life she could not practice her magic openly, but even then her communion with the spirits gave her small benefits, so she could thrive in her new career.
Sylph’s gentle and chaotic breeze carried the knowledge of a thousand compounds from faraway winds onto her ears. Undine’s agile and powerful current channeled the nimble grace to mix any dangerous recipe into her fingers. Salamander’s vibrant and hot incandescence ignited the light of inspiration to burn away any block unto her eyes. Gnome’s steady and anchored ground held the peace of a stable and calm life tight to her heart.
She would not see the Hero again in the flesh or in appearance for years. Some nights she dreamed of the tower which held her. Those nightmares plagued her and called tears to her eyes, sending her shaking with fear. Those nightmares held her under lock and key in the tower every night, and even though in the daytime she was free, she could never find freedom in the night, sentenced to eternally be tortured by cruel witches.
So with the power of her fading magic, she called upon her dreams to provide her with something to protect her, to give her a pleasant dream to pierce the nightmares which had engulfed her heart.
The form which the pleasant dream took was that of the Hero who saved her.
At first he was aloof. Disinterested in her. He didn’t see the point in talking to her all that much, but he kindly and wordlessly stayed with her in the tower and swung around his metal sword. A grumpy, frowning stranger who nevertheless stayed by her side.
One day, in one dream though, he seemed to be particularly bored. “Let’s leave this place,” he said. And so they left, and they explored the world of her dreams. They explored vast plains of rainbow color, mountains of candy and meat, lakes which one could walk across without the slightest of efforts, and forests which always glowed with the light of sunset.
One day in the forest the Hero began to speak with her. Despite the fact that he was a dream, a mere shadow cast by her ideals of a savior, he seemed real. He seemed to have his own hopes and dreams, and unusually for an adventurous swordsman he was actually quite shy.
To pull him out of his shell, she offered tales of her alchemy, and his eyes lit up with curiosity and excitement, like the eyes of a child with a new toy.
In exchange for her tales of alchemy he traded her tales of swordplay, of cutting down cults, evil witches, and cruel dragons while defending the innocent and the downtrodden.
In her dreams, they spent their time together, always exploring some bizarre new landscape with creatures that could never truly exist, free of that horrible tower where they never again tread.
One day, in her dream, he kissed her.
Before long, in her dream, she lived as his wife, and every night they explored a strange, new world together.
As time passed, the Witch moved from being an apprentice to being a true alchemist, but despite having the peaceful life she dreamed about while trapped in the tower, something was missing. She wanted a love, in her waking life like the one who held her in her sleeping life. But she knew that no man could stand up to an idol she created from her own ideals, and she quietly lamented that she had ruined herself forever from romance.
One day when she was out shopping for fresh fruit, she saw a poster announcing the marriage of a minor Princess to the Hero who still visited her in her dreams. The Witch froze.
Although she knew that what she saw in her dreams was just using his image, to see him marrying someone else made her heart ache and scream inside her chest.
Before long she decided that she would see the Hero and speak to him. It was insane, needing to meet the real deal again after these four years, and she felt like she was insane, but she had to act on what her heart told her. Time and the lack of a power source had weakened her magic, but she could still manage a simple physical projection for an hour if she was willing to rest afterward.
The Hero did not love his fiance.
It was true that his fiance was beautiful. She was “Pure”. Virginal. Never even kissed a man. The evil-sundering sword he kept as his left hip made sure that the cult he saved her from would not remove those traits.
She was bland, a touch vain, and her head was so full of air that he feared when he kissed her on their wedding day she would sound like a flute if he didn’t plug her ears and nose. He was by no means a smart man by books and learning, but he was clever and knew how to get by in life. This Princess was nothing like the sort of woman he liked.
How he longed for the woman who appeared in his dreams! Who traded the tales of his calling for her tales of alchemy, a delightful science which tasted of magic. A woman with a tender smile, who entertained him as he intertwined his fingers in his hair. An intelligent woman who looked at him as an equal and could be smart where he was clever, so he could be clever where she was smart. A passionate woman who kissed him with abandon, ignoring nonsense like ‘purity’.
The woman who, when he slept, he lived with as her husband, whom happily and fearlessly explored the most bizarre of frontiers with him.
A woman who was pure of heart and strong of mind. He longed for a world where he could meet such a woman, it was not to be. He could not find such a woman, in these times where Princesses were traded and like bales of hay or forced upon adventurers to shackle them to some nobleman’s territory, whether they wanted the useless piece of living meat for a wife or not.
The Hero was bitter. Bitter that such women did not exist, and his stress-addled brain was so cruel to him that it would make one up for him to enjoy in his sleep and miss while he remained awake. Bitter that his mind had poisoned him against real women and distracted him with an idol.
He waited in his ‘tower’. It wasn’t a literal tower, but it was his room near the top of the castle where he felt imprisoned. He had saved the Duke’s retainer some months ago, and despite his wanderlust never keeping him in one place longer than it took for his legs to heal enough to take him onto the next town, he had remained here.
His trap was not a physical one, but one of barely veiled threats should he try to leave, should he try to escape. He did not know why the Duke cared so badly about a mere swordarm no matter how skilled and demanded he stay there and marry into the family, but the duchy’s military force would have been brought down upon him if he tried to leave. He wasn’t good enough to cut through a whole squad of soldiers and even if he was, the thought of his blade piercing the flesh of one who was not evil soured his stomach until it emptied it’s contents, and left it a swirling mess for two days thereafter.
So he was trapped in a ‘tower’, much like the half-dozen maidens and three dozen not-really-maidens he had rescued over his career. He snarled at the moon in the sky. He barked at the shining moon with laughter at the cruel irony of it all. Laughter and tears. Ragged, wild, screaming tears that no hero would show to anyone, but there was not a soul to see his tears but the laughing moon.
“Why is a Hero crying?” he heard a voice, and looked up in surprise.
When he first met her, the Witch was scraggly, malnourished, broken. Now she looked identical to the woman in his dreams. A body which was strong, healthy and voluptuous and eyes which were confident and slightly melancholy, but unbroken. In fact, said body was just a touch on the plump side from being the town baker’s favorite patron. With eyes which were soft; tempered by events that once broke her, but repaired by the love of her friends, herself, and the man who lived as her husband when she slept.
She stood on the air inches from his balcony, her hair flowing in the wind, wrapped and held up with an ethereal power that acted like the strings of a puppet, only it was by her own hand that she pulled her own strings. She thought she had long since cried herself dry. Upon seeing the Hero and recognizing the man who she loved with eyes red with anger and sorrow, she found that her well of tears ran deeper than she ever imagined.
He didn’t know what to say. He stared at her in awe, before pausing. She was…
“I’m crying because I hate the fiance thrust upon me and I long for the touch of the Wife who only visits my dreams,” he said to her, looking into her eyes, wiping his tears away.
Her impassive, composed and slightly sorrowful expression gave way to surprise. “You…”
In all the years since they met, not once had she considered they were sharing the same dreams. To be fair, neither had he. The implications ran through their minds as they realized their connection and everything that happened. He gave some thought to the fact that his dream affair was truly a marriage of their souls, if not their bodies. She made the connection much more quickly and acted decisively on the words her heart screamed out to her. While his brain was still trying to understand everything that happened, she tackled him into a hug, letting out an explosion of tears of anguish, sorrow, loneliness, longing, and joy.
The Hero put an arm on her back and an arm in her hair, gently stroking her hair.
“I missed you!” “I missed you so much!” Who was saying which didn’t matter, their words and sentiments and emotions blending together, swirling and becoming one. “All this time you were by my side!” “Every night, we could have been together!” “Every night we were together!” “Though the candy fields!” “And the chocolate magma!” “Climbing an endless tree!” “Swimming through the sky with the birds!” “Having our own private ball atop a rainbow!”
“I love you!” “Marry me!” “We already are married!”
They laughed and cried and held each other, rolled around and played like puppies, kissed like their lips were drawn together by the gods themselves, and wiped the tears from each others’ reddened eyes.
Seconds blurred together into minutes. Minutes blurred together into hours. Before long, morning came, and on his balcony, the Hero stood with his arms around his wife, hand over her belly as they wore a single sheet, their eyes focused on the distant sunrise.
“I can’t stay,” she said. It was solemn, but hopeful and excited for the future. That excitement bit back at his sorrow and kept it from truly forming.
“Then I must come to you?” he asked, quick on the uptake.
The Witch nodded softly, before leaning her head back against his chest. “My body isn’t really here. This is a projection of me. Soon, it will crumble, and I will sleep for three weeks,” she said, smiling with amusement as his gaze on her became incredulous. “My magic has weakened over time, and I have not yet been able to strengthen it. I did not expect to stay so long,” she playfully explained, nuzzling her chest and enjoying his arms and scent both wrapped around her.
The Hero understood, somewhat. Turning her around in his arms, he looked down into her eyes. “Three weeks? When you wake up, I’ll be by your side,” he told her, and she smiled. He didn’t care if the entire duchy was brought down on his head. In his eyes, anyone who tried to keep apart two lovers who weren’t hurting anybody could be filed under ‘evil’ and taste the bite of his steel.
“Good. Three weeks. Twenty-one days,” she whispered, laying her head against his chest.
As the sun rose and the golden sky turned blue, her body faded into a whisper on the wind. The hero stood out to face the sky, gathering his thoughts and his will. After a time, he turned and returned to his room to gather his things. His mind was made. Even if the world turned against him, he was already married and he was going to live as the husband to a pure-hearted witch. That was the decision he finalized as he strapped violent steel to his left hip and readied himself for battle.
The following nights, she did not appear in his dreams. Her exhaustion shattered the spell, much to his disappointment.
Nineteen days, three escapes from the soldiers of an incensed Duke (which ended in minimum bloodshed), two bandit fights (which ended in maximum bloodshed), and one encounter with some unfortunate-tasting rum later (which, oddly enough, ended in no bloodshed), the Hero arrived in his wife’s home.
Slowly, he set his things down, letting his shoulders slump as the burden of his travels finally melted away. In two days he would see her awake.
In two short days, his seven long years of fighting evil would be truly rewarded. In two days, he would start a new life and put his sword away for good. There was a small bit of melancholy at the thought of putting his sword away, honestly, but it would pass. A wandering swordsman makes a poor husband. He would just have to pick up a trade; unfortunately his primary skills seemed to be ‘Rescuing damsels’ and ‘Hitting evil things with a sharpened piece of metal’.
But that was for later. For now, his wife.
Entering her – their, soon – room, he smiled at the sight. Her body, clad in but a sheet lay relaxed, with her eyes closed, her hands crossed over a piece of paper. Regardless of her pale skin, she looked vibrant and healthy, merely asleep and in the most peaceful and restful of slumbers, dressed in a modest dress with her hands crossed over her breast, hiding just a small piece of paper.
The Hero approached her bed, gazing down at her face. She was asleep, and would remain so for some time. Still… he missed her.
After living with her every night for four years, he missed her, he needed her, he craved her, so he wanted to at least touch her, stroke her cheek, kiss her forehead and tuck her back in before familiarizing himself with his new home.
Gently, he reached down to stroke her cheek in affection, the sight of her familiar, beautiful features irresistible.
The Witch’s cheek was ice-cold.