Originally published on Short Fiction Break.
I stared at the face of the girl approaching me across the darkness of the cell. In the decade which had passed since I last saw it, her face had changed; it had grown slimmer, rougher. Her skin was paler. Her hair, which I remembered as long and black, had been cut short. There were shadows under her eyes. On her left cheek, just above her jaw, was a thin scar which had not been there before.
I stared, certain that it was her, unable to believe she was real.
“Sam?” she whispered.
“Ash,” I breathed.
She squealed and ran into my arms. “What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here? What happened to your face?”
The scar reminded me of something, but I couldn’t place it. It was as if I had seen that scar before, perhaps on somebody else.
“Forget me – what are you doing here?”
“Bandits,” I told her. “I think they were after Panther.”
“Panther!” she gasped. Panther was the black cat we had adopted secretly in the orphanage. I named him Panther because he thought he was a mountain lion. He had an arrow-shaped scar across his nose. He had turned up one day in the yard, and Ash and I gave him water and scraps of leftover food. “But…when did you leave the orphanage?”
“Just before my fifteenth birthday. I’ve been living in the woods ever since.”
“Oh, no,” She hugged me even tighter. It was the first time in months, excluding the hours when I was captured and kidnapped, that I had felt the touch of another human being. She sat down against the wall of the cell and I joined her. As we did so, two trays with lentil soup and a slice of stale bread materialized in the corner.
“They know you’re here,” Ash observed, placing the second tray in front of me. “Did Panther survive?”
I picked up my spoon and caught a blur of my reflection. My auburn hair was a disaster from being tied up, and my eyes were sunken. “The bandits got him.”
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, running her fingers through my hair. “Sam… I can’t believe it’s you.”
“I thought I’d never see you again,” I admitted, “when you…”
“Got adopted,” she sighed. I caught a gleam of anger in her black eyes.
“Ash, what happened to you?”
“I broke my jaw.” She didn’t meet my gaze.
“But why are you here?”
She was silent for a long time, staring pointedly away.
“Ash, what happened?” I repeated.
She took a deep breath. “Sam…” she swallowed. “I’m…” she closed her eyes. “I’ve been sentenced to death.”
I felt the blood drain from my face. My heart pounded so loudly it echoed around the empty cell.
At night, we huddled close to keep warm. With Ash beside me, I didn’t even miss Panther. Although the presence of my long lost friend was comforting, I was angry that my taste of freedom had been snatched away. I longed for my days in the woods. I dreaded Ash’s sentence. And what was I doing in there with her?
“You!” A grumpy guard barked as he unlocked our cell, beckoning me to him. I glanced at Ash, who nodded. The guard dragged me outside to the back of a wagon. I was barely inside when the horses bounded forward, galloping up the hill toward the castle. Were we going to trial? Would I be sentenced to death as well?
I watched the landscape pass by as we rode along the castle moat. Suddenly I was gripped by an insane impulse. Heart pounding, not thinking about what the consequences might be, I jumped off the wagon and into the water. The guard didn’t look back.
As soon as my head broke the surface, I became aware that I was not alone. A young man was walking along the opposite bank. He was handsome, but looked troubled. Our eyes met. I felt self conscious of my smock and started to walk away.
He called to me. “Did you just jump out of a moving wagon?”
I looked up the hill as if wondering so myself. “Yes.”
“Because I didn’t want to go where it was taking me.”
He appraised me. “I admire you,” he declared. “Your parents must be proud.”
“Orphan,” I muttered, annoyed.
His jaw dropped and he smacked himself. “How could I forget?”
I glanced at him suspiciously. “Have we met?”
He ignored the question. “Let me make it up to you. Anything you want.”
I grimaced. “What are you, a wizard?”
“Oh, sure. And I’m your mother.”
“You can’t give me what I want,” I told him.
I hesitated. I had escaped from the prison but I wasn’t truly free. I couldn’t leave Ash to die. Was there anything to be lost by asking? “I want mercy for a girl on death row.”
He frowned. “I can’t promise,” he said slowly, “but I can ask for an appeal.”
The prince led me to the drawbridge. No one asked who I was. From up close I was able to see that he, too, had scars on his face. The one on his nose reminded me of Panther. The other…
I shivered. I had seen Ash’s scar before. It was the scar magically imprinted upon anyone who had kissed someone of the same sex.
Ash’s death sentence.
I swallowed. We walked up to the castle and directly to the main court. I waited outside while he entered the courtroom. I couldn’t hear what was going on. I paced the hallway, sat down, and started pacing again. After an eternity, he emerged, his expression resigned.
“Your friend has been pardoned,” he rasped.
I gaped at him. “At what price?”
“If she will marry me.”
I felt a twinge of jealousy at the thought. I paused, looking up at the prince’s blank face. “But aren’t you-”
“Shh,” he pressed a finger to his lips. “It is the only way.”
We rode to the prison in silence. Ash looked delighted and confused as we approached her cell with the guards. The prince explained the conditions for her pardon.
“What?” Ash gulped. “Your Highness…” her eyes lingered on his scar, the one that matched hers. A tear trickled down her face. “I’m grateful…but I couldn’t. Nor could you.”
Silence rang in my ears. For Ash and the prince to marry each other would be as much imprisonment as a lifetime behind bars.
I stepped forward. “I’ll take her place,” I announced. “I’ll marry you.” I couldn’t save the prince, but at least Ash would be free.
The prince appraised me and nodded. He reached for the key.
“No!” she exclaimed. “Sam, don’t.”
“But you’ll go free! No one will know.”
“I’ll know,” she whispered, dropping her gaze. Tears rolling past her closed eyelids, she said, “Sam… I can’t watch you marry… the prince.”
She looked into my eyes, and after a long moment, I understood.
The prince pulled me aside and whispered in my ear. “When I unlock the cell, waste no time looking for me. Take your friend and run.”
What did he mean, looking for him? “What are you going to do?”
“Set her free.”
“And be executed?!”
He shook his head. “No one will ever find me.” He grinned, watching my face turn from horror to incredulity. “Don’t worry, there will always be kind people to take care of me.” I got the feeling that he was referring to me.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked.
“I owe you a favor. Sam, you must.” When had I ever done anything for him? And how did he know my name?
“Yes, your highness,” I breathed through gritted teeth.
The prince stepped forward and unlocked the cell. Ash rushed into my arms. For a moment I was lost in her presence.
The prince vanished. A guard lunged at us, forcing us inside the cell. He fumbled for the key but it was gone. Sweeping stealthily through the bars was a black cat with an arrow-shaped scar across his nose.
“Panther?!” He hissed at me, urging me to flee. I came to my senses. I swung back the bars, took Ash’s hand, and ran.
We ran four hours. With the taste of freedom in the air, no hunger or exhaustion could stop us. When finally it was safe to stop, Ash pulled me into a hug. Still panting, I turned my face and kissed her.
When we broke apart, she was smiling. I felt something unfamiliar as her fingers grazed my left cheek.
“You’ve been scarred.” She kissed the scar. It burned beneath her lips.
“By suffering,” I answered. “Not by loving you.”
“What about Panther?” Ash muttered.
“He’ll be fine,” I assured, brushing a lock of black hair out of her face. “Another orphan will adopt him.”
She nodded. I closed my eyes and kissed her again.