Henry’s knuckles turned white as he clutched the scarred armrests, listening. The time has come, he thought. The oakwood throne suddenly seemed little more than a pile of firewood.
But the sound died in the halls.
Henry eyed the heavy old door. It looked forbidding, yet it let everyone come and go. Everyone but him, and him only.
It was easy for the man from over the seas to come and offer him the gift, wasn’t it?
Henry felt the familiar warmth of gratitude, but soon coldness descended again.
Now it would be easy for his daughter to leave.
This is what I want, he said to himself in the echo chamber of his mind. This is what she deserves, even if not what she wants.
He smiled. They always understood each other without a word. In time she would know leaving was the only way.
The sound of footsteps rose again. Henry’s knuckles turned white. And then the door opened.
Elizabeth stood in the long cold hall, eyeing the heavy old door. She’d already made one attempt to approach it. Now she was bracing herself for another.
Everything was ready for departure. She could have left long ago. She should have. But she lingered, as if time could help. Instead, it only made things worse.
Still, she wanted to stay.
Henry needed her, even if he thought he didn’t. He needed to be looked after by someone close. However terrible growing old here would be.
I need to tell him, she thought and took a deep breath. Next thing she knew, the sound of her footsteps echoed in the halls.
On approaching the door, her fists clenched as she remembered seeing the man from over the seas close it behind him after bringing the gift. It was then that everything went wrong.
She opened the door.
Elizabeth bowed lower than obliged to.
“I’ve been expecting you.”
Elizabeth looked up, searching his face.
“The time has come,” she said.
Henry’s knuckles grew whiter as he stared into his daughter’s eyes.
“My entourage is standing by” Elizabeth went on, her voice tense. “We are ready to depart.”
Henry motioned as if to sit further up on the throne, but instead he froze with his hands resting uneasily on the armrests.
Elizabeth’s fists clenched again.
Silence lasted a few heartbeats.
“Do you remember…” said Henry, his gaze absent. “You came here that night… The little girl with the braids… I was asleep, and you slashed at this armrest with your first blade,” his fingers stroked the scarred wood, “and then I woke up and shielded it with my own hand… and you ran around the throne and slashed at the other armrest and I took your blade away and you cried that I interrupted your play and you were so very…”
He started laughing, even as she remained silent.
“My daughter,” his face lit up, “I want you to stay. We will have more joy like that. And we can make it all worth your while.”
Elizabeth bowed lower than she’d ever had. Then she turned and left.
Henry felt the throne close all over him. He stared at the door, his knuckles white.
He asked her to stay. He told her to. He hadn’t known he would, but he did. And for a moment he felt good about it, and thought she would feel good about it, too.
But his words were left unanswered. And now he was alone, again.
Unwelcome thoughts came rushing in. Suddenly he wished he could get up and leave. He tried to find refuge in his well-rehearsed gratitude to the man from over the seas for the gift. But the warmth would not come.
The echo of her footsteps had long died down. The air in the silent throne room was cold and still.
And then he realized.
The story he told her, her joyous play as a child.
She was not joyous. And it was no play.
Henry felt pain pierce his fingers. He let go of the armrests, but the pain would not subside, as if his flesh became infused with something left in the wood by that sharp blade all those years ago.
He shifted on the throne as much as he was allowed to and then groaned, as the wish to hear his daughter’s last words overcame him. He knew that he would never be able to deliver his last words to his own daughter.
Nor to anyone.
He realized the pain would only grow, day by day, year by year, decade by decade. And never subside.
Elizabeth tried to resist, but as her entourage neared the forest and the place she used to call home was about to disappear, she gave in and looked back.
There it was, high up on the hill, grey and cold. So powerful and yet so helpless.
He did not understand, she found herself thinking. He never would.
She looked ahead again, towards the forest and all that awaited beyond. All that she could never have here, destined to grow old as she was.
She closed her eyes and saw herself as a little girl, sneaking into the throne room to try and free her father, only to see him wake up and laugh.
She tried to fight off the unwanted memory with her well-rehearsed hatred of the man from over the seas for the gift of infinite time within finite space. But her thoughts came back to the silence she left her father in.
I should have said something, she thought.
She didn’t know what she should have said. But she knew she should have. And could have.
Unlike her father.
Only after the forest closed all over her and the place she used to call home disappeared, her last words came to her.
“I wish you could grow old and die,” she whispered.
And she knew this was what her father would have wanted to hear.
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