The forest on the edge of his kingdom was so dense he had difficulty making it through on horseback. Prince Llewellyn found his heart jumping. He was committed to exploring every inch of the kingdom he would soon rule, even the parts his peasantry claimed were filled with dragons, witches and ogres.
Silly peasants, he told himself. His bravest knights had come down with a flux of the bowels, and were unable to accompany him on this foray into the Dread Forest of Malveyn.
“I will go alone then,” he told Sir Odbert, who was hunched by the fire, looking ill.
“Sire, you cannot!” Odbert protested. “Not alone!”
“No one ever comes out of the Dread Forest of Malveyn,” Sir. Baldric said, shivering. He seemed to have a fever.
“All the more reason why I shall go,” said Prince Llewellyn. “I am going to find the most beautiful woman in all the land. Rumor has it that before Rapunzel was born, a witch predicted her beauty would cause nothing but sorrow. Her mother so feared Rapunzel’s fate that she gave her to the witch, who built a tower for the girl in heart of the Dread Forest, and kept her from the eyes of men.”
“So maybe she should stay there, your Highness? We don’t need any sorrow, do we?” asked Sir Baldric.
The other knights shook their heads.
“Cowards, the lot of you. I know you aren’t really ill,” said the Prince. “But I have no need of knights for this quest. Await my return here. I will bring back the maiden Rapunzel.”
The knights exchanged glances.
The proud young prince galloped off into the forest, determined to show no fear. So far, in all his journeys around his kingdom, he had not encountered anything but his own subjects, their animals, and the wild things that inhabited the waste lands. The most fearful thing had been a wild boar.
What could live in a forest? Bears, perhaps. A wolf or two. Perhaps another wild boar. As for dragons and ogres, everyone with any education knew those were only folk tales. His tutor Brother Ludo assured him an educated man need fear nothing but ignorance.
Prince Llewellyn believed in witches because Brother Ludo believed in witches. He was not sure what he would do about the witch.
The forest proved to be pleasant, for a while. Sun dappled leaves overhead, birds singing, the occasional rabbit scurrying out of sight.
Then it grew a darker. More silent. No bunnies. Something black, larger than a fox, flitted into the shadows. The sound of wings beating overhead, large wings that shook the leaves. Something screamed off in the black shadows to the left, were trees huddled together so thickly he could never pass.
His horse nickered, and refused, for a few agonizing minutes, to follow the narrow path.
“On, Bellerophon,” he murmured, trying to soothe the animal. “It’s a path. Someone has been this way before, not long ago. That’s good. Perhaps we can save poor Rapunzel.”
That was true, Prince Llewellyn observed. The stone strewn way was not overgrown. Broken grasses and branches on either side showed that something, someone had passed. He looked up, and realized he had lost the sky. The web of branches from the tall trees blocked out everything but their own dark green foliage
It was colder in that part of the forest. Cold, quiet, and still. Only the sound of Bellerophon hooves crunching on the pebbles and dry earth, only the whisper of leaves rustling in the mouths of a thousand trees.
The path took twists and turns, and once followed an inky black narrow stream, its water rippling like a winding snake beside him. He offered Bellerophon a chance to drink, but the stallion flared his nostrils, and refused.
He felt the clearing before he saw it. Wind rushed through the open space, the scent of wood smoke filling his nostrils. Habitation, he told himself. Whose?
The clearing was quite large, and had been created long ago. No stumps remained of whatever trees had grown there. Two small fields, and not far from them, a high, round tower. Once, perhaps, the tower had been higher than most of the trees. A few slit windows at the bottom, for defense, and at the top of the tower he noted a larger window, shuttered.
As he drew cautiously closer, he noticed a door at the bottom of the tower. A stable was to one side, rickety and leaning with age and beside it a sturdy plow horse was grazing. Crops of vegetables grew in the fields: turnips, beets, leeks, carrots, cabbages. Enough to keep whoever lived in the tower fed, he thought.
The smell of baking bread wafted in the wind. His royal belly growled. He carried provisions, but fresh bread tempted him, as well as the chance to meet whoever lived in this most remote edge of his kingdom.
He rode up to the tower; hand on his sword, wary. A situation this remote could be home to anyone. Or, he thought, it could be the home of Rapunzel.
“Halloo!” he called.
To his surprise, the shutters in the top of the tower flew open, and a long rope began to glide down the grey rock walls.
A woman’s voice called from the top of the tower, “Climb up, mother.”
Do I sound like an old witch? Llewellyn wondered.
Strange hospitality, he thought. This must be Rapunzel’s tower.
He dismounted, and hooked Bellerophon reins to a post. The horse seemed calm, and began to munch pale green grass.
There seemed no question of entering the strange building by the door at the bottom. His hostess indicated her preference for entry.
He went and tested the rope. Odd silky rope, golden and made of many fine threads, but it looked sturdy enough. Climbing up the tower should be no real challenge for a battle-seasoned young Prince.
Who was in the tower? Was it a trap?
“Climb up” was an invitation. But he wasn’t anyone’s mother.
He considered getting back on Bellerophon, and heading on his way. But his father’s words rang in his head: A prince fears nothing.
Climbing the rope was easier than he remembered. No one was raining arrows down at him.
“You aren’t mother, sad a woman’s voice. “Who are you?”
“I am Prince Llewellyn, son of King Sigismund, ruler of this realm.”
“Last time I checked” he said cheerfully, continuing to climb the rope.
“I’ve never seen a man,” said the woman.
He paused on the rope, catching his breath.
“Then you must be the one called Rapunzel. The most beautiful woman in all the land.”
“I don’t know. I have never been out of the tower.”
“Not since I can remember.”
He was reaching the top of the tower when he realized what the rope was made of.
“Is this hair?” Llewellyn called.
“It’s my hair,” she said.
He gained the top of the tower.
The woman inside the tower smiled at him shyly.
“I’ve hope forever someone would come, and take me away from this place,” she said.
He realized the rope he had climbed was still attached to her hair. She had the longest hair he had ever seen.
“You have never cut your hair?” he asked. “It must have taken years to grow so long.”
“It grows a few inches a year,” she said, fingering the golden strands. “To get it long enough to finally escape. Mother goes to sell things at the market every week. And every week I prayed someone would come and set me free.”
“Gosh, said Prince Llewellyn, looking around the dark room to light a candle. He could not see her face in the dim light. “How long have you been waiting?”
She lit a candle, and the room was bathed with light. The middle-aged woman smiled at him, as shy as a teenage girl. Prince Llewellyn struggled to hide his disappointment. Once upon a time, she must have been the most beautiful maiden in all the land.
“You are a little older than I expected.”
“I have been here forty –six years,” she said. “Forty-seven on my birthday next month. It takes a long time to grow a braid long enough for a man to climb up. Mother says hair grows about six inches a year. We’d better hurry. Mother can be a real witch sometimes.”