They thought her a witch. That’s what Hertha heard as she was paraded through the town, her neighbours cursing her to the skies as her skirts dragged in the mud. Some threw things at her–stones, black potatoes, hound-chewed lamb bones…whatever they had to hand that they thought worthless enough to waste on the flesh of a fourteen year old witch. The Guards’ large hands bruised her as they pulled at her shoulders and her arms, and the heavy shackles they gave Hertha rubbed her wrists raw.
They pushed her into a cart with a collection of other captured criminals: a thief with one eye milky and one missing, a soot-dampened arsonist and a smuggler who’d been stripped of everything but his under-clothes. Hertha wanted to cry but she remained silent, too fearful of what would happen to her if she wept.
The cart rattled and jolted uphill and Hertha strained her neck to peer through a gap in the knotted wooden slats that made up the cart’s inner walls. In the distance, she could see their destination, large and dark and looming: they were headed towards the royal castle.
It was dark when they finally came to a halt, and Hertha was pulled out of the cart just as roughly as she had been pushed into it. She said nothing as they threw an old woven sack over her face, laughing. She heard her name as if it was being read from a list, and then her arm was grabbed, and she was ordered to walk. Hertha felt grass turn to polished stone beneath her bare feet as she was separated from the others, and smelled sweat and ale on the Guard who had her arm. She could hear the loud cracks and hisses of a hearth, and the Guard barked out a joke as they passed some young women on the long staircase–Hertha heard their soft, quick footsteps and nervous laughter.
“You better mind your manners, girl,” the Guard said as they finally stopped, and he pulled the rough sack from Hertha’s face. She gasped for air and took in the sight before her: they were stood in front of two large, heavy wooden doors, bolted with iron. The Guard lifted his gloved hand and rapped on the door three times. A muffled answer came from the other side, and he unbolted the thick latch, pushing the heavy door open with a low grunt.
Hertha froze as she realised where she was: she was stood before the Throne Hall, a magnificent room panelled with giant stained glass windows. At the very end of the long room sat the throne, with the ruling Prince Carac slouched upon it.
Of course, Hertha had never seen the Prince before. She had heard whispers that he was cowardly and pompous, and that was one of the reasons why the King and Queen were always away at sea. The Guard pushed her forward and Hertha took a few unsteady steps towards the throne. The Prince looked up from where a seamstress was fitting him for a new pair of gloves and laughed a loud laugh when he saw Hertha’s shackles.
“Come closer, girl!” he cried, “I’ve been craving some entertainment.”
She walked a few steps and the Prince slowly stood from his seat on the throne, grey wolf furs slipping from his slender frame as he did. His hair was blonde and greasy, and though he was tall, he appeared frail. Hertha thought that her grandmother could have probably pushed him over without much effort.
“What is her charge?” the Prince cried out.
“Witchery, your Majesty!” the Guard called out in reply.
“My, my…” the Prince said with a smile, stepping forward, “And why do they call you a witch, girl?”
Hertha said nothing, and looked to the floor.
“Why do they call you a witch?” he repeated, placing a hand on her chin, tilting it upwards.
“Because I spoke against you,” she finally said, in little more than a whisper.
“Oh?” Prince Carac smirked, though there was a flash of anger in his eyes, “And what did you say?”
“She said you weren’t fit for your crown!” the Guard interrupted, too eager, “I heard her! We all did–all of us out on patrol!”
The Prince sighed, and tightened his grip on Hertha’s chin. She felt the cold metal of his rings digging into her skin.
“Why ever would you say such an upsetting thing?” he asked.
“She said we was killing her ravens–said she loved ’em!” the Guard answered, and laughed, which caused the Guards stood behind the throne to laugh too, “and that’s when she spoke out against you–started screaming to the high Heavens, she did! Cursing your name.”
“Sweet girl,” the Prince said, in a way which was anything but comforting, “raven’s feathers make a delightful cloak. But they’re terribly difficult to pluck when they’re alive, you see. That’s why we take a bow and arrow to them.”
“But they don’t need to die!” Hertha said, causing yet more laughter, “I don’t want them to die!”
“You’re a soft-hearted girl, but you’re very foolish. You must know that anyone who speaks against my family must be insane, or a witch. So which are you, girl? Hm?”
Hertha shook her head free then, and tried to run, but the Prince reached out and pulled her back. As he did, his crown slipped from his greasy locks and fell to the floor with a loud clang. Hertha looked down at it and a lump formed in her throat. It was a beautiful thing, made of golden “thorns”, each twisted around another to form an impressive headpiece, but Hertha knew it would probably be one of the last things she ever saw.
“Pick it up,” the Prince said, cold and calm, “pick it up and put it back on me.”
She picked up the crown and placed it atop his head, which–with her shackles–was no small task.
“Kneel,” he said.
She did not move.
“Kneel,” he commanded her, with such ferocity that the Guardsmens’ gloved fingers all curled around the hilts of their blades.
The King tried once more to command her–to order her death if she did not drop to the stone floor and beg for his forgiveness–but the words stuck in his throat as he felt something warm and wet slide down his forehead. He lifted a ringed hand to his head and saw blood smeared across his palm. Hertha stood back as the golden thorns of the crown extended and twisted through Carac’s scalp, constricting his head and piercing through his pale skin.
He began to scream.
The Guards ran forward, swords drawn, but their blades did not even scratch at the surface of the gold as they sawed at the thorns. Some threw their swords down and began to desperately pry and pull at the thorns with their hands, but the metal held strong and only served to pierce through the thick leather of their gloves and prick at their clawing fingers.
Carac’s screams grew louder and he fell to the floor as the golden thorns began to wrap around his throat. The more the Guards tried to hack and pull at the metal, the faster the thorns seemed to move, and they twisted under his arms like asps, looping round and round until the very tips of his fingers were stained red. The gold pierced through his soft flesh like paper and began to wrap around his ribcage. He screamed and screamed as the gold found his heart, crushing it so that it spurted hot blood across the floor.
He fell forward, dead.
There was silence then, and the Guards stood back as the Prince’s blood pooled at their feet. They turned to where Hertha had been stood, blades ready to slice her throat clean, but she was not there. All they saw was a raven, flying out through the Hall’s highest window. The shackles lay on the stone floor, locked tight.