Once upon a time there was a beautiful young woman, named Annia, who was possessed of flawless dark skin, hair the red-gold of autumn, and eyes the gold of a summer sun. She was admired and envied by all in the village, but none coveted her more than her stepbrother.
She was beautiful of face and form, kind of heart and smile, but it was her hands he most obsessed over. They were strong hands, from keeping house and assisting in their humble mill all day, but soft, the fingers long and elegant, easy when petting animals and deft when sewing, strong when cooking and gentle when stroking a brow at the end of a long day.
He declared he loved her as the sun loves the sky, and wanted her not for a stepsister, but for a wife. Dismayed at his revelation, she begged him to give up such a notion, that though she loved him as any sister loved a brother, she had no desire to be his wife.
The brother begged and pleaded, but still she would not give in. He raged and ranted, screamed and shouted, but still she refused, and urged him to let the notion go and let them be happy siblings once more.
Enraged beyond all reason, he determined that if he could not have what he wanted, no one would—not even her. Dragging her out to the chopping block, he there took an ax and cut off her hands.
Overcome by pain and fear, Annia passed out.
When she woke in the dark, it was to find someone had carefully bandaged and tended her wounds—and her brother was snoring heavily, the smell of alcohol heavy on the air. Stifling her tears, she did her best to pack what food and supplies she could, and fled the only home she had known her whole life.
On and on she traveled, resting on in brief burst, keeping hidden whenever she heard people approaching. Eventually, however, her food ran out and exhaustion got the better of her, and Annia was forced to seek shelter in the roots of a great tree.
The sound of horses and murmuring voices woke her a second time, and she cried out in fear—only to be stopped by a handsome man with kind gray eyes and a warm smile. He was a handsome man, with brown skin and soft-looking curly hair, dressed in clothes finer than anything she'd ever seen.
Though she was at first afraid, eventually the man convinced her to let him help her, and into his carriage she went. Several hours later they reached the man's destination: the royal palace, where everyone greeted him 'Your Majesty.'
Before she could run away, terrified all over again at being in the company of the king, Annia was ushered inside and swept off to the healer and then to a room so beautiful and luxurious it made her homesick for her little cottage by the river and the familiar rattle and creak of the mill as it made flour for the village.
Eventually, she fell asleep, and for the first time in many days slept peacefully. But when she woke in the morning, it was not to find all had been a strange dream, as she had hoped. She had no hands. She was far from home, in a castle that was as terrifying as it was beautiful.
And the king, she was told as a servant appeared to see if she was awake, had invited her to breakfast…
Annia tried not to gawk as she walked through the halls, following the kind woman who had helped her the previous night and woken her this morning. She reminded Annia of so many women back home, with the efficient manner and bright smile, hair pulled tightly back so as to be out of the way, a rolling lilt to her words that the rare city folk who passed through the village did not possess. That the king did not possess.
Oh, moon and stars, the king.
She tried to grip the folds of her heavy skirts with her hands, and was yet again reminded that she didn't have hands. That the finger she expected to be there, could swear she felt there sometimes, were probably still lying in the grass where Tomi had throne them.
Tears threatened, and a scream started to form in her throat, but Annia blinked away the tears and choked the scream. Neither would help. She would do as she'd done when her mother died, when her father had died, when he stepmother had remarried and left them for her new life in a city far away: make do and carry on.
The servant woman led her through a pair of enormous doors made of wood and glass designed to look like trees, the branches intertwining when the doors were closed. Inside was a room that continued the forest theme, morning sunshine pouring through the glass dome at the top.
It made her long for home all over again, even as she recoiled at the thought of returning to a place where her brother spewed bile and venom, and chopped off her hands in a blinding rage.
Taking a deep breath, Annia stopped several paces away and gave an awkward curtsy.
"Good morning," the king said warmly, and if she was not so terrified and miserable, that smile might have made her chest flutter, made fanciful, girlish notions spin in her head.