Zelda hated her – the lovely Lorete. There were times when she stood in the garden and Zelda could have sworn Lorete’s hair was as yellow as the Queen’s favourite roses. Birds gathered around her, sitting on her shoulders. When she walked into the meadow, picking flowers for her hair, the King’s horses ran to her, snuffling for sugar cubes.
Prince Val was in love with Lorete. Zelda heard all the servants in the castle whispering about it. They were sure he was going to ask for her hand. They couldn’t blame him. ‘She’s so beautiful,’ they said.
Zelda was incensed. Beauty wasn’t enough of a reason to love someone. She wondered what Val would think of the lovely Lorete if she was a hideous hag.
Zelda had a secret. She had been reading her father’s book of potions. He was Sorceror to the King and paid so little attention to his daughter that he had no idea of her developing ability in the magic arts. She had tried out a few small spells – levitating objects, boiling water – with success.
A few weeks back she had found a spell to steal beauty away. The spell promised to make a beautiful person ugly. Zelda had been gathering the components of the spell for weeks. The hardest ingredient had been getting an imprint of a lark’s foot on pure white muslin; but she had succeeded this morning when the grass was still wet with morning dew, luring the lark with finely ground wheat from the grain stores. She finished making the potion just before Cook started serving breakfast, stirring it into Lorete’s porridge and handing it to her with a flourish.
‘How kind you are to make me breakfast,’ said Lorete in her sweet voice.
‘I hope you enjoy it,’ said Zelda in an even sweeter voice. ‘It is my secret recipe.’
She watched, eyes gleaming, as Lorete ate the porridge with relish, finishing every bite, disappointed when nothing happened immediately. She tried to keep an eye on Lorete all day but got distracted when her father summoned her to help him oil his cauldron.
Lorete didn’t come down to dinner. Zelda took advantage of her absence by chatting to the Prince with a lightness and vigour that wasn’t true to her character. She felt elated, bewitched by his chestnut eyes.
Upon settling down to bed there was a scuffling at her door. A woman wrapped in a thick, black shawl stood there. ‘Let me in,’ she groaned, pushing her way into the room.
‘Wait a minute,’ Zelda protested. ‘Who do you think you are coming into my room like this?’
‘It’s me – Lorete.’
Lorete pulled away the shawl. Zelda regarded her with a dreaded fascination.
Lorete’s face was covered with hundreds of tiny, shiny white scars. As the candlelight flickered and the shadows rose like water, it was almost possible to see Lorete as she once was. Almost.
‘Do you see these marks?’ Lorete cried. ‘I am covered in them. They are all over my body. What is this ailment that looks like the foot of a swallow or a tree martin?’
‘Or a lark,’ Zelda exclaimed in awe.
‘You have to help me, Zelda. Get your father to make me a potion. I cannot let the Prince see me like this. He will be repulsed.’
Lorete collapsed on Zelda’s bed, weeping until dawn. She stayed hidden for one week, two, three. The Prince became distraught, quizzing Zelda five times a day as to Lorete’s whereabouts. Zelda tried to distract him with witty comments and her knowledge of military strategy, but he remained disinterested.
Eventually she decided that there was nothing for it but to let him see Lorete in all her hideousness. He would find her repugnant, there was no doubt of it. Let him. Zelda would be there to comfort him, to offer an alternative to the once-lovely Lorete.
She arranged a meeting in her father’s sitting room. Twilight tinged the stone walls with amber. Lorete was nervous, coughing as if she was going to be sick. Zelda was bordering on euphoria.
The Prince entered the room, his chestnut eyes full of hope as he saw the form of Lorete in the shadows. She stepped into the light. ‘I have been cursed,’ she said. ‘I am ugly beyond belief.’
Zelda waited, biting her lip, drawing blood.
The Prince took Lorete’s hands, kissed each one.
‘Your beauty lies within you, right down to your soul. I will love you no matter how you appear.’
Zelda screamed. ‘No, no , no. This wasn’t meant to happen. You were meant to hate her as I do.’
Her hands flew to her mouth, shocked that she had given herself away.
‘It is an enchantment,’ the Prince cried. ‘Seize her.’
Now Zelda sits in the tower, forced to lift Lorete’s enchantment, watching as she and the Prince laugh in the gardens. She must complete one hundred tasks of atonement before she is released. As she completes them, one by one, she ponders how it is that some people can see past physical beauty to the soul within. And how some cannot.
* Inspired by the Search Engine Stories prompt – beauty.