Rapunzel sat in the window of her tall tower and sighed. She had an excellent view across the lush green forests of the kingdom and the sight of the low autumn sun sinking down over the tops of the trees was very beautiful… but a prison is a prison, even if it does have a spectacular view.
She sighed a second time and turned away from the window, contemplating instead her surprisingly well-equipped living quarters. It had all mod cons by the standards of the day and every-thing that a young princess could desire to entertain herself; a small but well-stocked library, a spinning wheel and a painter’s easel by which stood several finished artworks, all of the view from the tower window.
No, it didn’t matter how desirable a residence it might be, she was still stuck in a single circular room thirty feet in diameter, with no possible means of escape. Her hair didn’t help either; the unnaturally long locks with which she was cursed trailed behind her everywhere she went, like a prisoner dragging his ball and chain. She had a permanent crick in her neck from having to pull it around after her and she had tripped over it on numerous occasions. She sighed a third time.
“Such a sigh,” said a voice.
Rapunzel spun around, almost wrapping herself in her hair. Who said that? Could it be the Enchantress who had imprisoned her in this tower? No – she could only enter the building by climbing up Rapunzel’s hair (which hurt like hell, by the way).
The voice spoke again; “I can’t remember the last time I heard such a sigh.”
It was a woman’s voice; an older woman than Rapunzel, but deeper in timbre than that of the Enchantress. It sounded… not exactly kind, but soothing and relaxing – though not necessarily in an altogether good way.
“Who… who’s there?” stammered Rapunzel, still unable to see anyone in the darker recesses of the room.
“No-one to fear, my dear,” said the voice.
Rapunzel grabbed a fruit knife from a nearby table, where she had been earlier eating an apple and brandished it at the room in general. “I’m not afraid to use this,” she snapped.
“Oh, I’ll wager you aren’t,” purred the voice; “my brave, brave girl.”
Finally, Rapunzel’s eyes adjusted to the light of the setting sun and she saw the vague outline of a figure in the furthest corner of the room.
“I can see you there,” said Rapunzel. “Step into the light.”
“I shall,” said the voice. “What little light there is.”
A shadowy finger reached out towards a dormant candle; “Here, let me help you.” There was a flash and a small puff of smoke and the candle sparked into life. Thus illuminated, Rapunzel saw her visitor for the first time.
She was tall for a woman, an older lady as Rapunzel has suspected and wearing a hooded cloak, under which could be seen a thick mane of grey hair. She looked neither kindly nor sinister and the most startling thing about her were here eyes, which shone a startling pale blue in the semi-darkness.
“Now, isn’t that better?” said the Stranger.
Rapunzel did not lower the knife. “Who are you?” she demanded.
“A friend,” the Stranger replied.
As the Stranger moved forward, Rapunzel circled around so as to keep maximum distance between them, keeping the knife steady. A circular room wasn’t the ideal environment for getting away from someone.
“How did you get in here?” she asked.
“Magic,” smiled the Stranger frankly. “I’m a witch.”
This didn’t inspire a great deal of trust in Rapunzel. Throughout her childhood, before she was brought to this terrible tower, she had always been warned to give witches a wide berth. They could not be trusted; even the so-called White Witches generally worked to some kind of hidden agenda and had to be approached with extreme caution.
“That’s impossible,” Rapunzel decided; “even the Enchantress who imprisoned me her can’t just appear at will.”
“That’s a different kind of magic,” smiled the Stranger. “I’m not mere Enchantress; my magic is of an altogether more potent form. I am a force of nature, my dear brave Rapunzel, ancient and powerful.”
“Wait a minute,” said Rapunzel; “how did you know my name?”
“There’s no magic in that, my sweet,” said the Stranger. “Everyone knows the story of poor, poor Princess Rapunzel, trapped in her tower and unable to escape, with only visits from a deceitful Enchantress for company.”
There was a slightly mocking tone in the Stranger’s voice that Rapunzel did not care for and it made her angry. “I won’t be here forever,” she snapped. “If my fate is as well known as you say, one day someone will take pity and come and rescue me!”
“A handsome Prince, perhaps?” said the Stranger.
“Don’t make fun of me!” shouted Rapunzel. She moved further around the room, but her temper had made her careless and she tripped over her hair, crashing to the floor. The fruit knife clattered from her grip. She reached out in desperation to retrieve it, but before she could, the boot of the Stranger pressed down upon the knife.
Rapunzel looked up as the Stranger, closer than ever, bent over her. The pale blue eyes looked into her very soul.
“Your Prince is not coming,” she said.
Rapunzel thought this was the end; the witch would take the knife and cut her throat, or cast some terrible spell to turn her into a newt or something. But instead, the Stranger reached out a hand to help her to her feet. Before she cautiously accepted the offer of assistance, Rapunzel saw the silver ring on the Stranger’s finger, depicting a stylised wolf’s head.
The Stranger helped Rapunzel to her feet.
“This knife is no good,” said the Stranger and she expertly threw the fruit knife across the room, where it embedded itself in the spindle of the spinning wheel with a wooden THUNK. Crossing to the room’s small kitchen area, she took a larger bread knife from the bread board and examined it with interest. “This might do,” she decided.
“For what?” asked Rapunzel, dusting herself down.
The Stranger turned and smiled. “Why, to cut off your beautiful hair, of course,” she said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Rapunzel clutched her hair protectively (or at least, some of it). “You can’t do that,” she gasped. “My hair is my pride and joy. It’s what makes me special.”
The Stranger moved towards her, caressing the knife in a very worrying way. As always, her manner was a blend of soothing and slightly threatening. “Darling, you are special without that,” she purred. “Your hair is just a silly old curse which that old hag of an Enchantress is using to control you.”
“But…” protested Rapunzel; “how will a Prince climb up here to rescue me if he can’t climb up my long hair?”
“I’ve told you, no Prince is coming,” said the Stranger; “they’re all off fighting the Barbarians in the Low Country.”
“Alright then, a Woodsman,” said Rapunzel in desperation. “A big strong Woodsman with long hair and a muscular bare chest…”
The Stranger interrupted the fantasy that had kept Rapunzel occupied on many long lonely nights in the tower. “Have you ever even tried to escape?”
“What?” asked Rapunzel, snapped from her reverie.
“Have you – yourself – ever actually tried to escape from this tower?” asked the Stranger.
“Well… no,” answered Rapunzel honestly. “Have you seen the drop down there? It’s like a hundred feet or something. And the walls are sheer, the Enchantress saw to that. Besides, even if I could get down – which I can’t – the forest out there is full of hungry wolves!”
“Wolves…” snorted the Stranger derisively.
“It’s true,” said Rapunzel. “I can hear them howling on a night. They know I’m in here and this tower is the only thing that protects me from them.”
The Stranger sat in an armchair and calmly crossed her legs. “I can assure you that there are no wolves in that forest.”
“I can hear them,” repeated Rapunzel emphatically.
“It’s a trick,” insisted the Stranger. “The Enchantress hires men from the village to stand in the forest on a night and blow crumhorns.”
“What’s a crumhorn?” asked Rapunzel.
“It’s a double-reed wind instrument consisting of a small boxwood pipe of cylindrical bore, curved upward at the lower end and pierced with finger holes like those of a recorder… but that’s not important. What’s important is that I can ensure you there are absolutely no wolves waiting for you in the forest out there.”
Rapunzel almost found herself being taken in by all of this. Suddenly, she came to her senses. “Why should I trust you? You’re a witch, you told me as much.”
“That is true,” said the Stranger. “I don’t deny it. But you have to understand that witchcraft is one of the few things we women have all to ourselves. It’s a sacred trust passed down through the female line from generation to generation.”
“What about warlocks?” asked Rapunzel.
“Urban myth,” snorted the Stranger. “I’ve never met one.”
“So, wait a minute,” Rapunzel began; “are you telling me that you being here is all about female empowerment…?”
“Exactly!” said the older woman. “Here you are, a strong young woman of noble birth with a mind of her own and the whole world before her – and what are you doing? You’re stuck in a tower, controlled by some bitter old tart with a hair fetish, waiting for some tight-wearing toff to come clambering up to save you using part of your body as a rope!”
“Well, when you put it like that…” said Rapunzel.
“It’s not great whichever way you put it,” the Stranger leapt from her chair, which startled Rapunzel and almost made her fall over her hair again. “You are being used, Rapunzel. It doesn’t matter whether it’s by princes whose only proven method of picking up women is by rescuing them, or by some tatty old harridan who gets her rocks off by exerting her limited authority on an innocent young girl. Either way, you’re just a pawn in their weird little games.”
It made a sort of sense to Rapunzel, but she couldn’t see how he could get out of this situation. “But what can I do?” she ashed.
“Stand up for yourself,” demanded the Stranger, her voice rising to a fever pitch. “Stop being such a door-mat! Turn around to those people and say no, I’m not going to take it anymore! I AM RAPUNZEL – HEAR ME ROAR!! CAN YOU DO IT?”
“Not determined enough! CAN YOU DO IT??”
Rapunzel flinched slightly as the hooded woman threw her arm around her. It was especially disconcerting as she was still holding the bread knife. “That’s more like it. That’s my girl. You’re the future! Those princes and enchantresses are the past – they’re nothing!”
There was a moment of awkward silence, after which Rapunzel gently detached herself from the Stranger’s grip.
“Erm,” said Rapunzel. “How exactly are we going to get me away from this tower? Are you going to use magic the same way you came in?”
“No,” snapped the older woman. “There are rules to the use of black magic and using it to help another person is strictly forbidden.”
“Witchcraft is very complicated,” sighed Rapunzel.
The Stranger rolled her piercing blue eyes. “Tell me about it. Fortunately, we have a much more straightforward solution.” She held up the knife.
At first, Rapunzel was concerned that the knife had reared its razor-sharp head again, but when the Stranger explained her plan, she calmed down a little and even started to think that it might be a good idea. The plan was a simple one: Rapunzel could not climb down her own hair, so they would cut off her abnormally long golden locks and plait them into a rope (it sounded like hard work, but part of her hair was already braided into a rope to allow access to the Enchantress, so it wasn’t as labour-intensive a task as it first seemed), which would be tied to something in the tower and lowered from the window, allowing the young Princess to clamber to freedom. It took a little convincing on the part of the Stranger to convince Rapunzel to part with her hair, but a cunning mixture of feminism, confidence boosting and fear of missing out soon had the newly-confident young girl talked round to the concept.
Insisting upon doing the job herself, Rapunzel took the knife (upon which the Stranger had cast a spell to make it extra sharp) and held it against her hair, which she held bunched in her other hand. She intended to cut it just below shoulder length – it was fifty feet long, so there wasn’t exactly any reason for a pixie cut – but when it came to the crunch, she hesitated. Her hand quivered as she held the knife close to her silky strands.
“What’s the matter?” demanded the Stranger.
“I can’t do it,” sobbed Rapunzel. “I can’t cut my beautiful hair.”
The Stranger lost her temper and snapped angrily; “Oh, give it to me, you big baby!” She grabbed the knife from Rapunzel’s shaking hand and with a single swift slice she cut straight through the hair that was gathered in the girl’s other hand. It was a lot less painful than Rapunzel had imagined; that knife must have been made very sharp indeed. She watched the loose strands fall to the floor like a fraying golden velvet rope and wiped the tears from her eyes.
The Stranger tucked the knife into her robes; it was a good knife and would certainly come in useful for something later on. She bent down and picked up the long, snaking piece of hair, idly starting to braid the part that wasn’t already braided.
“There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” she asked.
“N-no,” sniffed Rapunzel and started to assist her in the braiding. It felt weird styling her own hair when it wasn’t attached to her head, but on the positive side, the crick in her neck was already starting to subside.
In no time at all, the two women had braided the long flaxen locks into a thick, strong rope like a Brigantine’s hawser. They knew it would be strong enough to support Rapunzel’s weight because the Enchantress had been climbing up it on a regular basis. It was just a case of finding something to attach the rope to. They considered the bedstead, but were concerned that it might start to slide towards the window, before settling on the spinning wheel, which was bolted to the floor to avoid wobbles during a vigorous spinning session.
Encouraged by the Stranger, Rapunzel fastened the hairy rope around the wooden spinning wheel and between them the two women hefted the remainder across the room to the window. With a mighty heft, Rapunzel tipped the coils out of the window of the tower and watched them unravel all the way down to the ground where they kicked up a small cloud of dry earth.
The princess could hardly believe her eyes. After so long locked up in this cold and lonely tower, at last an escape route lay before her. All she had to do was clamber down the hairy rope and she was free! She would find her way back to her parent’s kingdom and tell them all about the awful Enchantress; her father would probably dispatch a squadron of his best men to track down the old hag and cut off her head.
And she owed it all to this mysterious blue eyed Stranger, who had appeared out of nowhere and encouraged her to have the bravery to free herself. At the back of Rapunzel’s mind, something quietly reminded her how odd it was that this unfamiliar witch had just turned up and assisted her for no reason, but she was so delighted by the prospect of being free of this terrible tower that she chose to just ignore it.
She embraced the Stranger, who seemed a little uncomfortable with the idea. Her robes smelt like the forest and dogs. “I don’t know how to thank you,” she said with deep emotion. “I owe you my life and my freedom.”
“It was nothing,” said the Stranger, who now seemed rather impatient and wriggled her way out of the young girl’s grip. “You should be on your way – your future lies hence!” She pointed out of the window with hooked finger.
Hasn’t she got sharp fingernails, thought Rapunzel; almost like talons?
“It’s getting rather dark,” commented the Princess, suddenly beset by caution.”Perhaps I should wait until morning when there are less robbers abroad…?”
The Stranger looked at her (or possibly through her) with those piercing blue eyes. “Do you want to be here when the Enchantress comes back?” she warned. “Do you want her to foil your escape plan and have you locked up in this tower forever?”
“No, but…” Rapunzel hesitated. “Are you sure there are no wolves out there?”
“Absolutely,” said the Stranger with a crooked smile. She reached into her robe and took out the knife. “Here, take this. If you should run into a wolf – which you won’t – you can use it to defend yourself.”
Rapunzel reached for the knife, but as she took it from the Stranger, the tip of her finger brushed ever so slightly against the supernaturally sharp blade.
“Ouch!” said Rapunzel, as a bead of bright blood welled up on her finger.
“’Tis only a tiny scratch, dear,” said the Stranger comfortingly. “Suck it for an instant and pay it no more heed. Now, come along – the moment of your emancipation is here.”
Rapunzel sucked her finger as the Stranger led back to the window. A cool breeze blew a fresh forest smell into the chamber and the songbirds seemed particularly active as the sun went down. All of this spurred Rapunzel on to embrace her freedom and suddenly all of her caution was gone. She perched her bottom on the window ledge, the stone cold through her silken dress.
“I won’t forget what you have done for me,” said Rapunzel.
“I have no doubt of that, my sweet,” said the Stranger.
“When I get home, I will have my father reward you richly,” she added.
The Stranger shook her head. “There is no need, my dear. What you have done for me today is reward enough.”
“What I’ve done…?” Rapunzel was confused.
The Stranger brushed the question aside with a sweep of her hand. “Come along, dearest Rapunzel; your future beckons.”
Rapunzel clambered out of the window and shimmied down the rope made of her hair. She felt no fear, only the endless possibilities of her newly found freedom. In no time at all, she had reached the bottom and for the first time in many years her bare feet touched something other than the hard wood of the tower floor.
She felt the breeze blowing through her remaining hair and the fresh green grass between her toes. She was free. After all this time, she was free.
Stood at the window, the Stranger watched the girl far below as she looked up and waved, her face one big smile. She seemed joyous as she turned away from the tower and started to walk excitedly into the forest. She had gone no more than a dozen steps when she paused, as if hearing something moving in the woods. She took a couple of steps backwards.
The thick brush parted in the darkness and a pair of large grey wolves appeared. Then another pair, then another. They stalked towards Rapunzel as she turned back towards the tower in desperation. The Stranger caught a brief glimpse of her despairing face before the wolves closed in on her and she was buried beneath a mass of grey fur, suddenly stained red.
The Stranger smiled. “Thank you, my sweet,” she purred, before turning from the window and disappearing into the darkness.
The road to Oakville was fairly busy by the standards of the day. Hay carts and merchants with barrows headed towards the small town to ply their trade and a farmer drove a herd of bored-looking cattle along the dusty track to market.
Towards the back of this group was a young girl in a hooded crimson cape. She carried a wicker basket covered over with a gingham cloth and sang happily to herself as she skipped along towards her destination.
‘Shall I go walk the wood so wild?
Wandering, wandering, here and there,
As I was once full sore beguiled,
Alas! For love! I die with woe.
Wearily blows the winter wind,
Wand’ring, wandering, here and there,
My heart is like a stricken hind,
Alas! For love I die with woe.’
“That’s a pretty song,” said a voice, causing the young girl to stop in her tracks and see who had spoken to her. It was an older woman in a black cape, with long grey hair and piercing blue eyes. “Though I’ll wager not as pretty as that splendid red cape,” she added.
“My Grandma made it for me,” said the girl. Her parents had warned her not to talk to strangers, but she somehow felt at ease with this lady.
“She must love you dearly, my sweet,” said the Stranger.
“Oh, she does,” nodded the girl. “I’m taking this basket of food to her cottage just outside Oakville.”
The Stranger looked up the long, dusty road. “Oakville? That’s a very long way. Why don’t you take a shortcut through there…?” She indicated the dense forest that lay to the East of the road.
The girl looked shocked. “Oh no,” she said. “I could never go through there. Everyone says there are wolves that will eat you up!”
“Wolves,” snorted the Stranger dismissively. “That’s just an old wives’ tale. Come on, I’m going to Oakville too, you can hold my hand.”
She wasn’t sure quite why, but the girl found herself taking the older lady’s hand.
“We can sing your song together, if you like,” said the Stranger as she led the red-hooded girl into the dark forest. “How does it go…?”