Jannessa Cruzan's fantasy parable about Sage's quest to protect his mother from the monsters determined to claim her.
"I don't know why you have to go," Sage says.
The Princess' eyes crinkle like paper when she frowns. She fastens the rose scarf around her head and shoulders, covering the baldness there. Sage imagines the sun rising through her thin skin when she stands in front of the window. The light does nothing to dim the dark bruises on the inside of her arms.
"We both know these tests have to be run. They could tell us everything about what's wrong with me." She bends down, putting her hand on his head. Her voice turns wistful. "Who knows? Maybe I'll find a wizard who will cast a spell and make everything better." She looks away, seeming to ignore Sage's wince.
"You don't need a wizard. You have me," Sage says, knocking her hand away. "Every time you leave, you come back with more monsters. You have to stay; I can't protect you if you keep leaving."
"Sage, I have to go. If you need anything, go next door to Celia's house. You'll see, there won't be any monsters when I come back."
The way she says this makes him think she is humoring him and treating him like a child. Only, he sees sadness and fear in her eyes. He begins to reach out to her but stops, pulling back. His stomach cramps as if a rock weighs it down; he swallows. How can he tell her about the trolls without destroying her? He watches them prowling each night, staring at her with hungry eyes every time she glides past a window. He's afraid she'll break if he tells her now.
The Princess squeezes Sage's hand once before twisting the scarf over her shoulder like an artist. She descends out of the house and into the sunlight, glowing like a fairy brimming with magic.
Celia pokes her head over the fence when Sage and his mother draw close. She's grinning wide, revealing her chipped incisor. Her hair is short and wispy like dandelion puffs in the morning breeze. "Good morning. I'm here to wish you luck on your adventure today, Princess Liane."
The Princess' shoulders shake, her laughter as gentle as the wind. A tingling sensation sweeps up Sage's neck at the sound; does she have to flaunt her disbelief that easily? He shifts from foot to foot, trying to catch Celia's eyes.
"We'll make sure to watch your back here, so you just handle your business however you need to." Celia inches her way through the gate. "Don't worry about Sage - I'll protect him for you." Turning toward him, she squeezes past the Princess. "Come on," she says, grabbing his hand.
She pulls him through the yard toward the back gate. He looks back to see one final glimpse of his mother, small and alone, almost bleached out by the sun. She gives a small wave before heading to her car. His chest constricts. When he notices Celia leading him into the woods, a sour taste slithers up his throat.
Celia stops, still holding his hand. "What? Why?"
He rubs his free palm against his pants, his fingers cold. The forest looms over his head like a slumbering creature on the verge of waking. Somewhere in there, the trolls lie sleeping, gaining strength for the battle ahead. "We don't know what's in there," he says. His voice cracks at the end.
"We know exactly what's in there." Celia looks him in the eyes, putting her other hand on his shoulder. "We have to prepare for the battle tonight, or the Princess won't have anyone to look after her when she returns. You have to do this; you know that."
"That's exactly why we can't go in there. What if I get hurt? Then what will she do?" He looks away from her, his ears growing cold. Pressure builds behind his eyes at her steady gaze. He clears his throat, breaking contact. "Why did you cut your hair? I liked it better in the braid. You looked like a true warrior then."
Her lips press together. "I didn't ask for your permission." He shrugs. She makes an exaggerated show of mussing her hair until it stands straight up. Sage knows she wants him to say something, but he can't find the right words. After a few seconds, she sighs, shoulders slumping. "I thought if I cut all my hair off like the Princess I would inherit some of her strength. My mom caught me before I could, though. I did my best."
Sage licks his lips, his mouth growing dry at her words. He feels sick, the iciness inside him continuing to grow. "The Princess doesn't have any hair because the trolls stole it from her. It makes her weak." His eyes prickle. "She didn't lose her hair just for fun. Don't you know anything?"
Celia frowns, her bright eyes turning dark. "Of course I know that. You're just avoiding the problem."
"What would that be?"
"You want to be a knight, yet you're too afraid to go in the woods during the day when the trolls are sleeping."
She thinks he's afraid? He turns and pushes her; she stumbles back, her cheeks flushing. His heartbeat roars in his ears. He'll show her. He's not afraid. "I can be a knight." He moves past her, knocking into her shoulder. He doesn't stop for her to catch up, instead marching forward to the trees.
Celia catches up to him. She thumbs her nose, a smile tugging at the corner of her lips. He ignores her, making his way to their meeting spot. Two oak trees stand as guards, as tall as giants and as strong as stone. They mark the entrance to his fortress; underneath them he feels the first vestiges of peace settle over him.
"What do we need to do?"
He toes the ground, unearthing an acorn cap. At the sight of it, the pressure in his head releases. "We have to find acorns, as many as possible. Acorns have protective qualities; I read about it in a book." Celia rolls her eyes, but he continues. "We'll also need mushrooms - they give energy."
"Shouldn't we figure out a battle plan?"
"Fighting doesn't solve everything. The smarter we are, the better chance we have of keeping them from the Princess. She could return weakened. Our only hope is to prepare as much as we can."
"She's going to be fine, Sage. We'll take care of her."
Her words make his skin feel strange. He rubs at his neck, his head growing light. "I didn't ask for your opinion." His voice breaks and he grabs the acorn on the ground, using it to anchor himself. "Stop acting like you know everything."
Celia rubs her eyebrows, shaking her head. "You can't just ignore what's going on." He doesn't respond, and she sighs. "Fine. Just don't come crying to me if you turn all chicken when the trolls come."
"Boys don't cry."
"Girls do," Celia says, her eyes softening. "Maybe a little crying would do you some good." Despite her compassionate tone, her words batter his mind like a rockslide.
"Whatever," he says. He straightens and tosses the acorn cap at Celia. She snatches it out of the air. "We should start looking if we want to find enough supplies for tonight."
The two of them spend the day scouring the woods for the items he believes will protect the Princess. By time the sun begins to set, they have a pile of acorns tucked in the roots of one of the trees and mushrooms beneath the other. The final fibers of sunlight brush against their cheeks. The time for the Princess' return has arrived. Soon, the trolls will crawl out from their holes and lumber their way toward the castle for the final battle.
"What are you even doing?" Celia asks, trying to watch Sage and the forest at the same time.
"I'm making a spell."
"You? Make a spell?"
"Yes," he says, annoyed at her incredulity. In his anger, his fingernail catches on the acorn cap, tearing. Pain lances through his finger. Before Celia can notice, he sticks it in his mouth, eyes watering. "I can be a wizard if I want to. I can be a knight and a wizard and a warrior and everything else."
Celia holds up her hands, pacifying him. "I didn't mean anything by it. I'm sorry." She turns her entire attention on the darkening trees, leaving him to his work.
Even with the torn fingernail, his nimble hands separate the rest of the acorns with ease. He tosses the caps over his left shoulder for luck; he wedges a mushroom top onto the remaining pieces. Magic begins to seep through his fingers. It floods his limbs, infusing him with strength. A grin pulls at his cheeks, his body warming.
He glances at Celia and begins to tell her about the spell, but the words die on his lips. She stands tall, surveying the woods like she doesn't fear anything. He can't sense a hint of dread in her like he senses in himself. He deflates, the energy leaving him as quickly as it came. If he's the only one who needs magic, what does that even mean?
A low growl rumbles through the trees. Sage's heart leaps, the talismans tumbling through his shaking fingers. Celia appears at his side within seconds, grabbing his hands, her eyes steady. "It's time," she says. "They're coming."
She rubs his hands, bringing warmth back into his fingers. He finds himself studying her in the violet light, weighing her against some standard in his head. He doesn't know where this measure came from, but he knows she meets the requirements. Her features sharpen under the moon. The shadows accentuate her bone structure: her cheekbones rise, her eyes slant, her lips thin. She grows before him, her hair no longer wisps but a starlit crown pulsing upon her brow. He wonders what he looks like to her. Does he look bigger under the moonlight, now that the eye staring down at them is much smaller than the sun they trust?
A second roar breaks him from his thoughts. Taking a deep breath, Sage nods, shoving a fistful of acorns into her hands. "Keep them close," he says, hoping they'll help. He picks up the ones he dropped and crams them into his pocket. As soon as he finishes, Celia grabs his wrist.
They run through the woods, Celia staying a few feet ahead of him no matter how hard he tries to keep abreast with her. The monsters follow them like a hurricane and he struggles to outrun them. He gulps in air, the blood pounding in his throat until it matches the tempo of his feet. A branch hits his cheek. The slap of pain brings Sage back to his flight. The night has arrived and brought the shadows with it.
Celia whoops beside him. She jumps over a log, her long legs clearing the obstacle with ease. Sage's hair sticks to the back of his neck, itching, and he flicks it off his damp skin. The monsters advance, roaring like trains. They collide with everything in their path, tossing aside elm, maple, and birch like toothpicks. His finds it hard to stay upright, his feet catching in tree roots. What made him think he could outpace these beasts?
"They're going to rip the forest apart trying to capture her," Celia yells, veering closer.
"All we have to do is lead them away." The words sound hollow in his ears. "We just have to keep them off her trail."
"Trolls can smell princesses."
A dull pain spreads through his teeth and he opens his mouth, working his clenched jaw out. "What do you suggest we do then?"
Clawing at his pocket, Sage manages to grab one of his spells. He clutches the acorn, drawing strength from the little pocket of life. Everything has chilled with the sun's absence. "You're crazy. We can't take them on right now. I'm the brains, and I say no."
Even running, Celia's anger is apparent. "Yeah, well, I'm the muscle." She slides to a stop, leaves flying around her feet. "I say we fight. Do you want to save your mom? She can't handle this right now."
He grabs her arm. She winces at his grip, but her eyes harden and she doesn't move.
"Sage, will any of this mean anything if we can't fight a few trolls?"
He inhales, the air filling his lungs like icy daggers. She's right; the knowledge settles in his stomach like rotten food. He does have to stand and fight, even if that means he might never return. He has to act like a knight if he wants to become one.
Celia must see the change in his face because she gives him a nod before facing the direction they came from. She grips her sword in her hands, hard enough to turn her knuckles white. Sage pulls the talismans from his pocket and drops them on the ground. He pushes them into the earth in a half circle. Celia doesn't bother to stand behind it; as expected, she doesn't need his protection.
"Please," he whispers, too low for Celia to hear, "please grant us safety."
Together they wait, listening as the sounds of thunder near. Inky darkness pours toward them, dousing them in gloom. Sage thinks of the Princess sitting in a white room with an evil enchanter standing over her, weaving tubes through her arms. Somewhere she's receiving flimsy slips of paper that will reveal her destiny.
The trolls find Sage and Celia within minutes. They surround the two with enough force to send the trees to their knees. Their breath wilts the grass where they stand. Sage swallows and licks his lips; Celia's face grows pale. The trolls taste the air, grunting, barely out of range.
Sage's arms quiver under the weight of his sword; he struggles to lift his like Celia has with hers. What if they break past? What if they reach the Princess? The thoughts scurry across his mind like hundreds of rats swarming over him; he doesn't know how much more he can take before he crumbles under the strain.
"We come for the princess," they say, their voices as rough as tree bark. "Give us her. Her time is done." They stay in the shadows; a part of Sage hopes he is invisible to them, too. He squeezes his eyes shut. He knows monsters cannot see him if he keeps his eyes closed.
"No," he says, his voice barely a whisper.
Celia echoes him, louder, and he draws what little strength he can from her confident voice.
"The shadows in her skin. Under her eyes. She lost the light. For her we come."
The image of the Princess before she left that morning surfaces in Sage's mind. He sees her translucent skin and the bruises that stand like beacons against her flesh. The space behind his eyes stings as the night falls upon his shoulders like a mantle. Only when Celia shakes him does he realize the trolls continue to threaten him. He wipes at his cheeks, shocked to find them wet.
"Sage, you have to stand up to them."
He opens his eyes, looking at her. Her face shines like a star. "How?"
"However you can." Her face softens, the light in her dimming to a radiant glow. "They're yours, but I'm here, too."
He takes a deep breath, willing the lump in his stomach to go away. His grip tight on his sword, he steps over the acorn barrier. Celia stays half a step behind him. "You'll never have her," he says. His voice wavers, but he continues. "I won't let you."
"She returns. She is ours."
"You will never get your ugly claws on her. A creature of the night can never hope to stand beside a princess like her." His voice grows stronger with each step until the trolls flinch. He slices the air in front of him with his sword, forcing the monsters to stagger back. "I swore I would protect her."
"You fail. You are weak. You lose to the darkness in her blood."
Fire sears Sage's mind, burning everything else away. No matter what happens, she will always be his princess. All of her hair could fall out or she could grow so thin the wind blows her over and still she would be magnificent. He refuses to let the trolls think otherwise.
"I'm not weak. I'm here and I'm not withdrawing. You might try to pass me. You'll fail."
Sage flings his free hand out, spreading his fingers. The world turns to amber and scarlet around him. He takes one final step forward and yells. With that noise, the Knight's back straightens. His body combusts with determination, coating him like armor. The trolls flee before his blaze.
As soon as their footsteps diminish, he collapses. Celia catches him before he falls. He looks at her, his heart pounding. She's smiling, her lips forming words, but he's unable to hear her over the rushing in his ears. Then he makes out what she's saying: go home. He does.
With every step he feels as if the trees push him forward, urging him to go faster. He sees the lights in the house before he reaches the building. The windows are closed; his throat tightens. He slows, the stick he used to face his nightmares dropping from his hands.
When he reaches the door, his fingers move through sludge, as if the night doesn't want the light inside spilling out. Forcing a breath through his closed throat, he goes inside. The light blinds him. He blinks until he sees his mother sitting by the window. She has a new scarf around her head, this one the pale blue of the light around the moon. She smiles when she sees him. By her feet, tucked under the blanket she has draped around her, rests a yellow file.
She opens her arms, but he's already running to her. He falls into her; she kisses his forehead and pushes back his hair. His chest relaxes at her touch.
He looks at the papers sticking out of the file. Those pages decide her future. She follows his gaze, the smile slipping from her lips. "Do you want to know what I found out today?"
Sage thinks about it. "No. It doesn't matter. Whatever happens, I'm here for you, Mom." Her eyebrows arch, questioning, and he makes himself smile at her.
"What do you want to talk about? How about what you did with Celia today."
"We just walked around in the woods."
She taps his nose. "Oh? Were you fighting the monsters again?"
He shakes his head. Past her, his reflection stares back at him from the window. The glare prevents him from seeing outside, but he knows the trees are dozing and the moon is watching everything settle. Celia walks home, her sword over her shoulder. The trolls retreat to the twilight realm. Sage pushes the file off the seat.
"Monsters don't scare me anymore."