“Hoi! Coo-ee! Is there really someone up there?”
It’s not the normal call, but close enough. She is already rising from the bed and the rippling locks of hair are curling downwards, out of the window like a shimmering ladder of gold.
The man is too far below to be any more than a pale blob of upturned face and leather armour. She is singing, calling, as the hair curls downwards towards him.
“…won’t…won’t it hurt you?” the voice calls up, and she pauses for a moment. She cannot recall ever being asked this question before. Yes, it does hurt. Every time. Awfully. But it cannot stop her. She starts the inviting song again, and, after a moment’s hesitation, she feels the tugging begin as he swarms up towards her window.
By the time he reaches it, she is as caught up in the spell of the moment as he is. She sees what he sees as the song spills from her lips; the shimmering beauty of her face, wide green eyes alight with bewitching promise, the lustrous piles of golden locks curling around her, over the cushions and her shoulders and lap. She opens her arms and her lips to him as he stumbles forward, drawing him into her embrace for the kiss.
It is brief, with the faint taste of waybread and hazel-twig. Her eyes meet level grey ones, but instead of a surge of passion that drags them both along and downwards, there is a sudden shock of connection like a bucket of cold water, and she falls backwards onto the bed in confusion, looking up at…
It is a high-cheekboned face with a stubborn square chin and curly brown hair clubbed back into a sensible warrior’s queue. Not tall; broad through shoulders and hips. Wide grey eyes, wider still with shock and horror. She sees herself reflected in them; no longer the inviting vision, but filthy, naked, gaunt, emaciated, covered in stretch marks and thready ridges of scar tissue where the grasping waves of hair have bound her to the bed and scourged her skin for so long.
“…how? How now? We haven’t even…”
Her voice is thin, hoarse, creaking and cracking with despair. It brings tears of shame to her eyes to hear the desperation in it.
She normally gets the adoration first, at least, before the horror and humiliation. She has given up on the curse actually being lifted long since. She hadn’t even realised how much she had come to depend on the brief period of worship and enchantment. To go through the horror without it to bolster her was more than she could bear – and the shame of that cut like a knife. No matter how much she wills herself not to, tears begin to spill down her cheeks.
He… she… The person tentatively reaches out and touches her on the arm.
“…please don’t cry, Miss…” they say awkwardly, patting her shoulder gingerly, well away from the thick tangled skeins of hair that hold her to the bed as surely as any rope. “…are you a faery? Have I touched you with cold iron or summat? I didn’t mean to…”
The unexpected kindness in their voice nearly sets her to bawling like a polled calf, but with some barely clinging piece of dignity, she swallows the tears right down and replies as calmly as she can
“No. I am the Lady…”
There is a long moment of panic where she realises it has been so long since she said it that she cannot recall her name. She struggles, wracking her brain agonisingly as the young person stares, still patting her shoulder awkwardly. Then, blessed relief, it comes back into her mind.
“…Lady Melisandre of Curthelm. I… I…have been under a curse for… many, many long years, for refusing a marriage proposal from the White Prince…”
She flinches without meaning to as the image of waking to the face of the horrifyingly nondescript Mage in her bedchamber rises into her mind. The horror of her voice suddenly being taken as she tried to cry out, and then her limbs suddenly turning from her own control to his, puppeting her horribly out of her bed.
The person thinks for a moment, then nods.
“Lady Melisandre. Aye. I’ve seen your painting. In the Great Hall in Curthelm Keep when I was a little. You were as beautiful as you were painted, when you were…”
They cut off and shrug apologetically, then gesture at the hair filling the room and coiling around Melisandre.
“Is that it? The curse, I mean.”
Melisandre somehow keeps her voice from cracking again.
“Part of it. The rest was…what…what you saw… it draws…draws men to me, calls them, makes them…desire me more than anything, and…embrace me. And then, after…”
She waves her hand as much as the hair will let her to indicate her real appearance, the stench and darkness inside the tower, everything.
“…then they see the reality. And they…are disgusted, and…leave.”
Eventually, anyway. Not all of her scars are the bite or scourging of the hair.
“None of them will help me. None will release me…”
The young person nods, surveying her and the surroundings thoughtfully with their level grey eyes.
“You might not be telling me the truth, you know,” they say, eventually. “You might be some fey thing bound to stop you doing harm and trying to trick me into freeing you.”
Melisandre manages not to weep once more.
“…I could be, yes, I suppose…” she says dully, feeling the weight of her despair weighing her down once more. She can think of nothing she could say to convince the young person otherwise. She bows her head and bites the inside of her cheek.
They look at her for a long time, then nod, once.
“But even if you are… I can’t leave you like this. It’d be wrong.”
They stand back and draw a long knife from a boot.
“Call me Tom. I’m going to save you.”
They begin sawing at the ropes of hair around her arms. The hair is thick as steel rope. It is a good knife, but it blunts quickly. Tom takes a whetstone from their pocket and sharpens it, then keeps going. The sun moves as they continue sawing and sharpening, sawing and sharpening, patiently. Melisandre tries not to cry as she sees the single rope is barely halfway through as the sun sets.
She has fallen nearly into stupor when Tom suddenly exclaims
She starts awake and sees them slapping their forehead in the moonlight.
“I beg your pardon?”
Tom shakes their head.
“…um…not you, Miss… I mean, milady… Me. I’m the ninnyhammer. I always was.”
They sharpen the knife swiftly on their whetstone and stand up.
“Now…you need to hold proper still for me, right?”
They raise the knife, and for a moment she thinks they are going to cut her throat. Then she realises they are sawing away at the first twist of hair at the back of her neck.
This is much less resistant. She hears the fibres begin to part under the blade like lute strings snapping. The hair knows it too. The ropes and tendrils begin to shiver and dart. They lash at Tom’s eyes and hands, leaving hairline bleeding cuts. Tom wards them off with their hands and keeps sawing.
The ropes uncoil down Melisandre’s arms and begin to cool around Tom’s hands and up their wrists. Trying to restrain them as it has Melisandre herself.
Melisandre has a terrible moment of selfish hope. The hair will catch Tom. She will still be here, caught, cursed, yes, but…not alone. Someone who knows who she truly is. Someone to talk to.
Then she grabs at the ropes and begins to pry them off, ripping with her bony, claw-nailed fingers.
“Tom… go! Get out of here!”
She is weeping, now, and does not care in the slightest.
“Go on! Go! You’ve been…the most valiant rescuer I could ever have hoped for. Please… don’t be caught here with me. Go! Run! It’ll leave you alone if you go!”
Tom, chin set, is still fending off the tendrils and whips, protecting their eyes calmly with their left hand.
“No. I told you. I can’t leave you here. It would be wrong.”
Melisandre is ripping, tearing, fighting frantically now. Her body is covered in blood. There is blood in her eyes, blood in her mouth. She does not care.
“TOM! FOR GODS’ SAKE! YOU TRIED! YOU TRIED SO HARD! YOU’RE A HERO, TOM, THE ONLY REAL HERO I’VE EVER SEEN! DON’T LET IT END HERE! DON’T GET CAUGHT HERE, YOU STUPID LITTLE GOBSHITE!”
Desperately, she lunges forward to tear and bite at the thick rope coiling around Tom’s waist. The motion pulls the thick twist of hair hard against Tom’s knife, severing it as the rope snakes upwards towards Tom’s face…
…and Melisandre drops to the filthy stone floor, Tom landing hard on top of her, as the rope and tendrils are suddenly just dull brownish blonde hair, matted and greasy, covering them like unpleasant straw. The breath is knocked out of Melisandre and she is stunned, briefly, able to do nothing more than wheeze. Tom drops directly on top of her, but rolls off almost immediately, going crimson.
“By the Gods… I’m so sorry, Miss… Milady… Melisandre…”
Melisandre raises herself up on her frail, bony elbows, and, without quite meaning to, throws her arms around them and kisses them long and hard.
“…thank you…oh, Tom… oh, thank you so much…”
She stops, suddenly, fearing the same look of disgust she has seen in the eyes of every man who lay down with the vision and woke up with the scarred and battered and filthy reality. She is not a young girl any more. She must be twice Tom’s age now…
But Tom, looking back at her, while still red as a ripe tomato under all the blood and filth, has no disgust in their eyes at all.
It takes the two of them nearly a day to escape from the Tower. Tom constructs a harness from the ropes in their kit while Melisandre treats their wounds with hastily-mixed salves, wearing an improvised blanket skirt and Tom’s long coat. Tom lowers her down, carefully because of her frail limbs, then swarms down themselves after. Their sleepy dun gelding is still grazing quietly, barely looking up at the two of them even as Tom supports Melisandre and helps her to mount him.
“I can take you home, if you like,” Tom offers, looking up at her as they walk alongside the gelding. Melisandre smiles.
“I don’t think so. My father’s dead, you say, and… they’ve got that picture up in the ballroom. I’ve no wish to turn up as the reality, not after all these years.”
“All right. Where will you go, then?”
“Where are you going, Tom?”
They shrug, merrily, grinning. “Somewhere.”
“Mind if I come along?”
The grin turns, deepens, as they flush.
“It’s all I could ever have hoped for,” they say softly, shyly, looking up at her.
Overhead, the sun is rising on a new day, and the birds are beginning to sing.
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