The stone tower was perched on the western border of the kingdom. The king’s father’s father’s father had erected it to watch for seafaring invaders from the West. It had been staffed up until about ten years prior and had been empty since then. The powers of the West had determined that kingdoms suited them better than conquests and the border had not been challenged in nearly a century.
The tower rose abruptly from an broad stretch of rocky fields, like a knife staked through a piece of paper. The road back to the kingdom tore jaggedly down to the South and East. The North was smudged with dark copses of trees.
Even from the very top of the tower’s conical roof, the tawny fields touched every horizon, a blank page waiting for a pen.
Ada felt a certain eager wonder from that perch. The sunset was most spectacular at all, as if the edge of the paper had been dipped in red wine.
She sometimes imagined that the wavering light on the western horizon was the edge of the ocean. She would stay up there for hours, dreaming of the expanse that she had only ever read about. Supposedly there were gulls and whales and ships and krakens, lavish merchants and pirate women, chests of gold and coves of pleasure.
Had Ada been alone in the tower, she might have been truly content.
But, she was not. Her hours of revelry were ended by a screeching whine all too eager to remind Ada that she was not supposed to be enjoying herself.
The king, ever the traditionalist, had hired a witch to supervise Ada. The witches of old had wrought great magics, truly capable of single-handedly defending a tower like this even from a full army.
The witch that the king had chosen was capable of single-handedly smoking an entire pound of herbs in an evening.
Witches had become like that, in the recent years. They said that the ether was growing weaker. Ada did not think it was the ether that was fading, but rather their ambitions. If not for the legends and traditions, the king may have been able to see the truth. He had not hired a witch, so much as a shriveled old woman as bitter as the poultices that she ground with her pestle.
Ada had tried to be friendly at first, but she just couldn’t crack the witch. It was as if the woman had been given a list of all the worst traits of both of Ada’s parents and had been instructed to be sure to use all of them in how she treated Ada. In fact, Ada wouldn’t put it past her mother to have done just that.
The witch told her she was ‘too fat’ (apparently any fat meant ‘too fat’) and rationed her dinner. So, Ada would sneak down to the kitchen and see how much she remembered of the recipes she’d learned from the chef’s apprentice.
Then, the witch lectured her on the ‘rules of polite society’ and so Ada asked the witch genuine questions until the witch contradicted herself. Then the witch would become mad at Ada, somehow, because her own rules didn’t make sense. Not so polite after all.
Especially, the witch lectured her that she needed to stop her ‘perverted activities’, and since the witch utterly refused to use the word ‘masturbation’, Ada just sunnily replied that she wasn’t doing anything perverted at all. This usually lead to another lecture about rules, which lead to the witch contradicting herself again, which made the witch angriest of all.
Ironically, she would get so upset that she would banish Ada out of her sight “lest I turn you into a newt and make your father angry with me,” affording Ada some alone time for her so called ‘perverse activities’.
All in all, the witch left Ada mostly alone except for her daily quota of nagging.
Ada couldn’t complain too much. It was the most freedom that she’d ever had. And that freedom was made all the sweeter because whichever poor lad or lass had last been stuck out here on watch duty had been a reader. One of the tower’s rooms was lined on every wall with books.
And these were not the manners manuals or cautionary tales of Ada’s youth.
There were practical volumes about the many varieties of edible berries, the most effective medicinal herbs, the best techniques for field dressing.
There were also academic books on the histories of the kingdoms, which took extra special care to describe just who was having affairs with whom. Ada smiled smugly at that, very sure that she had been acting very much ‘like a princess’ after all.
But best of all, there were stories. There was adventure and romance, tragedy and heartbreak, cunning plots, evil deeds, noble sacrifices, the triumphs of good, swashbuckling heroes and blushing heroines.
These inspired Ada’s fantasies in her times of pleasure. She imaged herself as the hero, sweeping in to save a blushing prince or buxom princess from some dastardly foe. In her imaginings, they revered her still. But, not for her heritage. For her deeds. For herself.
And even aside from her fantasies, Ada felt more accomplished after a moon in the tower than she ever had in the castle. The witch had been supposed to do all the chores, lest Ada’s hands or back toughen and she become a less desirable future wife.
In yet another of her ironies, the witch had shirked that part of her duty, preferring to sit in front of the fireplace in a haze of herb smoke and delegate the work to Ada.
So, Ada had learned to do the washing and the cleaning. She brushed her own hair. She bathed herself in the stream and carried back pails of water. She hunted for mushrooms and dug up potatoes.
Her hands and back did indeed toughen. Her arms became firm. A book on rehabilitation exercises for injured soldiers offered ample exercises for building strength. Ada practiced these enthusiastically.
She took great pride in imagining herself not as a princess, but as the watch tower’s new guardian. Imagining the witch as her infirm charge made the old woman’s behavior slightly more tolerable.
The only downside was that she was lonely. But, she wasn’t any more lonely than she had been in the castle.
And, in fact, if the witch had even the smallest willingness to be friendly, it might have been quite a nice life. Instead, the witch ramped up her nagging, seemingly intent on breaking Ada’s spirit. Her commentary became more cruel and insistent, her retaliations more petty.
It was nothing that Ada wasn’t used to, so she just kept on.
She learned how to create snares with saplings and twine. After a couple of days of failure, she’d successfully caught two rabbits. She killed them and cleaned them by the stream. As the rabbits roasted with fresh chives that she’d gathered from the field, the tower’s main room smelled almost as good as the castle’s kitchen had. Those nights of stolen pastries seemed so distant, though it had only been two moons.
It was only as Ada pulled the rabbits out of the oven that the witch stirred from her smoky haze.
Ada handed her a platter where she sat by the fire. She uttered no thanks — she never did — and grumbled that catching game was violent behavior unbecoming of a princess. Such misgivings did not stop her from greedily devouring the meal.
The witch ate by the fire and Ada ate in the kitchen. As she savored the first bite, she couldn’t remember ever having tasted anything so incredible. Ada wasn’t sure if it was just that she hadn’t had any meat since they arrived at the tower or if she truly had made something nearly as good as the castle staff, but she was proud of herself all the same.
Ada cleaned her plate, fetched her favorite book, and sunk into her own chair by the fire. She was exhausted and the crackling warmth was welcome.
The witch’s platter was on the floor next to her chair, almost totally clean. It was as much a compliment as Ada would get from the prune of a woman.
As Ada settled in, the witch glowered at her.
Ada paid her no mind. Her book fell open in her lap, eager for her fingers between its pages, wooing her with the smell of old paper and a story about an assassin who fell in love with his mark. The edges of the pages were tattered, a few pages spattered with old wine and tea.
She was not the only one who had loved this book. As she imagined the swift assassin and the wary beauty, she also imagined the hands that had touched the pages just where she did now. It was the most dear connection that Ada had ever felt with another human.
“Don’t get lazy now,” the witch snapped, kicking the edge of her platter.
“I’ll wash it before bed.” Ada didn’t look up, but she knew the witch was still glaring.
This was a particularly foul mood. Ada had naively hoped that a proper meal might at least temporarily abate the witch’s grousing. It seemed to have had the opposite effect.
The king must have been very clear that Ada was to be miserable. Ada just didn’t understand why the witch felt the need to listen to him. It wasn’t as if he was really checking on them, anyway.
Ada had tried to say as much before. It only made the witch angrier, probably because she realized that Ada was right. So, Ada stayed quiet and flipped to the next page of her book.
The witch stood and loomed over her. She did this from time to time, apparently believing that it would make Ada uncomfortable. Ada continued to ignore her, like a parent might ignore a pestering child.
“Look at me!” The witch snatched the book out of Ada’s hands.
Ada sighed. “What do you want? I said I’ll finish washing before bed.”
The witch turned the book around and skimmed the pages, then scoffed. “Your father would burn me at the stake if he caught you reading this filth!”
Then, without any further ceremony or warning, she threw the book into the fire.
Ada lunged after it, skinning her knees on the rough stone of the hearth. It was too late, the pages already halfway to ash before her shaking hands found the iron tongs that hung next to the fireplace. All she could do was watch the story turn to flame, the cover melting slowly into embers.
The witch looked down at Ada with folded arms. “I knew I shouldn’t have let you read those common books. They rot the mind. I should have burned the whole lot as soon as we arrived.”
Thoughts finally emerged from Ada’s shock. She was happy to permit the witch her nagging, but this was something else entirely. This was cruel.
She wanted to be angry. Instead, she was afraid. Would she really be locked in this tower forever, denied even the barest thread of human connection?
No, of course not. She would leave.
Plans danced in the flames in front of her.
She had already learned much of what she’d need to survive in the wilderness. Chief among those lessons was that only death awaited the ill-prepared.
She would need suitable clothes and enough rations to last until she found a place to forage. She would need to sew a pack and carefully choose which books to bring with her. She would need to search the tower for any tools that might prove useful, without alerting the witch to her plan.
She would need time.
Though the witch was cruel, she was not clever. Ada would feign misery, let the witch feel like she’d won.
At that moment, feigning misery was easy. Mostly because she did not have to feign at all.
Ada clenched her skirts in her hands and sobbed by the fire.
The witch settled back into her chair, lit another pipe of herbs, and smiled.