Brother. Prince. Snake.
Enjoy this new original short story by author and young adult fiction editor Cecil Castellucci. A retelling of the Prince Lindwurm fairy tale, Brother Prince Snake is a story of love, sibling rivalry, and how a monster became King.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Roaring Brook Press editor Nancy Mercado.
When I was born, the last of triplet brothers, the midwife nearly threw me away. Until she heard me cry. My wail must have sounded pathetic and small and distasteful, just like I was, but it didn’t matter. It did the trick. It kept me alive.
“Show me my son,” the queen, my mother, demanded and she took me into her arms. She looked into my yellow eyes and considered my scaly yellow-green skin and then placed a kiss on my forehead.
“The witch was right,” the queen, my mother, said to those attending her. “One of my sons is a monster.”
And then she died.
I grew to think that my skin had somehow poisoned my mother and that I was responsible for her death. I bravely went to the forest to visit the witch myself, wanting to know if it was I that had killed my mother.
“What is your name, boy?” the witch asked.
“Wen,” I said.
“Speak up,” she said. “I cannot hear you.”
I did not like the sound of my voice. It was made up of ugly noises. It rasped and spit, it never flowed. My throat always burned.
“It has always been this way,” I said.
“It keeps you quiet,” she said.
She then asked about the scar on my forehead.
“What is that scar?”
“That is where the queen kissed my head, with love, just as she had for the two brothers who came before me.”
“Ah,” the witch said and stoked the fire. “Love lives there in that scar.”
“The midwife thought I would die by morning and put me into a basket on the ground as though I were a piece of trash.”
“But it was the queen who died in the night,” the witch said.
“And me, as strange and ugly a thing as I am, lived.”
“I told her that one of her boys would be a monster,” the witch said. “The queen, your mother, thought it fair price for my spell. ‘What is a kingdom with no king, no heir?’ your mother asked. I told her that if she took the three roses and lay them under the light of the full moon she would finally conceive a child. One of her sons would be a monster, one of them would become a great king.”
She brewed me some tea.
The fire crackled.
Afraid to ask the question I had come to ask, I passed the time by showing the witch my tiny wings and how far my jaw unhinged. She seemed unimpressed with those things.
“So tell me then, Wen. Are you here to ask me for a spell of your own? Some men are just born monsters.”
I knew that my cursed form could not be changed.
There were many things that I longed for, mostly to be a boy, like my brothers. I did not know if I was up to the task of living my life as a monster. But that was too large a wish and I could only think of one thing that could be cured by a witch’s magic.
“I do not like the sound of my voice,” I said.
She turned her back on me.
“Then do not speak, only sing,” she said.
Then she laughed in such a way that rattled my bones and I ran away, for though I was a monster, I was a coward, too.
My brothers grew to be fine boys. Landric, the oldest, was poised to become king. He was generous with his heart, open with his mind, and fair with his judgment. Aton, the second brother, was exceedingly charming, absolutely brilliant, and a master at games. But I had not grown more likeable. I only grew more terrifying.
I was moody, dark, and frightening. My nursemaids quit one after the other as I grew. My scaly skin, my tiny wings, my yellow eyes, and my long talon were unsettling. I was cold to touch, like a snake. My jaw could now open to fit around the head of a person. No one liked to be near me. My father rejected me and my brothers ignored me. My private tutors taught with their backs turned to me, too disturbed by my yellow stare. When I snuck away to town, the streets emptied. And while my brothers caught the eyes of girls, I only made them feel faint.
By the time I was fourteen, I rarely ventured outside. I spent most of my days in seclusion up in a tower where no one visited. My absence only added to the legend of my hideousness. My only companions were the gargoyles that could not speak ill of me because they were made of stone and the mice I would sometimes talk to before I ate them as a snack. At night, I would perch on the ledge of my tower window and stare at the lands that stretched outside of the castle, and then my eyes would drift up to stare at the night stars and when I saw their beauty, my scar would itch. I would touch my one piece of human skin and wonder how anyone could ever have loved a wretch like me, even for a second, to place a kiss on my head.
My chest was heavy with loneliness and I would sit alone in the tower and read. I entertained myself with mysteries. I kept my mind sharp with science and philosophy. And I indulged myself in books for children, where dragons were rampant. I looked more like a snake with wings, but I knew that I must be some kind of dragon. I told myself that those dragons did not read as I could. I reminded myself nightly that I had been born to be a man. I found comfort in the dark of the night and the pale light of the moon and the sound of the songs that I sang aloud to myself to help me fall asleep.
The witch was right about my voice. While no one could stand the sight of me or the sound of my voice when I spoke, even I was calm when I sang. And if I closed my eyes, when I sang, I felt like a man.
One day, a visiting king came to the castle to bring a dispute to my father. The dispute, if unsolved, could lead to war. My father called his sons to his chambers to ask for our advice. Despite my retreat to the tower, I came when called.
First my father consulted Landric.
“Split the land in half. No one man should have more than the other,” Landric said.
Our father waved Landric away and turned to Aton.
“Marry the daughter, demand all the land for a dowry,” Aton said.
Our father waved Aton away. I stepped forward, ready to give my advice.
“I did not call you for your advice,” my father, the king, said. “You are not a son, but a snake.”
War came that fall.
Like good princes, my brothers set out to do battle for our kingdom. I followed them. In the tent before the night of the battle, Aton, with his gift for strategy, lay out a plan.
“Landric will ride out in the first wave. I will be right behind you, ready to send in reinforcements.”
“And what shall I do?” I asked.
“Wen, stay out of the way,” Aton said.
I retired to a cave that I found close to the camp and kept company with my old friends: darkness, songs, and the moon.
The morning of the battle came. My brothers rode out into battle, Prince Landric first, Prince Aton right behind him.
Prince Aton returned to camp smeared with the blood of our brother.
“Prince Landric was overwhelmed by the number of enemies and no reinforcements came. He died in my arms!” Aton said. But Aton did not weep for Landric. Instead, he made plans for the next day’s battle.
Aton rode out the next day, once again instructing me to stay behind.
“Stay here if you know what is good for you, Wen,” Aton said.
I watched from the mouth of my cave as Aton addressed the troops. I felt helpless through the sadness I felt at the loss of Landric.
“Now I am alone, with no brother!” he shouted to the troops. “We must slay those who murdered him.”
“I am your brother!” I said, running to his side. “Let me help to avenge Landric’s death.”
“You are a snake,” Aton said as he rode away. “A useless snake.”
I looked at my yellow-green skin and knew that though I felt like a man, and though we were born from the same mother, I had never been considered a true brother.
I spent the morning in my cave worrying about Aton. Though I was a snake, I had a heart and I had love for my brothers, even though they rejected me. When I could stand the lack of battle news no longer, I rushed out of the cave, tore off my jacket, and used my tiny wings to get to the battlefield as quickly as possible.
I had never flown before. The sun was warm on my face. My wings, though small, felt powerful. I could see people below me, dotting the landscape. They were all looking up. They were all pointing at me. I was a wonder.
When I arrived, I saw Aton on a hill with his men. And I saw that the enemy’s army was on the hill below. They were all eating a leisurely lunch in their separate camps. Neither army looked as though it was preparing for a push into the field to do battle.
I rose up over the hill, spreading my wings as large as they would go.
I flew down upon the enemy. I was angry that they had killed Landric. Smoke and fire poured out of my mouth. I scorched the land.
The enemy soldiers were horrified and those who survived ran away.
“We have won!” I shouted, landing next to my brother on the hill.
“I told you to stay out of my way!” Aton shouted
His men, those who would have been sent in on the first wave, cheered me. They called me their savior.
When we returned home, the land celebrated our victory. But it also mourned the death of Landric. The people commended Aton for using such a fearsome creature as me in his battle plan, and even my father greeted me with honor and commissioned a statue of me. The people told tales of my ferociousness. Aton took all the credit for our win even though he had told me to stay away from the battlefield.
Despite our victory, our father was despondent.
“Aton, you are my only son. But a king must always have a spare for an heir. I must find a wife and have more sons.”
“I am the spare,” I said. “I, too, am your son.”
“It’s not that you are not a son to me,” the king explained. “It’s that you are not a human. You are a lindwurm. A snake. And though we know you, we do not recognize you.”
It hurt me deeply. I knew that I was different from everyone else. And though my nostrils snorted smoke and my talons were sharp, it was my family’s indifference that cut me.
I kept myself in check and retreated to my turret and sank into a deep melancholy, with only my songs to comfort me. They liked me better as a story than as a living thing.
Every kingdom, frightened of my father’s power with a creature like me as a son, sent a young lady to court to be presented to my father as a wife. Princesses from the sky, the sea, the mountains, the desert, even the moon came to try to win the hand of my father. They were all curious about me, but I never joined the parties. I listened to the music from the darkness of my tower.
After a week, my father picked the princess from the sky to be his wife. Everyone rejoiced. But on the night before the wedding, she disappeared. A few days later, her headless, charred body was found a mile into the woods. All signs pointed to me. I was called to court.
They showed me the body.
I felt nauseated and closed my eyes. My scar burned.
“Open your eyes and face what you have done!” my brother Aton yelled. I did not recognize his rage.
“It is too terrible,” I said. “Cover her up.”
There were murmurs in the court. I thought that they understood that I could not bear to see anyone so. I turned my mind to the men I had burned in battle. But that had been war. This was an innocent young woman. One who liked to wear blue flowers in her hair.
“How could anyone do such a thing to another person?” I asked.
“With fire from his nose,” Aton said. “With talons sharp as yours.”
They still did not cover her up and I began to shake.
My father was ashamed of me.
“How could you?” he asked. “First you killed your mother when you were born and now you kill my bride to be.”
“It wasn’t me,” I said.
It wasn’t. I had spent the night singing to the full moon. But who would believe a snake with wings like me? No one. Every protest I made, every action I took made me look guilty of the crime.
They put me on trial, but they had already judged me.
“Don’t lie to us, brother!” Aton said. He took the back of his sword and smashed my face. I did not bleed except for the place where the lip-shaped, pink scar rested on my forehead. It hurt for a week.
In the end, a kitchen maid remembered me singing the whole night through. She said it kept her awake long enough for her to finish her chores. I was exonerated, but all were suspicious of me. I crawled back to my tower.
From there, I watched as my father grew old and frail from the troubles. But he was determined to sire a spare heir and so he picked another princess, this one from the desert.
The night before they were to be wed, she, too, was found charred and headless.
This time, there was no trial. The people tore down the statue in my honor and called for my blood.
My brother came and locked me in the tower, once my sanctuary, now my prison.
I watched the court from my window as a third princess was picked. The one came from the mountains. She cried and screamed all through the night. In the morning she was dead from fright. This, too, was blamed on me.
My father grew weaker. He grew frail. He lost his will. And finally he died.
I mourned. Even though my father had never considered me a true son, I mourned his death. And when I felt sad, which was always, I sang.
I sang along with the dirge. I sang along with the birds. And two weeks later when Aton became king, I sang along with the trumpets.
I watched Aton’s coronation from my window. Flags waved in the wind. People cheered as the crown was placed upon his head. He held up his shield and it was then that I noticed the new coat of arms. It was a yellow flag with a white dragon. It was me.
“My people!” Aton spoke and the crowd quieted down. “For years we have been a small country, with small goals. My father, the king before me, may he rest in peace, was too timid to use the assets we have to gain power. We have a mighty monster in our midst. One who we can control to wreak havoc on our enemies!”
I noticed that the princess of the moon was there. But she was pale, slim, and almost invisible. While everyone was looking at Aton as the crown was set upon his head, she alone lifted her face to the sky. I wondered if she was looking toward her home. I imagined that I could love a woman like her.
“Wen is a monster! And his appetites must be satisfied,” King Aton declared. “Every county in the kingdom and every kingdom in the land must send their prettiest ladies to court lest we unleash the monster on their land.”
The crowd cheered. Then the guards came and seized the princess of the moon and dragged her away. I did not know what happened to her until later, when they threw her headless, burnt corpse into my cell. I scrambled away from her, horrified. Hours later my brother entered, shaking his head at me in contempt while I cowered in the corner.
“You are pathetic,” Aton said. “Pray you grow a taste for being wicked. I am tired of doing the work that should come naturally to a monster like you.”
After that, the guards neglected me and stopped bringing me the food I required. I ate the rats and mice and birds that joined me in my keep. I began to harden. To grow bitter.
The kingdom seemed to grow dark. Even the sun shone weakly as though to mimic the mood of the people. But the court was full of young women in bright colored dresses all hoping to catch the eye of the new king. I watched from my window as Aton picked one and wooed one. He smiled in a way that I’d never seen before. It seemed as though he were falling in love. At first I thought he was. But then as the girl’s gaze intensified, his eyes hardened. Once he’d won her, he withdrew.
I overheard them as they stood below my tower, whispering in the night. She begged. “Aton, I’ll do anything, anything to win your favor back.”
“Anything?” He was cold.
“Yes,” the girl said. “I love you.”
And then there was no more talking. I heard the sounds of kissing.
“No,” she murmured.
I heard Aton laugh and then I heard the sound of tearing fabric.
“NO!” she screamed.
But then there was only grunting and weeping. I sang to block out the horrible sounds.
The next day, the girl, half-naked, bloody, and ruined, was in my cell with me. She was terrified.
I did not know what to do to soothe her.
When I approached her, she screamed. I reached for her, to stroke her skin and calm her, but she moved so quickly to get away from me that my talon ran her through. She was dead.
I left her there for two days before I ate her. That was when I developed a taste for girls.
It became a pattern. Aton would woo a woman and use her. When he was done, he would beat her and throw her into the tower. And as for me, I had discovered the will to survive. I would try to soothe them with songs, but they took no comfort, thinking that I was weaving some elaborate trick, and in their wild scramble to escape, they ran into my talons or my teeth. After a while, I began to convince myself that I was doing the girls a favor by killing them and eating them. They were ruined after all. They had nowhere to go. They all wanted to die. They begged me to kill them. Mostly they died from fright. But I ate them all. I had become the monster that Aton had said I was. This went on for what seemed like years.
Until one day she came.
When she was thrown into the cell, I could tell that she was somehow different from those who came before her. And though her face was swollen, her eyes were clear and unafraid and her body did not seem so broken. Under the strange circumstances, I thought it best to introduce myself.
“I am the monster of this castle,” I said. “My name is Wen.”
“You are not the monster of this castle,” she said. “The monster’s name is Aton.”
“My brother Aton is the king,” I said.
“The king of Cruelty, perhaps. Or of Manipulation. But he does not have the heart of a king.”
I considered what she said. It had taken me all these years of bitterness to be able to recognize it. It was true. He was cruel. All his life he had been cruel, though it was shrouded and crouched beneath his charms.
“I want to escape from here,” she said.
“There is no escape,” I said.
“I think you can help me,” she said.
“There is no help here,” I said.
“If someone were to challenge the king, perhaps kill him, then we could all be free.”
“Perhaps a brother?”
“I have never been considered a true brother. And I am afraid of the one I have left.”
She moved about in the corner, examining the room. While she did that, I examined her. She was heavy and not svelte. Her dress was ripped, but she did not seem damaged in any other way. Finally, she spoke again.
“Call the guards, ask for milk and a brush. It has been a long day and I am tired and in need to prepare myself for bed,” she said.
Surprised at her request, I did as she asked and called the guards. Thinking it the last wish of a dying girl, they relented. When the items arrived, she turned and addressed me.
“My hands are useless. My fingers broken. Will you remove my dress with your talon?”
“I might harm you,” I said.
I had killed so many other girls before in that way.
“Well, it’s just that your skin is rough and your nails are sharp,” she said. “Scrub yourself and your talons with the milk and the brush and then I’m sure it will be fine.”
The request was so unusual that I complied. The milk was cool to my skin and the brush invigorating. I felt soft after it was done. I turned to her and carefully removed her dress with my talon, only to discover that there was another dress underneath the first.
“Shall I remove this one, too?” I asked.
“Oh no.” She yawned. “I’m too tired. You can remove it tomorrow. Sing me a song so I may sleep.”
I sang to her about the birds in the sky.
The next day she told me her name. Irinia. Where she was from. Dalew province. How many sheep her family owned. Twelve. How many sisters she had. Three. How she had agreed to come to the castle. Her father had traded her for gold since there were no more princesses.
“What was that song you sang?” she asked. “I’ve heard it before.”
“A tune of my own making,” I said.
“I’ve heard you sing before,” she said. “In the courtyard, at the feasts, at the dances, in the dark of night. No one could tell where the tunes were coming from. But the songs drifted in on the wind, kissing my frightened ears.”
Encouraged, I sang a new song. This one about the trees.
She ran her fingers across the spines of the books on my shelves.
“When I see a book, my heart races as though I’m in love,” Irinia said.
“It makes me sad that not every book is good,” I said. “Not every book can be loved.”
“But when I pull a book off a shelf, and examine it, turning it this way and that, inspecting the cover, flipping through the pages and glancing at the words as they flash by, a thought here and a sentence there and I know that there is potential between those pages for love. Even if in my opinion the book is bad, someone else may find it good. Isn’t that like love?”
“I wouldn’t know,” I said.
Curious about her tastes, I began listing some of my favorite titles for her. She treated it like a game and began to list titles back. When we named one we had both read, we shared our true feelings about it. Many books we loved equally. Others we argued about. It was a pleasant time, especially when we disagreed.
That night I called for a new bowl of milk and brushed myself soft again. And then I turned to her and removed her dress. Once again, there was another dress underneath the one I had peeled off.
“Shall I remove this one, too?”
“Oh, best not too,” she said. “There is a bit of a chill tonight and I will need the warmth.”
Every day went on like this for a month.
I was enjoying myself. I was glad that the tower was mostly dark so my strange form could not be seen. I felt like a man. She told me all about herself. And I, in turn, sang her all the songs that I’d written over the years. Eventually I let her borrow books that she had not read and in the afternoons we would sit together reading quietly.
But after a few weeks, I began to worry that there would not be enough dresses and that eventually the moment would come when I could stave off my hunger no longer and I would have to kill her.
That last night I scrubbed myself. My skin was softer than I ever remembered. The color had been slowly changing from its normal yellow-green to a more pinkish-olive tone. My talons were short and not sharp. My tiny wings barely fluttered.
As I did every night, I went to her and I removed her dress. This time there were no more dresses. She stood before me, naked. I knew the time we’d shared between us was up. I began to tremble as the monster in me bubbled up. I started to unhinge my jaw.
Instead of being frightened, Irinia jumped and threw her arms around me. I began to thrash and kick and snap, but she only held on tighter until finally she put her lips to mine. I was confused, but I began to calm and then my body knew what to do. We held on to each other for the whole night. In the morning when we awoke, the first thing I saw was her eyes.
They were brown and deep. They were filled with love.
“This is the face of a king,” she said.
“I’m no king. I am a monster,” I said.
She went to the silver bowl, now empty of milk, and showed me my reflection. I was a man. Except for a kiss-marked patch of yellow-green scales on my forehead.
“How did this happen?” I asked.
“Every girl in the land knows that a lady brought to court never returns, but eventually dies at the hand of the lindwurm,” she said. “I went to the witch in the woods and she told me to wear every dress I owned when I came to court, and when I went to the tower to get a brush and milk to find the true king.”
What happened next, we all know. Children sing it in folk songs or read it in books. As a man and not a lindwurm, I left the tower undetected. I challenged my brother, who resisted, and so I slew him. I married Irinia who became my partner in all things.
I wanted to change the symbol of the kingdom from the yellow flag with my former image, which flapped and mocked me. But Irinia convinced me to keep the dragon, because that was what brought her to me.
“You should not be ashamed of the dragon that lives within the man,” she said.
She touched my scaly scar, my one reminder of how a monster became king.
I insisted on one change: the dragon would have a scar.
For in that scar lived love.
“Brother. Prince. Snake.” copyright © 2012 by Cecil Castellucci
Art copyright © 2012 by Sam Burley