The prince followed the sound of ticking. It was not an exact science, and he’d lost his way many times as his ear tricked him with woodpeckers and creaking branches. But he always found his way again, because while the other sounds would die away, the ticking did not.
Tick, tick, tick.
He was more exhausted than he cared to admit, eyes stinging from the effort of keeping them open. His feet dragged, ploughing into the earth as though they meant to sow seeds. His clothes were dirty and sweat-soaked. The long green scarf his mother had made him snagged on every branch, and he had to wrench it loose. He thought, bitterly, that he could simply stop freeing it when it became tangled, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave it.
The forest seemed to go on forever, trees growing into obscurity in every direction. The ticking drew him deeper beneath the branches, and before he knew it, the sky itself was blotted out by the tangled canopy.
Tick, tick, tick.
As the days and nights bled together, the prince realized what a foolish thing he’d done, and the dull fury which had driven him began melting to despair, the guilt he’d been keeping at bay creeping in by inches. His fingers tangled in the chain around his neck, the one holding his father’s pocket watch against his breast. The voices of the palace advisors echoed in his head.
One foolish act cannot right another. You cannot undo your mother’s curse with sheer force of will.
Because that’s what this was, wasn’t it? His mother’s edict, not a law of preservation but a curse. A curse that had trapped the prince—and everyone else in his kingdom—in time for one hundred years.
Tick, tick, tick.
His food had run out two days ago. Or was it two weeks? He wasn’t sure. He couldn’t remember when he’d last seen a river to fill his canteen. There were many inviting places to lay his head as he trudged on: mossy patches beneath spreading trees that looked like feather beds. But he knew that if he stopped, he would not get up again.
He really did try to keep going. He had to keep going. Yet, his feet grew heavier and heavier until he was lifting the entire world with each step.
Step, tick. Step, tick. Step, tick. Fall.
The prince remembered the day his mother had written her edict. It had been a strange day in many ways. Only a week since his father had died, a week of black crepe wrapped over everything, of murmured apologies and condolences, of food gone half cold before he remembered to eat it. A week of his mother staring blankly forward, as though her soul had departed with her husband’s.
That morning, when the prince had finally dragged himself out of bed and gone through the motions of preparing for the day, he went down to breakfast only to find his mother was not there. He thought of leaving her alone, wherever she was. God knew all he wanted was to be left in solitude to grieve in peace. But she had been so blank and empty in the past week that worry climbed up his throat and choked him, forcing him out of the dining room to search for her. He found her in what had been his father’s study. She was bent over the broad oak desk, a parchment unrolled before her. The only sounds were the scratching of her quill and the ticking of the grandfather clock against the wall.
The prince cleared his throat. “Mother. Have you eaten already?”
She barely glanced at him. “I’ll come down in a moment.”
“What are you doing?”
She didn’t answer. The prince skirted around the desk, studying the parchment beneath her fingers.
Let it here be decreed that whatsoever kills a member of the royal family shall be forever banished from the borders of this kingdom. Any harm that befalls the royal family—
The prince sighed and stepped away, letting his mother continue her writing. His father’s death had been sudden—an illness that swept through and took him in less than a week. He mourned his father’s gentleness and kindness, but as the days had run on, he’d started to see that he’d lost more than one parent in his father’s death. As his mother’s grief began to consume her, he wondered if perhaps he’d lost them both.
It won’t bring him back. The words were on his tongue, but he bit down, swallowing them, and left her to her writing. At the time, it had seemed like the right thing to do, to leave her alone to carve her grief into paper. But much had happened—or, rather, had not happened—since then, and the prince had come to reflect that perhaps if he’d said something, things would have turned out differently.
Of course, now it was too late to know.
The ticking had stopped. Or, at least, it was much, much softer. That was the first thing the prince noticed upon waking.
He opened his eyes to a pine-wood ceiling whorled with age. He breathed in, evergreens and honey filling his nose. He lay in a feather bed beside an open window that looked out onto a woodland glen. Sunlight glowed through the branches of the trees outside, and he stared at those trees in disbelief. The dense, impossible forest was gone. Had he only dreamed it?
Starting, the prince turned towards the creaking voice. An old woman sat beside the bed, a stretch of knitting falling on her lap. She did not look up from it as she spoke again, her needles clacking softly.
“I wasn’t sure if you were going to live. But you just kept breathing steadily. You’ve got a strong heart.”
“Where am I?” His voice cracked from disuse, and he coughed, sending pain rocketing through his body.
The woman waited for him to finish coughing and settle back against the pillows. “My house,” she said, setting her knitting aside. She picked up a worn cup from the side table. “Here. Drink.”
Gratefully, the prince took it from her gnarled hand. He nearly groaned as the water hit his tongue, fresh and cool. He’d been thirsty for so long he’d forgotten what water tasted like.
As he looked down at himself, the prince gasped, sloshing water over the white cotton sheets. He wore no shirt. His scarf and pack, too, were gone, as was the watch pendant. His heart began to pound, his hands to shake. No, no, it wasn’t possible, it—
“Your things are in there,” the old woman said, pointing to a large cedar chest across the room. “I didn’t want you getting dirt on my sheets.”
The prince sank back into the pillows, relief and confusion and exhaustion all pouring through him. He drew a shaky breath, letting the pine-scented air fill his lungs.
“You’ll be weak for some time,” the old woman continued, resuming her knitting. “Stay in bed today. Rest. Once you have your strength back, you can tell me where you’ve come from that would have you collapsing on my doorstep.”
The prince did not hear this last part. He’d fallen asleep again, the cup still clutched in his hands.
Later, he was not sure how much time had passed while he slept. The prince slipped in and out of consciousness as easily as day slips into night. The old woman was always there when he woke, often with food and water, sometimes just with her knitting. He grew used to falling asleep to the gentle clack of her needles, the very slight rasp of the yarn being pulled through the stitches.
“I found you unconscious in my garden,” the old woman told him upon one of his awakenings. “You were face down in my cabbages.”
The prince did not remember a garden. He just recalled the endless forest, the feeling of his feet sliding over the ground.
“Your pardon,” he said. “I became lost some time ago, and I thought I was alone in the forest. I—I didn’t see your house.”
“My house is well hidden, and the forest isn’t friendly to outsiders. You should count yourself lucky that you managed to stumble into it. But where were you trying to get to?”
“I’m not sure. I’ve never been there before.” He cleared his throat. “I must be going soon, though.” His hand crept up unconsciously to the watch that hung again around his throat. He’d retrieved it from the cedar chest as soon as he’d had the strength to stand.
The old woman made a dismissive noise. “You can barely walk to the door.”
It was true. Each time he woke, the prince would stand and walk as far as he could. It was not very far at all for the first few days, and though he chafed at the delay, he couldn’t fathom beginning his journey again so soon. Besides, what was a few more days lost? Nothing, not where he came from.
Eventually, the prince was well enough to leave the small bedroom, though not to leave the house. He often sat with the old woman in her parlor. It was a cozy room. She would sit in the rocking chair beside her large hearth, a cloak that reminded the prince of the night sky hanging off the back of her seat. He sat across from her, beneath a cuckoo clock that hung above the crackling fire. He often watched that clock as its pendulum swung with each moment, the bird crying out the hour. He never saw the old woman wind it.
“You’re going to wear a hole in my floor if you keep that up,” the old woman chided one evening, as the prince’s leg bounced impatiently, sending a thumping tempo through the room. He flushed and stilled, chagrined.
“Young people,” the old woman grumbled. “You always need to be moving. Take it from me—sometimes it’s good to sit still for a spell.”
A laugh burst from the prince, and the old woman gave him a chiding look. “My apologies,” he said. “It’s just…it’s an ironic thing to hear. I’ve been stuck in one place for so long, now that I’m free of it, I can’t imagine staying still.”
“That would account for you collapsing in my garden,” the old woman said. She liked to bring that up at every opportunity, as though driving home a lesson.
The prince leaned back in his chair, staring out towards the growing dusk. “How did you come to live here?”
“Hmmm. It’s a long story.”
“I’d like to hear it.”
She sighed. “Perhaps a small part. I had many homes once. Castles by the sea, townhouses in soaring cities. This was always my favorite retreat. It was forever here, waiting for me. So, when I lost most everything I had, I knew that this house would serve me. Take it from me, prince, you should always have a plan for when everything collapses around you.”
“You sound like my mother,” the prince said with a half-smile.
“She must be a clever woman.”
The prince grimaced, glancing away. “A little too clever, I think. In the end.”
“Ah.” The old woman reached across the space between them and patted his hand. Her fingers were warm against his skin. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
He nodded but said nothing.
A few more weeks saw the prince well enough to begin his journey again. On what was to be his last morning in the cottage, he woke to find a new set of clothes laid out for him. His old clothes had been beyond repair, and he thought with some regret of the long green scarf his mother had made for him. His pack, though, was still in good condition, and he pulled it from the trunk and checked to ensure everything was there. He slid his new clothes on, letting the watch rest against his breastbone. Then he went to the window, peering out over the green forest beyond, trying to fix the image in his mind. Fear and no small amount of guilt pressed on his shoulders, and though he’d gone to fix what his mother had broken, the prince now wished he could live in this moment forever. Eventually, though, his duty could be put off no more. He hefted his bag and went out into the parlor where the old woman sat. He took his usual chair and leaned forward intently.
“I have nothing with which to repay you,” the prince began. “I spent my last coin some time ago.”
“Hmph,” the old woman grunted, her needles moving steadily. The knitting had grown long since the prince’s arrival in her house. “Well, perhaps you can repay me another way.”
“I seldom venture into the outside world,” the old woman said. “It has been a long time since I have heard any word of it. Tell me a story from your country, wherever that may be.”
The prince glanced at the cuckoo clock above the fire, then back to the old woman’s nimble hands as the needles clacked together. He took a deep breath.
“Very well,” he said. “I think I have just the one.
“Once upon a time, there was a kingdom with a wise king and a clever queen. The two ruled fairly for many years until, one sad day, the king died of a sudden illness. The citizens of the kingdom mourned for months, none more so than the queen who had loved her husband as a flower loves the sun. But the kingdom had to continue, and so the queen bore the burden alone. Yet, as anyone will tell you, cleverness untempered by wisdom can be a dangerous thing.
“The queen, having felt the pain of her husband’s death deeply, decreed that when she died, whatever killed her should be outlawed from the kingdom. Her decree was spread to every corner of the land, and then subsequently forgotten, as she ruled for many years more. When she was old, with decades behind her, the queen went to bed one night and did not wake.”
The prince ceased speaking for a moment, his eyes fixed on the pine-board floor. The old woman glanced up from her work, examining him.
“Is that the end?”
He smiled. “Almost. For, you see, the queen’s decree was heard, and it was obeyed. That which had killed her was exiled from the kingdom.”
The needles—the ticking—stopped. The old woman peered up at the prince, who studied her with keen eyes.
“Time left the kingdom and has not returned for a hundred years. The people of the realm did not at first realize the price they would pay for their queen’s folly. But when it became clear that every day would be the same, they started to understand. Eventually, the queen’s son decided he would leave and seek out Time for himself.”
The old woman’s eyes narrowed. She set her knitting down carefully. “How did you manage to leave without falling to dust?”
The prince who was a king took the watch from around his neck and clicked it open, revealing the broken glass and unmoving hands of the clock. Wordlessly, he gave it to her, and she turned it over in her gnarled hands.
“Clever as your mother,” she muttered, handing it back. He returned it to its place around his neck. When he’d woken without it on his person, he’d thought he was only seconds from death. After all, he had lived a single day for nearly one hundred years. But as the days passed in the cottage and he did not crumble, he began to realize whose house he’d stumbled upon.
“Why are you here?” the old woman asked. There was no anger in her tone: just curiosity and perhaps a bit of sadness.
“I am here to plead for my people. My mother made a grave mistake.”
“She accomplished her goal. No one else shall die as she did.”
“But they linger on when many would rather go,” the king returned. “There are those who have been ill for one hundred years. Every breath is agony, but without Time to take them, they cannot die. There are children who long to grow up, lovers who long to have children.” The king closed his eyes, seeing once again the pain on his subjects’ faces. He blinked them open to meet the old woman’s unflinching gaze.
“Without you, we are all trapped. I have come here to ask you to return and help me right my mother’s wrong. Please. My people suffer for the decision of someone long dead.”
The old woman sat in silence for some time, the only sound the crackle of the flames in the hearth. The king knew to wait, because Time could not be rushed.
At length, she spoke again. “What of you?”
“What of me?”
“Would you dishonor your mother’s memory by breaking her final law?”
The king was quiet for a moment. It was a question he had asked himself often over the past hundred years, and never more so than when he left the kingdom to undo her decree. His mother had done what she thought best at the time. But times change.
“I have thought of my mother every day for one hundred years,” he said at last. “For the first ten I loved her, for the next ninety I loathed her.”
The king heaved a sigh. “Now, I believe I understand her. I think that might be better than either.”
The old woman nodded, looking at him sorrowfully. “I would help you, if I could. But there is a price.”
“Whatever it is, I’ll pay it.”
“Listen before you agree, boy,” she said harshly. “Within your kingdom are thousands of lives, trapped in time for a hundred years. If I were to return now, everyone would crumble. So much time rushing in so quickly would destroy everything.” She paused, studying him. “All that unspent time needs a place to go.”
The king sucked in a breath. “Ah.”
The cuckoo clock on the wall began ticking again, and the king let his gaze drift up to it. He had expected a price, of course. He just hadn’t realized it would be quite so high. But there was no one else to pay it, and he could not return empty-handed.
He turned back to the old woman, who watched him carefully. “I will pay it. I will take their time.”
The old woman’s eyes softened. “You would give up all your days for them?”
“It is all I have to give. Besides, I’ve had time enough to mourn a life unlived.”
The old woman nodded once more. With a flourish, she bound off the final stitch of her knitting and pulled it straight. It was a scarf, the king realized, black as night and with cables like constellations running its length. She handed it to him, and he wrapped it around his neck. The wool prickled against his skin.
“I will come with you,” she said. “We will right this wrong together.”
The prince swallowed and nodded. He stood, hefting his pack, but the old woman’s hand wrapping around his wrist stilled him. She watched him with her ancient, ageless eyes, and he saw in them all that had been and all that would be and all that might be, one day, though not for him.
“Remember what I told you, boy: sometimes it’s good to sit still for a spell. You needn’t be so eager to sell your life. We will go together, but not today.” She smiled, releasing him and gesturing to his chair.
“Let us have another day, you and I. We have time enough for that.”