Once upon a time there was a beautiful young woman, named Annia, who was possessed of flawless dark skin, hair the red-gold of autumn, and eyes the gold of a summer sun. She was admired and envied by all in the village, and many dreamed of making her their bride, but none coveted her more than her stepbrother.
She was lovely in appearance, possessed of a kind heart and a bright smile, but it was her hands he most obsessed over. They were strong hands, from keeping house and assisting in their humble mill all day, but soft, the fingers long and elegant, easy when petting animals and deft when sewing, strong when cooking and gentle when stroking a brow at the end of a long day.
He declared he loved her as the sun loves the sky, and wanted her not for a stepsister, but for a wife. Dismayed at his revelation, she begged him to give up such a notion, that though she loved him as any sister loved a brother, she had no desire to be his wife.
Her stepbrother begged and pleaded, but still she would not give in. He raged and ranted, screamed and shouted, but still she refused and urged him to let the notion go, to let them be happy siblings once more.
Enraged beyond all reason, he determined that if he could not have what he wanted, no one would—not even her. Dragging her out to the chopping block, he there took an ax and cut off her hands.
Overcome by pain and fear, Annia passed out.
When she woke in the dark, it was to find someone had carefully bandaged and tended her wounds. The village healer, probably, and bitterness got hold of Annia for a moment at the realization the man had just left her there. Maybe her stepbrother had spun a convincing enough lie.
Heavy snores filled the room, along with the stench of alcohol. Her stepbrother was passed out on a pallet in front of the fire, probably because he’d wanted to keep an eye on her, and later he’d been too drunk to move.
Stifling her tears, Annia did her best to pack what food and supplies she could and fled the only home she had ever known.
On and on she traveled, resting only in brief bursts, keeping hidden whenever she heard people approaching. Eventually, however, her food ran out and exhaustion got the better of her, and Annia was forced to seek shelter in the hollow of a great tree.
The sound of horses and murmuring voices woke her a second time, and she cried out in fear—only to be stopped by a man with kind gray eyes and a warm smile. He was a handsome man, with brown skin and soft-looking, dark curly hair, dressed in the finest clothes she’d ever seen.
Though she was at first afraid, eventually the man convinced her to let him help her, and into his carriage she went. Several hours later, they reached the man’s destination: the royal palace, where everyone greeted him as ‘Your Majesty.’
Before she could run away, terrified all over again at being in the company of the king, Annia was ushered inside and swept off to the healer. Then she was escorted to a room so beautiful and luxurious it made her homesick for her little cottage by the river and the familiar rattle and creak of the mill as it made flour for the village.
Eventually, she fell asleep, and for the first time in many days, slept peacefully. But when she woke in the morning, it was not to find all had been a strange dream, as she had hoped. She had no hands. She was far from home, in a castle that was as terrifying as it was beautiful.
And the king, she was told as a servant appeared to see if she was awake, had invited her to breakfast…