The arms that hold me are strong, muscular; shaking just a little. My eyes are shut, firmly, the wind whipping my hair into a frenzy. Hans adjusts me awkwardly in his arms, shifting my weight.
“You caught me.” I whisper. “I am safe.”
“You are.” Hans’s voice finds me in the darkness of closing my eyes. I am not yet ready to open them, to acknowledge the outdoors. I’m outside, I really am outside. The thought of Mother’s reaction fills me with repressed dread that I shake aside; I’ll return to the tower before she returns, anyway, and I’ll be protected out here.
“Are you going to get down?” Hans chides gently. The wind blows in my ears and tickles the back of my neck. I slowly open one eye, and then the other. Shielding my eyes from the sun, I take a deep breath of fresh air in and smell the fresh, natural smell of the outdoors. I look at the tall, thin blades of grass, at the lush trees that surround us in this woodland; in awe. I’ve watched this patch of woodland for years, but it is unfamiliar, somehow changed.
“Have you cast a spell?” I ask tentatively.
“Cast a spell?” Hans replies questioningly.
“So I’ll be safe! Oh, the sun will burn me to death if you don’t protect me using magic, I am uncovered and right in its glare; not to mention the horrifying conditions I’m facing. I’ll die of cold!” I shiver in Hans’s arms, stressing the point. He takes in a deep breath and mumbles something incoherent.
“There, I’ve cast a safe spell. You’ll be safe. You can get down now.” Slowly, carefully, I put one of my feet on the ground. The grass tickles the bottom of my foot and the soft mud has a remarkable feeling: like my foot gently slipping into it. Hans steadily holds me in his arms as I awkwardly put my other foot down, darting my glance around. I feel warm inside, knowing magic is protecting me.
The grass is divine under my feet, the air sensational; whipping my hair around and making me shiver deliciously. Hans chuckles as I kneel onto the ground, picking up fistfuls of grass, picking up crisp leaves and crunching them in my hand in awe. The golden colours amaze me: red and yellow and gold of autumn, basking us in a golden glow. The cold does not stop me from my blissful daze: the shivers and bites from the cold only intensify the realization of the fact that I am, in fact, outside.
“How do you get used to it?” I murmur, watching in delight as the mud under my foot encases it in a brown cover, almost as if protecting my foot. Hans laughs, suddenly pulling something out of a bag I did not realize he had.
“Get used to what?” He asks, handing me a heavy coat and a pair of thick boots, his eyes shining.
“This.” I gesture around the area. “It is like paradise.” A bird chirps distantly, as if agreeing with me. Hans ponders, bites his lip.
“You will become familiar with the outside world, Rapunzel. Come now…I fear we have little time, and I want to show you where we’re going.”
“Who do these clothes belong to?” I inquire, feeling a little cautious about wearing someone’s clothes.
“My Mother’s. Do not worry, she will not miss them for a day.” I remember Hans informing me that his Father was the King, assuming he was truthful. These clothes are the clothes of a Queen.
I pull on the coat and put my cool feet in the boots, feeling instantly guilty when the mud smudges them a tiny bit. My dress has already become dirty at the hem, the skirt heavier than usual. My hair trails behind me as Hans walks with me down a stone path, further into the woods.
The silence is not awkward at all; it gives me a chance to register my surroundings. The littlest thing makes me jump; the sound of my foot tripping over a thick branch, the crunching of leaves underfoot. Hans smiles at my wonder to the things he’s become accustomed to: allowing me time to examine each new wonder. Unfortunately, he disallowed me to carry a few items I found: a leaf with a swirling pattern, a pebble in the shape of an R, a delicate flower called a bluebell. Regretfully, I leave each one behind.
We have been walking for a while now. The wind whistles in my ear, the sounds of nature all around me. The path grows ever narrower, darkened by the looming trees. It’s like a scene from a fairy tale, which I briefly remember being told as a child. Hans occasionally asks me casual questions, about my likes and dislikes. I begin to grow wary of him once more, fully aware that I do not now my way back to my homely tower. He’s a stranger, yet his personality is so forth-coming and trustworthy. Something inside me wants to trust him, and reminds me that Hans won’t hurt me. Besides, Mother may be proud of me, for venturing out into the outdoors without her help. I try to think of this, but maybe deception is the best way to get around the issue of leaving the tower without permission.
“Here.” Hans says, coming to a sudden stop. I blink, the sunlight temporarily blinding me. “Do you like it?”
I take in the clearing we are suddenly standing in. Trees envelope us in a broad circle, the tree tops seemingly reaching the sun. The sunlight comes down in rays that shimmer in the dull light, illuminating some parts of the clearing with intensity. The grass here is knee length and thin-bladed, there are flowers surrounding us in beautiful colour. There is also a small bank: the water lush and pure. The light basks us in a warm glow and I take off the heavy coat, relishing in the warmth.
“I love it.” I reply softly, walking through the grass to the bank and kneeling down to dip my fingers in it. Hans walks over to join me, and I pull of my shoes; dipping one toe in at a time in the deliciously cold water, giggling childishly. I drop my previous qualms of Hans, and when he is not looking in my direction, I cup a handful of water and throw it at his unsuspecting head. Hans’s blonde curls are tinged with wet water, droplets shining on his face. He grins slowly, almost fondly.
“Oh, you shall pay for that.” He teases and leans forward, suddenly flicking more water my way. I rear back, squealing, diving for more water. We continue doing this: throwing water at one another, running and shouting around the clearing, caught up in the heat of the moment. Eventually, my dress is sodden and most of my hair is soaking, and Hans is drenched from head-to-toe, so we decide to stop playing foolish games.
Hans surprises me by showing me the inside of his bag: which is full of food, raw carrot and chunks of bread and cold chicken and items I’ve never seen in my life. We happily lay down on the grass, drying in the sunlight, eating little snippets of food and exchanging idle conversation.
I roll onto my front, looking down into Hans’s eyes as he looks up from me from his position lying down on the grass. “How old are you, Hans?” I realize I do not know much at all about the boy who helped me outside, the boy who is protecting me with magic this instant, who introduced me to wonders I never knew before; yet he feels like my closest friend. As he is one of the only two people I know, it is not stiff competition.
“I’m sixteen.” He replies, pushing his blonde locks out his hair. His coat is drying on a branch, and he wears only his soaking shirt and purple trousers. My hair is curled up around the clearing: getting in my way and annoying me, making me realize how much I want to cut it. “What about you?”
I consider this question for a minute. Honestly, I do not know my age. Once upon a time, many years ago, I asked Mother when my birthday was, and how old I was. I was a child; curious about the celebration that I had never experienced before. She replied briefly, saying only that I was ten years old and my birthday was in November. I never really kept track of my age, feeling that pinning a number to yourself was merely an inconvenience. That day was many years ago, and I have not pondered my age. I judge that it was five, maybe six years ago. I am fifteen, or sixteen. One or the other.
“I am not exactly sure.” I respond honestly. Hans sits up, balancing himself on one elbow, raising a blonde eyebrow.
“How do you not know?” He splutters.
“I’ve never really celebrated my birthday before, and I do not care to know how old I am. I do not like the idea of counting down the years until I die by determining my age or feeling better than someone merely because you are a few years their senior.”
“Do you have a…estimate of your age?” Hans presses.
“I must be about fifteen.” I guess, awkwardly fiddling with the hem of my dress. Hans blows out his breath, saying quietly, “I have never met someone who did not care to know their age.”
I am about to respond when something flashes out from behind a tree, making me jump in fright. I do not get a clear glance; my fear blinding my sense. I’m certain it’s Mother, come to apprehend me, or worse; a Bandit, come to cut off my hair and kill me. I scramble behind Hans, grabbing his arms and using him as a shield.
“Whatever is it?” He asks, sounding bemused.
“It’s a bandit, or someone to kidnap me, I knew outside was unsafe; I should not have trusted you!” I quickly reply; my voice tarred with fear. I duck down, covering my head. The grass itches against my forehead and I feel a firm hand on my shoulder. I try to slap it away, but I hear Hans trying to stifle a giggle.
“Rapunzel.” Hans’s voice is steady and firm.
“You’re the son of the King, right? A bandit would not hurt the son of a King, oh no, tell him that!”
“Rapunzel, it was just a squirrel!” Hans says exasperatedly, his mirth suddenly winning. As I tentatively sit back up, uncovering my face, Hans is doubled up with suppressed laughter, tears rolling down his cheeks.
“Well, I did not know.” I reply tersely, feeling embarrassed and stupid. “And what is a squirrel?” This seems to induce more laughter in Hans, who cannot stop his raging laughter. I sit awkwardly until he swallows his giggles and sits up, wiping away tears of mirth.
“It is not that funny.” My reply is sour, and I feel a little childish for acting so sour. Hans regards me, amusement shining in his eyes.
“Yes, it is.” He argues, and I sigh, deciding to change the subject of the conversation, feeling embarrassed. This world is always full of new wonders for me, I doubt I’ll ever grow used to it.