Once upon a time there was a king, and his infant daughter. The queen, her beautiful mother, had just died, and left the baby princess alone in the world, a pale thin child wide-eyed at the loss that took her by surprise, and caught her breath. The king was sunk under grief, and confusion, and rather busy with the business of the kingdom. He married again, as a king ought to. There was a lovely lady, and he wed her at once, and she became the queen.
The new queen is timid, at first. She tries to hold the baby princess and to kiss its soft white face. The princess hits her in the nose with flailing fists, and she nearly drops the squirming bundle. The child is screaming for her mother – for the true queen, the one who came before. She sets the infant down carefully, in the crib, and arranges the brocaded blankets around her soft skin. She makes sure that her voice isn’t shaking when she calls for the nursemaid.
Whenever she tries to be with the girl – to read to her, to walk with her, even to sit with her – the same thing happens, the same outburst and sudden surge of grief and anger. She doesn’t know what to do with the brat. She’s helpless, and alone, and scared. Her husband the king doesn’t even remember the child’s name. It is difficult to be resolved to be a good mother – a good substitute for a mother – and to do her best, to be strong. She resolves anyway, because she must. For the child’s sake, she must be strong.
The princess grows from a pale wide-eyed baby to a pale scrawny child. She is quiet, and wary, and doesn’t speak at all to the queen if she can help it. She barely remembers her own mother, but she knows she was not this interloper. Everyone knows what stepmothers do with their stepdaughters, and she glares, slit-eyed, at the queen.
The queen is quiet, reserved. She’s often withdrawn, sitting rigid and upright, skirts arranged around her ankles, perfectly still but for the breath moving in her breast. She gives the child long, unreadable looks. They make her nervous. The queen’s eyes are pale, and ringed with dark lashes, and the child is afraid of her. When the stepmother tries to take her by the hand, she shrinks away. The princess spends a lot of time alone, in the cold corners of the stone castle, curled against the rough chill of the wall.
Sometimes the queen sits alone in her lavish room, with the canopied bed and the luxurious dark carpet. She sits in front of the mirror, with the gilded frame, and she looks at her own face reflected back, a light patch against the royal richness of the bedroom she no longer shares with her husband the king. There are lines streaking down her face with the years – not that she was ever so beautiful, even in the beginning. Her face always belonged to others anyway, and she saw well their critical looks, the appraising glances and the disappointed sighs. She’d done very well, to be the second wife of a king of a tiny country. Even to be the forgotten queen in the empty hallways of the drafty castle of this measly country, with an absent king and a bitter stepdaughter. She’d done very well. So she sat on the tasseled cushion of the chair, and looked at her face staring back, and tried to remember that she’d done well, especially for someone so plain.
By the time the princess had passed her twelfth year, and her body was shifting to that of a woman’s and her narrow face was growing sharp, things had changed, though barely. They had a tacit understanding, the princess and the queen. They ate dinner, alone in the vast hall on the long shining wood table. Their silverware clinked and scraped, but every so often they would break the silence with words, polite and sometimes even friendly. The queen hoped that, in time, the princess would soften. She so wanted to have a daughter – for this almost-daughter to be hers.
She didn’t know that the princess’s fear had never died. The girl had something of an imagination, and while the queen was spinning a fantasy of some kind of family, the princess saw her plotting. Each long gaze must be the blank stare, the menacing look of someone calculating how best to deal with her. The princess stood in the way of the queen, did she not? She was going to inherit the kingdom, as soon as her father went ahead and died. The queen didn’t care a whit for her; she barely spoke to her, and seemed to catch her breath even when she did. The princess knew that the only explanation was a hatred so fierce it bit at her; she would never have guessed at the queen’s own fear. So instead, she saw the narrowed eyes of the queen, not pleading but planning. She feared for her throne, her safety. Even her life. Each dinner they ate, the knives scraped against the plates and she winced, hearing in that shriek an echo of the doom to come. She would speak, hastily, to cover her own shudder and to quell the horror rising in her throat. The queen always looked up suddenly, startled, when she spoke.
The princess would talk for a moment, and watch the queen’s careful answer, the stiff look on her face. She saw revulsion where instead there was cautious and hidden hope. When the princess was fourteen, she wandered the castle, and walked about the hallways so long that she lost track of her turns. After a while, she stumbled upon the queen’s own chamber, and was horrified at her mistake.
The princess stood, stock-still, in the doorway. She didn’t move at all. It took the queen a moment to notice a face reflected next to her own in the mirror, the pale features small and perfect behind her own worn face. She whirled, startled, and her eyes opened wide to stare, pale and round, at her stepdaughter. The princess spun around, her velvet skirts flaring out to slap against her ankles, and she ran. Her feet pounded down the hallway, the stones jarring shivers up her bones through the thin decorated rugs. The queen had started out of her chair, and called her name, her voice hoarse. The princess ran faster at the sound, already faint, and drowned out the plaintive cry with the drumming of her feet in their woven slippers as they flashed forward. She had to escape. She’d seen the shock in the queen’s eyes, and the absolute strangeness. She could never have begun to realize that the queen had dreamed that the princess would approach her. The stepdaughter felt herself hated, unloved, and thrust from the castle.
So she ran. She ran farther and faster than she could have thought possible – clattering down the stairs, her skirts dragging, and racing across the bridge and into the forest beyond. Her feet, in the delicate fabric, sank into the soft damp ground as she ran, until the floor of the forest became rough and hard and the stones and twigs began to bruise her feet. She ran with her skirt catching on twigs, her hair coming undone from the careless, elegant twist and streaming dark and tangled down her back, and her breath coming short. When she could run no more, she slowed and stopped, head hanging inside its black curtain, panting inside the prison of rich cloth that constricted her ribs. There was a cottage, not far off. She could see the shape of the walls through the lines of the trees, and she started toward it – slowly, wearily, wincing with every step.
In the castle she had so recently left, the queen’s head was hanging too. She was sitting alone, hands wrapped gingerly around her own waist, mouth working against her hurt. She had sat stunned for moments after the princess had disappeared, and then she had gotten out of her chair, out of the bedroom, and tried to follow her. She had walked down the hallway, calling her stepdaughter’s name, until her voice gave out and her knees gave way. The maidservants rushed forward and brought her, gently, into her bedchamber again to lean against a chair, eyes clouded and puzzled. In the midst of her fog, the huntsman came forward to tell her, quiet and respectful, that he had seen the princess running past, “like a thing possessed,” he said, then looked embarrassed. He was a handsome man, with a rough beard on an angular kind face. The queen had nodded absently at him, barely seeing him and he had left.
She was not fit to be a mother. She could barely be a wife. She couldn’t hold onto a daughter, and she had no claim to the girl. It was no wonder she’d gone, really. So she leaned against the carven wood of her chair, holding herself as if she would break.
The princess, alone in the wood, knocked on the door of the strange cottage. The door opened, and she drew herself up, in her tattered velvet skirts and sore feet. She looked none the less the princess, her face pale and regal against the night, her black hair tumbling around her shoulders and her dark eyes blazing. She walked into the cottage before the invitation was wholly out of the little man’s mouth. She had escaped the queen and was going to make the best of it, now, until she could claim her own life again, and her throne. The men gave her dinner – what was left of a chunky soup and rough bread, but she was hungry, and she did not expect half a dozen men to be able to cook. Perhaps they would learn, or she would teach them. They gathered around the table as she ate, watching the spoon emerge from her red lips with awe.
When she had finished, the questions began. She explained that she was a princess. There was a stepmother involved – and that, truly, was nearly all she had to say. They nodded, and sympathized. The oldest of the men clucked his tongue, shaking his head, eyes sorrowful. “That a girl like you got to suffer like that, it’s not right, dear.” She nodded solemnly, and from that first day her friendship with the small men was firm. They made up a bed for her – again, modest. Simply a straw mattress with a plain quilt. She could adjust. She was a princess, after all, but that was no reason she couldn’t get by. She liked the small men, and their jovial ways, and the flush on their faces when they let slip a curse in her presence. She laughed when they did, and they grinned at the sound ringing in their dull cottage. She learned to cook, and very quickly was making porridge and stew better than Grip, who didn’t hold it against her. He was the small man with the bushy brown beard, and twinkling brown eyes. Most of them were grey-haired.
The queen stayed fixed in her sorrow and her shocked unhappiness for nearly a week, and then the worry overcame her. The lines between her brows seemed to etch into her face. Soon she could stand it no longer, to sit and wait, and take no action. The king still had not returned – he was on some diplomatic trip this time, she thought. Or perhaps it was leisure traveling. Whatever it might have been, it didn’t matter. She sent out the hunstman, asking him to please, no matter what to find the princess, and if not to bring her home to ensure she was safe. The man had listened to her earnest voice, faded with strain, and his eyes had been blue and serious when he swore to her that he would find her stepdaughter.