A Fairy’s Tale

If I tell you a story, will you go to sleep after? No more snacks or trips to the bathroom. You have to promise. Crossed fingers don’t count, it’s a promise anyway. You can’t fool me.

Okay, listen. Sorry, yes. Once upon a time, in a land far far away, up in the mountains lived a fairy. She wasn’t the kind of fairy that sits around on mushrooms or swoops in to sew for a god-daughter. She’d always been a fairy. You could tell by the wings that rose like stiff lace from her shoulders, and the fact that she was four inches tall. Most fairies lived in forests, not up mountains, and that was exactly the problem for this fairy.

Hush, darling, I’m getting to the important part. Don’t you know that in order to learn the heart of a story, you need patience? You must be able to hear your own breaths if you ever want to find the pulse of a tale. Listen.

And the fairy was very lonely, for she had no friends. She had lived with her mother and father on the mountain, but they had gone and she had lived for a long time by herself. She was still almost a child, because fairies live so very much longer than we do, but for us her lonely childhood would have seemed a very long time. The mountain was cold for a little fairy by herself, and when it snowed she huddled in a crevice between her favorite stones and imagined that the flurries of white were warm. She had no friends, and so she had a very good imagination instead.

Of course, you can have both imagination and friends. It’s just much harder to live if you haven’t got either.

The fairy had enough one day. She was tired of wedging herself in a crack in the rocks and pretending she wasn’t shaking with cold. Living alone and lonely was exhausting, and she wasn’t going to do it anymore. The mountain was very tall and very steep, but the fairy was determined to start flying. Her little lace wings held her up as she hopped and skipped from one crag to another cliff. She took a leap off an edge and beat her wings until they blurred in the thin air, and she drifted until she settled on her tiptoes and jumped off again. Finally, after long days and long nights, the fairy reached the bottom of the mountain.

I don’t know what country the mountain was in. Sweetheart, it’s a story, so probably it’s in a country that doesn’t exist on this planet. While I’m telling the story it exists in your head, and that’s the place you should look to find it.

The fairy was so glad to feel the crunch of gravel and the satiny shush of dust on her feet that she walked after she left the mountain. She walked through a valley and a plain, and she swam across the river. The water was cold and bright against her skin, and she thought in a lovely delirious blur that she’d never felt anything so beautiful and pure. Once across the river she was in a field. She walked through the field and found herself in a meadow. At the edge of the meadow—her breath caught—she saw the furry edges of trees bristling on the horizon. The fairy loved walking. The grasses brushed against her feet like friendly cats. But now she was impatient, for she knew that fairies live in the forest. So what do you think she did next?

No, even if you could guess the answer would be the same. Some stories change shape to fit around you, but this one has its shape already. If you close your eyes you’ll be able to see it better.

She tried to fly. Running wasn’t fast enough. Only wings could take her to where she knew friends were waiting. The fairy leaped upward and felt the air catch under her wings, and then she sank back down to the ground again. Her knees folded under her, and the little fairy crumpled on the grass. She didn’t understand. What was wrong with her wings? Stumbling, she pushed herself to her feet again, and she walked across the meadow. She almost didn’t notice the grass brushing against her feet, because she was so worried about her flying. She entered the forehead with a creased forehead and an anxious stare. She almost tripped over someone, who let out a cry and asked who she was.

“I’m a fairy,” said the fairy.

“Yes,” said the stranger, unfolding wings from her shoulders. “I can see that. In fact, I’m a fairy too. My name is Lianet. You look upset. What’s your name?”

“I don’t know,” said the fairy. “I never needed one before. I used to live on the mountain alone, but now my wings don’t work.”

“Ah,” the stranger smiled. “Wings only work on the mountain, in the cold. When you hop down from on high you have more space to fly in, and the frozen air can keep you aloft. Lacy wings like yours won’t work in the forests or the meadows, the fields or the valleys, over the river or through the plains. Sometimes to fly for a minute you just have to climb a tree and jump.”

I know you’re very tired, and so we’re almost at the end. Do you think our fairy will give up the glory of flight to live in the forest, where the trees crowd one another and the squirrels chatter at everything that moves? Yes, I think so too.

The fairy thought about it for a while, and then she shrugged. Her lacy wings rippled in the air with the movement. There are worse things, she thought, than jumping out of trees with new friends. She could be flying alone. And so the fairy lives in the forest now, with a new name and a new friend. Sometimes she climbs to the very top of the tallest tall tree, and while she’s there she can see the very tip of the mountain where she used to live. Then she jumps into the air and lets her wings carry her down. She knows that there will be somebody to meet her at the bottom.

Good night, love.

Tell Me A Story

Okay, honey, one. I’m tired and it’s been a long day. You have to go to sleep after that, promise?

Once upon a time in a faraway forest there was a fairy named Erstenpraktertolanima. She was a very lonely fairy, because she had no friends. This is because all of the other fairies who tried to befriend her could never pronounce her name, and so they gave up. One day Erstenetc. walked away and climbed up a mountain and then she met the trolls. She met a lovely (though ugly) troll named Prince Lumpy, and he told her, “Ersten… um, Fairy, you should go visit the goblin-people of Shhhhton. They are exactly what you need.”

Don’t you remember Prince Lumpy from the other story? Well here he is. He’s doing fine, happily ever after. Are you feeling sleepy yet?

So Erstenetc. walked and walked and walked, and just when her feet were so blistered that they had polka dots and her body slumped so that her fingers nearly dragged on the ground and her wings were folded like a moth’s to her body, she came across the goblin-town.

Well, it looks just like our town except that all the houses are green and there are signs everywhere. Like there’s a sign outside the first house that says, ‘House Number One! The Collinses!’ and the second one says ‘The Post Office!’ and the third one says ‘The Bennets! Also The Bakery!’ You see, goblins really like signs, and they are often excited about everything.

She walked in and tried to introduce herself to the little old goblin-lady selling doughnuts, but the lady shook her head helplessly. She waved her hands in the air and looked at Erstenetc. with a look of expectation on her goblin-face. After several failed attempts at conversation, Erstenetc. realized that the goblin-people of Shhhhton did not speak with voices. They spoke with the quick-sharp-graceful-soft fluttering of their long-fingered goblin-hands, and they shaped words and sentences and whole stories with those drawings in the air. Erstenpraktertolanima learned the sign-language of the goblin-people and made wonderful friends who never had to pronounce her name at all, and she lived with them happily for ever after.

There, sweetheart, there’s a story. Did you like it? Oh, you’re half-asleep already. Good night, darling, see you in the morning. Sweet dreams.


Nicole and the Pumpkins

Once Nicole used to watch the pumpkins bloom on their vines, swelling and blushing like so many bee stings. She used to run her fingers along the smoothness of their skins, fingertips in the beginning ridges. She used to dream with those pumpkins, in the musty damp air of her pumpkin patch with the moisture in the soil soaking through the knees of her jeans.

Now she’s too old for that sort of thing, even though she’s not that old. If you look close in the mirror you can see the parentheses etched into her skin around her lips, so faintly, as if her mouth was an afterthought and the proof was showing too late. Nicole is sure that soon other lines would make their way onto her face as well, commas and apostrophes spiking out around the edges and quotation marks outside her eyes. There will be punctuation engraved into her face, pauses and stops with nothing to say.

For now she is still mostly young-looking, plain as she’d always been. She never had expected much, really, and her skin will crinkle until she is caressing the new pumpkins with creased hands, bent fingers, reaching them after a stiff lunge toward the ground because her back is aching and her arthritis acting up.

Sometimes she still wishes that she didn’t live alone. She has a decent job and lives in her parents’ old house. The pumpkin patch is still outside, and she still visits it. Now, though, Nicole really just hacks at the soil and rips out weeds, cursing when they leave shiny pink weals striping her palms. The pumpkins are big these days. She plants them carefully, watching the new ones take root and balloon out.

When she was a little girl playing outside, she thought that she might find a pumpkin in the patch and coax it to grow so big that she could sit inside it. She would have been a tattered sort of Cinderella, the kind without a fairy godmother, but she might have met a prince anyway. She had hoped. A prince never came along though, and the pumpkins only got to a normal kind of big. She lives alone and doesn’t visit her pumpkins, because they could never really take her anywhere. Sometimes she sits on the porch with her laptop and scares off the birds with the sound of her fingers on the keyboard. She always typed loudly, angrily, as though she had to get the words out in a hurry or she’d forget them entirely.

The air doesn’t smell damp and musty anymore, even when she pats down the soil around the pumpkins. It just smells like dirt now, and she puts down a towel so that the soil won’t dampen her knees. When she brushes a pumpkin with a knuckle she stiffens, surprised, because its skin is smooth and cold against her warmth. She wins a prize for her pie every year now at the fair. It brings her a brief flush of pride, silly really. She knows it doesn’t mean anything, but she always makes an extra or two. She lives off that pie for a week, letting it melt on her tongue and debating whether she ought to have added more cinnamon.

She gets a grim pleasure from hewing into the pumpkin and watching it spill its slime and seeds onto her counter. Her kitchen smells like the distinct sour tang of cold pumpkin flesh for days. The little air freshener plugin that she buys at the drugstore never really helps. Most of the pumpkins stay on the vine until the cold bites, and then she chops them off and throws them into the woods. One of these days, she really has got to start selling them. In October they would make her a mint, to be turned into jack-o-lanterns and all that. Her backyard would be mostly empty, just the bare vines and the scatter of autumn-colored leaves.

For now, Nicole lives alone in her too-big too-empty house with a pumpkin vine out back. She has a decent job and she wins the prize at the fair every year for her pie. It’s good enough, for now. She tells herself that and is reassured. Someday perhaps things will change. Her job will get better, or she’ll get promoted. A prince will come along with a perfectly sized glass shoe and a glint in his eye. The soil will smell like must and damp again, and she can be a child without lines starting on her skin. One of her pumpkins will grow big enough for her to ride away in, and she’ll never have to look back or be in that house again or go to work or make pie or wish for anything else ever after.

Ever After, Anyway

In the land of make-believe:

Gabe’s hair gleams golden in the sunlight, and his eyes just seem to snag the light and spin it until you’re dizzy and blinded and stumbling. Goddamned goody-two-shoes. Though, of course, he’s rather more godblessed and, being an angel and all, I don’t think he wears shoes. Wings are always like that, though. Even Pegasus has a stick up his ass. Figuratively speaking again, of course. They get flying and feathers and suddenly they think they’re above you. That one literally too, I guess, since they are. I haven’t even seen Gabe for maybe a century, but I know that he’s friends with Rose. She talks about him every once in a while, and now of course they’re getting on great.

I don’t, of course, know why she even hangs out with him. He’s bloody boring from what I can tell, bland as the healthiest of foods. Good, of course, just uninteresting. Rose has a thing for the perfect ones though – that’s why she even fell for the prince in the first place, naturally. Chiseled jaw and a sword, skin scratched by the thorns and breathing heavy. It took her a while to figure out the rest of it – not that I’m complaining. Being perfect suits me when I have the inclination to be charming. To be Charming, that is.

Gabe is still talking to Rose, and she’s listening all aglow. She is awfully beautiful. Hence the nickname, though nowadays she doesn’t need a whole lot of sleep. She gets by on five, six hours a night. I figure she got it all out of her system at once and now she’s impatient just dreaming. The wing’s telling her something about Red and the wolf boy, or at least that’s what it seems. He just said, “No, now they’re back together.” Rose is all agape, making those concerned clucking noises that need to accompany love conversations.

“But I thought they were done for good,” she says. Gabe shakes his head, shrugging. “Oh well,” says Rose. “I guess they’re well suited. But honestly, she should either give up the business with her grandmother or give him up. I mean, if she keeps nagging him about it they’re only going to do the same thing over and over again.”

“Well,” Gabe says, “that’s what they’ve been doing so far. They’ve broken up, I think, sixty-three times now? Someone’s counting and that’s the tally I heard. In my opinion that’s why they even work together at all.”

Rose frowns, skin creasing in a familiar scowl. “You think? Red always seems so innocent to me. Like Cindy, really. They both seem to think that everything’s going to be just fine all the time, no problems anywhere. Nothing ever goes wrong for them, and when it does they forgive. Look at Cindy’s godawful family, and how Red keeps taking the wolf back. They want it all to end up okay.”

The angel bursts out into laughter, golden peals of it chiming and drifting through the summer air. “You tales and your happily ever after. Of course they think it’ll all be okay. So it is written, no?”

Rose is glaring now. She’s touchy on the storybook stuff. I tune out again, threading my fingers through her hair and tangling my hand in the ringlets. They’re only going to have the same argument again. I swear, it’s like listening to the mice squeak all indignantly about the farmer’s wife. They can’t get over the grievances that happened hundreds of years ago. I try to avoid such things.

Anyway, I have other stuff to do this afternoon. I’m still supposed to show up at Cindy’s tonight, and apparently Baba Yaga’s cooking again. That, and the gingerbread witch is bringing dessert, and I do love Gretel-flavored cookies. Okay, so that’s a bad joke, but it always gets a laugh anyway. I think if it weren’t for her baking nobody would even talk to the old hag. At least there will be some good people, though. The Minotaur will be bumbling about, crashing into things – he has trouble finding his way anywhere, mostly. And Br’er and Loki always make for an entertaining time.

Maybe Rose just spends time with Gabe for the gossip. I stand up, my hand still cupped around her head. It does help to have an omniscient pal in the sky, I suppose. There’s something funny outside the window, and I walk over to look. The light’s all blue and shadowy, though it’s still early. Look at that, Thumbelina’s sitting right on my windowsill. Tom’s with her, not sure why – they broke up forever ago. Something about size not mattering. She’s beckoning though, so I lean my head down to hear her squeaky little voice.

“Hey,” she calls. “You’d better come help. Rip’s asleep in Sher’s house, she’s telling stories, and that moron giant is angry at Jack again. Nothing too serious, maybe, but it’s sort of chaos there. Want to come sort it out?”

Finally, I think, something useful to do with my day. I grab my bag of tricks – I borrowed it from Jack and “forgot” to give it back – and kiss Rose goodbye, startling her out of an impassioned speech about something or other. I wave to Gabe and dash out. I do love a good thorny problem to hack through, every once in a while. Just like old days.

A (modern) Cinderella

The air is damp and clean when she steps outside, balancing on the balls of her feet and making no sound at all. The sky is just changing from blue to black and it’s so dark and deep that it goes on forever, stars dangling so high they’re barely there at all. Ella closes the door slowly, inching it closer until the latch has clicked silently.

She doesn’t throw a second glance at her parents and brother, eating quietly in the dining room. Their heads are faintly visible through the curtain, bent over their food, not speaking. She tucks her chin down and dodges toward the street, where her friends are waiting.

They have big plans tonight. When she swings into the car and slams the door, Teddy pushes the gas so hard that the car screeches and zooms ahead. The car in the road – now behind them – jerks to a sudden stop, and they laugh. Ella nestles against Linnie, who puts an arm around her. The car is crowded, and they’re all pressed flesh to flesh, breathing like one big organism crammed into a car and panting for air. They’re all happy to see Ella, reaching to bump her shoulder or turning to smile at her. They asked earlier if she could come. If I can escape my parents, she said, my mom’s wicked strict lately. They all nodded, solemn, in sympathy. Now everyone is smiling.

When they get there the party’s already in full swing. The strobe light is flashing, the music thrumming deep in their throats, and a scattering of red plastic cups already abandoned on chairs and tables. Ella throws herself into the room, pulling her friends after her. They wave their arms, flail, spin, clasp hands and lean and fall in circles until they’re dizzy and breathless. Time stops existing.

The light catches the moments one at a time and fling them at her. Movements jerk through the air, dancers thrashing like they’re drowning. She has a twelve-o-clock curfew but she ignores it, until she thinks she might fall instead of dance more. Then she stays for only another half hour.

She walks home at four in the morning, creeping under the dull flat sky, slipping sideways through the front door and padding silently up the stairs to her room. The others were all splayed unconscious on chairs and carpets or too drunk for anything, jaws hanging open, staring at her stupidly, so nobody could drive her back. In her room she collapses, still in her heels and glittery top, sprawling on her bed with her hair spread across the mattress and dripping off the edge.

She’s so tired that she can feel each breath wheeze in and out of her, whooshing through her chest as though it’s trying to snuff out a flickering flame. She’s shriveled from the heat and left in the dying ashes now, burnt to a crisp.

A Bedtime Story

When his dad told him a story the whole world disappeared. It faded into the background and a new one took its place. The empty spaces were filled and the ceiling became sky. Alex liked to sit and watch as the ground grew green and grass sprouted from his carpet. The walls were gone and he could see to a horizon, far off and dimly red with the sunset over the water.

Tonight the story was an old favorite – the shining white castle, the prince and princess, and the angry dragon. He’d heard it so many times already that he already knew to turn left and look at the castle there as the story started. Its walls were tall and beaming, bright against the lengthening shadows of the night. The princess was just coming in, head bent and horse plodding after a long day of riding.

“Daddy, you forgot reckless.”

“Right,” his dad smiled at him, “sorry. After a long day of reckless riding.”

Alex settled back against the pillow. The princess was racing through the forest on her horse, hair streaming behind her and a wild grin stretched across her face – eventually her horse slowed and she sighed, until they were trudging together over the moat to slip under the portcullis. The prince was waiting for her inside. He’d asked the kitchen to keep dinner warm. When the princess left for the day she usually came home too late to eat with everyone else.

Alex suspected that this was a hint – a dig or an apology, he wasn’t sure – to his mother, who sometimes listened. She complained sometimes that Daddy would leave her cooking dinner but never get home in time to eat it when everyone else was hungry.

While the princess was eating the reheated leftovers with her princes, they had a murmured conversation. In an instant, though, everything changed. Their words were drowned out by a roar, the view through the window was suddenly blotted black, and the air filled with filth. The ashes were swirling into the room, and the prince and princess huddled together with their hands clasped over their eyes. Straining, they could see outside the window and through the billowing smoke. The faint outline of a dragon was looming over the castle, massive wings flapping to keep it hovering in midair. Alex always gasped when he saw the dragon for the first time. He hugged close that feeling of fear and delight that made his heart flutter and pound.

The prince and princess ran, until they were hiding in a hallway with no windows and the doors were bolted on either side. They curled up there together and waited for the noise and the choking smoke to go away. There on the cold stone corner of the hallway, they fell asleep. The servants found them the next day as they spread through the castle with mops and brooms and as much medieval-style cleaning solution as could be found on short notice.

Alex loved that part. He didn’t really know what it meant, but he could tell his dad was being funny. His dad made a lot of people laugh, and especially Alex.

His eyelids were sinking shut, and he slid a little further down on his pillows. The prince and princess were tottering out the door now, looking aghast at the smeared black walls of their castle. Those stones had been so pure and lovely, only yesterday.

“Hey buddy, you look pretty sleepy. Do you want me to finish the story tomorrow?”

Alex mumbled, “S’ok,” and felt his dad’s kiss press onto his forehead and the covers settle around him. The light flicked off, but he could still see the castle. Now there was spidery scaffolding climbing up its walls, and the prince and princess were clambering up its walls along with the servants, all with sponges and rags in hand. Alex watched them through half-closed eyes, and fell asleep as they all scrubbed and sprayed and set everything to rights.

Snow (last bit)

The prince wanted to marry the girl from the forest. He was a dreamy type, but practically too he must wed, and she was certainly a suitable bride. Forest notwithstanding, she was of noble stock – of some sort or other, probably middling well – and she was such a shy sweet little thing, she’d do very nicely. He did rather love her, and that was rare enough. He’d loved several women by then, quite fiercely, and he thought himself perfectly lucky that this one might hold, being well-bred and beautiful as she was. He could imagine spending time with her – as much as he would have, being king – and loving her, and growing old with her.

The queen started out from the castle, innocent of the huntsman trailing her with worry creasing his brow and muffling his footsteps. She hurried into the forest, feet uncertain over the uneven snowy ground and eyes searching the darkness between the trees. The huntsman had told her where to go, and she set her course – she’d brought a compass, for she was nothing if not practical – and began bravely through the thicket, away from the glimpse of her castle.

The princess was sitting with her prince, close together on the bench just inside the door, her sewing forgotten on the ground. He was sitting very near to her, his hand resting on her side. It was clasped at the base of her spine as he gazed ardently into her eyes, and she looked back at him without taking her mind from the uneasy awareness of his fingers low on her back.

He was talking – she struggled to hear him, for he often talked for a long while before she heard anything she wanted to answer. It worked, usually, for he didn’t often seem to expect an answer, talking to her about whatever it was and stroking her cheek. She smiled at him, and let her mind wander. He was so very handsome, quite a perfect prince, and his conversation – the discussion he was having now – showed him to be such an intelligent young man. Of course, he was absolutely wrong about many things, but he was young and that could change. So thought the princess, forgetting that she at fifteen was several years younger than this crown prince. Still, she watched him talk affectionately, and listened to his enthusiastic plans and ideas. He really was very dear.

The queen saw the cottage in the distance after two hours. Her thighs were sore from walking, and her back ached. The sun was beating through the trees to sink slow and painful into her skin, while her skirts dragged upon the ground still damp with melting snow. The light was bright and fierce on the drifts of white along the forest floor, and the drooping branches coated in snow and ice. Still, she kept on, and her heart sped when she saw the outline of a small house, just as the huntsman had described it to her.

In another half-hour she was there. Her pulse was thumping in her throat, and the sound of a crackle to her left made her start. A young man was riding away; he paused, and looked quizzically at her, before continuing. The prince dismounted, not far from the cottage, suspicious of this strange nervous woman. There was a route he’d often taken, and he did now. It was useful, as he could double back to the cottage and watch the princess against the side of the house from a cluster of trees nearby, unseen. He leaned against the crook of a branch, and waited.

The princess at the window knew that her time had come. The queen was coming for her, and her stepmother would try – she didn’t know what, but she was afraid. She had been found.

The queen knocked on the door, lightly, her hand almost afraid to hit the wood, as if hovering in the air before it would preserve that moment, and prevent any misfortune. The princess heard the tapping, as she’d heard the huntsman, through a blur. She was still sitting on the bench, her skirts still spread around her in the sunlight, the warmth of the prince’s presence still slowly fading. She stood, stiff, and started to the front of the house to meet the queen.

The queen didn’t hear her until she wheeled, frightened, to the princess standing before her. The girl was taller, her eyes large and shadowy dark, her hair long and black and flowing around her shoulders, and her skin deathly white as always. Her face seemed to gleam in the sunlight of the forest, as if her skin was translucent and there was nothing but bleached bone beneath. She was nearly as pale as the snow behind her spotting the forest, shining blue-white in the sun.

The queen took a breath, and let it out slowly, and composed her face. The princess was still, a carven statue of the winter.

After a moment, the girl said, “Why are you here?” – as if she didn’t know.
The queen looked at her, eyes wide, as if she were surprised. Her voice was scratchy when she answered, “I needed to know you were safe. Needed to bring you home – if you wanted to come.”

The princess’s shoulders tensed at once, lines sharp in her neck. “If I don’t?”

“Then I’ll know you’re safe.”

The princess looked at her stepmother in wonderment, and slowly, steps precarious and tentative, she stepped forward. The queen almost flinched, but her stepdaughter turned and opened the door to the cottage. It swung open, to the inside dim and warmly lit. The princess stepped through the door, and still facing away from the queen she said, “I suppose you want to come in?”

The queen stepped in after the princess, and shut the door behind her. At the thud, the princess walked forward, and the queen followed her into the kitchen. They sat at the rough-hewn wooden table, the queen stiff and the princess faint with bewilderment.

Outside, the prince crept closer, secreted near the window and peering in at his love and this strange intruder. The huntsman watched him warily, and kept a worried eye on his queen.

The two women sat in silence for a time. Finally, the princess interrupted the quiet to say, “Have you eaten?”
The queen shrugged, and pulled out the food she’d brought. It lay on the table, meager, but her stomach grumbled. She was polite, though; she picked up a piece of bread, but before eating it she asked the princess if she wanted anything.

The princess tilted her head, without speaking, and the queen plucked the apple off the table and offered it to the princess. The girl held it up, and nodded, and the queen bit into her bread.

The apple glistened red, stark against the princess’s face, like the curve of her dark lips on her pale skin. She bit into the apple, and the sound was loud in the silence of the house.

The queen’s eyes were dark and deep, and she looked at the princess full of longing and ill-gotten love. The princess turned her eyes to the queen, and her eyebrows drew together. Her mouth was still closed on the bite of apple, crisp and fresh. She could not understand the queen’s expression, serious and sad. In a moment, the meaning of it shifted and for one heartbeat she understood, and she gasped.

Then she was gasping, heaving for air, her eyes round and panicked and her hands fluttering, clutching her throat. The apple fell from her fingers, and bounced off the table, and rolled across the floor to rest against the wall. The princess tried to cough, and gagged, and hacked against the fruit lodged in her throat. She turned her wide eyes on the queen, frozen with the bread in one hand and the other reaching out, helpless. The princess glared, choking, angry eyes full of betrayal and her gasping mouth trying to scowl, or to cry. The queen’s heart beat fast in her chest but she could do nothing. The princess’s eyes accused her, even as she struggled to breathe. She gagged one more time, and fell from her chair just as the prince burst into the room.
The princess was stretched across the floor. The queen thought she might have struck her head, and she was lying, so still, her arm reaching over her head and her face tipped up. The prince bent over her. He had no time for this stranger, evil as she may be, unmoving and staring though she was. He bent close to the princess, kissed her slack lips desperately, clutched her shoulders. She was breathing, but barely, and the air came shallow and labored from her lungs, as if her body fought against its life.

The prince shook her, and held her, and called her name, to no avail. The queen sat with tears streaming down her face, watching this strange man love her dying stepdaughter. She almost couldn’t feel when the huntsman’s arms gathered around her shoulders, and drew her slowly up and out of the room. She only tried to stay with the princess, a strangled sound escaping her, incapable of words.

He pulled her, gently and insistently, out of the cottage door and into the forest, where the afternoon light was dying and the snow glowed unearthly blue in the shadows.

She walked, numb, over the forest floor. She tripped and stumbled, but he caught her. The huntsman kept the queen close, and she walked in the warmth against his shoulder through the darkening forest, over the shadowy snow, while the light vanished and the cold crept in.

When they reached the castle, the huntsman let go of her. She felt the chill of the snow rise up and cover his absence, like a cold shawl around her shoulders. They walked through the hall, through the rooms of the court, and up the spiraling stairs. The huntsman fended off the maidservants, the ladies, the courtiers. He was quiet, and firm, and once or twice he was very angry. He brought the queen to her chambers, still blank with horror and distant. He sat with her there, while she shuddered and wept against his chest, and he stroked her hair.
In the cottage, the princess was lying pale and still on the floor, spread across the wood planks while her prince clasped her to him and sobbed. When he heard the footsteps outside, he thought the huntsman had come back, or the queen, and he gathered his love into his arms. He carried the princess, head cradled on his shoulder and limbs hanging limply, and staggered from the kitchen, past the small men filing in through the door, and outside. There he set the princess very carefully on his horse, and vaulted up behind her. She was barely moving with the wisps of breath that escaped her lungs. He leaned her body back, heavy in his arms, and gently he pressed his lips to hers before clutching her to him, and beginning to ride.

The queen, in the castle, shaking and weeping, saw none of this. She knew none of it, and barely guessed. She wondered, and her throat was raw and sore with grief. She struggled against the huntsman, in spates, but he held her firm, and finally she calmed. She was too far, and she would not see the princess. So she leaned against his shoulder, and let her eyes close so that she saw not at all.

The queen learned to hope that the prince saved her stepdaughter. It was possible that he’d kissed her, and that he’d shaken her, and that eventually he’d knocked loose the apple, or blown air into her lungs. He could have brought her back to his kingdom, and married her. Perhaps the queen herself could believe that, and be happy in her own castle – eventually – despite everything. Perhaps the princess was safe, and well. Perhaps she had a happily ever after.

Snow (third bit)

The princess was restless among the little men. They liked her well enough, and were quite good at offering their hospitality and endeavoring to meet her needs. Nonetheless, the little cottage was a cramped and crowded home, and she yearned for more. She was a princess – she wanted grandeur. Or perhaps she wanted freedom, to ride galloping fast and hard across an open plain with the wind streaming across her face. What she wanted – though, at fifteen, she couldn’t know it yet – was the sweep and fervor of first love, and she was fated to avoid it if she stayed cooped in a cottage with a handful of little old men.

She’d never listened, intent, to stories as a child. She’d read the fairytales all on her own, and had turned away if the queen opened a book. The stories she read were beautiful, and solemn, and she dreamed of the formal and grand procedure of love. The quest, and the tower, and the dragon slain with a glowing sword lying scaly and sinuous but dead at the feet of the beautiful maiden. She longed for that – she’d never been told that anything else existed, and very probably she wouldn’t have believed it. Perhaps the queen would have dreamed with her, would have read the fairytales and sighed over the story of the knight with her stepdaughter, but very likely if that were the case the princess might have noticed that not every princess marries a king and lives with a happily ever after. It would not have occurred to her that the queen was unhappy, except that the queen was unhappy with her. As a child, it is too difficult to look past pain to see someone else’s. In fact, most people are children like this for much of their lives, and the princess had nobody to teach her that hard lesson, of learning the pain of others. She couldn’t reach it on her own. She was a princess, and she was beautiful and brilliant, and sad. She wasn’t very good with people.

So she stayed in the cottage, with the little men, and she cooked and cleaned with the rest of them, and taught them to do laundry – it was disgraceful, really, when she discovered the state of their linens – and got on with the practicalities of life in the forest. She of course hadn’t any clue how to do menial tasks like laundry. She was a princess. For that, though, she was determined, and she figured out the laundry and the cooking, the sturdy sewing and the scrubbing. She learnt it well, and she taught the little men until she could delegate, and send a few of them around the house under her orders. She was a princess, after all.
There wasn’t really much else for her to do, anyway, and so she focused on that. She couldn’t keep her mind from wandering, though. When she stood at the sink with her hands stinging in the heat of the water, the pot heavy, it was easy to daydream of a happily ever after.

The queen had retreated into herself, into her corner of the castle, away from the world. She would deal with the business of the kingdom – a fair amount of it fell to her, at this point. Her husband the king was occupied with other matters; so she would tell people, when they brought her some unattended matter and a dubious expression. “My husband the king is occupied with other matters. I will take care of this, my lord, and I’m certain that His Majesty sends his regards.”

She quelled the doubt in their faces and the hesitation in their voices, and she signed papers and issued orders. She was decisive and clear, strong-willed in her convictions and stubborn, refusing to bend to any influence, especially if it came from that baron she didn’t like. But she conducted this business in one of the two rooms remaining to her. She had retreated, certainly, gradually, like an army falling back against the castle waging war. The rooms had driven her out, bare echoing walls and lofty stone. She lost ground every day, and at this point she was locked in this fortress of two rooms abutting her bedchamber. She could greet visitors, and hear cases, and discuss politics there. After an exhausting day – several hours of courtiers – she could retire to her chamber, and ignore the lot of them. The rest of the castle – indeed, the rest of the kingdom – didn’t have to exist when she was done with the day. She huddled in her chamber, drawing a shawl around her shoulders, like some peasant woman instead of the queen of the land. She could pretend, there, that she was simple and honest, and had nothing more to do than any peasant, and could not have failed so greatly.
She knew at some point she would have to leave the safety of that room, have to leave the castle even. Eventually she would have to risk her own protected illusion, and venture out to look for her stepdaughter. Soon, she would find the princess.

The princess was anxious again to leave. The cottage couldn’t be safe, not now that the huntsman knew where it was. She hadn’t hurt him badly enough that it would even take him more than two hours back to the castle, and they must all be searching for her. In fact, the huntsman had gotten to the castle quite quickly, but he had not yet revealed her location. The princess wasn’t to know that, and she worried endlessly. She stayed because she had somewhere to stay, and the cottage was comfortable enough, and because the young and handsome noble who rode by every so often sent her sidelong looks as she sat outside with her sewing, or hung laundry on the line strung between the trees.

The queen had made all her preparations. She set aside a day to go. Her affairs were all in order, the business of the kingdom looked after. She’d worked very hard the week before, to have the entirety of one day to leave the castle itself, and ignore all her royal duty. She’d had a pile, waiting, on the dresser by her bed. There was a cloak and a simple dress sitting on the polished wood. She’d chosen a cloak made of plain cloth, very warm, with a hood. She had resolved to go alone. The huntsman was the only one who knew exactly of her plans, and he had resolved to follow her to ensure her safety. Even so, he was anxious. The queen was not. She had the calm certainty of a mother, that her actions were right, and for the child’s own good really. At last she would make it right between them, and bring the princess home.

The princess sat and embroidered, outside of the cottage. The young man had trotted by nearly a minute ago, and she sat very still with a smile playing on her lips, as if she knew that he was wheeling the mare around to go back to the little house. She looked up a moment later, and he was there, tall on the back of his dappled horse, hair shining in the soft sunlight of the forest, square jaw set and eyes gleaming. He stayed for a moment, still, and then he slipped off the side of the horse and started toward her.

The princess tensed, her back arched and neck bent. He was handsome, surely, but she was a woman alone with a stranger, and she was not royalty here. When he approached the bench where he was sitting, though, he bent smoothly in a bow, and on standing he spoke. He told her that he was a visiting prince, at a baron’s house in the kingdom for a few fortnights as ambassador. He had seen her sewing and he wanted to say, if it wasn’t too forward, that she was a very beautiful lady.

The fifteen-year-old girl flushed, and dimpled. She peeked out at him from under lowered lashes, suppressing a grin, and nodded her head regally to acknowledge the compliment. His face fell, a bit, but he merely bowed again and swung back onto his horse and rode away.

He was there again the next day, and the next. She wasn’t used to staying outside so long every day, but she found reasons to. She thought that probably he would be disappointed if she weren’t there. The third day he came, she told him she found him very charming. It startled her, when he stepped close, and her vision filled only with him. His eyes were staring down at hers, wide and innocent, and he tipped her face up to his and kissed her very gently.

The princess closed her eyes as if his lips were still on hers. His warmth was close to her, and one hand lightly resting on her arm. It vanished, and the sudden cool made her stagger, and her eyes flew open to the prince walking back to his horse, and riding away with a sweep of his hand in her direction.

He visited her every day after that first conversation, and while many of their visits were much like the first day, some of them found the princess startled again by his closeness, and his intent eyes. It frightened her, girl that she was, and she craved it.

She was giddy with the first flush of infatuation. The prince himself was very much in love. During the brief times they saw each other, in the short conversations filled with pauses, this worked very well.

The queen worried every day, nervous that each day she delayed her journey was one day too many. Her princess could be stumbling into danger at every moment, and her failure to go and to find her could cost dearly. Finally she was ready, and she donned the simple straight dress, and gathered the cloak around her. She stopped at the kitchen, slipped past the cooks and picked up a few things for her lunch. She didn’t think she would be back, and might not find an inn or someplace like. She brought a good helping of bread, and some cheese, and an apple.

Snow (second bit)

The princess could feel the huntsman coming for her. From inside the cottage, washing up with the little men and mulling over what to make for lunch, she could almost hear his footsteps. Far away and faint, they rang in her ears, the soft pad of his moccasins on the forest floor as he crept closer, to reveal her secret safe hiding spot, to deliver her back to her stepmother, the queen. She could not let that happen. She was frantic, scrubbing the stovetop and the cooking pot from the morning in the frenzy. Her fingers were aching, and she pressed harder, hands frenetic, jerking fitfully through the suds, splashing her face with suds. The little men were watching her with worry. The one with the long grey beard and blue eyes – the grumpy one – stopped in, and looked at her, and frowned with his arms crossed over his chest. He said, “Girl, what is wrong? There’s no need for such haste.” She shook her head, and did not answer. After some time, they drifted away, and she was alone with the anxiety pulling at her like a weight inside her gut.

The huntsman was walking, slow and steady, in widening circles out from the castle. His hounds were with him, faithful and alert, eyes bright and tails high as they trotted alongside him. He had the scarf the princess had left as she fled. When they were not forty meters from the cottage, the dogs were suddenly anxious, ears pricked. Their tails twitched, and they turned to make sure the huntsman was following, in the right direction, as they filed forward. He grinned, affectionately. His sweet dogs always took him right, and he’d find the girl, and all would be well.

The princess heard the yelping of the dogs as they approached her cottage, her safety. Her eyes narrowed, and her breath came short. The wretched huntsman had brought his bloodhounds, and she was lost. The air froze around her, and the water dripped cold and sleek from her hands, still clasped around the scrubbing sponge and the knife from the morning’s vegetables. She couldn’t be caught, couldn’t go back to the castle. She didn’t know what the queen wanted, or what the queen would do to her. Above all, though, the princess couldn’t face her stepmother. Nothing good could come of that. She stood still, back stiff, and her hands tightened on the knife in her hands, spotted with soapsuds. She was capable. She had learnt to fend for herself. She would fend off this huntsman, and all would be well.

The huntsman sighed in relief when he saw the cottage emerge from the thicket of trees, and the glad warmth spread through him like breath as he found the path to the door, and his hounds clamored about him with tails wagging. He knocked on the door, softly, and then rapped smartly, to be sure he was heard.

The princess heard him pound on the door, like her doom come for her. She turned, slow, like moving against the weight pulling at her, and she walked with leaden movements toward the door, the knife tucked against her side and her head high. When she opened the door, the dogs began barking at once, filling her head with the noise of their triumph. The huntsman was standing, framed squarely by the wooden doorway, his handsome ruddy face staring straight at hers, and a smile spreading across it.

Slow, shaking, she held the knife in front of her – between them – and watched as the wicked glee faded, as his eyes were filled with fear and worry and his mouth fell open, like a fool. Even the dogs quieted, as if their barking put their master in danger. Perhaps it did, for the princess’s nerves were none too steady.

The huntsman took a careful step back, nearly tripping over one of the dogs – Trowser – winding behind his legs. He righted himself, to meet the girl’s wary wild face, her round glaring eyes and the knife pointed straight at his chest, held awkwardly in her delicate white hand. It was roughened now by calluses and reddened, but it was the hand of the princess certainly. The wonder filling the huntsman nearly overtook the fear, for it was surely wondrous that a princess had transformed so. Even then, wondrous as it was, it was perhaps more frightening that a wild princess such as this might not have so many scruples about hurting him. Might not recognize him, even, him who’d watched her toddle among his hounds years before.

The princess stepped forward, through the fear choking her. She had a knife, but the huntsman was tall and strong, and his dogs were dangerous. She waved the knife, vaguely, and croaked out, “You should go. I want to be alone here, please, just go. Nobody-“

He was still looking at her, astonished. She took another step forward, the knife wobbling in her hand, and she jabbed impulsively at his shoulder. When the tip of the knife slashed through the fabric of his tunic, and the tear wet with blood, they both looked at it in astonishment. She stared at the knife, red barely glinting on its edge. He looked first in awe at the spot on his shoulder, spreading slowly and darkening into a stain. He tipped his face up to the princess, and his eyes were clouded with the pain of the wound – slight as it was – and a shock and hurt that she did not understand. He turned, stumbling, and started away from the cottage, tripping and running unevenly. His dogs turned reluctantly, and trailed after, making not a sound. She watched him disappear through the gaps between the trees, until she could not see him.

The princess stood watching for a long time, even after she could not see the wounded huntsman. The knife was in her hand, the blood dry and the handle heavy to her wrist, and she nearly dropped it by the time she remembered to lower her arm, and drop her head, and turn to go back inside and finish washing up.

The queen waited anxiously for news. She trusted, perhaps, nobody at all as she trusted the huntsman. It was an odd alliance, but she had watched the court, the shallow courtiers and the counselors and the obsequious diplomats. They had given her the irrevocable conclusion that if there was anyone worthwhile to be found among the court, with whom one could form a friendship, the amount of nasty sly conceit among them made the trouble of finding one barely worth it. The maidservants were all afraid of her – and certainly she couldn’t truly speak to one of the maids, anyway, that wouldn’t be proper at all – but the huntsman was one nearly in between.

She had to talk with him often, to keep up the business of maintaining the castle and the grounds, and in those conversations she had discovered his good character, his honesty, and his loyalty. He wasn’t, for all that, the wit and sparkling intellectual she might have spoken with among the court, but his answers were frank and straightforward. The queen had found, after a long day among the labyrinth of court politics, that straightforward was exactly what she needed. She knew too that she hungered for the admiring glances he gave her – nothing more than the devotion due to his monarch, surely, but a handsome man watching her ordinary face with such intent eyes made her heart swell nonetheless.

When the huntsman entered the castle, panting from the exertion of finding his way back through the trees, bleeding, the servants surrounded him in a cooing cluster of fluttering aprons and grasping hands. He pushed them aside as best he could, and said, “The queen, I have to see the queen,” his breath wheezing in his chest.
The servants gasped, and all agreed that really it would be better if he could wait, that would be better, for he was bleeding you see, and he ought to get that wound treated like a good boy, and the queen couldn’t see that now could she and after all that just wouldn’t be right.

He ignored them, and repeated himself, and when they kept on with their chatter, trying to herd him to a bench and bring over a bandage, he bellowed, “I have to see the queen, now.”

They fell silent, and with barely a word – though many a pout and resentful look – two of the maids brought him gingerly to the room where the queen was pacing restlessly. They delivered him, having stayed far away from the bleeding wound and clearly glad to be away from the half-crazed hurt man.

The queen turned, her face aglow with hope, and the huntsman stepped forward with his head low to tell her why he was returning with nothing to show her but a still-blossoming spot of blood.

Snow (first bit)

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.