Happily Ever After
by Maeryn Lamonte
It started with the birth of a long awaited child. Then there was a blessing – or to be more precise three blessings – then a curse, then a spell, then somewhere along the line another birth – well four actually, but one that stood out. What happened next was... well it's easier of you read it for yourselves. I was going to do this in instalments, but then I though why bother. Here it is. All of it. Enjoy (I hope).
Oh yes, in case any of you has a less than pristine mind and a limited grasp of English vocabulary, a muff was a sort of tube of fur used to keep young lady's hands warm long before it was that other thing
Once upon a time, in a far away magical kingdom, there lived a king and queen who were very much loved by their subjects. The king worked tirelessly to see that his people were governed fairly and justly, his only concern being the welfare and prosperity of those over whom he reigned. The queen too was fair and kind, spending her days seeking out those in need and doing whatever was in her considerable power to see that none suffered unduly.
They were fortunate enough to live in such luxury as is common to kings and queens, but they were generous with their wealth, using it more to bring joy and happiness to the kingdom than comfort to themselves. They recognised wealth only brings contentment when shared, besides which there was only one thing they truly wanted – that they should be given a child of their own to love.
Many years passed, and while the king and queen did not wane in their efforts to bring happiness to others, and while their longing grew all the stronger, this one thing continued to eluded them. Every day they would pray, and every month they would hope, only to be met with disappointment after disappointment. Until one day, when the queen was all but too old to carry a child, their prayers were answered.
The child came in the spring time – a baby boy, born healthy and strong. The royal couple had hardly dared hope until the day came when they held their young prince in their arms. Beaming down upon his quietly sleeping form, their hearts swelled with such a joy, all the world strained to contain it.
“We cannot let this most precious of days pass, my love,” said the king, “without celebrating it in a manner that mirrors the happiness we have been granted.”
“What have you in mind, husband?”
“The kingdom is wealthy, my sweet. Though I have reduced taxes as my advisors will condone, the coffers remain filled to overflowing. Even with the charity you give, we still have so very much more than we need. I would like to propose a week of celebration in which we invite anyone and everyone from all parts of the kingdom to join us in our rejoicing. We can feed and feast the whole kingdom for a week without touching more than a half of all we have. Let us invite all those who have joined us in praying for this miracle to share in its coming to pass.”
“Let it be as you say, my beloved. I can think of no greater celebration than to share this moment with all those we serve.”
So they called for scribes to write out a proclamation, and they called for heralds to take the news to every part of their kingdom, from north to south, from east to west, from highest to lowest, and from brightest to darkest, so the proclamation was sent, and near all who heard it received the invitation with gladness. In the weeks that the heralds passed through the land, they strove to ensure that none were left out and that all, from the highest born to the lowest of men, received the invitation in the same manner.
It took till after the summer's harvest to prepare everything that was needed, but when it was completed, the store houses were bursting with all that the land could produce, and the fields around the castle were filled as far as the eye could see with gaily coloured tents and flags, all constructed to house and feed the anticipated stream of well wishers.
If the king and queen's advisors still held any reservations about the enormity of the expense, they were assuaged by the stream of generous gifts that came with the well wisher – sufficient to refill the royal barns and coffers until they overflowed with more wealth than they had ever held.
During the week of celebration, the king and queen rode daily through the city of canvas, showing their child and their delight to all their subjects. On the final day, while most were being entertained by such a show of fireworks and such a sumptuous feast as none had experienced before, the royal couple held audience with the nobles of the land, receiving their gifts and their fealty on behalf of the new-born prince.
When the last of the barons had stepped forward to kneel before the baby and it seemed all pomp and ceremony was complete, there appeared a bright white glow in the centre of the throne room. All those nearby stepped back, and there were a few gasps as the glow increased in intensity until it was all but unbearable to behold. At its brightest, it split into three tiny sparks of colour that grew as they spun around the vast hall, over the heads of the guests.
At the last, the three settled into a graceful landing before the king and queen, and could quite clearly be seen as three beautiful fairies, each identical to the others in all but colour. They spoke in perfect unison, addressing the royal couple.
“Greeting Your Majesties, from the Realm of Light. We thank you for your kind invitation to bear witness to the long awaited birth of your son, and we bring gifts on this auspicious occasion.”
The middle fairy stepped forward. Dressed in shades of green with flashes of yellow hidden among the folds of her skirts, she leaned over the crib where the young prince lay, smiling at the lights dancing about the fairy's hair.
“Young prince,” she spoke with a calm, clear voice that filled the hall even though her voice was soft, “I grant that you grow to be handsome, so that all who see you will love you.” With that she touched him lightly on his brow, leaving the slightest trace of fairy dust glistening where her fingers had caressed him.
The second fairy stepped forward form her place on the left. She was dressed in all manner of blues and purples, and she reached in to touch the baby over his heart, leaving traces of glowing lilac. “Young prince, I grant that you grow to be kind, so that you will love your subjects in return.”
Then came the third fairy who had stood to the right of the three. Her dress was all manner of reds run through with flashes of pink.
“Young prince,” her voice was deeper and steadier than the other's. “I grant that you grow in strength, both of sinew and character, so that you will bring your kingdom prosperity.” Her fingers touched briefly on his arm, leaving traces of fiery glitter where they passed.
The three fairies lined up once more as the king stepped forward to address them. “Your Majesties,” he said. “Your presence honours us, your gifts humble us, and as ever, you spread joy wherever you go. Be welcome. Be welcome indeed.” With this, he lowered himself onto one knee, and the entire room followed his lead by either bowing or curtsying to the three small figures, whose delight quite literally shone from them to fill the room.
“What news of your mother?” the king asked as he and his nobles returned to their feet.
The three fairies' faces fell upon hearing these words. The question was kindly meant, but matters had not been well among the fair folk for more years than any mortal man had lived. No fairy cared to talk of their great shame, and all that was known was that in ages past, the queen of all the fairies had turned her magic against her own people. Her three daughters had fled with as many of their kind as were able to escape, and had joined their own powers to create a second realm, separate from that of their mother's. And so had been born the Realm of Light and the Realm of Shadows, the one filled with bubbling brooks and sun-kissed meadows, strewn with wildflowers; the other, a place thorns and twisted trees, where all beauty had been banished in order to greater contrast with that of the Dark Queen. A place where few men ventured, and from which fewer still returned.
It had been tradition amongst the fairies that they be governed by one ruler who alone held all the magic the realm possessed, but the three sisters had seen the horrors wrought by their mother, now so absorbed with herself that she held not the least care for any of her subjects, and had resolved to make sure such a thing could not happen to them. By dividing their power equally between them, each was subject to the other two, so if any one of them was tempted by the darker magics that had so overwhelmed their mother, the other two would be able to intervene.
“Dearest king,” chorused the three. “your kindness to the fair folk is well received by all who dwell in the Realm of Light, but the Realm of Shadows remains as ever it was. Our mother has not ventured from the Dark Forest in the living memory of men, and any messengers we have dared send have been returned to us so hideously twisted, it has taken all our craft to undo even a part of the magic our mother turned on them. We fear she will not much change even within the lifetime of your young prince.”
As they were speaking, the shadows in the darkest corner of the room began to grow darker still. The change passed unnoticed until the blackness formed into snaking tendrils of smoke. Guests fell away from it in terror as it grew and swirled and finally coalesced into a creature of terrible beauty.
“Mother,” whispered the three fairies, at once taking hold of one another's hands.
The Fairy Queen stepped slowly forward. The blackness of her raiment reached out to dim even the brightness of the throne room, leaching colour and cheer from all but her three daughters. The tap of her long staff against the stone floor sounded stark and forbidding in the silence that filled the chamber.
“Greetings king.” There was ice in her words. “Pray tell how I came to be overlooked in your invitations to this most joyous occasion?”
The king lowered himself to one knee once more, all those present, save the fairies, following his lead. “Great Queen of Shadows, forgive me but you received the same invitation as every person here present. This is a celebration for all people and it seemed fitting that none should be honoured above any other.”
“Seemed fitting.” The queen spoke the words quietly to herself, as though tasting them. “Seemed fitting. Tell me, great king, am I not more beautiful than any creature within the bounds of your kingdom? And am I not more powerful also? Is it not true that the only reason I do not rule over you and all your kind is that I have chosen not to? At least for now?”
These were words to strike fear into the staunchest heart. In truth, even with the whole kingdom, including the fairies of the Realm of Light, standing against her, the outcome of any such contest of power would be uncertain at best. The suffering such a battle would bring would be beyond description though and to be avoided at all costs. It required the most diplomatic of replies, placating and yet showing no weakness.
The king licked his lips, turned suddenly dry. “It is true, mighty Queen of Darkness, that I have never met anyone so beautiful and terrible as you, and I would hope never to set all my kingdom's strength against that which dwells in the Realm of Shade.”
The Dark Queen's lips narrowed, disliking the resilience she found in the king. It crossed her mind to transform the arrogant little man into something more humble, but with her three daughters standing ready to resist her, she was not at all sure of success, and she had no desire to risk showing the limits of her powers. Instead she smiled – a terrifying sight with her eyes blazing above the delicate curve of her lips.
“Do you not think,” she said, her voice straining for calm, “that such a one as I should deserve a personal invitation, rather than be expected to respond to some fellow yelling to the world?”
The king closed his eyes and took a breath. “Your Majesty, since the founding of the Realm of Shadows, few who have crossed into your lands have returned, and those few who did were so transformed that I could not find it in my heart to ask any of my servants to risk such a sacrifice. We have long taken this response as indication that you wished no-one to enter your realm, so it seemed best for us to stop short of your borders and to pass our message to you and your subjects by calling it across into your lands until one of your creatures responded and agreed to carry the news to you. Far from meaning offence, we hoped to keep within your wishes.”
“Seemed best,” the queen mused over the words, seeming little mollified. “Well no matter. Let me see this prince of yours so I may pass on my gift to him also.”
None there wished for it, but none dared stand up to the queen. Even the three sisters stood impotently aside as their mother stepped forward. Dark, malevolence gazed down on the innocent form, and jealousy took the queen at the sight of the child's unblemished skin, clear eyes and perfect lips, already smiling in open acceptance.
“Little prince, I gift you with hardship. That you be unaware of any maiden near you and they be equally unaware of you. That you grow up longing for love but unable to find it. That, should you reach your twenty-first birthday without fully experiencing true love, your handsomeness will turn to vanity, your kindness to cruelty and your strength to brutality. That far from bringing prosperity to your kingdom, you will bring a reign of terror and despair to rival even my own.”
All the while she spoke, dark clouds swirled about her and the child, tainting the delicate marks left by her three daughters. Once finished, she stepped back, satisfied, and gazed around at the horrified looks all about her.
“And now,” she announced, sounding almost reasonable, “seeing that none wish me here, I shall depart. Find what pleasure you can, Your Majesties, in what remains of your festivities.”
She burst into a swirl of dark smoke which dimmed the brightly lit hall to utter darkness for a brief moment, then disappeared.
The shocked silence that followed was broken by the scratching of quill against parchment as the court scribe, who had been commissioned to record all that transpired, recovered his wits enough to write down the full nature of the Dark Queen's curse.
The king and queen looked down into the beautiful face of their son who gurgled and smiled back at them as though nothing had changed.
The king looked to the fairy sisters, urgency and anxiety filling his eyes. “Can you do anything to counter this curse? Please say you can.”
“Alas, lord king, we cannot, for the queen's magic encompasses us as well. It was the death of our father that caused our mother to retreat so far inside her own grief and turned her, by degrees, into the monster you know today. In founding the Realm of Light we three vowed never to embrace love, but to content ourselves with the companionship we each might give one another.
“We are just as much maidens as any young woman in the kingdom, and by the words of the curse, we can no longer see your son any more than he can see us. Even were we to possess the power to undo our mother's magic, and that is not at all certain, we have no way to direct it.
“Allow us to retire, Your Majesties, for we must think on this matter. Perhaps in time a solution will present itself. In the meantime you must love him even as you have loved those your rule, and perhaps your care and kindness will be enough to break the spell.”
“Do I understand then,” the queen's voice carried a tremor of terror within its usual calm. “The only once she knows a husbands touch will a woman be able to see my son and be seen by him?”
“By the words of the curse, only maidens are affected Your Majesty. Within this lies the craft of the queen's evil, for your son will see such beauty as might turn his heart to love, and she him, but only on the day after she has taken for herself a husband. The only love he will know will be forever beyond his grasp.”
“And if you were to marry?”
“It would be a simple enough matter for we three to find handsome and worthy menfolk among our kind and to marry them, after which we might be able to undo the magic our mother has wrought, but then we would fall within her power. We fairy folk only marry for love and, while the queen cannot destroy any of us three directly, she could easily bring death to our husbands. If she were to do this, then the same grief that so turned her, guided by her own malice, would cause us to become as dark and evil as she is herself. The Realm of Light would fall into shadow, and shortly after, your own kingdom. Your Majesty we dare not break our vow.
“All we can do, we do for now.”
With that the three held hands in a small circle and began to spin in the air, their colours merging into the most brilliant of white lights, and all the while their song reaching out into the walls of the castle.
“Great castle, home to all that speaks of love and goodness in this land,
We grant that any who share true love's kiss while compassed by your walls,
Be released from any curse that binds their bodies or their minds.”
They settled once more to the ground and turned sad faces to the king and queen. “Your Majesties, this is all that lies within our power for now. May your prayers be enough to allow the prince and his intended enough of a glimpse of one another that they might share a kiss before the time comes when the curse reaches its fulfilment.”
The royal couple fell to their knees before the fairy princesses, and thanked them through their tears. The three disappeared in a flurry of coloured sparkles, leaving the throne room dull and bereft of cheer, despite its gay decorations.
The very next day, the festivities ended and those who had attended returned home, their belongings bulging with gifts. None who knew of the tragic occurrence in the royal palace spoke of it, and the kingdom returned to normality, except within the castle walls where the king and queen turned their attentions to praying for the deliverance of their son.
Years passed and the kingdom changed. The queen was rarely seen, for the few hours she did not spend in the company of her son, she passed in fervent prayer within the temple, pleading for his deliverance. Her charity work she delegated to her most trusted friends, and they reported to her regularly. Her heart was no longer in the work though. Each day she saw her son playing happily with the other boys, and completely oblivious to the girls about him, and she grieved for him. The girls played contentedly enough by themselves, ignored by most of the boys, and unseen by one.
The king continued to arbitrate for his subjects, but with little of the passion he had once had. His hair turned grey and the colour vanished from his cheeks. He became know as the Grey King, and though he brought wisdom, fairness and understanding to every matter before him, it was evident to all that his thoughts were ever with his son and the evil curse that held him.
As the boy passed his twelfth year, the king and queen engaged scholars to live within their walls and invited girls from all backgrounds who were both willing and able to be taught, to come live and learn with them. It was an offer few ignored, and almost every noble family with daughters near the prince's age sent their girls to the palace, seeing a means of securing a better education for their children than they could provide at home. There were a number of young girls from poorer families who came as well, a great many of whom found sponsorship to remain from the the royal family.
From the first, the king and queen's intent was that they should surround their son with beautiful girls in the hopes that such overwhelming numbers would force their way past the magic of the Dark Queen's curse, but their plan had unforeseen consequences. With so many fair maidens under one roof, many noble families with son's of marriageable age also found reasons to visit the royal castle and, with no curse to hamper them, they naturally began to woo the young maidens.
The queen saw the danger and tried to evade it by imposing stricter measures. Each of the young girls had travelled to the palace with a chaperone, who then remained to give her charge comfort and support. Most often this chaperone would be a mother or an aunt, but in many cases trusted female servants had been given the honour. At the queen's decree, it became necessary for the maidens to be accompanied at all times to lessen the probability that they might be enticed by the wiles of a visiting nobles son.
In all this, the young prince remained oblivious to the presence of the girls who filled the halls and corridors with their beauty and colour and gentle scent, just as they did of him. Inevitably the bravest and most ingenious of the visiting young nobles would find some way to reach his chosen fair maiden, past the protection of her chaperone, and assignations would lead to engagements and inevitably marriages, often held within the castle temple. The young prince was unable to fathom the purpose of such ceremonies, only seeing as he did, a young man and a priest making vows to an empty space beside them. The following day, however, he would see the same young man climb into a carriage with the fairest of young women beside him.
Often at this point of departure, the prince and the new bride would catch sight of one another for the first time, and such feelings as only young lovers know would well up within their hearts, only to be dashed upon the rocks of the newly made marriage vows. They would exchange looks of regret and rueful acceptance, and the young bride would depart with her new husband and not return.
Each time this occurred, the prince would feel a part of himself wither a little more. To know love's first touch only to see it part forever beyond his reach was perhaps the cruellest of hardships, and with each occurrence the prince fell deeper into despair.
“Mother,” he asked once. “Is it the nature of a wedding ceremony that a young man may conjure a beautiful bride for himself? Might I be permitted to do so one day?”
The queen's heart all but broke at his words. She couldn't bring herself to tell the young man that he was surrounded by such beauty, and that he alone was cursed never to see them until they were beyond his reach. Instead she redoubled her efforts to find some chink in the evil magic that controlled her son. Daily she would walk with one young girl or another, guiding her into the prince's presence and walking up to him until they stood face to face. Each time the two youngsters would pass one another, each oblivious to the other's presence. She commanded the building of rooms filled with mirrors, gardens decorated with beautiful ponds and lakes, the most magnificent of crystal chandeliers to be raised in the great hall, each in the hope that though prince and maidens could not see each other directly, perhaps a glimpsed reflection might find its way past the curse, but all to no avail.
Time passed, and as the prince reached his twentieth year, strong and handsome and kind, but carrying a great sorrow born of loneliness, the king and queen all but reached the end of their hope.
Now among the nobles of the kingdom there was a baron and baroness whose lands bordered both the realms of shadow and light. Unbeknownst to them, the Dark Queen's jealousy had burnt against them for the happiness and love they shared when they were first married, and she had cursed them to be forever barren. Like the king and queen, they had longed all their lives for children of their own, and had become friends of the royal couple through their shared affliction. They had joined with all the kingdom in celebrating the birth of the prince, even though for them the festivities had been bitter-sweet.
They had been present when the fairy princesses and the Dark Queen had cast their magic and, following the departure of the fair folk, they had withdrawn along with the remaining guests to leave the royal couple alone, as was so evidently their wish. The baron and baroness had returned to their chambers and settled into bed together, sharing, as was their habit, a few moments in one another's arms and a kiss of their enduring love. They had not considered the final magic of the three princesses. In truth they were unaware that any curse held them, but as their lips touch, so the Dark Queen's influence on their lives was dispelled.
In the years that followed, and much to their surprise and joy, the baroness gave birth to three boys, each as strong, healthy and rambunctious as the last, and both she and her husband loved them as the gifts they knew them to be. In her heart the baroness longed for a daughter, so when she fell pregnant a fourth time, she prayed for a girl, and was only a little disappointed when she gave birth to a fourth son.
She named him Simon, and from the first he was different from his brothers. He wasn't in any way sickly, but while his three older siblings enjoyed running around play-fighting amongst themselves, Simon's preference was to sit quietly with a book or to practice at the piano. When his older brothers charged off into the forest on their horses in search of some poor creature to hunt, Simon would ride quietly by the river and, at times, stop to paint what he saw or to write down the songs that filled his gentle heart.
The older three spent their days learning the craft of any who might be called to lead men into battle. As they grew into men, they practised fighting with long swords and maces wearing full armour to build their strength. They would ride and fight from the backs of great warhorses with lances and broadswords so that they could better bring terror to their enemies, and they would train daily with longbows and knives, facing boar, bears and wolves to learn courage so they would not flinch in battle. Each vied with the other for his father's favour, and all three made him immensely proud.
The baron worried for his youngest son though. Simon showed no interest in any of the activities that so consumed his brothers, and as he grew, he developed none of their physical stature. While they were strong and bullish to the point of arrogance, he would shy away from confrontation. It didn't help that his mother coddled him and encouraged his gentler side, but the baron loved his wife, and allowed her this indulgence.
One day the baron gifted Simon, as he had his other sons, with armour and weaponry. The poor boy was barely able to lift the sword and, once strapped into his armour, his first and smallest movement was enough to overbalance him and send him crashing to the floor, much to his and his father's embarrassment, and to the raucous amusement of his brothers.
Riding he managed well enough, but rather than controlling and directing the strength and savagery of the warhorse he was given, he calmed it with his kindness until it became useless for battle. On his first hunt, he ran from the boar that charged him, climbing a trees for safety. Then, seeing that the creature's rage and madness was born from pain, carrying as it did broken off arrowheads from some previous failed hunt, he descended the tree and soothed the creature until it permitted him to remove the viscous barbs and tend the suppurating wounds. Over the days that followed, he cared for the animal until it was well enough to return to the forest.
The day came when the baron and baroness agreed it would be well to travel once more to the Royal Castle and Palace. It was evident to both that their youngest son would never possess the strength and valour to carve out a place for himself within the savage world around them, and they hoped that he might instead find a place within the king's retinue – perhaps as a page or messenger initially, then from there who knew what he might become. It was also not far from their minds that their older sons might find brides for themselves amongst the eligible maidens who filled the Royal Court. So it was in the twentieth year following the birth of the Crown Prince that the baron and baroness journeyed once more with their family to visit the king and queen.
For all that he was neither tall nor powerfully built, Simon was still a handsome youth – fair of face and well proportioned. While he lacked the well developed musculature of other boys his age, he was swift and agile, and as quick of mind as he was fleet-footed. The king was pleased to welcome him as a servant, and placed him with the other palace messengers.
He learned his duties swiftly and, for his polite and obliging manner, he rapidly became a favourite among the nobles within the palace, especially the young girls who would call on him to carry messages back and forth between their friends. This earned him the disdain of may of the other servant boys who were jealous of his high-born status and the attention he received, especially from the girls. Because of his feeble stature and peaceful ways, they fell to bullying him, so to avoid persecution, Simon spent much of his time wandering the lesser known parts of the castle, and before many weeks had passed, he knew a great many short cuts and secret ways about the place.
There existed a similar rule for the maids and menservants as for the young noble men and women. The queen wished to prevent any unseemly dalliances and the potential for undesired consequences. She reasoned that a deflowered serving girl might become suddenly visible to her son, and though she longed for him to find love, she felt that such an encounter would be more hindrance than help in such a pursuit.
Simon had long preferred the company of the fairer sex, and at home had spent most of his days either with his mother or the girls from the nearby villages. For a while this had raised his father's hopes for him, thinking that the young man was sowing some wild oats, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Simon was drawn to girls because he found their gentle, friendly ways to be more agreeable to his temperament, and he enjoyed their games pastimes too – at least all those they permitted him share.
The imposed segregation in the castle was hard on him. He missed the company of young girls his age, and he struggled with the unkindness of the boys he was compelled to live with. He was grateful for the daily duties that kept him apart from his peers, and granted him opportunities to spend brief moments in the presence of some of the young maidens. It pleased him that he was able to help them, and that they considered him a friend by consequence. As he learned his way about the castle, he even found ways of spending time with some of the younger maidservants in the kitchens and laundry when he knew they would be left to their tasks. At times he would help them with what they were doing, and so he became as much befriended by the young women his age as he was despised by the boys.
In such ways he snatched enough moments of happiness out of the day to count himself blessed. Within a month it seemed he knew many of the resident maidens by name and counted most of them to be friends. They saw nothing threatening in him and offered him the same friendship they shared with each other. It never occurred to either Simon or any of these young ladies that there might be anything more between them.
For certain, the fragrance of young love was often in the air and Simon dreamed, in the same way as his friends, that one day he would fall in love and marry. Though he longed for this no less than any young person his age, he never once considered a romantic liaison with any of the girls he met, be they high-born or servant.
Then came the day that the youngest of his brother sought him out. Of all of them, Tristan had always been the closest to kind to him. They had all picked on him over the years, hating him for the favouritism their mother showed him, and forever seeking out new and unusual ways to make his life miserable – in order, so they said, that he 'might at last grow into a man'. Even in their unkindest moments though, Tristan had seemed regretful of his part and Simon, being of a forgiving nature in any case, found himself kindly disposed towards his brother.
“Her name is Elise, Simon. Do you know her?” Simon smiled. Of all the girls he knew, Elise was one of the kindest and gentlest. She had recently confided in him that she found Tristan to be among the more handsome young men at court. “She has the most enchanting eyes, and I'm sure I've caught her smiling at me at times. I have to speak with her brother. Will you carry a message to her from me?”
What Tristan asked was no small thing, and both of them knew it. The queen, ever jealous of the day when some girl might crack the curse through her elegance, charm and beauty, had recently imposed stricter rules preventing contact between young men and women within her domain. The penalties for being caught were severe, but between his quick mind, his thorough knowledge of the castle's many sequestered nooks, and his observations of the girls' routines, Simon knew more than a few ways to meet with his girl friends without anyone knowing. He readily agreed and took the parchment Tristan offered him. It was sealed with wax, not that Simon was the sort to pry into other people's business.
Now it had long since become custom within the palace for all the women who were able to meet each morning in the temple, where they would pray for the prince's deliverance. By unspoken agreement, the young girls would seat themselves in the benches to the right while the maids and mothers and other chaperones would take the seats to the left. Most would come early to share court gossip before the service began, and at such times any who felt so led were encouraged to step into one of the small cloisters that led off from the main hall, where they could give themselves to silent prayer and contemplation. Simon had long since discovered an unseen way into one of these cloisters and he passed a message through the maids for Elise to meet him there before the service began the following day.
Elise, like all the young girls, enjoyed Simon's company and took some pleasure in the minor act of rebellion that their clandestine meetings involved. She arrived early at the temple the following morning and withdrew to the cloister Simon had indicated, where she found him waiting quietly in the shadows.
“I have a message from my brother Tristan,” he whispered to her, holding out the small scroll. “It seems he shares your feelings.”
“You read it?” In her outrage Elise almost forgot to whisper. “Such matters are private Simon.”
“Of course I didn't read it. See, the seal is still unbroken. No, he told me when he begged me to bring you this that he found your eyes enchanting.”
The two shared a conspiratorial smile as Elise broke the wax and read Tristan's words.
“You're right,” Elise felt she owed Simon some small consolation for her lack of trust. “He says he can hardly sleep for thinking of me. He proposes a tryst. Isn't that clever? A tryst with Tristan. Oh Simon, if only we could meet, but how might such a thing be possible? I mean it's well enough for you to slip into the shadows and come here, but such a fine gentleman as he would be noticed were he to try.”
Simon felt only the slightest pang of regret at her words. It was true, his anonymity allowed him far greater freedom to move about the grounds of the castle unnoticed and unquestioned, and without it he would never have been able to arrange such clandestine meetings as this, but it still hurt a little that he should be dismissed so easily while his brother, just a year older than himself, was considered too important to miss.
“I'll think on it Elise.” He knew she hadn't meant to speak unkindly. “We both shall, and once one of us has come up with a solution to this dilemma, we'll find a way to make it work.”
He slipped back into the shadows and away. Elise hid the small parchment where none would dare search her and returned to her friends in the main hall of the temple.
Over the weeks that followed, Simon and Elise met as often as they were able to pass messages back and forth. Both Elise and Tristan were delighted to find their feelings returned, and the messages grew in length as they found new and more passionate ways of expressing themselves. Soon it became all but impossible to hide the parchments each wished to pass to the other and, though they delighted in the blossoming affection each shared for the other, so they also grew in frustration at being unable to meet.
Some weeks later, Elise arranged a picnic with some of her best friends in a walled garden within the palace. Given the protected nature of the venue, they were permitted to spend this time together unsupervised, and Elise intended to put it to good use discussing her problem with her friends to see if they could come up with a solution between them. She passed a message through her maid to Simon, begging him to try and find his way into the garden unnoticed.
Simon studied the garden and its surrounding walls for some days prior to the planned picnic, but in all of the castle he had never come across a place so difficult to enter. Eventually he was forced to admit defeat, and it was with a truly glum expression on his face that he was found by one of his servant friends in a quiet corner of the kitchen.
“Why so sad Simon?” she said as she passed him carrying a try filled with dirty plates.
“Oh hello Melody,” he replied shrugging his shoulders as if trying to shift the weight of the castle walls from them. “It's nothing.”
“It doesn't look like nothing,” Melody replied putting the tray down. Wiping her hands on her apron, she sat beside the disconsolate boy and put a friendly arm on his shoulder. She knew she would be scolded if she were seen, but Simon had this effect on people, and she just wanted to reach out and comfort him.
Simon sighed. “It's Elise,” he explained. “She's meeting with some friends in the walled garden tomorrow and has asked if I could sneak in and join her.”
“Oh!” Melody withdrew her hand, looking away. “She must like you very much to take such a risk.”
“No, it's not like that. She's keen on my brother Tristan, but she sounded so insistent, and I'm sure she wouldn't ask if it wasn't important. I hate to let her down like this, but I've looked at the garden every which way and I can't find a way in.”
“Hmm,” the kitchen maid put on a thoughtful face. “You know there is a way you could go in, but it all depends on how far you're willing to go.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I've been instructed pick out a few of the other girls here to serve the food at this picnic of your friend's. I could always pick you to help.”
“Don't be silly. They'd never let a boy serve at a ladies' party.”
“And who's to say anyone would think you were a boy? You're not exactly as big as the other boys your age. I think we could squeeze you into my spare uniform without too much difficulty. Add a wimple and a few smudges of soot and no-one would suspect a thing.”
Simon's breath caught in his throat at the audacity of the plan. Would he dare walk openly through the castle from the kitchen to the garden wearing a dress? Could he possibly hope that no-one who saw him might suspect?
He thought back to some of the games he had played with his cousins back home, when they had thought it a great joke to dress him up in their finest clothes and have a tea party together. He'd been a little embarrassed to start with, but after a while he had begun to enjoy himself immensely. Claire and Emily had treated him as though he were just another girl come to play with them, and he had never felt so much as though he belonged.
His mother had popped her head into the room part way through the afternoon, and it was only by the greatest luck that she hadn't noticed him sitting in the corner dressed like a princess at the royal ball. After she had gone, he had changed out of his borrowed clothes and back into his tunic and breeches, the terror of discovery not quite leaving him until his mother tucked him into bed that night. She had asked if he'd enjoyed himself playing with his cousins that afternoon, but not gone so far as to enquire what it was they had been doing.
After that he'd been too scared to play the same game again. Claire had proposed it a day or so later, but he'd declined, much to her disappointment.
“My father has reason enough to find fault in me,” he'd explained. “Can you imagine the heartache I would cause him if he found me wearing one of your dresses? It was bad enough when Mother nearly saw me the other day. I can't risk hurting them like that.”
Claire had accepted his explanation, and he had played well enough with them for the rest of their visit, taking the role of the brave and handsome prince who rescued them from the clutches of a cruel dragon and such like. It was kind of them to include him, he thought, but in all the games they played after, he never felt as close to them as he had on that first day, nor did he feel so much as though he belonged.
“It will work,” Melody brought him out of his revery. “I'll take a message to one of Lady Elise's friends and have her instruct you to go down into the market to buy her some ribbons and lace, that way if you're missed form your usual duties, you'll have an excuse to offer. If you come to the kitchen early, as soon as dawn breaks, I'll get you ready before the others come to put together the repast for the picnic. If they don't recognise you as a boy then no-one will. If they do, you can simply change back and I'll offer your apologies to Lady Elise when I see her at the picnic.”
People often took Simon for a coward since he always tried to avoid fights and foolish dares, but in fact he possessed a great deal of courage. He knew the hopelessness of his standing up to people bigger and stronger than himself and chose discretion over foolhardiness when faced with such situations, but a challenge like this was just the thing to set his blood fizzing with excitement. Of all the young boys in the kingdom, there was perhaps not a one that would have dared what Melody suggested, but to Simon it was an opportunity to respond to Elise's plea as well as a challenge in its own right. His mood cleared like the sun breaking through clouds and he leapt to his feet, taking both Melody's hands in his own.
“You're the best Melody,” he smiled his radiant smile that held the power to shine happiness into the darkest corner of life, and ran for stairs calling over his shoulder as he went. “I'll see you early tomorrow.”
He was as good as his word, and so was Melody. A few seams needed unpicking and resewing to fit the dress to Simon's slender frame, but by the time she was done, and had added the close fitting wimple that all maids wore, there was no sign of the boy who had so recently entered the kitchen. A few smudges of the soot that adorned all the kitchen staff to some degree, and he looked so much like the other two maids who came to join them that neither of them suspected him of being anything other than another girl.
“Sheena, Lauren, this is Simone. She's newly come to the castle and will be joining us today to learn some her duties. I'd like you to be kind to her and to help her in every way you can.”
Sheena eyed the newly christened Simone as she would a slug in lettuce patch, but Lauren smiled openly and held out her hands in welcome. Simon took them and smiled shyly back. His mannerisms were naturally feminine, as though he had been waiting all his life just to become who he was just then – a caterpillar stepping out of his cocoon and stretching out new-formed wings of girlishness.
He helped as much as he was able in preparing the food, and before they were ready to leave with the picnic, his eagerness to please had chipped away at Sheena's earlier cynicism to the extent that she even offered him a tentative smile as they gathered the baskets together.
“So, where are you from Simone?” she asked as they climbed the stairs.
Simon named the village closest to his home. It was the only place in the kingdom he could name other than the city that surrounded the royal castle.
“You've come a long way.”
“My parents thought I might improve my prospects if I were to work at the castle for a while.” He softened his voice naturally, and even he found it hard to believe that he was in fact a boy. “The Baroness of Far Reach sponsored me to be here.” He'd always been uncomfortable telling lies, so decided to keep matters as close to the truth as he could.
“You're lucky to have such connections. What do you think of the baroness's sons? I wouldn't mind dallying a while with Harold; he's so strong and brave. Did you see him in the last games? He almost won the sword.”
Harold was the oldest of Simon's brothers and as arrogant a soul as ever lived. As Simon thought of him though, he could see why a girl might be drawn to him. He was tall and muscular, and he shared the same radiant smile that was Simon's gift from his mother.
“He's nice enough I suppose, but I like Tristan better. He may not be as handsome or as strong, but he has a kinder nature. I could probably introduce you to Harold if you like, but I wouldn't set your heart on him. He has ambitions.”
He had tried to be as diplomatic as he knew how in choosing his words, but it was evident from Sheena's response that he had failed somewhere. She scowled at him, a quick flash of temper sparking behind her eyes.
“And what would you know? You think you're so much better than me?”
“No, I didn't mean it that way. It's just that... Well my mother always warned me not raise my hopes too high, and I suppose I wouldn't want you to get hurt.”
“I can handle myself thank-you little miss do-goodie.” With that, Sheena swept up the stairs out of the kitchen, casting Simon into a turmoil of shocked confusion.
Melody placed a gentle hand on Simon's shoulder and leaned in to whisper. “You're doing well Simone. Sheena's a little prickly with everyone at first. Keep on doing as you are and everything will be alright. Come on, we'd best catch up with her.”
The three remaining girls, for that is how they appeared in every way, picked up the baskets and followed their companion out into the corridors above.
Simon felt horribly vulnerable walking through the castle dressed as he was. The skirts of his dress were long and full, billowing out in elegant folds and falling to the middle of his calf. His bare legs made him constantly aware of how differently he was dressed, and he all but cowered in fear every time someone passed.
“Carry on like this and someone is sure to suspect you of something,” Melody whispered in his ear. “I tell you, not even your parents would recognise you as you are.”
Even as she spoke, Simon's mother and father chose that moment to step into the corridor. Simon took his lead from the other two and stepped to one side, bowing his head respectfully as they passed. His father carried on oblivious, but his mother seemed to turn an eye in his direction momentarily. The expression on her face changed so quickly it was difficult to read, but was that confusion? Recognition? Humour? They were gone before he could react and, though he braced himself for the explosion as his mother inevitably told his father what she'd seen, nothing came. A moment more and they were moving again. Simon's heart was pounding like a horse's hooves in full gallop, but he calmed himself as he followed the other two down the corridor toward the garden.
“Didn't I tell you?” Melody murmured in his ear, a hint of smugness pulling at the corners of her mouth.
They reached the garden entrance where two palace guards barred their way.
“We've brought a repast for the ladies inside,” Melody announced, trying to sound confident but not too haughty.
”They're expecting you my dear.” The guard's tone was friendly, but the way his eyes wandered over them was anything but. They came to rest on Simon. “Well, well, well, who have we here?” Simon swallowed down what felt like a grapefruit. “I don't think I've seen you around before missy, and I think I'd notice one as pretty as yourself.”
Simon's eyes flickered towards the guard's face and away. They saw no sign of recognition. “You're very gallant sir. I'm, er... I'm newly come to the castle.”
“And what would be your name then, sweety?”
“Er, Simone sir. My name is Simone.” Why had Melody chosen a name that was so close to his real one? He was certain that the guard would make the connection.
“Simone,” that guard mused, but he was thinking with a part of his anatomy even less suited to the activity than his brain. “That's a very beautiful name, and one perfectly suited to such a beautiful girl. Tell me what are you doing later this evening?”
“She'll be helping me in the kitchens.” Melody's voice was suddenly sharp. “She's under my care for now, and don't I know what you're like Tom Miller? I'll thank you to keep your wandering eyes to yourself for now, before they find more trouble than they can handle.”
The guard jerked as if he'd been slapped. The implied threat in Melody's words was more than bluster it seemed.
“Well my dears,” the guard coughed and stepped to one side. “I see no reason to detain you longer. I imagine the ladies inside will be getting a little hungry. It was nice to make your acquaintance Miss Simone. I hope to have the pleasure again some day soon.”
Simon was too terrified to respond and simply walked through the door as swiftly as he was able.
Sheena had arrived ahead of them. She had already laid a cloth over a stone table and was busily putting out place settings. Simon and the others joined her and swiftly laid out the platters of cold meat and fruit they had brought, along with baskets of sweet bread rolls and jars of honey and preserves. Evidently the young noble ladies' idea of a picnic was somewhat removed from that of normal folk.
All was prepared and Melody pushed Simon towards Elise and her friends. “Tell her the meal is ready. Don't forget to curtsy.”
So Simon approached Elise and bobbed in front of her. It wasn't the most elegant of manoeuvres, but it was ladylike enough. “Miss Elise,” he offered her his trademark smile as she looked over at him. “Your meal is ready Your Ladyship.”
Elise's breath caught in her throat. There was no mistaking Simon's smile, but she could barely believe that this creature in front of her was her friend. “Thank-you,” she managed once she had recovered, “miss er... I'm sorry I don't believe I know you.”
“Simone miss. My name is Simone. I'm recently come to the castle.”
“Well Simone, that was very well done. Would you and your friends care to join us? There's food enough and no-one will know.”
Simon looked a little worried towards Melody and the others. Elise picked up on his insecurity and turned to her friends. “What do you say girls? These young ladies have done us proud with such a fine repast. The least we can do is offer to share it with them.”
The other girls bubbled their agreement and insisted on having the the kitchen maids join them. They were a little reticent at first, but allowed themselves to be persuaded, and before long they were all sitting around enjoying the meal.
Elise guided Simon to one end of the table and sat him beside her. Her eyes were alight with excitement and newly forming ideas.
“Simon, you're brilliant,” she whispered under her breath. “I wouldn't have known you if you hadn't smiled. I was worried that you wouldn't be able to come, but I have never seen a more fabulous disguise.
“You know, the purpose of this gathering was for me to talk with my friends to see if we could come up with some idea on how I might meet with your brother. I had hoped that you would be able to help us come up with something but you've done so much more. I have something to ask of you, and I hope you're friend enough to agree. Will you tell your brother Tristan to take a ride tomorrow morning and to wait by the river outside the west gate of the castle?”
“That's little enough to ask,” he replied, more than a little confused.
“Ah, but then I would also ask you to come to my chambers disguised as you are now. Come as early as you can and at least an hour before the maidens' prayers. Will you do that for me Simon? I know it is a great imposition, but will you?”
Simon felt uneasy at the proposition, but Elise had been a close and good friend to him since he'd come to the castle. With only a little reluctance, he agreed.
The next few hours passed in a blur of delight. Whatever division usually existed between servant and high-born vanished as Elise and her friends welcomed Simone, Melody, Sheena and Lauren into their group. Simon had never felt such a sense of belonging since that day with his cousins, and his reticence at Elise's proposition retreated from the onslaught of such good feelings.
When all was done, he and the other maids cleared what remained of the food, and excused themselves from the ladies' presence. Back in the kitchen, they quickly cleared away the dirty things and Melody dismissed Sheena and Lauren, both of whom were in high spirits after such a rare and enjoyable time.
“Well?” Melody asked once they were alone. “”Was it worth it? Did you achieve what you hoped for with your friend?”
“I think so,” Simon answered, pulling the wimple from his head and shaking his hair free. It was cut in the style of a page boy, so considerably shorter than any of the young women who wore theirs as long as it would grow. “I'm not sure what she has planned, but she asked if I would come to her room dressed as I am now early tomorrow morning.”
“Well I suppose I could lend you the dress for one more day. I have duties from early dawn tomorrow though, so you'll have to change on your own.”
“There seems little enough to it, I think I'll manage.” He set about unbuttoning the dress which was fastened down one side of the front, in easy reach for someone who was not fortunate enough to be assisted in their dressing.
“Are you sure about this Simon? I mean what if you were to encounter Tom again tomorrow, or one of his friends?”
“I'll have to risk it,” Simon climbed out of the maid's uniform and folded it neatly before retrieving his tunic and breeches from the back of a shadowy ledge. “I've already agreed to do so, and I wouldn't want to go back on my word. Besides it will be early in the morning so I doubt many people will be about.
“Thank- you for helping me today Melody. Without you I would never have managed this.”
“Well you know how it is,” she picked the dress and wimple off the table and handed them to him. “Us girls have to stick together.”
Simon smiled at the joke, but inside he felt a strange warmth. It was gone before he could think on what had caused it though. He kissed Melody on the cheek and ran up the stairs, already trying to decide where would be the best spot to hide his disguise.
Simon was in the habit of rising early while it was still dark. It meant he could dress quietly and leave the dormitory he shared with a half dozen of the other messenger boys before the cock's crow woke them. That way he avoided their incessant jibes, and he could usually purloin a couple of hot currant buns from the kitchen and dash up to the parapets in order to watch the sunrise before his duties began. This morning though, he ran instead to a long forgotten store room, close to Elise's chambers where, he had hidden Melody's spare uniform.
He had almost forgotten to pass on his message to Tristan the previous day, and it was only by chance that he had bumped into his family in the evening. His mother had looked at him oddly, but hadn't said anything. Simon had pulled Tristan to one side and whispered Elise's message to him, then excused himself before running off about his business.
There was an old dusty mirror in the corner of the room, and Simon used a dust cloth from a nearby chair to clean it off before changing. With the dress on and the wimple in place, he gazed at himself in the mirror. He was disappointed to find that the illusion didn't seem as convincing as it had been the other day, and he turned away to adjust his clothing a little, unconsciously slipping into the same feminine mannerisms that had come so easily the previous day. When he looked back at the mirror, it was as though he had been magically transformed. The boy was no longer there.
He folded his male clothing and left it on the chair he had uncovered earlier, then he replaced the dust cloth and left the room. Less than a minute walking down deserted corridors found him standing before the door to Elise's rooms. He knocked gently.
The door opened a crack, then widened as Elise, still wearing only her undergarments, ushered him in.
“Oh thank-you for coming. You're such a good friend. Did you tell Tristan? Of course you did. Come over here and take off your clothes.”
It all happened so fast. Before he knew it, Simon had divested himself of the maid's uniform and had been dressed in the same sort of frilly undergarments that Elise was wearing. She pushed him onto a stool facing a mirror and began to brush his hair with a tortoise shell brush.
“My mother met the Green Fairy once, who gifted her with this brush. It's magical, look.”
As Elise stroked at his hair, it lengthened and thickened until it fell to his waist.
“Elise what are we doing? I have to be on duty in half an hour.”
“No you don't. You remember you went into town yesterday to buy ribbons and lace for a friend of mine?”
“Well that was the excuse, I didn't actually go.”
Elsie carried on as though Simon hadn't spoken. “Well I liked what you brought her so much I've asked for you to go into town and buy the same for me. You won't be expected back until the middle of the afternoon.” She had been busily braiding the small plaits, which she then used to tie Simon's long hair into a simple yet elegant style.
Simon turned and asked again, “Elise what are we doing?”
“Let me finish Simon. Please. I know this will work, and I want to show you before I tell you.” She picked an elaborately decorated dress from a hanger and held it out. “Please step into this my lady.” She curtsied and smiled impishly.
As well to be hung for a sheep as a lamb, thought Simon and did as he was bidden. Before long, dozens of tiny pearly buttons had been fastened behind his back, and he was trapped in the garment. Elise presented him with a pair of slippers made from soft squirrel fur and a head-dress that completed the styling of his hair, then she led him in front of a full length mirror.
“What do you think?” She slipped off to one side and, out of his sight, began to put on the maid's uniform.
“I don't know what to think. I could pass for you at a distance.” He turned to see Elise tucking the last of her hair into the wimple and smudging a little dirt from the stone floor on her cheeks.
“That's the idea. No please hear me out.” She reacted to the sudden panic in Simon's eyes. “My mother is has gone home for some weeks and left me in the charge of one of her maids. Belinda has weak eyes and poor hearing. She will be here soon to take me to the temple.”
“I can't Elise. I mean it's not just your mother's maid, there will be so many women there. If I'm found out, I hate to think what the king and queen would do to me, let alone my parents.”
“Simon, no-one will know. Look back in the mirror. Do you see a man or a woman? I know what I see, and it's the same as I saw when you came into the garden yesterday. There are so many new faces coming and going in the palace these days, no-one will so much as raise an eyebrow at another one. You know as well as I that the girls separate from their guardians as soon as they enter the temple, so no-one will associate you with Belinda, and I've asked my friends to look out for you, and they will look after you, I promise.”
“Couldn't you have done this with another maid? I mean why me?”
“It's been tried Simon. All the maids are watched too closely. If any were to disappear for a few hours for any reason, questions would be asked. It's because you're a boy that you can get away with this at all. Boys are almost expected to bend the rules a little, and as long as someone's keeping an eye on all the girls no-one thinks there's any danger that the rules are being broken. It's also because you're such a convincing girl too. No-one could suspect you of being anything other than you appear right now.”
“Won't you be missed though?”
“In a crowd of over a hundred young girls? No-one looks that closely Simon. Since Belinda will arrive with you, she won't be alarmed into thinking I'm missing. Beyond that there will be as many girls present as are expected so all will be well.
“Look I know it sounds scary, but in the end you may find it to be more than a little tedious, having to be in the temple all that time praying with the rest of the girls, but couldn't you be the lady Simone for just one morning, just to allow me to meet your brother just this once?”
“That's a lot of justs.”
“It is isn't it?” Elise laughed a little, sensing her friend's defences crumbling. “Oh Simon, please won't you do this for me? I'll be ever so grateful.”
There was a knock at the door. “Are you ready my dear?” The voice was plummy and muffled a little by the thick oak door.
Elise gesticulated at Simon, miming for him to answer. It took him a moment to bring the sudden rush of fear under control. “Just a moment.” His voice fell naturally into its soft and feminine tones.
The door knob turned and an elderly maid stepped into the room. “Ah there you are my dear,” she peered myopically at Simon and took him by the arm. “Come along, we don't want to be late.”
Elise stood demurely with her head bowed, leaving the young lad no choice but to follow the older woman out of the room.
“Go and join your friends my dear, I can manage from here.” Belinda released her grip on Simon's arm and pushed him gently in the direction of the younger girls milling about on the other side of the hall. “Come and find me afterwards if you wouldn't mind.”
Simon assured her he would and headed uncertainly towards the gossiping crowd.
“Simone.” A voice called above the general hubbub and Simon turned to see one of Elise's friends from the previous day making her way towards him. “Caroline, remember? We met yesterday. Elise told us that you might be coming today. My word don't you look lovely. Come along, we're over here.”
With that she led Simon between groups of chattering women into a huddle with more faces he recognised.
“Are you alright?” Caroline was still holding Simon's hand and gave it a squeeze. “I know it can be a bit daunting at first, but we're all pretty friendly – at least most of us are.” She laughed at her own attempt at humour, prompting Simon to smile. “Look, Elise told us you'd been sponsored by the Baroness of Far Reach, which means there has to be something special about you. We're not the sort to pass judgement just because you weren't born into a noble family, and we all know Elise likes you very much. Just relax. We'll look after you until you settle in.”
The other girls in the group were all smiling and nodding in an encouraging way. Some of them Simon had met and befriended as himself before the previous day's picnic, which meant they were either consummate actresses or his disguise was so much better than he could have hoped. He began to relax as nothing untoward happened and continued to happen. That familiar sense of belonging began to settle on him again and he managed a weak smile. He hoped all of this was worth it from Elise and Tristan's point of view.
It was rare for the prince to attend morning prayers. From his perspective the whole proceeding made little sense. A group of elderly women, evenly mixed between court ladies and respected servants, would come into the temple and fill the benches to the left, leaving half the great hall empty. They would gabble away like so many geese for a time then, at the arrival of the priest, they would all quieten down and settle into a mixture of hymns and led prayers asking for some affliction, the nature of which was never explained, to be taken from their beloved prince. It was all nonsense as far as he was concerned, and he avoided it when he could.
On that fateful morning, it so happened that he had been late rising and his mother had met him at the door to his chambers. He could hardly decline under such circumstances, and so had accompanied her to the temple where the royal family had their own private area, set above and behind the main hall.
Upon their arrival, the prince looked over to the young maiden's side of the hall, and it seemed his gaze lingered a while on a given spot. The queen noticed, of course, but did not wish to risk interrupting what might be the delicate beginnings of something new.
All through the first hymn, his eyes turned again and again towards the same spot, and as the priest invited them to sit, he leant across to whisper.
“Mother, who is the young girl over there?”
The queen's heart skipped a beat. She looked over at the hundred or so young maidens sitting to her right and for a moment forgot herself. “Which one, my dear?”
“What do you mean which one? There is only one, just there.” He pointed towards the middle of a bench some three or four rows from the front.
The queen stood. “Come with me,” she said and turned to leave. Somewhat bewildered, the prince rose and followed.
The priest had faltered at the sight of the queen and prince walking out so abruptly, and had not fully recovered his composure when they reappeared at the back of the main hall. A susurration of whispers passed through the crowd like wind through high grass as the queen led her son down the aisle.
“Which row?” she asked. There was command in her voice and the prince knew better than to ask questions. He reached the forth row and pointed. Simon's face coloured deeply with shame as the prince's finger aimed in his direction.
“Come here girl.” The queen's voice wasn't unkind, but neither did it permit disobedience. Everyone had risen to their feet at the queen's arrival in the main hall, so all that was needed was for Simon to ease his way past his neighbours. He did so and stood before the queen and the prince with his head bowed.
“There's no need to be frightened young lady,” she spoke softly, but long years on the throne meant she couldn't quite lose the tone of command form her voice. She looked at her son, who was staring intently at Simon. “Tell me, my dear, can you see my son?”
Simon looked over to where the prince stood staring back at him with a strangely hopeful expression. He nodded, but barely.
“Tell me, what is your name?”
Try as he might, Simon could not conjure words to answer. His throat was dry and his mind so filled with terror that it left no room for rational thought.
“Speak girl! What is your name, and where do you come from?” The queen didn't mean to speak harshly, but after more than twenty years of waiting and hoping, she found she needed all her self control merely not to shout.
“If it please Your Majesty.” The voice came from one of the girl's companions on the fourth row. She seemed as terrified as her friend, but at least she had a voice. The queen nodded and Caroline continued. “Your Majesty, this is the Lady Simone, recently come to the castle. I believe she is sponsored by the Baroness of Far Reach.”
The queen raised her voice. “Is the Baroness of Far Reach with us today?” There was no response. The queen turned to one of the guards who had followed her down from the royal box. “Please fetch her here without delay.” He left at the run.
Simon closed his eyes tight shut, fighting to hold back hot tears. All his mind's eye would show him was the look of shocked betrayal his actions would bring to his mother and father's faces when they found out. Who knew how much shame he would bring to his family through his actions. He had let down Tristan and Elise as well, as there was no way in which they would not be found out.
“Don't cry my dear,” the queen managed to soften her voice. “This is a good thing.” She pulled Simon into a gentle embrace and stroked his hair, but the boy wouldn't be comforted.
Simon's mother ran down the corridors as fast as her full skirts would permit. The guard had found her in her rooms writing a letter to her sister.
“Your Ladyship, Her Majesty the Queen requires your presence in the temple. A matter to do with the Lady Simone.” It was as much as the guard could gasp out. The temple was some distance from her rooms, and he had run all the way in full dress armour.
The Lady Simone? The guard had spoken the title as though she should know to whom he referred. This couldn't have anything to do with her youngest son and his recent activities could it? Surely he was too clever to draw attention to himself in this way, so how might he have come under the queen's scrutiny?
She reached the temple entrance and paused to regain her composure. Different scenarios had passed through her mind as she had hurried over. She a an idea as to what might have happened, but she was unsure what best to do about it. She straightened her clothes and recaptured a few recalcitrant wisps of hair that had escaped their confinement during her impromptu exercise. She looked down at herself and pressed a hand against the pendant nestling between her breasts.
It held a stone of the deepest garnet red and there was an inscription on the back she hadn't read since it had first been given her. It had been shortly after Simon's birth. A messenger had come from the Realm of Light and presented the necklace to her. She turned the stone over and read the words engraved in the back of the setting.
“Against the days when when you will need all your courage.”
A warmth suffused her body causing her mounting fears to withdraw like oil poured on a stormy sea. Taking a deep breath, she strode into the main hall of the temple.
“Ah, Celia,” the queen smiled at her over the head of a young girl whose face was buried deep in her shoulder. “Thank-you for coming so swiftly. Such wonderful news. Your ward here, the Lady Simone, she can see the prince, and he her. I fear I may have frightened her somewhat though, perhaps you can calm her a little.”
The baroness touched the young girl's back. Such a lovely gown she was wearing. Seed pearls sown into an intricate design that covered the bodice, and a skirt of finest silk brocade. The girl turned slowly towards her, revealing an expression of such abject misery as she had rarely seen.
“I'm s-s-sorry,” Simon managed before bursting into tear once more and burying his face in his mother's chest.
The last time Celia had seen her son so upset had been the day his brothers contrived to cover him with treacle and goose down. He had been playing with Claire and Emily, and was dressed in his finest clothes, the better to play the part of prince to their princesses. His clothing had been ruined of course, but that was of little consequence against the the burden of guilt the young boy had taken upon himself.
Celia looked around her at the crowd of women looking on with such avid interest. This was neither the time nor the place to reveal the truth. Quite apart from the added misery it would inflict upon Simon, the queen and the prince would not thank her for the humiliation. She made her decision and put gentle hands around her son's slender shoulders.
“It's alright Simone. Everything's going to be alright.” Simon caught his breath and became very still in his mother's arms. “Your Majesties, with your permission, I should like to take the child back to my rooms and talk to her quietly. She's still very new to all this and I fear such recognition is all too much for her.”
“Perhaps it's for the best,” the queen agreed reluctantly, “but I'll expect the two of you to join my son and myself in my chambers for lunch. I'll send someone to fetch you when we are ready to receive you.”
Celia and her new found daughter curtsied and withdrew. The baroness held tight to Simon's arm all the way back to her rooms, her mind filling with questions, but not daring to voice a single one until they were safely shut away from the world.
Simon had questions of his own, but he followed his mother's example and kept them to himself until they reached the apartment his parents shared with his brothers.
His mother bolted the door and made a quick check of the rooms to make sure they were alone, then she pointed at a sofa. Simon sat meekly, unconsciously sweeping his skirts beneath him.
Celia sat opposite him and looked steadily into his eyes until he dropped his gaze. “I think perhaps you'd better start at the beginning hadn't you?” There was no anger in her voice, but she couldn't hide the concern she felt.
Simon told his tale, falteringly at first, but then with increased confidence. As was typical of him, he played down the other's involvement, taking more than his share of the blame.
“So this is your friend Elise's dress?” she asked once the story reached its conclusion.
“And the maid, Belinda, will be expecting you to accompany her back to Elise's rooms.”
Simon nodded again.
“Where Elise is expecting to meet you and change back out of your other friend's maid's uniform.”
“Well, best we do something about all that.” She pulled a cord by the fireplace and unbolted the door. A few short moments later, one of the palace messengers appeared at the door. Simon tried to make himself inconspicuous, but though the young lad glanced in his direction, he showed no signs of recognition.
“I would like you to run down to the west gate,” the baroness told him, “where you will most likely find my son Tristan with one of the castle maids. Tell them that the queen has invited the Lady Simone and myself to take luncheon with her, and I need them both to come directly to these chambers as soon as they can.”
The messenger ran off, and the baroness turned back to her son.
“Mother, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to cause such an awful mess as this. If I had thought such a thing would happen, I would never have agreed.”
“Hush now my dearest one. What's done is done and all we can do now is move forward.”
“Mother, may I ask a question?”
“You want to know why I didn't speak out in the temple?”
Simon had been doing a lot of nodding since his mother had brought him back here. He added one more to the tally.
“It would do no-one a service for this matter to be made public Simon. It may be harder for the queen and the prince to hear the truth having a while longer to embrace their hopes, but to my mind it would have been harder still for them to endure the public humiliation such exposure would have brought.
“It was also in part what I saw in you when I took you into my arms. You were born to me as a son, and it seems you are not enough of a maiden to be made invisible to the prince, but even so, though I have only ever seen you wearing a dress on three occasions, on each one I could not help but wonder if had a daughter.
“There was that time you were playing with your cousins. I did question why, after that first day, you did not dress up again, though perhaps it's as well you didn't, because then it would have been one of Emily's dresses ruined by your brothers' foolishness with the treacle and feathers, and I don't know how I would have explained that to Adelle.
“There was yesterday when I saw you dressed as a maid. You were not so fair as you are today, but though I could never mistake my own child, I must confess I did not see my son. And now there's this radiant beauty who sits before me today. At least radiant and beautiful she would be if only she could bring herself to stop crying and let the redness in her eyes and nose recede.”
Simon gave way to a quiet laughter at his mother's gentle rebuke and, with a final sniff, made an effort to straighten his back and square his shoulders.
“That's better already. But I have one more question for you too. Simon, Simone. You know, before you were born I so longed for a daughter. It's not your fault that you came to us as a son, and in all the time since I have never once regretted that you were anything other than the kind and gentle soul you are. I have loved you as a son for sixteen years, and I would be pleased and proud to love you as a son for all of life that remains. But I would be just as pleased to love you as a daughter. What I would have from you is to know which you would prefer.”
“What do you mean?”
“That first time with Claire and Emily, It seemed to me that you stopped dressing up with them more because you were afraid of what your father and I might think than because you didn't much care for it.” Celia moved across and sat next to her son, or her daughter, her mind was still unable to decide. “I don't want you to live your life as the person you believe we want you to be. In so many respects you have found your own path in life, and I am so proud of the person you have become. So here is my question. If you had the choice, and knew that your father and I would love you just as much regardless of what you chose, would you be a boy or a girl?”
Simon felt a deep warmth welling up inside him. The question had remained unasked and unanswered at edge of his mind for all his short life, and at last it had been given voice. Before he could think through his answer though, the door burst open and in came Tristan and Elise, still in her maid's uniform, both breathing hard from running.
“Simon?” Elise was by his side holding him to her. “I'm so sorry. How did she find out? Oh heavens, this is all my fault.”
“Simon?” Tristan looked closely at the young lady sitting on the couch between his mother and his beloved. He could see similarities, but surely she couldn't be his brother. Surely not.
“Yes Tristan,” his mother said, “it's your brother, as much as it ever was. Do you see what he's prepared to do for your happiness?”
“I still don't understand...” Elise began, before Celia interrupted her.
“The prince has a curse upon him, though I know most of you young girls here don't believe in it.” It was Celia speaking again. “Oh don't try to deny it, I've heard the talk. As far as all of you are concerned, this whole curse thing is a delusion of the queen's and she has no son outside of her imagination.
“The curse is real though, and it was your misfortune that the prince chose to come to the temple this morning. When the Lady Simone attended prayers in your place and sat with all the other maidens on the right side of the hall, she became the only person on that side that the prince could see. How could he help but comment to his mother, and how could she help but respond? She's been praying for a moment such as this for more than twenty years.”
“Great heavens, what have I done?” Elise rocked back, covering her mouth with her hands.
“Little enough by yourself.” The baroness was nothing if not pragmatic. “This whole situation has come about from a series of most unfortunate events. First the Black Queen's curse, then our own queen's insistence on keeping all the young men and women in the castle grounds segregated.
“That much was foolishness on the queen's part. Love will always find a way, for that's what this is, is it not? I take it what you two feel for one another is more than mere infatuation?”
Tristan and Elise exchanged smiles, the brilliance of which told all that was needed for all that they were short lived. Elise's mind returned once more to their current predicament.
“But what will happen now?” she said. “What will we do?”
“I don't know dear. I suggest for now that you return to your rooms and change into something more suited to a lady of your station. Tristan can go to the kitchens and ask for, what was her name?”
“Melody,” Simon said quietly.
“Melody to come to your rooms and help you dress. She can take away her uniform when she's done and then her involvement in the matter is closed. I suggest you choose a dress similar in design and colour to the one you lent Simon as I doubt your mother's maid is that poorly sighted. If you're both quick, you should be able to reach the temple in time for the end of prayers. Then Elise can enter as the others are leaving, find her chaperone and that's you and Tristan off the hook.”
“But what about Simon and you?”
“We'll fend well enough for ourselves. The queen and I are old friends. We both waited a long time for our children, and I'm sure after I've had the opportunity to explain everything we'll find a solution that won't embarrass too many people. You'd better go, both of you. Tristan, fetch Melody from the kitchens, and you, Elise, go back to your rooms and change out of that uniform. The fewer people involved in this the better.”
The two ran off and Celia breathed a deep sigh.
“Thank-you mother,” Simon said once they were gone.
“This is a long way from over my dear.”
“I know, but at least my friends are safe, and Tristan.”
“Ah, but aren't you a one to be proud of? I don't know about you, but I think I could do with nice cup of chamomile tea right about now.”
Simon let his mother go about organising the refreshments. She seemed to have forgotten her earlier question, but it still burned in Simon's mind, seeking an answer.
There was a knock on the door.
The baroness set down her teacup and stood to her feet. “Ready sweetheart?”
“As ready as I'll ever be.” Simon followed his mother's example, straightening out his skirts and looking for a mirror to check his appearance.
“Now remember, the queen knows I have fours sons, and she could do without this being sprung upon her without warning, so until I've been able to tell her the truth, you are to behave as the young girl from Far Reach I'm supposed to have sponsored here in the castle. Don't speak unless you're spoken to, and if you must say anything, try to keep as close to the truth as you are able.”
“Yes mother. I mean yes baroness.”
“Just the sort of slip we're hoping to avoid.”
She opened the door and a liveried servant in the royal colours stood waiting to lead them to the queen's chambers. He walked ahead of them down a number of corridors until they reached the entrance to the royal apartments, where he led them straight in without knocking.
“Celia dear,” the queen stood to greet them. “Thank-you so much for coming. And the lovely Lady Simone as well. Celia, I know we have a great deal to catch up on, but I hope you'll let me take a few moments of this young lady's time. Wait here and I'll be with you directly.”
The queen took Simon by the arm and swept him into an inner room before his mother could respond. When the were alone the queen turned serious eyes in his direction.
“Now my dear, I don't want you to be frightened. As far as I'm concerned, you have done nothing wrong and have nothing to worry about. Ever since our little scene this morning though, I have been puzzling over why my son should be able to see you when no other eligible young lady in the kingdom has so much as caused him to falter in all of the past twenty years. I wonder if you would be willing to undergo a test?”
“What would you have me do Your Majesty?” Simon wrung his hangs together nervously.
“Oh little enough.” The queen walked over to a sideboard where an ornate wooden box stood by itself. She opened the box to reveal a flawless, clear gemstone, as transparent as fine crystal. She lifted it out and turned to her guest.
“This was given to me by one of the fair folk a great many years ago. It's a useful trinket that remains clear as long as the holder tells the truth. You see, when I say I am the queen of this land you detect no change in the stone, but if I were to say, for instance, that I am enjoying putting you through this ordeal...” The gem seemed to fill with ink until it was dark as obsidian. She handed the black stone across to Simon and it turned clear once more. “Now answer me this, my dear, have you ever allowed a man to take you too his bed?”
“No Your Majesty, I would never.” The insistence was not necessary, the clarity of the gem told the queen all she needed to know.
“Very good my dear. I'm sorry to have been so indelicate. Perhaps you would say something untruthful to be sure the gem works for you. Say, oh I don't know, tell me you would like to be a man.”
Simon managed a nervous laugh, but there was no escape. If he were to choose any other question, the queen might become suspicious. “I wish I were a man,” he said, his mind filling with images of his father, his brothers and all the men he knew. The stone turned dark.
“Quite right too,” the queen said. “Who would be a man if they could choose? Once last question my dear. Would you like to spend time with my son?”
Simon found himself colouring again. “Your Majesty, I can't imagine that he would want to spend time with me, I mean I'm nothing special.”
“Ah but you see that stone disagrees with you,” it had turned briefly clear before becoming dark once more, “and so do I. You are a miracle Simone, and one I have prayed for these twenty long years past. I will not force you to do something you do not wish however.” Even though it break my heart, she thought behind a carefully blank face.
Simon thought of the prince. From the brief glimpse he'd had in the temple, he recalled him as being tall, strong and handsome with kind eyes. There was something else too – a dark cloud of sadness born from too many lonely years. His heart went out to the young man, and for a moment he forgot the impossibility of his situation, and only thought of the hope in the prince's eyes when he had looked at Simon.
“Yes Your Majesty,” he said, “I would dearly love to spend some time with your son.” In his hands the stone turned crystal clear.
“Well I believe that settles it.” The queen retrieved her magic gem and returned it to its box. “He's waiting for you in the garden. There's food for the two of you there, though I wonder if you'll have much of an appetite for such mundane things. Be gentle with him. He's quite distraught over having caused you such anguish this morning.”
Simon managed an awkward curtsy before stepping gingerly through the doors into the garden.
“Well my dearest friend.” The queen had returned to the first chamber where her other guest still waited. “It has been too long since we've spoken, and is it not so justly fitting that you should bring the response to my long unanswered prayers, just as you found your own answer under my roof.”
Celia couldn't meet the queen's eyes. She looked down at her pendant, now all but glowing red in her hands.
“Something troubles you my dear,” the queen reached towards her friend, brows furrowed in concern. “Will you tell me about it.”
Once more the baroness turned the stone and reread the inscription.
“Against the day when when you will need all your courage.”
As before, she felt herself grow braver as the stone's warmth flooded through her.
“I have a confession for you Felicia.” She looked up into the queen's eyes as she spoke. “Things are not as they seem. I knew it when you called me to the temple this morning, but it did not seem fitting to tell you what has happened in the presence of everyone, so I kept my counsel. You are and always have been my dearest friend, and I hope that by delaying speaking of this, I will not have greatly increased your sorrow.”
The prince was sitting by a pool watching the flow of water pouring from a stone fish's mouth. He was so consumed with his revery that he hadn't heard Simon approach. At the gentle word he jumped and turned like a startled deer.
“I'm sorry,” Simon said. “I didn't mean to alarm you.”
The prince stood and moved nervously across to him. “It's me who should be sorry. I was such a clumsy fool this morning, and I am so desperately regretful for having upset you so much.”
Simon smiled, completely unaware of the effect this simple act had on the young man. “Oh that was just a silly misunderstanding. If either of us is at fault, then we both are.”
“Are you real?” Simon blinked at the sudden change in direction. The prince stammered. “I... I'm sorry. The only time I ever saw a woman my age was the day after she was married, just as she climbed into her carriage to depart for her new life. Only ever such fleeting glimpses of loveliness, and always forever beyond my reach. I remember thinking each was so beautiful, but as I stand here now, I declare that none compare with you. After all this time, and now you are here. I can speak to you, touch you. Tell me you're not a dream.”
“If this is a dream, Your Highness, then it's one we share.”
“Please, call me Ranen, and if you will permit I should like to call you by your given name. Simone is it not? I believe the baroness called you Simone?”
“Yes she did my lord, but I should feel uncomfortable calling you by your name. I am in no way your equal.”
“You are in every way my equal and more, and I shall call you my lady until you consent to use my name, for if you feel unworthy to speak mine, then surely I am so much less worthy to give utterance to yours.”
Simon laughed. It was a bright sound like crystal chimes blown in a gentle breeze. The prince was utterly entranced.
“You must be hungry.” He turned to the table beside the pool. “Come and join me. There is meat – cold cuts of beef and venison I believe – and bread and fruit and... well I think that's all we have, but if you desire for anything else my lady, then simply ask. I am your most devoted servant and I would ride across half the world to fetch you your least desire.” The prince gestured to where the selection of foods awaited them.
Simon found himself laughing again. He allowed himself to be guided to the table and sat on a stone bench with his back to the food. The prince settled beside him and looked deep into his eyes. No-one in all his life had made him feel this way. So wanted, so special, so happy. “I have no appetite for food my lord. It is feast enough for me simply to sit in your presence.”
The prince took hold of Simon's hand and looked down at his slender fingers. “You're mocking me,” he said quietly, stroking the back of a delicate hand, “but I can only hope it is no more than a good natured tease. I know we have only just met, but my heart is filled to bursting just from being here with you. Tell me you don't feel the same.”
Simon placed his free hand on top of the prince's. By comparison, it seemed like child's. He felt dizzy from the emotions flooding through him. In all his life he had never been so consumed with feelings for another person. Was this what Tristan and Elise felt for one another? But everything was moving too fast – a runaway carriage headed for a steep precipice. How was it that he should feel so strongly drawn to another man? How could it be that those feeling should be returned by someone who believed him to be a beautiful maiden? How could this feel so right when in reality it was all so wrong. Beneath his skirts he felt the evidence of the lie, and it twisted in his gut like a knife.
“My prince, I do feel as you, and I could wish for nothing more than to be with you, but I am not as I seem. I wish with all my heart that I could be just as you see me now, just as you believe me to be, but I cannot lie to you. Though it breaks my heart, I must tell you something, and when I am done I fear you will want nothing to do with me.”
The prince climbed to his feet, drawing Simon up with him. He stood fully head and shoulders above the young boy, lifting his delicate chin until they gazed into each other's eyes. The pain he had glimpsed earlier had returned to Ranen's eyes, and it was all Simon could do not turn away.
“Tell me then,” Ranen said, “though I can think of no confession from your lips that would cause me to love you less. Before you do though, grant me one kiss. One kiss holding in my heart all that I now feel for you. One kiss in which you may forget for an instant that which causes you to hesitate, in which you abandon yourself to the feelings you claim to have for me. One kiss, then I will hear you.”
Simon's longing was too great. Though he knew he would regret it ever afterwards, he could not help himself. He knew from the manner in which his brothers had reacted to lesser slights that, when the prince discovered he had been tricked into kissing a boy, his fury would know no bounds. Despite all this he closed his eyes and leaned forward, his lips parted in expectation.
The queen's face was ashen. Celia would not permit herself the relief of looking away. She could have spoken sooner – should have done so – which only meant the look of pain an betrayal in her old friend's eyes was all the more deserved. Her heart broke to be the cause of such shattered hopes, and she felt sure that nothing would be the same between them again.
The queen gathered her strength and stood. She turned her back on the baroness and strode swiftly towards the garden.
Two figures stood across the way, pressed so close they seemed to be one. The smaller of the two lifted an exquisitely beautiful face to the other.
“Ranen!” cried the queen.
Simon heard the cry. It was a thing of ugliness and despair and did not belong here. All he knew, all he cared about were the two strong arms that held him and the delicate caress of lips against his own. The prince's chin was rough against his smooth skin, but that too was as it should be. He reached up with two slender arms, snaking them behind Ranen's neck and drawing him close. If this kiss was all he would know of happiness in his life, he would take from it what he could.
Ranen too was lost in his own world. He had dreamed of this moment for so many years and it was all his dreams had been able to conjure and more. He floated above the sky, weightless as the clouds far below him, and his soul sang with such intense joy he felt sure the force of it would crack the world. Somewhere he heard someone calling his name, but it was an anguished cry and it had no place in this perfect moment, so he let it slip away.
He felt an an odd tightness about his temple, his heart, his arm – a stiffness not unlike the scab that forms over a wound. After a moment, each one shattered, leaving him whole, as though some ancient injury had been healed, as though some dark shadow that had loomed over him all his life had finally been banished, leaving him in sunlight for the first time.
Simon was adrift in a sea of mist, a golden glow suffusing his entire body. It felt like magic and he called to it with his mind. “Change me,” he begged. “Let me be as I should. Let me be as he believes me to be, how he wants me to be. Don't let me remain like this.” He poured all his deep longing into the call, willing the change.
“Ranen,” the queen was calling from the other side of the garden, making her way towards them with an urgent haste and a worried look in her eyes.
Ranen ignored his mother and looked deeply into the eyes of the woman he loved. “Tell me now then. If I am to lose all of this, I would rather hear it from your lips than my mother's. Though in truth Simone, I cannot imagine a single thing that might change how I feel about you right now.”
It hadn't worked. All his longing, all his desire. His mother had spoken to him once of the magic the castle possessed to break a curse. Perhaps that was why he had allowed himself to succumb to the kiss. Perhaps he had hoped his maleness had been his curse and that the magic of this place could cure him of it. But it hadn't worked.
He dropped his head and stepped away from the prince's embrace. “I'm sorry Your Highness. I hope you can believe it was never my intention to deceive you, but my name isn't Simone. It's Simon.” He looked up into the disbelieving eyes of the man he knew he loved. “I am a boy. The reason you can see me when every other maiden in the kingdom is invisible to you is because I am no maiden at all. I wish I could be, and never more so than at this very moment, but I am not.”
“Ranen,” the queen said reaching them. She stretched out a hand to touch her son, read his expression, understood. “I'm so sorry my boy.”
Simon and his mother stood together in the queen's chambers, awaiting judgement. The prince was no longer with them, having stormed off into the castle without saying another word. To Simon there could be no greater punishment than the memory of Ranen's expression just before he fled. Even death would be a release from such torture as that.
The queen waited until news returned from the servants she had sent searching that her son had taken his horse from the stable and galloped off into the forest. He would return soon enough she was sure. For now she had to deal with Celia and her impossibly beautiful son. For the sake of their friendship she tried to look past the betrayal, but it was hard.
“You Majesty,” Simon spoke up. “All this is my...”
“Be silent.” There was ice in the queen's command, and Simon did as he was instructed. “Do you think I am such a fool that I cannot see where the fault lies in this?”
Simon bowed his head. Anything he said would only make things worse. He wished he hadn't tried to speak at all. A tear escaped from the corner of his eye and trickled down his cheek.
The queen turned to her friend. “For the sake of our friendship and both our reputations I shan't be making anything of this. I suppose I should thank you for keeping silent when I called you to the temple. You're right, it would have embarrassed us both. I can think of no good solution to this situation though, and the least disastrous would be for the Lady Simone to disappear and never return. Unfortunately I cannot see how I might be sure of that while your son Simon remains among my husband's servants.”
“Majesty,” the baroness started cautiously. “What of my husband and my sons? They had no part in this.”
“They don't concern me. All I want is for this... creature,” she waved a hand in Simon's direction prompting yet another tear, “to be gone from the castle before dawn tomorrow. I suspect you still hold a mother's affection for him and would not wish for him to travel alone, so I imagine you will leave too. That would be as well. Gossip is like fire – without fuel it does not burn for long.
“I would like to wish you well Celia, but I cannot find the words. You have been a good friend to me for more years than I care to remember, but that just makes this all the more painful. Will you please just go.”
She turned her back on them and the baroness accepted the dismissal. Taking Simon by the arm, she led him from the royal chambers and back to her rooms.
Tristan was waiting for them when they returned. He looked to them for news, but his mother just shook her head. Simon's face was an emotionless mask with only the untended tears to give any clue to his state of mind.
“Would you mind...” The baroness's voice broke and she had to start over. “Would you mind going to the messenger's dormitory and collecting Simon's things please Tristan?” She guided her youngest son through to the bedroom she shared with her husband and started to unbutton his dress.
Simon remained passive and compliant until he sat in front of his mother's mirror wearing only bloomers and corset. She had retrieved a pair of scissors from her embroidery table and was about to cut through his magically lengthened hair.
“No,” he said. “Leave it long. I would have something to remember this day by.”
“What will we tell your friends?”
“What friends? I imagine I shall stay here with you tonight, then we'll leave before dawn tomorrow. No-one here will see me, though if it worries you so much I shall tuck it down the back of my tunic until we're gone from here.”
“And when we get home?”
“I don't care about when we get home.”
There was a knock on the door and Tristan poked his head in to pass across Simon's meagre possessions, among them a spare tunic and pair of breeches. With his mother's help, Simon removed the rest of his borrowed clothing and climbed into his own. It had been less than a day since he had exchanged his clothes for a maid's uniform and then the magnificent dress that still lay across his mother's bed, but already it felt wrong on him to dress as a man. As he had promised his mother, he tucked his hair down the back of his tunic, adjusting it until he looked almost his old self. From a distance.
His mother wrapped the borrowed dress and undergarments, slippers and head-dress in an old shawl and rang for a maid.
“Would you see that these are returned to the lady Elise without delay?” she asked handing them across to someone Simon vaguely recognised. She smiled at him, but his heart weighed too heavily in him to respond.
A while later there was a knock at the main door and Elise appeared with her ageing chaperone in tow. Simon looked across at her with blank, empty eyes and she burst into tears, running away without saying a word.
When evening came, Simon's father and two eldest brothers returned. They had spent the day hunting in the forest and the first they knew of anything being amiss was when they walked into the apartment to find Simon sitting quietly in the main room and Celia packing in the bedroom next door.
“What's happened?” His the baron asked his wife.
“It's best you don't ask dear,” she replied. “The long and short of it is that Simon is to return to Far Reach and I shall be travelling with him. It's a long and unlikely story in which your son tried to make the best of an awkward situation, which then turned bad through no great fault of his own.”
“We'll be coming with you then.”
“No, Trymman. This place has been good for all our boys. Tristan has found someone of whom he is fond, and I'm sure it is only a matter of time before Harold and Laurence do the same. It would be well for you to remain with them until they each find wives for themselves.
“You could try talking to Simon though. He feels dreadful about the way things have turned out.”
The baron came back out of the bedroom and sat down beside his youngest son. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Simon shook his head.
“What happened to your hair?”
Simon grabbed it angrily and stuffed the escaped tresses back under his collar.
“I can't help if you don't talk,” Trymman continued
“I'm not sure I deserve to be helped.”
“You forget that I know you son. If there's another soul in the world kinder and gentler than yours it belongs to your mother. I can't imagine you doing anything for which you deserve the punishment you're so intent on giving yourself.”
“You don't know what I did.”
“That's because no-one will tell me.”
“Well perhaps it's best that you don't know.”
Simon turned away from his father who let out an exasperated sigh. He rested a large, calloused hand on his son's shoulder with uncommon gentleness.
“Did you mean to cause harm?”
“No of course not, but I did all the same.”
“You should forgive yourself son. We all make mistakes.”
“But it's not fair when someone else has to live with the consequences of my actions.”
“Then make it right. Make it up to them somehow.”
“I can't Father. I don't know how. All I can do is leave.”
He could think of nothing else to say. He left his hand on his son's shoulder for a while longer, then he gave it a comforting squeeze. “Well whatever happens son, you should know that your mother and I believe in you, and we love you.”
“Thank-you Father.” Simon wanted to bury his face in his father's shoulder and cry himself dry, but he didn't believe he deserved such a release so he remained still and waited until his father withdrew his hand.
He didn't sleep that night and was still sitting alone with his small package of belongings beside him when his mother woke early the next morning. Her things had already been loaded onto their carriage the previous night, so all that remained was for them to make their way down to the stable where the horses were stamping impatiently in their harness. Dawn's first touch painted a streak of pastel colours across the dark horizon as they rode out through the deserted courtyard and onto the long road home.
From a high tower in the castle the prince watched the carriage leave. Conflicting emotions had stolen the night's sleep from him also. In part he was relieved to see Simon's departure. The humiliation he would have endured, had the story escaped that that the woman he had fallen in love with was no more than a servant boy in a dress, was unthinkable. There was regret too though. His mind was filled with memories of the way she had made him feel. He. He. Simon was a boy. But Ranen knew boys. He knew the way they thought, the way they moved, the way the behaved around each other, and Simon had been so unlike any of them. He missed the girl he had kissed, and it tore at him to know that she had never actually existed. No-one had ever seemed more real to him, and it still twisted his insides to know that she wasn't.
The previous afternoon, when he had fled his mother's chambers, he had taken a horse and ridden far into the forest. His mount had been quivering and covered with lather before he could bring himself to stop. He'd led the poor creature to a nearby stream, and brushed its coat down with handfuls of grass while it ate and drank its fill. When it was recovered, he'd ridden home at a gentle pace, arriving long after dark.
The stone corridors of the castle had been empty and echoing, resonating with his own feelings of loneliness. He saw no-one on his way back to his rooms.
He'd not changed into his nightclothes, nor even lain on the bed. All night he had paced back and forth, and it had only been with the first light of dawn that he'd heard the carriage and moved to the window to witness the departure of the woman he loved, who was not even a woman.
Now she was gone. He was gone, curse it. Now Simon was gone. He had to move on. It wasn't as if they'd known each other for more than a few minutes in any case. He rang for his servants, not caring that he would be driving them from their beds, and began to take off his clothes from the previous day.
“Your Highness?” A sleepy eyed page peered into the prince's room.
“I want a bath,” the prince ordered. He was wearing his bathrobe and little else. “And I want this fire stoked. It's cold in here. And I shall have breakfast when I'm done with my bath. Fresh bread rolls with slices of beef.”
The page withdrew to carry out his orders. Kitchen staff were woken and set about baking for the prince. Chamber maids stoked up a fire in a different part of the castle and fetched fresh water from the well, which they poured into a cauldron and set about heating for his bath. The page hurriedly gathered armfuls of wood and scurried back to tend the prince's fire. He could not have organised everything in less time but still the prince rebuked him for tardiness upon his return.
“I'm sorry Your Highness, I am working as fast as I can.” He dropped the logs beside the fire, added a few small ones with some kindling and worked the bellows until the dimly glowing embers reignited. More logs were added and before long a healthy blaze banished the late autumn gloom from the room.
“I'm sorry Gerald,” the prince said distractedly. “I'm not myself today.” He gazed out the window, wondering how Simon and his mother would fare. There was more than a hint of winter in the air which promised to make their journey all the more arduous. “How long until my bath is ready?”
“The water is being heated as we speak sire. It will be here shortly.”
As if in answer, there was a knock on the door and two servants entered carrying a large copper bathtub, which they set down in front of the fire. A few minutes later a stream of young maids entered, each carrying a yoke with two wooden buckets filled with steaming water. The first let out a scream and dropped her buckets upon sight of him.
The prince too was stunned. Before now it had seemed as though his bath filled by magic, and now he was faced with a roomful of young girls, all of whom were startled by the sight of him in his bathrobe.
“Forgive me Your Highness,” the first girl curtsied low and gathered her spilled buckets.
The other girls moved into the room and nervously poured their burdens into the bath, but the prince ignored the and hurried out into the corridor.
People stopped and stared at him as he strode past half dressed. He found himself staring back, largely because the corridors were filled not just with men and old women as usual, but with young girls too. Most wore servant's uniforms, the hour being to early for most of the high-born to be about, but there were a number of well dressed young ladies who gawped back at him as he passed.
He barged into his parent's apartment, rousing them from their sleep. “Mother, where have all the young girls come from?”
His father was swiftest to respond. “What's the meaning of this Ranen? Were we so lax in teaching you your manners?”
“I'm sorry Father, but something's happened. There were maids filling my bath just now.”
“There are maids fill my bath every morning,” his father grumbled.
“No Richard, don't you see?” The king may have been the swiftest to rouse, but the queen's mind was the sharper. She pulled at a cord beside the bed and a few moments later a young girl in a royal maid's uniform appeared and curtsied to the king and queen. Then her hands flew to her mouth as she saw the prince. “Richard, the curse is broken after all. He can see them. Our prayers have been answered. Oh Richard!” She threw her arms around her husband, then leapt out of bed and ran to her son, holding him tight.
“Mother!” Ranen pushed her gently away. “Will you please tell me what this is about.”
“The curse Ranen.” The maid gathered her wits enough to fetch the queen's robe and settled it about her shoulders. “I could never bring myself to tell you of it, but you must have heard of it by now.”
“I heard stories Mother, but they were just old maid's foolishness surely.”
“You never wanted to believe it was true, but you must have wondered why the only women of your age you have ever met were already married. It's because of a curse that was placed on you as a baby, but it's broken son. After twenty years, the curse is broken.”
“I don't know. Perhaps that dreadful business yesterday did something after all. What matters now though is that the palace is filled with all the most beautiful and eligible of young girls and here you are gallivanting around in your bathrobe.” She turned to the maid. “Molly dear, could you please arrange for an extra bath to be brought here for the prince and for someone to fetch him some clothes from his rooms. And arrange for him to eat his breakfast with us too. Oh Richard, the curse is broken at long last.”
The journey back to Far Reach took four torturous days. From dawn to dusk, Simon and his mother huddled under a blanket for warmth while their driver carried out his duty swathed in layers of wool and fur. They stopped only to rest and water the horses and over-nighted in wayside taverns where the food was basic but hot and welcome for all that. The beds were not always as clean as might be hoped, but they were used to the privations of the road, and carried their own bedding for such occasions.
It was with some relief that they reached home on the afternoon of the fourth day. Having left in such a hurry, it hadn't been possible to send word ahead, so they passed through the village of Far Reach on their way in order to pick up their servants and some provisions. It took the rest of that day and all the night with fires burning in every hearth to banish the chill from the hall, and most of the next day to air all the rooms they wished to use, so mother and son did not feel fully at ease until the afternoon of the day after their arrival.
“So what happens now Mother?” Simon had spoken barely at all on the journey home, and sitting here in meagre comfort, the question had been his first words since crossing the threshold of the hall.
“I wish I knew Simon. I suppose we shall have to allow time to pass for a while. The queen has always been a kind soul, and it speaks to the measure of her pain that she was so swift to send us away. I have my hopes that she will rethink the situation once matters have settled, then we shall see.”
“And what if she doesn't? I mean as far as she and Ranen are concerned, I will always be the boy the prince kissed. How could they ever want to see me again?”
“I still don't understand why you allowed him to kiss you at all Simon. I mean could you not see that it would end badly?”
“It wasn't like that, Mother. It was like I really was a girl when I was with him. I did try to tell him, but then he asked for one kiss before I said anything.
“I don't know. Maybe I remembered what you told me about the castle. Maybe I thought the magic would work for me, that I wouldn't have to tell him, that it could make me into a girl.”
“You've decided then.”
“You remember the question I asked you before we went to see the queen and the prince?”
“But that's not possible Mother. How can I choose to be a girl? I'm a boy. I always have been, and I always will be.”
“Oh Simon.” Celia pulled her son into an embrace, the boy responding but reluctantly. “There's more to being a boy or a girl than the shape of your body. It's something that lies in your mind and your soul as well, and if I had to guess, I would say that in at least two ways out of three you are my daughter.”
“Then why didn't the magic change me Mother? If I am more girl than boy, then surely when I kissed the prince it should have made me whole.”
“I wish I knew dear heart. Magic is an unusual and capricious thing. It doesn't always behave as you would expect.”
They held onto each other for a long while and when Simon finally pulled himself away from his mother's embrace, she looked him calmly in the eye.
“Would you like to try something?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“While it's just the two of us here, would you like to see how well you like being Simone?”
“What of the servants and everyone else in the village?”
“It wouldn't surprise me if most of them might think it the best of ideas, and not a come day too soon.”
The queen, in her eagerness to see her son happily married, arranged a ball in celebration of the prince's miraculous deliverance. The great hall was cleaned and polished until there was not a piece of stone or wood that did not shine. The place was hung with decorations, and a feast of such magnificence as the kingdom had rarely seen was prepared and laid out around the edges of the room. The finest musicians in the land were called in and for a week, young maidens and gentlemen alike practised the latest dances until their feet ached.
Seamstresses sewed through the night for all of the week leading up to the ball, in order to prepare new and richly decorated ball-gowns for all young maidens. In all, the castle came alive with such activity, it was as though a giant had woken from a long slumber and would not be still.
On the night of the ball, every servant in the castle turned out in their finest uniforms, freshly cleaned and pressed, to add to the pageantry of the occasion. All the candles in the great chandelier were changed and lit until it sparkled like a fountain of diamonds.
The early dances were of the sort where partners changed throughout, and by the middle of the evening, every young maiden present had spent some time in the arms of the prince. As the night wore on, the music changed, and the young men and women settled into couples sharing long waltzes in each other's arms. Those like Tristan and Elise became inseparable for all the time that remained. Those not yet paired floated hopefully at the edge of the dance floor, the girls waiting for a young man to invite them onto the floor, the boys fighting with shyness. Many of the young girls tried to catch the prince's eye, but he was like a starving man at a feast and he could not choose.
From time to time, he would catch a glimpse of a slender young girl with long tresses who reminded him of Simon, and for a moment his heart would skip a beat. Then she would reveal herself as being only a little like him, and hope would turn to disappointment. He berated himself for a fool. Simon was a boy and he had been sent away from the castle. He wasn't going to be here, and even if he were, he wouldn't be wearing a dress.
Exasperated, his mother called him over.
“We arranged this for your benefit Ranen. The least you could do is choose a girl and dance with her.”
He picked one of the many elegantly dressed young ladies at random and invited her onto the floor, but after a couple of dances, he found his heart wasn't in it. He tried two or three more, but the more time he spent with them, the more he realised that none of them gave him what he yearned for.
He walked out onto the balcony, away from the music and the crowd, seeking solitude, but to no avail. Before long a small group of young ladies came after him, each babbling away about some inconsequentiality or another, until his only refuge was back in the main hall.
He allowed himself to be led onto the dance floor a few more times, but as the evening drew to a close, he bade his parents goodnight and returned to his rooms alone.
Celia's sister, Adelle, lived only half a day's ride away from Far Reach. Her two daughters, Claire and Emily, had moved to the royal castle a few years earlier, along with a couple of Adelle's trusted maids, but she and her husband had remained behind to take care of their land.
Early on the morning of the second day after Celia and Simon's return to Far Reach, Celia dispatched a rider with a message to her sister. Adelle was a little perplexed at the contents, but noted the urgency of the message. She fed the rider a sturdy hot lunch, furnished him with a fresh horse and sent him on his way with a a collection of bulky parcels strapped across his saddle in front and behind him, along with a letter promising more of the same within a few days.
On the evening of the second day, a listless and morose Simon pushed his half eaten dinner to one side and excused himself, saying he was tired and wished to go to bed.
Upstairs, he stepped into his room to find a cotton and lace nightdress laid out on the bed. His mother found him a few minutes later, sitting on the bed with the nightdress in his hands.
“I thought it might help,” she said, crossing the room to sit beside him.
“I'm not sure if I should Mother. I mean what if some lad from the village takes a fancy to me? Am I to tell him I'm a boy too?”
“You're to tell him your mother has forbidden you dalliances with boys from the village. If he persists, you may warn him one more time, then you are to come to me. I'll not have my daughter carrying on with such folk.”
Simon managed a weak smile. “But what will it serve Mother? Am I not just taunting myself with something that cannot be? I might as well make wings for myself and wish I were a swan – I'll still not fly.”
“There's more to being a girl than falling in love my sweet child, and when I think on it, it seems to me that you are already more lady than gentleman.”
“What do you mean?”
“Were you ever interested in learning to fight with a sword? Did you ever once wrestle with your brothers willingly? Do you enjoy hunting? I recall a time your father sent you into the forest to face down a boar, and you ended up tending its wounds and releasing it back into the wild. And what of that great vicious war horse your father bought for you? It's so tame now, the children ride it at the fair.
“You were more prone to crying than fighting back. When you had the choice, you would play with girls rather than boys. You hated being dirty. No my child, when I think back over these last sixteen years, it seems to me that had you worn a dress all those days, none would have questioned that you were a girl.” She took the nightdress from Simon's unresisting fingers. “This is not so much indulging a fantasy as putting right what has been wrong for so many years. Will you not at least try it?”
And so Simon changed out of his tunic and breeches, and allowed his mother to help him slip on the cotton sheath. Afterwards, she had him sit in front of a small dressing table she'd had moved from one of the guest bedrooms, and brushed her son's long and luxuriant hair until it shone.
“Well?” she asked as she helped Simon into bed. “Do I have a son or a daughter to keep me company this winter?”
“Thank you Mama,” Simone said sweetly, holding tightly to her mother's neck. “I love you so much.”
“And I you my darling daughter. Goodnight Simone.”
The queen's next plan of attack was to introduce the girls she felt most suitable to her son. Ranen would be minding his own business beside a pond in the royal gardens when his mother would walk past, talking earnestly to some young girl about some aspect or another of the gardens. She would call to the prince and engage him in the conversation, and before he knew where he was, his mother had withdrawn and left the two youngsters to it.
At other times, Ranen would ride out of the castle and into the forest, where he would encounter his mother and some other young girl, also on horseback. More often than not, the queen's horse would develop a limp – a trick she had taught her horse some years before – and she would excuse herself, leading her steed back towards the castle and leaving the prince alone with her latest favourite from among the young débutantes.
Her imagination knew no bounds, and in truth it wasn't such a bad idea. The prince had the opportunity to talk to each young potential princess and discover her interests, and how well her understanding and ideology of the world matched his own. He made a great many friends, but by the time he had spent a morning, an afternoon or an evening with any one of the girls, both would know that there did not exist the least spark of interest beyond the simple friendship they managed to strike up.
One young girl – who's principal interest was in architecture, and who had been manipulated into an encounter with the prince while he was walking through an older, neglected part of the castle – proved to be wise beyond her years. They had reached the end of a lengthy discussion on the merits of a certain style of ancient doorway design, and the conversation dipped into a natural lull.
“Who is she?” the girl had asked cautiously.
“Who is who?”
“The girl you're in love with.” She looked up at him shyly, wondering at her own temerity.
“I'm in love with no girl,” the prince had protested.
“Well you could have fooled me.” She smiled to take the sting out of her words.
“What makes you say that I am?” Ranen demanded.
“Forgive me my lord, I don't mean any disrespect, but I have been flirting with you all afternoon and I doubt that you have even noticed. I feel certain that were your mind not consumed with thoughts of another girl, you would have been inclined, at the very least, to tease me in return.”
The prince sighed.
“She's fortunate to have so captured your heart my lord.”
“Less fortunate than you know,” the prince replied, but he refused to be drawn further.
Simon was woken by a tentative knock at his door.
“Come in,” he called.
The face of a young girl popped around the door and looked cautiously into the room.
“Daisy?” Simon recognised her from the village. In younger days he had played with her and her friends.
“Good morning my lady,” Daisy could not control the smile on her face.
Simon blushed a deep red as his friend came over to the bed. “Oh Daisy! What must you think of me?”
“It's alright my lady. Her Ladyship has already explained it all to me, and it's a wonder we all didn't see it before. All those days we played together and we never once considered whether or not you really were a boy.”
Simon wondered just what his mother had said to prompt such a response. He'd have to be careful in case she saw something of his masculine body.
“I have a bath ready for you in the room next door my lady. If you'd like to soak a while, I'll lay out your clothes.”
So Simon padded through to the adjoining room, where he found a copper bath filled with steaming hot water, and scented with dried flower petals. He pulled his nightgown over his head and made an effort to tie his long hair out of the way before stepping into the scalding bath.
There was scented soap, and Simon closed his eyes to better enjoy the mingling aromas. After a short while, Daisy came in. Simon immediately squirmed around in the water to hide his less feminine parts.
“Oh don't be sill my lady. It's not as if I haven't seen what you have down there. Don't you remember all the girls was interested and asked if we could have a peak? Said we'd let you look at ours if you'd let us see what you had.”
“Then if you know I'm a boy, what was all that about back there?”
“Oh I don't know as your a boy my lady,” Daisy said matter of factly. “I mean your body's one thing, but Her Ladyship has the right of it. There is no way you're anything but a lady where it counts. Here, let me hold a towel for you my lady. Don't worry, I won't peak. Not if that bothers you.”
Simon stood and allowed Daisy to wrap a towel around his middle, covering him from the knees to just below his shoulders. He stepped out of the bath and began to rub himself dry.
Back in his bedroom he found a screen ready, with a number of female undergarments draped over the back of a nearby chair, waiting for him.
“I expect you'll be able to manage the bloomers by yourself my lady, but if you need any assistance with any of the other garments, that's why I'm here.”
Simon slipped behind the screen and exchanged the towel for the bloomers. He picked up the corset and remembered how Elise had laced it up from behind.
“I think I'll need a little help from here, Daisy.”
Simon's friend took the garment and expertly loosened it until he could step into it. She began drawing in the laces – not so tight as to make Simon gasp for breath, but tight enough none the less.
“You're not feeling it yet are you Simon?” she asked.
“What do you mean? Not feeling what?”
“What your mum says about you. You've been trying to be a boy all these years, so now you're allowed to be yourself and you're not feeling it.”
Simon blushed a little. “What makes you say that?”
“You're too self-conscious. You're behaving like you're a boy dressing up as a girl and any moment we're all going to turn around and laugh at you. But you're wrong you know? We're you're friends. I'm your friend. And friends don't do that to friends, not if they're girl friends they don't.
“Look Simon, I know you've got bits where I don't, but I don't care about that. Your mum told me that deep down inside you're as much a girl as I am, and as soon as she said it I knew it to be true. I don't mean no disrespect by this, but I don't see you as a man no more. To me we're just two young girls together with me as your maid and you as my mistress, and the sooner you see it too, the happier we'll both be.
“There. How's that feel? Can you still breathe?”
Simon nodded, trying to get his head around what Daisy had said to him, while she went over to the bed and picked up a deep blue gown he recognised as having belonged to his cousin Emily. She held it out for him and invited him to step into it.
A while later, with the buttons all done up and his slender feet nestled in a pair of dainty slippers, it was no longer Simon but Simone who looked into the mirror while her maid carefully braided her hair. It wasn't such an elegant style as Elise had managed, but it was practical, and it showed off her slim neck to good advantage.
“There you are my lady. I wondered how long it would be before you came along. Like I say, I mean no disrespect ma'am, but I am so looking forward to getting to know you.”
Downstairs, Celia sat waiting for her daughter to join her at breakfast. It was a pleasant enough meal, although she had to interject from time to time with pointers as to correct breakfast table etiquette for a young lady. Simone was a quick study though, and took on board every little correction she made.
After breakfast, the two of them retired to the sitting room, where Celia introduced Simone to the intricacies of needlepoint. There were a few pricked fingers, and a number of false starts that needed to be unpicked and started over, but by lunchtime, Simone had the beginnings of a a very creditable first piece.
Daisy came through from the kitchen to announce that luncheon would be served shortly, but was interrupted by the sound of the front door bell jangling. The maid disappeared for a moment, reappearing with a slightly flustered look.
“You're Ladyship, your sister is come to visit.
Ranen took to staying in his rooms in an attempt to avoid his mother and her constant matchmaking. It succeeded for a short while, then she took to visiting her son in his own domain, and bringing with her still more young girls to tempt him.
He was polite enough at first, having long since learned the value of kind words, but after a week of such intrusions, he began to respond more curtly, explaining that he was about to go out when the queen arrived, and making his excuses.
He took to solitary pastimes in order to discourage further interruptions,and in time became sullen and withdrawn. The queen worried over him and fretted a little more each time she watched him ride off into the forest by himself.
“You should leave him alone my love,” her husband told her. “After all the curse is broken. All we need do is wait for love to take its course.”
“I'm not so sure Richard. There's something in the back of my mind that worries me. I don't think this is over yet.”
“You know the magic the castle possesses Felicia. In order for the curse to have been broken at all, Ranen must have experienced true love's kiss. The Dark Queen's plans are ruined. All we need do is wait.”
“I suppose you're right dear.” Despite her words, the queen still held onto some misgivings. It all seemed too simple. When the king left about his daily business, Felicia rang for a maid and instructed her to fetch the court scribe.
“Celia!” Adelle cooed as she came into the sitting room. “Why ever didn't you write to tell me you were returning to Far Reach? I would have come to visit you far sooner.”
Celia rose and embraced her sister. “I'm sorry Adelle, but it was all a bit sudden. This is only the third day we've been back.”
“Well it's so good to see you my dear. But what of this extraordinary request of yours? I take it this is the young lady for whom you asked to borrow the clothes? Come here girl. I must say, she is quite the charmer. I can see why you are so taken with her. Is she from the village?”
“Adelle, if you'll give me half a chance I'll explain everything. Now first things first. You'll be joining us for lunch? And it's just you? Hubert didn't come with you? Very well, Daisy, my apologies to cook, but there will be one more joining us, and the coachman will need something once he's settled the horses.”
Daisy bobbed prettily and backed out of the room.
“Now dear sister, please don't be too shocked, but I'd like you to meet my daughter, Simone.”
“Hello Aunt Adelle, I'm pleased to see you after all this time.”
“Celia, what is this? Why is Simon wearing one of Emily's old dresses?”
“It's a long story Adelle. Why don't you sit down while we wait for luncheon. Simone, perhaps you wouldn't mind fetching your aunt a cup of tea. It's cold out and I'm sure she'll need some warming up.”
Simone excused herself and followed Daisy out to the kitchen. When she returned some minutes later, carrying a tray with a steaming pot of tea and all the necessary extras, it was too the sound of her aunt's raised voice.
“No Celia, I won't hear any more. This is unconscionable, and I won't be a part of it.”
The door flew open and Simone barely managed to move the tray out of her aunt's way as she strode past towards the entrance. Adelle gave her a look of mingled fury and disgust as she stormed past.
“Adelle, it's cold out.” Celia hurried out after her sister. “At least stay for lunch and spend a little time with your new niece. Give your coachman a chance to warm up and your horses some time to rest before you head back.”
“I shan't Celia. I couldn't bear to spend a moment more than absolutely necessary under the same roof as you and your... whatever he, she or it is.” She passed two large trunks in the hallway and twisted her mouth at them. “You can keep Emily's old things. She has no further use for them, and I don't think I shall want them back in the house after this. How often did you allow Simon to wear them when my daughters came to visit you?”
“That was just once a long time ago, and it was Claire's idea.”
“Whatever. It makes me sick to the stomach just to think of it. Would you please call for my coach? I shall wait here until it's ready.”
Celia threw up her hands and turned to do as her sister had asked. Adelle remained in the hall, walking back and forth indignant and agitated. Simone timidly approached his aunt.
“Aunt Adelle, won't you come back to the living room? There's a fire there, and I'm sure you're cold after your journey.”
“I'm quite content where I am, thank-you,” snapped the older woman.
“Would you at least take some tea?” Simone offered, placing the tray on a nearby sideboard.
“I want nothing from you, you...”
“Adelle!” Celia had returned. “We are sisters, and I love you dearly, but I'll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head when you're under my roof. Simone has done nothing to you, and she doesn't deserve to be spoken to in that way.”
“Why you insist on calling him a her, I'll never understand.”
“Perhaps if you took the time to get to know her you would.”
“Thank-you, I've heard quite enough of your nonsense, sister. Is my coach nearly ready?”
“It's being prepared as we speak, but it'll be a while yet. Adelle, please be reasonable.”
“Reasonable?” The bark of a laugh that escaped her lips was verging on hysterical. “You want me to be reasonable! I'm not the one dressing my son up like some doll.”
“Aunt Adelle, this is my choice,” Simone said quietly.
“As if that makes it any better. I'm lost in wonder that you should wish for such a thing. To think I allowed my daughters to play with you.”
“Simone, perhaps it would be best if you waited in the living room. I'll be with you shortly.”
“Yes Mama. I'm sorry you won't stay Aunt Adelle. I would have liked to tell you about how well Claire and Emily were faring when I last saw them, and to thank you properly for these lovely clothes.”
She didn't wait to hear her aunt's response, but hurried back to the safety and warmth of living room. She picked up her embroidery with shaking fingers, but dropped it just as quickly, burying her face in her hands.
Celia found her some time later, having seen her sister safely away with a basket of warm rolls and cheese to bide her through the cold journey. Simone had run out of tears, but she still rocked back and forth gently in her misery. Celia settled beside her daughter and took her in her arms.
“It's alright child. Your aunt can be headstrong and foolish at times. She'll come round in time. I'm only sorry that you had to witness such a display.”
“But she's right isn't she Mother?” Celia closed her eyes against her tears. “I'm not a girl any more than I am a boy. I don't know what I am.”
Celia pushed her daughter away from her with just a hint of impatience. “Whatever you may feel right now, Simone, you are my daughter and I will always consider you to be such. In grace, manner and temperament you shamed my sister completely, and I have never been more proud of you than I am right now.
“I want to give you something, child. It was sent to me from the Realm of Light shortly after you were born, and it has stood me in good stead whenever I have needed courage.” She unhooked the garnet necklace from behind her neck and held it between them, showing Simone the inscription on the back. “I don't think I realised, until I saw the manner in which your aunt reacted to you, how much of a hard road you have ahead of you, and I think you will find it hard whether you choose to live it as a man or a woman. It is my hope that you will continue to try and live it as a woman, for that is all I see when I look at you now, and I believe that is all I will see, whether you were a dress or a tunic.”
She reached behind her daughter's neck and reattached the clasp. The pendant settled against Simone's flat chest.
Daisy reappeared, but kept respectfully silent. Celia noticed and nodded in her direction.
“Come on sweetheart. You'll feel better once you've eaten something.”
The parchment was old and dry after twenty years in the archives. The queen unfolded it and squinted to read the faded text. When she was done, she called for her writing desk and sat to pen a letter of her own. The worried expression remained on her face long after she had sealed the document and passed it to a courier, who she dispatched with the greatest of haste.
Simon had always sought places to match his moods. In years gone by, he had found sun dappled glades in the forest for when he was happy and at peace, and gloomy, shadowy places for when he was miserable. Of the latter, there were none so grim as the river path that led beside the border with the Realm of Shadows.
It was some weeks since her aunt's impromptu and very brief visit, and Simone's spirits had not risen much. She had been unable to eat a great deal at lunch, and had only shown the vaguest interest as Daisy insisted they unpack the trunks her aunt had left behind. The maid did manage to conjure a reluctant smile onto the face of her friend, as she lifted out gown after exquisite gown and hung them in the wardrobe, but it hadn't lasted.
Left to her own devices she might well have reverted to being Simon, but Daisy was insistent that such beautiful dresses were made to be worn, and so Simone had descended to breakfast each morning dressed in the most elegant manner, each day more beautiful than the last. Even her enduring melancholy added something to her glamour.
Simone passed the days with her mother, learning to knit, to sew and to embroider. She was precise and naturally gifted to the tasks, and even after a few days, she had the makings of a skilled seamstress about her. Her mother praised her for her efforts, but nothing seemed to dispel the sadness that had settled on her.
Eventually Celia decided that something must be done. She wondered if Simone were spending all her days at home out of a sense of loyalty to her, which was why, one bright winter's morning, she insisted that she take the day to go riding.
“But what about you mother?”
“I dare say I shall find some way to keep myself busy. I have some friends in the village I haven't visited since we've been home, and it's about time I passed by.”
“I could come with you.”
“No child, I fear you'd find the company of so many older women a little tiresome. Besides, I think it's time you ventured out on your own and took in a little fresh air. It might lighten your mood a little.”
Simone was past her concerns of walking about in public as she was. None of the servants treated her as anything other than the beautiful young lady she appeared and, with the notable exception of Aunt Adelle, every one of the occasional visitors to the hall who'd seen her had paid complement to the baroness for her beautiful daughter.
Among Emily's things had been a fur coat made from the softest ermine, with matching hat and muff, and it gave Simone more pleasure than she cared to admit to have reason to wear them. Riding side saddle too was a novel experience, and one she mastered soon enough thanks, in part, to the gentle nature of the old warhorse Simon had ruined some years before.
He was a shire horse stallion named Thunderbolt, and from his placid nature, there was never a creature less appropriately named. He nickered in good-natured recognition as soon as Simone appeared in her cousin's riding dress, with the soft fur covering most of her upper body. Simone rubbed his snout in greeting, and hugged him gently about the neck.
“Hello old friend. I'm glad you still know me.” Thunderbolt bent his head around to lean against Simone's back. “We've something a little different today Thunder. Ladies ride side saddle, so we'll both have to get used to something new.”
It hadn't taken them long, and soon enough they were galloping down forest paths towards the river. With a clear sky overhead, and fresh, cold winter air filling her lungs, Simone felt her spirits rise a little, but the cold only served to remind her of the day she had left the Royal Castle, and the man she'd left behind. The horse sensed her mood and knew instinctively where they were going. By mid-morning Thunderbolt found himself nipping away at the sparse grass beside the road, while Simone seated herself on a rock beside the river across from the Dark Queen's realm.
The trees on the opposite side of the river were twisted and gnarled, casting such deep shadows that it was impossible to see more than a few feet into the interior. The place seemed lifeless and oppressive, mirroring the darkness in her own heart. It drew to the surface all her conflicting emotions, and she wept for the confusion of her life.
Why could she not be simply one thing or another? Why did she have to be this creature who felt and behaved in every way like a girl and yet possessed the body of a boy – and not much of a boy at that?
She thought of Prince Ranen, imagined his handsome face reflected in the water before her. It made her heart ache to think of him. If she needed any further proof of what she was, it lay in her feelings for the prince, for how could a boy hold such a deep felt longing for another man? She thought of the last expression she had seen on his face and collapsed on the rock, icy tears sliding down her cheeks.
Thunderbolt, sensing her distress, moved over and nuzzled her gently. She whirled around and threw her arms around the horse's strong neck.
“Oh Thunder!” she cried. “Why could I not be the woman he needed me to be? Why do I have to be this hideous thing?”
Thunderbolt raised his head, pulling Simone to her feet. Something on the other side of the river had caught his attention and she turned to follow his gaze.
There at the very edge of the shadows, a pair of large, luminous eyes regarded them both. They moved, silently withdrawing, but not before the sunlight flared on what was unmistakably a steel blade.
Nothing more could be seen, and the only sound came from Simone's own thundering heartbeat. She grasped her mother's pendant and felt its warmth spread through her.
The creature had seemed to be heading downstream. Compelled by curiosity now that her fears had been calmed, Simone swung herself up onto Thunderbolt's broad back, and urged him to follow the path a little further.
It was nearly two weeks since the queen had sent her letter and neither courier nor reply had been forthcoming. The queen worried at the lack of news, but managed to distract herself with preparations for the mid-winter's ball. It was to be a masque, which she hoped would enable the prince to mingle freely with the young men and women of the court without being so easily recognised. If they could talk to him without knowing who he was, perhaps they might be more at ease and better able to interest him.
She had taken her husband's advice in as much as she no longer tried so hard to introduce him to suitable young girls, and in response the prince had become a little less reclusive. His interaction with any of the young girls in the court was still no better than polite and detached, so her hopes that he might soon fall in love were no closer to realisation. She had sent out invitations to a number of families whose daughters had not joined them at the castle though, so she was hopeful that a little fresh blood might spice the pot as it were.
She gazed out of her window towards the south towards the fairy realms. Where, oh where was that courier?
The path turned into the forest, away from the river which fell in a cascade of turbulent water past a jumble of boulders. As a child, Simon had clambered over these same rocks and knew that in just a short way they opened up to give a clear view of an open marshy area where the realms of shadow and light met.
Simone slid off Thunderbolt's back and left him to forage at the forest's edge. She knew the horse wouldn't wander far without her, so she didn't bother tethering him. Climbing across the slippery rocks in a long dress and riding boots was another matter though, and it took her considerably longer than she remembered to traverse them.
What she saw when she reached her vantage point struck her dumb, and for a long while she stood still and stared at line upon line of armed and armoured, grotesquely misshapen creatures, many of whom might once have been men, filling the open space between the twisted tree-line and the grassy meadow that stood at the edge of the Realm of Light. On that side, another group of creatures stood, smaller in both number and stature. There was not evidence of fighting as yet, but the intent was clear – the Dark Queen was preparing to invade.
A shout went up and Simone turned towards the sound. Some hideous parody of a man was pointing in her direction, and a number of less easily recognisable creatures started heading her way. She grasped at her pendant, feeling its warmth loosen the ice that froze her legs, and turned to run. The way was treacherous though, and she slipped and nearly fell several times before she caught sight of the path. She made a last effort to scramble across the remaining boulders that stood between her and escape, but the creatures pursuing her were faster. Taloned fingers closed around her ankle and she cried out as she fell.
Thunderbolt raised his head, alarmed at the sudden noise. He saw his mistress fall and turned to defend her. She was too far into the rocks for him to reach though, and dark creatures were swarming past her, moving to surround him.
“Run Thunderbolt, run!” The cry galvanised him into action and he swung around and galloped away. Some of the monsters stalking him pounced as he thundered past, one managing to hold on for a few hundred yards until the great horse reared and bucked and threw it clear. Bleeding from a number of ugly gashes but no longer encumbered, Thunderbolt charged off down the river road towards home.
“We followed the horse Your Ladyship. He has a great spirit that one, took us right back to the spot, even injured as he was. We found signs of a struggle among the rocks where the river road turns back into the forest, and this was there too.” The huntsman held out the garnet pendant Celia had so recently given to her daughter.
“Is this all you found?”
“No Your Ladyship. There were some tracks amongst the rocks so we went a bit further to see what we could find. I'm afraid it's worse than you can imagine ma'am.”
He went on to describe the Dark Queen's army.
“We stayed as long as we dared Your Ladyship, and we searched among the darklings for the Lady Simone. Albert pointed out something that looked like it might have been your daughter's fur muff, but at that distance it could as easily have been a patch of snow. I'm afraid we found no other sign of her Your Ladyship.”
The baroness's face had the appearance of marble and it took her several minutes to compose herself. She clung to the pendant in her hand and seemed to draw strength from it.
“Thank-you Peter. You and Albert did as much as could be asked. Much as it wounds me to say it, we have to think of more now than just my daughter.” She stood and went to her desk where she filled a large purse-with gold coins. “I want you to take our fastest horse and ride to the king. Don't stop, except to change horses at each way-station. This should pay for the exchange.” She handed over the coins. “I cannot stress how important this is Peter. Don't stop for anything. The king must hear about this as soon as possible.”
The masque had turned out to be a good idea. Prince Ranen had managed to dance with a good number of young girls without letting on who he was, and without the eagerness to charm him with their feminine wiles, they had proven to be quite excellent company. There had been quite a few new girls there too. The prince had unconsciously become familiar with almost all the high-born ladies present in the palace, so when he began to notice subtly different combinations of height and posture, curvature and movement, he found his interest excited for the first time since he had fled Simone's presence.
The thought of her – him, curse it – was like a splash of cold water in the face, and suddenly all the new and enticing bodies around him were as uninteresting as every other girl he'd met since coming out from under the Dark Queen's spell.
There was a commotion over near his parents' thrones. He looked across to see a bedraggled and evidently exhausted servant, his clothes deeply encrusted with dust and mud, kneeling before his father. He excused himself from the company of the young lady he was with and made his way across the hall in time for the man to regain his breath.
“News from Far Reach Your Majesty,” the man wheezed. Wasn't that where Simone had come from? “The Dark Queen is amassing an army and has them ranged against her border with the Realm of Light.”
“How many?” the king demanded.
“Hard to say Your Majesty. They're all monsters of some sort or another. Some bigger than a man, others smaller. In all I'd say about a two thousand.”
“What of the princesses' realm?”
“They have a few folk on the field, but they are fewer and smaller than the Dark Queen's army, Your Majesty. There's more too, sire. Her Ladyship probably wouldn't thank me for saying this, but her daughter's been taken. We've no word of her, but she was close to the Dark Queen's encampment when she disappeared, and there were signs of a struggle.”
“Daughter?” The king looked across at his wife. “I thought Trymman had four sons.”
“Never mind that dear. We have more pressing matters to concern us. This fellow needs a good meal and a bed, and we should convene a council of war. If the Dark Queen is moving against her daughters, we must stand by them. If they fall with all their magic, then the rest of the kingdom will soon follow. I don't understand why we haven't heard of this sooner.”
“The Shadow Realm can't be watched dear. The shadows are too deep under the trees, and anyone who ventures more than a hundred paces into the forest is never seen again. I suspect that what this fellow saw is our first indication of what happened to them. It might also be that if the Realm of Light couldn't field a large enough army to resist, they might have used magic to close their borders.
“Tell me young man, what is your name? Peter. Thank-you Peter for your brave efforts in bringing us this news. You have our gratitude. Michael, find this brave soul a hearty meal and a comfortable bed. We'll hear more from him on the morrow.”
“Father.” Ranen removed his mask as the ragged messenger was led away. “I wish to join the council. I am of age and it is my right.”
The queen looked troubled, but the king patted her hand reassuringly. “He's right my dear. I know you would rather keep him safe, but we will need his bravery and strength in the coming days I shouldn't warrant.”
Word swiftly ran around the great hall and the festivities were drawn to a close. All the men, young and old, hastened away to make preparations for the coming hostilities.
“Ah the lady Simone of Far Reach.” The voice came from a shadowy figure some distance ahead of Simone. There was almost no light and, despite having been kept in the dark for some days now, she could see little more than the faintest of movements in the darkness. “Our guest is having trouble seeing,” the voice spoke again to the accompaniment of a deep throaty laughter that wasn't at all pleasant. “Let's help her out a little shall we, although I doubt she'll consider it a kindness.”
A dim light appeared overhead – little more than a firefly's glow, but with her highly sensitised eyes, it was enough to make out details in the dark. What she saw made her want to scream, but she help it back to a quiet whimper, prompting another round of cruel laughter.
Simone was standing in a large open space, colonnaded by tall, dark trees, and with a thick canopy overhead making it impossible to tell if it were day or night. Ahead of her, at the other end of the opening, sat the Dark Queen on a throne formed from a living tree. To either side of her, and spaced evenly about the opening, were tall humanoids, perhaps twice Simone's height, their faces contorted into some evil cartoonist's parody of humanity.
“The girl who broke my curse,” the queen rose from her seat and stretched out each word as she sauntered across the intervening space. “But not much of a girl for all that.” She reached out with her staff to lift the hem of Simone's skirts. She tried to flinch away, but she was held fast in the grip of two truly enormous and immensely strong hands.
“You see, I know all about you my little cherub. Thanks to you, my plans aren't unfolding quite as I'd hoped, but that is of little enough consequence. My daughters think they can work around my magic, but you've played right into my hands allowing yourself to be captured like this.”
“What do you intend to do with me?” Simone couldn't quite keep the trembling from her voice.
“Nothing at all. There's no transformation I could imagine for you that would make you more use to me than you are right now. The time will come though, my sweet, when you will play your part in the the downfall of your sweet prince, and through him your entire kingdom.”
Preparation for war is a slower and more tedious affair than one might expect. The heads of every noble family were gathered for the council, and each given instructions to ride home and bring back as many able bodied men as they could. Little enough was discussed of strategy, and by the time all but the last had been sent off with his instruction, the prince was thoroughly bored.
“Not as you envisioned it is it my boy?” The king took all too much delight in goading his son. He'd been fortunate enough to live his entire life in peacetime, but his own father had spoken at some length of what the 'glories of war' actually entailed. He wasn't keen to experience them for either himself or his son.
The last of King Richard's barons stepped forward.
“Ah, Trymman. Thank you for waiting till now. With the fairy realms right on your doorstep, this concerns you perhaps more than most, but I have news of a personal nature for you as well. It seems that your daughter has been kidnapped by the Dark Queen.”
“My daughter.” The old baron seemed unsure how to respond to this news.
“Yes. The Lady Simone I believe the messenger said. Naturally you'll want to return home as soon as possible. I'd like to send a company of the royal guard with you as well to help protect your home.”
The prince saw his chance and took it. “And I'd like to lead them if it's all the same to you father.”
It was a masterful piece of manoeuvring. The king could hardly gainsay his son's offer to a man whose lands were in danger of being overthrown, and whose daughter was being held as a hostage to war.
The king frowned at his son. “Very well. Prince Ranen will lead the company. Get some rest if you can old friend. You ride at first light.”
Ranen took leave of his father, citing the same reason. He felt elated but couldn't fully understand why. His heart rejoiced at the words he'd heard spoken tonight. The Lady Simone, daughter to the Baron and Baroness of Far Reach. There had been a mistake. She was a girl after all, and he would see her again soon. Even if he had to cut down all of the Dark Forest, he would see her safe in his arms once more.
It was the fourth day since she had dispatched Peter to the king, and Celia had kept herself busy. She had invited all the nearby villagers into the hall for better protection, organised and armed the men into a sort of temporary militia, and she had sent small groups of men out on horseback to warn the surrounding villages. The Dark Queen might have kept to herself up until now, but with her activities no longer secret, she would be more inclined to allow her troops to forage further afield. She was listening to a report from the latest group of scouts to return when Daisy knocked and entered.
“Your Ladyship. The baron and your sons have returned, and they have some soldiers with them.”
The Lady Celia leapt to her feet and ran out of the room in a manner not in keeping with one of her station. Halfway to the door, she met her husband coming in the opposite direction and threw herself into his crushing embrace.
“What's this I hear about Simon?” he began.
“Simone, Thymman. She was captured by the Dark Queen four days ago and we've heard nothing since.”
“Yes, but you refer to him as our daughter?”
Harry, Laurence and Tirstan appeared in the corridor, followed by Prince Ranen.
“I'll explain it all to you later dear, as soon as we have a private moment. You must be famished. Come, I'll have cook prepare some something.”
“You're most kind Your Ladyship,” the prince replied, “but I must see to my men first. I doubt you have room for a hundred soldiers under your roof, so I must ask where we can set up camp, then set about organising it.”
“The north field would be best don't you think dear? It's close to the well, it's sheltered and there's good drainage. Albert can show your men where Your Highness.”
“Thank-you, but if it's all the same to you, I will see my men comfortable before I relax myself, but if Albert would be good enough to show me this north field, I will take your leave and see them settled.”
The prince and Albert departed leaving Celia with her husband and remaining children. As soon as they were alone, Thymman turned towards his wife with a questioning look.
“You didn't see him Thymman,” she began. “In all the affair that had us sent from the castle, you never once saw him dressed as a girl, though you passed him once.”
“It was two days before we left. We passed a group of maids in the corridor and he bobbed a curtsey so well, even I nearly missed him, but a mother knows her own child.
“It was afterwards though, when the queen called me to the temple and spoke to me of the Lady Simone whom I was apparently sponsoring, and there he was, as breathtaking a vision of beauty as any of the other young girls present.”
“How long has he been doing this?” the baron growled. “And how did he come to the attention of our queen?”
“To my knowledge, he hadn't been doing it at all. I recall seeing him dressed up once with Claire and Emily a long time ago, but I suspect that was Claire's doing, and he even stopped that when he realised how easily he could be discovered. As to the other...”
“He was doing it for me Father,” Tristan said. “The Lady Elise persuaded him to change places with her so she could keep an assignation with me during the ladies' prayer service.”
“And the prince was present dear,” Celia took up the story. “And he saw our son when all the other young maidens remained invisible to him.”
“Well that explains why you had to return home, but why have you perpetuated the charade?”
“You saw how utterly dejected he was to have been dismissed from the castle. That changed not in the least. On our journey home he spoke barely a word, and upon our return, well I had never once seen him so utterly lost.
“That's when I had the idea. He seemed so natural and so contented in the role of a girl, it's a wonder it didn't occur to me sooner. I sent to Adelle and asked to borrow some of Emily's old clothing – she and Simon were always of similar size and build. She didn't take too kindly to me when she discovered what I had in mind, and I suppose I can't blame her for that, but it worked Thymman, oh how it worked.
“She still had a melancholy about her, but then who wouldn't, having caused the queen and the prince such an upset. Despite that, she would rise contentedly enough in the morning and seemed pleased enough to spend her days with me.”
“Are we still talking about my son here Celia? If so, why are you referring to him as a her?”
“Because I truly believe she is a girl Thymman. You may think me a fool, and I wouldn't blame you if you did, but I am convinced that our son is really our daughter. And no, before you ask, this has nothing to do with my own longing to have a little girl. My only thought from the first was for Simone's well-being, and I am convinced it would have worked for the best had she not been abducted.”
“No Celia. All it would have achieved is an increase in Simon's confusion and misery. He is a boy, and the sooner he realises that, the better.”
“Thymman, he is no boy. Physically, I cannot dispute with you, though even there he has no musculature to match our other sons, and his skin remains as soft and smooth as though he were still a baby. But I contest that one can be male or female in more than simply the body. In her mind, Simone is truly a girl, and I would challenge any of you to argue that. In all his life did Simon ever share an interest with the rest of you? No, and yet in a just a few short weeks, and downcast as she has been, Simone has learnt to sew, to knit and to embroider almost as well as I could at her age.
“And in her soul too. You should see how she comes alive when she is wearing a dress. As a boy his movements were always awkward and clumsy, as a girl she is graceful and elegant. As a boy he was quiet and withdrawn, keeping to himself. As a girl, she is talkative and sociable, choosing to spend time with her mother and her friends. Even after Adelle insulted her to her face, she responded with such grace and poise you would have been proud to call her your daughter.
“I have not evidence to present, husband, because she is taken from us, but I beg you to believe me. We have a daughter, no matter how her body may appear.”
“And how then do we explain this to our beloved prince who has come charging out here with a hundred brave souls from the king's own guard? In his mind he hopes to rescue her, and what will his reward be for that? Will he thank us for presenting him with a daughter who is in all reality a boy?”
“I don't know Trymman, but I feel this is right.”
The old man shook his head, with Harold and Laurence ready to take his side.
“Father,” Tristan spoke out. “It's as Mother says. This whole mess arose from Simon trying to help me, and I tell you honestly, when I saw him dressed as the Lady Simone, I could not see my brother in him. Even afterwards when he was waiting to return home – even wearing tunic and breeches as he was, I was more than half convinced I saw was a young girl dressed as a boy. From the evidence of my own eyes, I side with mother in this matter.”
Trymman loved his wife and, though he considered this her most ridiculous notion yet, he surrendered, albeit reluctantly.
“Very well then, I have a daughter named the Lady Simone, but I will have none of us lying to the Prince Regent. If he presses any one of us on the matter, we shall tell him just as your mother has said, that Simone is a boy in body, but so much a girl in mind and soul that we felt it best to permit her to live as such. He may make of that what he will, and we may hope he finds little enough fault in us for the deceit.”
It takes time to muster an army, and all the more to do so in the depths of winter. Consideration has to be given to the supply of food, protection against the cold, the difficulty of transportation over icy and treacherous roads. It was nigh on six weeks before the king was satisfied with this preparations. In that time, his nobles had returned with nearly five thousand men between them, and now at last they were ready to depart.
The king and queen allowed themselves one final private moment together. Neither wished to be parted from the other, but they knew their duty in such matters and would not voice their desires.
“I will return to you before you know, my love.”
“And I shall count the days until you do.”
So many words left unsaid, but each knew the other well enough to read them in their eyes. The king, already clad in his armour, picked up his helmet and strode out of the palace. Once on horseback, he raised his sword high and led the procession away from the castle and its grounds. It took an age before the last of the soldiers had marched away, and longer still for the wagons loaded with provisions to follow them, but the queen stood at her window until the last of them was gone from sight.
With so many men gone to war, the castle seemed empty and deserted. The queen paused a moment, wondering how many would return, and offered up a silent prayer for them to be kept safe, then she set about her business. Spring was not far off and with no men about, it would be up to her and the other ladies to organise the ploughing and sowing of the fields, without which her husband and his men would have no kingdom to return to.
For Simone, the days passed in solitude. After her audience with the Dark Queen, she had been led to a small clearing in the dense forest. The trees had closed behind her leaving no gap large enough for even someone of her slender frame to escape. The trees around her were covered with a growth that glowed gently, allowing her to see the full measure of her imprisonment, but she was glad of the light even so.
She was tended by a ragtag collection of small creatures, each a hideous perversion of some woodland animal and none much larger than a rat. They scared her at first, but she quickly realised that, despite their appearance, they intended her no harm.
They brought her clothes – dresses and undergarments woven from layers of the finest gossamer silk and delicate slippers of some unknown material that caressed her feet gently as she walked. They fed her with nuts and berries and wild grain, and they brought soft moss to make a bed for her each night.
The small glade which imprisoned her remained unusually warm, and she lacked for little more than company. She took to talking to the creatures who tended her, and often they would stop to listen as she spoke. None of them had a voice with which to respond, but it seemed to her that they understood something of what she said, so she spoke kindly to them, thanking them whenever they did her some service.
She made the mistake once of reaching out to touch one of them only to be met with bared teeth.
“Forgive me,” she said. “Where I come from it is considered affectionate to reach out and touch another, and I have grown to appreciate your kindness towards me.”
The creature – a sort of fox with overly large ears – closed its snarling snout and move tentatively closer, turning its head away as though inviting her touch. She reached out gently and stroked the animal's course hair. The moment was short lived, the creature backing away out of her reach after just the briefest of contacts.
“I should like to give you all names,” she said at a different time. “I mean I'm sure you have your own means of addressing one another, but since I don't know how you talk to one another, perhaps you would permit me to choose a manner of address for each of you.”
They lined themselves up before her as though inviting her to continue.
“Very well. You I shall call Foxy.” She spoke to the fox-like creature she had touched a few days earlier. “I know it lacks imagination, but it's all I can think of when I see you. And you,” she turned towards a pair of completely hairless squirrels – at least she assumed they were squirrels. It was hard to tell without the bushy tails. “Because you bring me such fine nuts every day, I shall call you Nutkin and you Blackberry for all the lovely forest fruits.” Finally she turned to three goggle eyed rabbits with overly large teeth. “You look like a ball of cotton, so I shall call you Cotton; you are nothing but a ball of fluff, and so you shall be Fluff; and you remind me of my soft ermine muff, and so Muff shall be your name – I don't suppose you know what happened to the clothes I wore when I first came here do you? The belong to my cousin and I'm sure she would miss them, especially the ermine.”
She had deliberately chosen names for cuteness to lessen the harshness of their appearance, and it seemed they were all content enough. From that day on, each responded to its name when she called to them, and a few days later she woke to find first Foxy, then the others all huddled close to her while she slept.
In the constant gloom it was hard to count the days, but she ate when she was hungry and slept when she was tired, and each time she woke, she sought out a small pebble to add to a collection beside her bed. One time she woke to find Nutkin crouched beside her with a small stone in his tiny paws. She thanked him for it and added it to her collection, and each day after that, she awoke to find stone beside her pillow.
She passed the days by singing to herself, composing new tunes and adding words as they came to her. They were songs of hope and happiness because, she reasoned, this place had misery enough without adding to it. At times she would think up stories and tell them to her six friends. At times others would appear between the trees, only visible by their eyes. She could never coax them to come closer, but they would remain transfixed while she recounted her tales.
And so the days passed and the stones beside her bed increased in number. She arrayed them in rows of ten, and was nearing the end of her fifth row when things changed.
After the first night at Far Reach, the prince separated his men into squads. Most he sent to offer some protection in the nearby villages, but two – made up of his best scouts – he kept behind. Day and night they took turns to keep an eye on the Dark Queen's activities. For the most part, the army of monsters kept to their grounds, feeding themselves from the forest behind them; but there were times when raiding parties would head out, at which time the observing scouts would send riders to warn the villages in that direction.
The prince joined the day group most days, and kept a hopeful eye out for Simone. Each evening, when he returned, he had no news to share with the baron and baroness, whose hopes remained strong but dwindled slowly with each passing day.
The prince asked them about their daughter, and they spoke to him honestly of the events that had transpired in the castle, and Celia's decision once they had returned home. Ranen could not hide his disappointment that Simone was in fact not the beautiful woman he had once though her to be, but the more Celia and Thymman, and even the boys spoke of their lost sibling, the more he learned to appreciate her gentle nature.
One evening the baroness took him to one side.
“I am sorry for the pain you feel You Highness,” she said. “I hope you know it was never my intention nor Simone's to deceive you or to cause you such distress.”
“I understand that now baroness. The strange thing is, even though I know what she is, I still have feelings for her. I am not one who considers it right for a man to be attracted to a boy, and in the case of your daughter, I don't feel that I am, but even so, it feels... uncomfortable.”
“My prince, I was given something of rare value at the birth of my youngest child. I gave it into Simone's care a few days before she was taken, and it was found at the place where she struggled. I wonder if you would keep it against the day that my daughter is released.”
She offered the prince the small garnet pendant that had not left her hands since the day Peter had given it to her.
The worst of winter passed and with the first thaw came news that the king's army was ready at last and would soon be arriving.
“This is a good thing,” the prince assured his hosts. “With strength on the field we shall be able to negotiate for Simone's release.”
“If she still lives,” Thymman grumbled, blind to the distressing effect his words were having on his wife. “If she is still human.”
The army marched through Far Reach Village a little more than a week later, and headed directly for the borders of the Realm of Light. The princesses welcomed the king at their borders and gratefully accepted his offer to reinforce their own meagre troops lined up against their mother's army.
“The queen asks after a message she sent to you some months ago,” the king said as he relaxed with the three diminutive fairies. “She realises that with hostile forces ranged against you, your attention would have been consumed by such matters, but she begs that you give thought to her questions.”
“I recall her letter,” the Blue Fairy said. “We were forced to close our borders before I was able to reply, and since then none have been able to pass either in or out of our realm. We will give some thought to the queen's concerns and send her a response within the day.”
“We are most relieved to have your forces here, Your Majesty,” the Red Fairy spoke. “We were unable to send to you for assistance, so quickly did we have to close our borders, and we are glad that you found out through your own means and so responded. You are come at a most serendipitous time. No army would choose to fight over frozen ground, even our mother's, but with the first thaws now come, we have feared that the queen would test her magic against ours and try to advance into our lands. Do you have any thoughts or plans towards the coming conflict?”
“If you have been so secluded, you will most likely not be aware that the Dark Queen holds one of my subjects captive? I would negotiate with her for her release.”
“We had not heard this. Tell us who has been captured?”
“The Lady Simone of Far Reach.”
The three fairies exchanged worried glances but said nothing.
“Do you know how I may contact the Dark Queen in order to ask for her to be set free? She is no combatant and is not a part of this war.”
“I'm sorry Your Majesty,” the Red Fairy replied. “We have no means of contacting our mother without granting her more power over us than we can afford to give at this time. Besides, I fear she would not be inclined to negotiate in any case. Mother has... unconventional attitudes towards conflict.”
“Then we have no choice but to bring the battle to her. I shall see the lady set free if I have to fell all of the Dark Forest to see it done.”
“That in itself may be more of a challenge than you might think,” the Green Fairy spoke. “It has worried us that Mother's forces have been arrayed in a defensive manner. We thought she simply meant to protect herself until she was ready to attack, but your news suggests there may be a deeper strategy at play here.”
The queen was alarmed to be woken the next morning by the appearance of a small fairy messenger in her chambers. She all but given up hope of receiving a reply to her message to the Realm of Light, but she was more alarmed still when she heard the nature of the message the tiny creature had brought from the fairy princesses. She begged him to remain long enough to carry back an urgent message by return.
“The Queen is come,” the fairy herald entered the princesses' dwelling without waiting to be introduced. “The Dark Queen is abroad. She has emerged from the forest.”
The three fairy princesses took their wands and made their way to the king's tent where they met him as he emerged, fully clad in his armour and followed closely by his son and the Baron of Far Reach. They made their way down to the borders where the Dark Queen stood before her substantial army. Behind her stood two giant, ogre-like creatures, and between them stood...
“Simone!” Ranen yelled and made to run across the intervening land towards her.
The king caught his arm and held him fast. “This then is the girl you love?”
“It's complicated Father, but yes I believe so.”
“Whatever the complication, son, let us go to her.”
They set out together across the rough ground that separated them. The Dark Queen started to move even as they did, her giant guards lumbering behind along with their prisoner tied to each of them by a slender rope around each of her wrists.
They met halfway between their two armies, the queen smiling with a great sense of satisfaction about her.
“Happy birthday Prince Ranen. I have a gift for you.” She stepped to one side to reveal Simone, dressed in a delicately floating gown of purest white.
“Simone,” the prince called to her. “My lady, are you alright? Have you been harmed?”
“I am well enough my lord. I have been well cared for.”
At the queen's command, the two lumbering trolls pulled their ropes tight until Simone's arms were held out to each side.
“Let her go,” the prince growled. “I swear if you harm one hair on her head, I'll...”
“You'll what?” The queen snapped, suddenly towering over them with menacing eyes. She calmed herself though, shrinking back down and composing her features. “Besides, I have no intention of harming your true love fair prince. I thought only to make a gift of her to you.” She stepped back and reached a hand behind her captive. “Of course with any gift, it is necessary to unwrap it before you can fully enjoy it.”
Taking a handful of delicate clothing, the queen yanked hard, tearing the flimsy fabric completely away , leaving Simon standing completely naked, and with his arms held to either side so he was unable even to cover his shame.
The king's face drained of colour and he looked across at his son with a shocked expression.
“Like I said Father. It's complicated.”
Prince Ranen walked the short distance across to where his true love stood bare and shivering. He cupped the delicate chin in his hand and lifted the most beautiful face he knew until he could drink from the depths of the deep dark eyes he had missed for so many months.
“Don't,” Simon said and tried to turn his face away, his heart tearing apart under the weight of his shame.
But the prince would not let go.
“This doesn't matter,” he said. “What you last said to me, I have come not to believe it. What the queen has so crassly displayed before us here, this is the lie. I knew you once, for an instant, in all your perfection, and I gave my heart to you then. Every day since, it has belonged to you, and it is yours still. If you will have it.”
In that instant of complete acceptance, what little of the boy that remained utterly melted away and Simone rose from the depths. The prince saw it in her eyes and he took her in his arms and kissed her. The same dizzying swirl of emotions engulfed the two and the world receded.
“No!” screamed the queen. “No! How can this be? You were supposed to be revolted, repelled, heartbroken. This was to be the end of your hopes for true love. This was to be when you turned to embrace the dark. This is not possible.”
Behind the queen, the ripples of magic undone reached out and began to transform all of her kingdom. The lumbering creatures who had held Simone captive shrank and returned to their original human form.
“No!” cried the queen. “This cannot be happening.”
All around her twisted limbs were straightening, hunched backs were unbending, deformed faces were returning to their former shape. Trees, long twisted out of shape, stood tall and moved apart allowing the early spring sunshine to reach into the depths of the forest where no light had shone in hundreds of years.
“No!” The queen's voice turned from despair to rage. “This is your fault. All my careful planning undone and all because of you.” She raised her staff and aimed it towards Ranen and Simone, still oblivious to the events around them.
“Sisters!” the Red Fairy cried out and streaked forward with her two siblings. They surged around their mother, tying her in intricate knots of coloured light. Within the cage of light, she twisted and writhed, shrinking and changing until she was no bigger than they were, and dressed in purest white. The staff fell to the ground forgotten.
“What have you done to me?” the changed queen cried out. “What have you made of me?”
“This is your own doing Mother,” said the Blue Fairy, her face filled with compassion. “You put all your magic into this one curse, and it was undone. These past centuries, all your power and rage was drawn from your belief that there is no such thing as true love. Today you thought to see yourself triumphant when the prince rejected the one he believed he loved, but instead he overcame that part of himself that would have won you the day, and like a loose thread, it has unravelled all that you have sought to twist to your ways, including the power that rested in you.”
Ranen and Simone separated, ending their kiss at last, and the king stepped forward to wrap his cloak about Simone's naked form. She smiled gratefully at him and pulled it closed around her, hiding that part of her she so longed to be rid of.
Stooping, she picked the Dark Queen's staff from between tufts of long grass. She turned to her prince and smiled ruefully. “You know, I wish there were still magic enough in this thing to make me complete for you.”
There's was a flash and a crack as the staff splintered into a myriad of tiny shards, leaving them all momentarily stunned.
“Are you alright?” The prince looked deep into her eyes, concern etched in every line of his face.
“Yes,” Simone breathed and managed a smile. “Yes I believe I am.”
“I'm sorry Father,” the prince said when he and the king were alone. Simone had been led to a tent where the king told her she could preserve her modesty and her secret until someone could bring her fresh clothing. The three princesses had taken their mother somewhere to with who knew what in mind, and the baron had taken a horse to go seek out his wife and gather clothing for their daughter. “I'm sorry, this must come as something of a shock to you. You must think the worst of me for being attracted to a boy, but in all truth it is not the boy, but the girl who lives inside that has so captured my heart. In truth I had thought you would be more greatly outraged.”
“I couldn't afford to be, son. Your mother sent a message to us this morning. There was something in the Dark Queen's curse – should you reach your twenty-first birthday without fully experiencing true love – she worried that when you first kissed Simone that the castle's magic only broke a part of the curse. She wrote to the fairies some months ago asking if her fears were well founded, and it was only this morning that she had their reply.
“The princesses agreed with your mother son. Today is your twenty-first birthday – though in all the furore we have all but forgotten – and even with all that has passed, you still had not fully experienced true love.”
“So why didn't the Dark Queen simply let the day pass without bringing Simone to me? Surely she would have been assured victory if she simply waited the day out.”
“I don't think magic works that way, son. For her curse to be truly effective you had to be presented with the opportunity to fully experience true love, and you had to choose to reject it. She felt certain you would when your chosen love was presented to you naked and evidently male.”
“And your only hope for me, that the curse wouldn't be fulfilled, was to permit me to embrace my true love regardless of what she turned out to be.”
“Just as you say.”
“And now that it's done, what would you say to me on this matter?”
The king thought for a while, careful to keep his eyes on his son's. “I would have you happy, son, and if this girl makes you happy then she does me too.”
“You think of her as a girl despite what you've seen?”
“I heard your words to her, Ranen. I cannot fully comprehend them, but there was no mistaking the passion in your heart. If you see her as a young lady, then how can I do otherwise?”
“And what of the kingdom? How will the people respond when they learn that their new princess is in fact a boy?”
The king shrugged. “Do they need to know? Everyone who is aware of Simone's secret has a vested interest in keeping it. I think she herself will be most glad not to have to endure the public response. The hardest thing to endure will be the absence of grandchildren. Your mother will be most upset by that, but if you are content, then how can we be otherwise.”
“I had hoped that someone in the fairy realms might have possessed the power to change her.”
“I know son, but they were quite adamant on that. In all their long history, only their mother developed the means of changing a creature's form, and now her power is gone forever. Does it change how you feel towards Simone?”
“I cannot stop loving her, Father, but I wish with all my heart that she could be as she so longs to be.”
An odd group of animals scampered across the rough ground between the forest and the king's encampment. Between them, they carried such an unusual burden that one might wonder why they weren't noticed. The camp had no guard though. Many of the Queens army had been altered from animals and had scampered back to the safety of the forest as soon as they regained their natural form. Many more had been men, and the soldiers of the king's army were deep in celebrating the return of people who had strayed into or deliberately entered the Dark Forest in years gone by. Many were friends and colleagues, many more were strangers, but welcome for all that.
Simone felt uncomfortable wearing nothing by the king's cloak – cold apart from everything else – and she was beginning to feel restive from sitting alone in the dark. The sounds of celebration filtered through the thick canvas sides of her tent, and she wished she could be with Ranen, enjoying their victory. She looked down at herself, reminding herself of the reason for her seclusion, and resolved to be patient.
A flash of light caught her attention and she turned to see a long slender snout appear under the edge of the tent.
“Foxy?” The little vixen squirmed her way under the tent and leapt up into her arms, licking her face in greeting. “My but you've changed, and so much more beautiful now that you look as you should. Are the others with you?”
She lifted the edge of the tent to admit two large red squirrels and three grey rabbits, pulling a large package between them.
“Nutkin! Blackberry! I would never have known you with such fine coats of fur, and aren't your tails lovely. And Fluff, Muff and Cotton, oh you're as sweet as ever I imagined you to be. Aren't you lucky to have changed back into the lovely creatures you once were? I can't say I'm so fortunate. You see I've always been this way, and if I could change just one thing about myself I would.”
The animals sat quietly while she talked then gently nudged the package towards her.
“What's this you've brought me?” she asked, struggling with the vines that held it closed until Nutkin and Blackberry leaned across and bit through them with their sharp teeth. “Oh they're my clothes. My riding dress and my boots and underwear and even my ermine coat and hat. Oh aren't you clever? Thank-you. Thank-you so much.”
She draped the king's cloak over the chair and started to pull on her things. The nimble fingered squirrels helped again when fastenings were beyond her reach, and before long she was dressed much as she had been when the queen's creatures had captured her. She remembered staining her skirts when she'd fallen among the slimy rocks, but sometime between her incarceration and her release, the clothing had been laundered, aired and carefully folded.
“Was it you that washed my clothes too?” she asked. If it were possible for a fox, two squirrels and three rabbits to look embarrassed, Simone's friends managed it. “Oh you're too wonderful. I don't suppose you found my muff too? No? Well no matter, these are so much more than I could have hoped for.” She pulled on her coat and hat, then picked up the king's cloak and turned back to the animals. “I'm going to see some other people like myself. You're welcome to come with me if you like, but I would quite understand it if you preferred not to.” The animals sidled back a short way. “Well I'm not sure I blame you. People can be unpleasant. Still, I promise to come see you very soon.”
She held up the edge of the tent so they could escape the way they had come. Foxy turned to look at her one last time then disappeared after the others.
Simone straightened her clothes and gave herself one last look over to make sure she was as well turned out as she could manage, then, feeling much better than she had in a very long while, she stepped out into the sunlight.
“What the...” The prince was the first to catch sight of her, but still as dumbfounded to see her dressed. “I can't believe that your father was able to make the round trip in such a short time, let alone collect your mother and some clothes for you.”
Simone laughed, enchanting all the men present with the music of her voice. “I had a little help from some friends,” she explained, and went on to describe the manner of her imprisonment and the kindness of the forest animals that had cared for her.
“Presumably the queen's alteration of their form allowed her to improve their intelligence,” the king mused. He had held a passing interest in the art of magic since the evening Ranen had been both blessed and cursed.
“I suppose so, but they seem just as clever now as ever they did,” Simone responded. “Perhaps the queen's magic opened a channel for them to understand us, and once opened, it has remained so.”
“Who knows,” Ranen asked. “Magic is such an unpredictable thing, it's a wonder anyone tries to tame it. Would you care to join me for a walk my lady?”
Simone smiled her radiant smile and took the prince's proffered hand. “I don't mind if I do my lord. It's such a lovely day, and I have been in the dark for so very long.”
The walked down the meadow towards the forest, arm in arm and content to be together and silent. The prince was first to speak.
“Your mother asked me to keep this for you.” He reached under his shirt and unclasped the pendant. When it rested once more on his beloved's chest, he continued. “It's strange. There were times I feared for your life and it seemed the stone warmed me and brought me courage.”
“Is that how you were brave enough to speak as you did in front of the Dark Queen and your father?”
“No. That's stranger still. I needed no courage to find those words. They have been a simple truth that has shone before me like a beacon these past weeks, and it was the simplest of all things to say them once I had found you again.
“You are my life Simone. I acted foolishly towards you once, but never again.”
“Oh, I have no doubt you shall find opportunity enough to act the fool my prince. After all it is one of the prerogatives of being a man, and you cannot argue that I am unschooled in such knowledge.”
“Just so long as you are at least as well versed in the manner of being a lady.”
Simone reached up with her lips to show her prince how well versed she was in such manners.
The baron and baroness found them some time later, walking between the woods and the river. Simone was pointing out where, on the opposite ridge, she had been standing when she had been spotted, and where they had captured her. The words were superfluous though – a garnish of cherries on an already iced and decorated cake.
“Your Highness.” Both baron and baroness made their obeisance to the prince.
“Your Lordship. Your Ladyship.” The prince bobbed his head in return.
“Mama, Papa” Simone was less restrained as she ran to each and gave them a hug and a kiss. She had wondered how her father would respond, but she was caught up in the moment and it seemed right. He returned her embrace with a stiff hug of his own, so she withdrew, not wishing to make things any more awkward for him than necessary.
“I see you found some clothes to wear,” Celia smiled, shrugging the package she held into a more comfortable position.
“I made some friends while I was imprisoned, and they kept my riding dress safe. I'm afraid the muff may be lost though.”
“Albert did say he though he saw it at the edge of the forest when he was looking at you, but that would have been nearly two months ago.”
“Has it really been that long? Oh Mama, I wondered if I would ever see you and Papa again.”
“But it's over now and here we are. Oh Simone, I've been so worried too. Your prince went out every day to searching the forest for any sign, and every evening he would come home with the same news.”
“There was no way he would have found me Mama. The queen kept me in a glade somewhere in the middle of the forest, with trees growing so twisted and close together, even I couldn't squeeze past them.”
“However did you survive?”
“My friends. They were little enough to slip between the trees, and they brought me food and water, bedding and fresh clothes. Honestly mother they were wonderful.”
“Can we meet them?” Thymman said. “I should like to add our gratitude to your own.”
“Well, I'm not sure where they are. They're a little shy of people and I'm afraid they might have run back into the forest. Here let me try something. Foxy!” She cupped her hands to either side of her mouth and raised her voice to call.
A moment later a small streak of red fur dashed out from the edge of the woods and scurried up her dress onto her shoulders.
“Mother, Father, I'd like you to meet Foxy. I'm sure it's not her real name, but I'm not sure if she even needs one in her life.” She turned her head towards the tiny fox head. “Are the others near? These are my parents, and my beloved. They'd like to meet you all, to thank you for taking care of me.”
The little fox let out three high pitched yips and the rest of Simone's friends came running out from the edge of the woods. If the baron had felt uncomfortable hugging his newly discovered daughter, it was nothing compared to settling to his knees and gravely thanking each of the two squirrels and three rabbits for having looked after her. They each managed to bob their heads in a manner which showed they understood and appreciated the baron's efforts. The baroness followed suit, and promised to repay them if ever there was a way she could. They looked up at Simone who dimpled.
“There's a wood close by to Far Reach – that's the hall where I live with my mother and father. If you would like to come and live there closer to my home, I'm sure we could provide you with a place that would be protected from hunters and filled with the best of foods for all of you. I don't know what else we could offer that would meet your needs.”
They looked across at the baron and the prince, both of whom had hunting knives hanging from their belts.
“We could promise not hunt in the woods at all,” the baron spoke slowly. It wasn't a promise he was eager to give, but these creatures had cared for his daughter at a time when he had been helpless to do so. He did owe them something.
Foxy scurried down from Simone's neck and stood up on her haunches in front of the baron's face. She nodded her head once as though agreeing to a deal, then rejoined her friends. It was such an unlikely partnership. At another time, the rabbits and the squirrels would have been her prey, but she seemed unusually protective of them, as thought the magic had allowed a bond to form between them that persisted even as their ability to understand people was still there.
“I'm ready to go home Papa,” Simone said. “Soft moss is as sweet a bed as anyone could wish for, but I do so miss my room.”
The baron exchanged looks with both the prince and his wife. “Well I don't see that there's anything keeping us here,” he said.
“I should see to my men,” the prince told them, “but I shall come by later, you can count on it.” He turned to Simone. “Duty first my love. I shall join you this evening.”
Simone made a moue of disappointment, but she nodded and leaned in to kiss Ranen goodbye. She then turned to the animals. “Alright then, who wants to come and see their new home?” Foxy scurried back up into her place on her shoulders, but the others held back. “Are you sure? It's a long way on your own.” They all looked back towards the forest behind them and remained where they were. “Alright then. When you're ready you should cross over the river and follow the path up there. It's a few miles, but you can't miss the hall, and woods are right beside it.”
She followed her parents back to the coach, glancing over her shoulders and hoping that the other five would change their minds, but they stayed where they were, watching her departure.
Back at the hall, Simone stopped in the stables long enough to become reacquainted with Thunderbolt. The great hearted horse's wounds had healed well, but he hadn't been the same until he heard his mistress's voice and saw her come into the stable. He pricked his ears forward and nickered excitedly at her, drawing her attention so that she came running to his stall and threw her arms around his neck.
Then came the tearful reunion with Daisy and all the maids and menservants at the hall. She recounted all her adventures while Daisy organised a bath for her and laid out some fresh clothes. In the bathroom, Daisy exchanged knowing looks of sympathy and sadness with her mistress. With all the magic flying about it was sad that she hadn't been able to benefit a little from it. Still it was little enough. Simone luxuriated in the first hot water to touch her skin in nearly two months, and then gave herself over to the heady pleasures of crisp, clean underwear and a richly embroidered silk dress she had never worn, that Emily had probably only worn once.
Ranen arrived in time for dinner as promised, but Simone was far more exhausted than she'd thought and almost fell asleep while eating. Her mother guided her up the stairs to her bedroom and helped her into her nightgown. The little red fox she'd brought with her was fast asleep at the foot of the bed so Celia tried her best to help her daughter under the covers without disturbing the animal. Finally she banked the fire, picked up the candle and closed the door on her gently sleeping daughter.
Foxes are nocturnal animals and no sooner had the mistress's mother closed the door than Foxy raised her head, alert to any movement. Fires were a cause for fear in the forest, but Foxy knew that humans had tamed the red tongued monster, so was not worried by the flames that licked gently upwards over to one side of the room. The window was open a crack, and with a little worrying, she managed to widen the gap enough for her to squeeze through.
The journey here in the human carriage had been strange and disorienting, but she thought she remembered the way they had come and sped of rapidly in the direction of the Dark Forest. It took longer than she expected, but before long she started to recognise landmarks and so found her way to the edge of the her old home.
She yipped gently and the others appeared, carrying between them that strange fur thing Mistress Simone had been asking after. It was dirty and bedraggled, but it served to carry the things she knew they would need. The rabbits and squirrels had spent most of the day searching for them, careful to gather up every last one. They had been scattered over a wide area, and had to trust to instinct to know when they had them all.
They set out on the return journey, but burdened as they were, it took them considerably longer to get back to the hall. Dawn wasn't far off by the time they were in sight of the mistress's open window, and they lost still more time lifting the sodden fur up into a nearby tree from where they could reach the window.
Foxy went first, checking to make sure that no-one was about and that Mistress Simone was still asleep, then gave a single quite yip to signal Nutkin and Blackberry to started to ferrying in what they had so painstakingly collected.
The fire was little more than glowing embers and as the squirrels started throwing their burden on to it, it seemed to Foxy that it might wither and die completely. What was it she had seen the other human doing. Ah yes, that strange thing that smelled of cow. She had squeezed it. Foxy jumped on the bellows and the fire answered with a whoosh of spark and bright glow. She jumped again, and this time tongues of flame licked around the small pieces of wood that had been added to the fireplace.
The wood was damp from hours lying on the ground and it hissed and spat angrily, releasing billowing clouds of smoke which began to disappear up the chimney. In the heart of the smoke however, there was a blue glow which moved of its own accord. It remained still over the fire, growing in intensity as the substance which had contained it was consumed by the flames.
Across the room, Simone whimpered in her sleep and the blue glow moved out of the fireplace, reaching across the room with snake-like tendrils. It reached the girl and entered through her nose, her ears, her gently parted mouth. She murmured quietly as it insinuated itself into her dreams.
Their task done, the six animals sought their beds. The squirrels were content enough to settle in the tree outside Simone's window, while the three rabbits snuggled into the hollow in the discarded muff. It wasn't as warm or as safe as a burrow, but for one night it would serve. Foxy curled up at the foot of the bed and lay still listening to the girl dream.
Simone awoke with a strange, muzzy feeling in her head. She felt sure she had slept badly because her chest felt all sensitive and painful and her hips ached. She stretched and slipped out of bed to make use of the chamber pot, reaching under her nightdress the better to improve her aim.
Foxy was off the bed and looking around her for the source of danger, but there was no cause for alarm. Daisy appeared through the door a few seconds later. She had been carrying buckets of water up the stairs for Simone's bath when she'd heard the yell, and had dropped her burden and run to find out what had so frightened her friend.
“It's gone.” Simone said, staring stupidly across the room at her maid and friend.
“What do you mean it's gone? What's gone?”
Simone pulled her nightdress off over her head and turned to face Daisy, who ran to her and dropped to her knees to examine her closely.
Celia was the next to arrive and was quite shocked at what she saw. “Daisy! Simone! What do you think you're doing?”
“No ma'am,” Daisy turned. “It's not that, it's... come and look.”
“What does it mean?” Simone was crying at all the attention she was getting, and still could not fully fathom what had happened.
Her mother stood up with an unreadable smile on her face and took her daughter in her arms. “Well dear, it means that the king and queen can look forward to having grandchildren after all.
The wedding took place the following spring. It might well have done in any case, but once Simone told the prince of her magical transformation, he wasted no time in proposing. Simone, of course, accepted and returned to the Royal Castle with the king and the prince ahead of a triumphant and celebrating army. Never before in all of history had a war been won without a single blow being dealt, nor had the history books ever spoken of an army coming back noticeably larger than when it had left.
Queen Felicia had been concerned when the messenger arrived with news of her son's engagement to the Lady Simone, but her first sight of her son's fiancée put all her fears to rest. The weeks following her transformation had brought about dramatic changes in the young girl, giving her curves that would make any woman jealous.
“How is this possible?” the queen asked at her earliest opportunity. “I remember you from your last visit. You were a pretty enough girl then – even though you were a boy – but this is truly dramatic.”
“Yes, we were as dumbfounded ourselves to start with, so we asked the fairies, after all magic is their province. They examined my room and found the remains of what they believe to be the Dark Queen's staff in my fireplace. They couldn't say how it got there – although I have my suspicions – but they suspected the wood held some residue of their mother's ability to change the shape of living creatures. When the staff was burnt, the residue escaped and sought somewhere new to bind itself. It found my dreams and turned them into reality.”
“Lucky for you you weren't having a nightmare.”
“Your Majesty. Just that day, your son had declared his love for me despite my... difference. How could I have anything but the happiest of dreams?”
The queen wrote to Far Reach inviting her friend to come visit, which the baron and baroness gladly did. Their sons were glad to return to the castle, in part because they each had a young maiden awaiting their return, and in part because the baron had kept his promise to the animals and they had nowhere to hunt. The baron managed to persuade himself that he was too old for such pursuits, and contented himself with the thought that such a move might encourage his sons to marry and leave home at long last.
As it turned out, Ranen's marriage to Simone was not the only wedding Thymman and Celia celebrated that year, but it was by far the most lavish. Among the guests, the three fairy princesses came to give their blessing.
“What news of your mother?” King Richard asked of them when their part in the ceremony was done.
“She fares well, Your Majesty,” all the fairies responded with a smile. “She has no more magic than any fairy in the realm apart from us, and she is still greatly disturbed, but we have hope for her. It is astonishing what healing a little love can bring.”
The king and queen gifted Ranen and Simone with extensive apartments in the newly renovated ancient wing of the castle. It gave them the privacy they needed and it kept them close against the day when the grandchildren were born. The kingdom was to pass into their care some day in any case, so it was well that they remained nearby.
Daisy also moved to the castle and became the Princess Simone's personal maid where in time she met and married the castle stable-master, a man whose quiet and gentle ways brought her many years of happiness.
Tristan and Elise were next to marry, just a month after the royal festivities were concluded, then Harold and Laurence married twins in a joint wedding towards the end of summer. Simone and Ranen insisted that the ceremonies be held in the royal temple, and attended each one along with their parents.
For some years after their marriage, Simone and Ranen travelled to Far Reach in the spring. Foxy and her friends had chosen to remain in the woods near to Simone's home, so the only time she saw them was on such visits. Fluff, Muff and Cotton did what rabbits do best and were soon part of a sizeable warren, living long beyond the age normal for rabbits. Nutkin and Blackberry had litters of their own and even Foxy met a tod from time to time and became a mother several times over. The baron remained true to his promise and the animals of the wood grew old and thrived so much that many moved across to the forest that had once been the Dark Queen's domain. Life returned to the world.
A year came though when Simone did not return home to visit. Nutkin and Blackberry were busy with their latest litter, and it was hard to find the three rabbits among the hundreds that filed the woods. Foxy had not mated that year and was alone, apart from one cub from her last litter who persisted in staying close. The vixen was not as young as she had been, and the old instincts troubled her. She had sworn off squirrel and rabbit for so long, and tried to teach her young to do so too, but they were not the same as her, and she couldn't expect them to be. The mistress's family left out food for her still , which meant she had her fill of meat without having to hunt, but there were times she missed the company of her friends.
Then the old ones – Simone's parents – had ridden off in their strange carriage and she had been left to fend for herself. The servants still remembered to feed her from time to time, but it wasn't the same. She wished, not for the first time, that she had gone with Simone, but this was her home and the call of home was still strong enough for her to realise she would never be content to move away.
The summer was long and lonely. She tried to call on Nutkin and Blackberry once, but the meeting had been awkward. They were polite enough, but it was obvious she frightened the young ones, so she left after only a short while and didn't return.
She finally managed to chase her youngest cub off. It was harsh, but the creature had to learn to fend for itself and any kindness she showed it would only make things harder in the long run. She ranged far and wide looking for something without knowing quite what. At times she would climb the tree and look in through the window at where she had slept with her mistress, but the room remained dark and cold and the window firmly closed.
Summer drifted into autumn and autumn into winter. Foxy kept to her burrow, feeling the chill in her bones as she never had before. In January the tod came visiting, but she snapped at him and drove him away. She visited the hall less and less frequently, and might have wasted away to nothing had one of the servants not taken kindly to her. She would wake on some days to find a chicken staked out beside her burrow, and the taste of hot, fresh blood would revitalise her for a while. Other days she would remain where she was and wait for the loneliness to end.
Then one day it was spring again. She ached, but thirst drove her from her burrow down to the stream. She looked across the road towards the hall just as a carriage entered through the gates.
A familiar figure stepped down and followed a pointing finger in her direction. Foxy licked her greying muzzle and sat to wait as the young woman made her way towards her. She walked slowly and held something in her arms. It didn't look like a chicken.
“Hello Foxy,” Simone crouched down beside the ageing vixen and pulled aside the folds of the bundle she was carrying. “There's someone here I'd like you to meet.”
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