Other New Adult and Children’s books by Jon Jacks
The Caught – The Rules – Chapter One – The Changes – Sleeping Ugly
The Barking Detective Agency – The Healing – The Lost Fairy Tale
A Horse for a Kingdom – Charity – The Most Beautiful Things (Now includes The Last Train)
The Dream Swallowers – Nyx; Granddaughter of the Night – Jonah and the Alligator
Glastonbury Sirens – Dr Jekyll’s Maid – The 500-Year Circus – The Desire: Class of 666
P – The Endless Game – DoriaN A – Wyrd Girl – The Wicker Slippers – Gorgesque
Heartache High (Vol I) – Heartache High: The Primer (Vol II) – Heartache High: The Wakening (Vol III)
Miss Terry Charm, Merry Kris Mouse & The Silver Egg – The Last Angel – Eve of the Serpent
Seecrets – The Cull – Dragonsapien – The Boy in White Linen – Porcelain Princess – Freaking Freak
Died Blondes – Queen of all the Knowing World – The Truth About Fairies – Lowlife
Elm of False Dreams – God of the 4^th^ Sun – A Guide for Young Wytches – Lady of the Wasteland
The Wendygo House – Americarnie Trash – An Incomparable Pearl – We Three Queens – Cygnet Czarinas
Text copyright^©^ 2016 Jon Jacks
All rights reserved
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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The Queen of Crystals
What a miserable life he led!
The doctor had resented been called out in such a terrible storm, especially as his journey would take him out across the moors, where the wind faced no obstacles to constrain its power.
Now that wind cut through him like knives being flung at him from out of the darkness.
He cursed his car, rather than himself, for the fact that it had run out of petrol.
Surely he had filled its tank only yesterday?
If only there had been some way to predict that all this unfortunate madness would fall upon him!
He could have ignored the urgently ringing telephone at the side of his bed. He could still be warm and snug in that bed!
He had nothing but his bag with him, the only thing he could carry: and that was cumbersome enough. It was wet and slippery too, the leather freezing to his touch. He hadn’t thought to bring out gloves.
And the young woman thought she had complications!
Then why hadn’t she called an ambulance? Or a midwife?
His shoes were caked with mud, every step like one taken by a deep-sea diver in leaden boots. His jacket and trousers were soaked. What little was left of his hair briefly and coldly flattened against the top of his head, at least whenever the whirling wind thankfully eased for a moment.
All those years of training, of late nights cramming his brain with symptoms, ailments and procedures: and here he was, after all that, at the beck and call of a woman who’d spent her own nights without a care of any consequences!
Could his life get any worse than this?
If it was a question he was seriously asking, then suddenly he had his answer: yes, his life could be much, much worse!
For his way was abruptly blocked by a hellhound: a gigantic black dog with furnaces for eyes and a forge for a maw.
‘Don’t worry; he just wants to be friends.’
The doctor wanted to point out bitterly that he had absolutely no wish to be friends with a dog the size of a mule and possessing the temperament of a devil.
‘Oh good, good,’ he trilled nervously, searching the darkness for the source of the placating if distinctly grizzled voice.
When he found the speaker, he instantly wished he hadn’t.
The ‘man’ reeked of evil every bit as much as his dog.
His long coat was as dark as the surrounding night. His face was as wizened and knotted as the gnarled roots of the small bushes that managed to eke a living out of the poor soil of the moors.
He was also ridiculously tall, a giant by any standard.
‘Well, well, I must rush,’ the doctor insisted edgily, attempting to work his way around the man and dog blocking his way. ‘I’ve a baby to help bring into the world!’ he added with a relish he’d previously lacked, now glad of a good reason for him to be allowed to continue on his way.
‘Ah, but have you?’ the man snarled threateningly.
‘Oh, er, yes, yes, I most definitely have,’ the doctor responded fearfully, ‘I need urgently to attend to a poor young girl who’s suffered complications in her pregnancy–’
‘But the crystals – indeed, the Queen of Crystals – has forewarned me that this child, this boy, will cause me harm!’ the giant growled.
He raised a surprisingly small hand, stopping the doctor from making any attempt at further progress.
‘Ah, so…so you don’t wish me to attend this birth?’ the doctor stammered in a strange mix of relief and anxiety (what if, after all, this man was going to make sure he didn’t attend?).
He moved to turn around, to head back as quickly as he could towards his car.
The giant’s hand might have been small, yet when it grabbed the doctor by the upturned collar of his soaked jacket it had more than enough strength to haul him back.
‘Now what good would you not attending do me?’ the giant snapped irately. ‘The boy will still be born!’
‘Well, er, complications can result in–’
‘Here’s what you’re gonna do for me, doctor: you’re gonna ensure that it’s not a boy, but a girl!’
‘Oh, ahh, I’m afraid you don’t seem to understand how–’
‘You saying you can’t do it? Then maybe I should set Throttler here on you?’
The hellhound stepped a little closer towards the doctor, its flame-red mouth slavering, its leash of nothing but frayed string straining.
The man jerked the dog back, the string twanging as a couple of its threads snapped,
‘Whereas if you help me,’ the man continued, ‘then unimaginable riches could be yours!’
Unimaginable riches or being riven apart by a hellhound? It didn’t take the doctor long to consider his options.
It would be a crystal clear choice if it weren’t for one small problem.
‘But…but, you see, it’s not possible–’
He almost froze with terror as the man sprouted a third arm, one shooting out from within the man’s long coat at waist level.
‘This makes it possible,’ hissed a muffled voice from inside the thick coat.
The hand shook slightly, drawing the doctor’s attention to a dangling, dark blue crystal suspended on a chain.
It glittered as if it were a fragment of the heavens itself. It was so incredibly dark, and yet also sparkled everywhere all at once, as if filled with stars. It was also perfectly spherical, such that when any light striking it caused it to glow in its entirety, it could have been a miniature moon.
The hand stretched out, pushing the glistening crystal towards the doctor. The purpose of its actions were now clear; the doctor was supposed to take the dangling crystal.
The bewildered doctor took the chain and its glittering crystal, so darkly blue it could be a portion of the night, frozen for all eternity.
He tried to avoid staring at the ‘man’ handing him the crystal.
Were they just children? he wondered hopefully. One sitting on another’s shoulders to give the impression they were a single man? And all simply to scare him?
But then again, the face of this man belonged to no child. And if it was a mask, it was the most horrifically realistic mask he had ever come across.
Besides, there was also the dog; that was for real, sure enough.
‘What…what do I do with it?’ the doctor asked hesitantly.
‘You let it swing over this young girl’s swollen stomach–’
‘Ah yes, yes,’ the doctor nervously interrupted, ‘I’ve heard how this can predict a child’s gend–’
A fourth arm came out from beneath the coat in a short, sharp jab to the doctor’s stomach. It struck him so hard it made him double up with pain.
‘This one is the Queen of Crystals: it will ensure the child is a girl!’ the waist-high voice hissed persistently.
‘You’ve just got to make sure it seems to be spinning a little to the left, a touch anticlockwise, got that doctor?’ the crooked face snapped down at him.
‘Yes, yes; anticlockwise, anticlockwise,’ the still winded doctor replied meekly.
He stared once again at the crystal in his hand, marvelling at the internal glittering of what could be thousands of captured stars.
‘And then you’ll leave the Queen of Crystals out here once more, for us to collect at our leisure,’ a third voice growled from somewhere even deeper within the coat.
The doctor somehow sensed the crystal’s forewarning that he should do exactly as these ‘children’ instructed.
‘Yes, yes; right here, right here – I’ll find the place again, don’t you worry!’
‘Good; that’s our business here done with, doctor,’ the tall ‘man’ declared with gloating satisfaction.
‘So be on your way!’ the other voice hissed, the ‘man’ stepping aside, pulling the dog a little with him despite its inclination to refuse to move even an inch.
‘Oh, thank, thank you!’ the doctor said as brightly as he could manage, ducking past this evil trio and their dog as rapidly as he could manage.
He glanced back over his shoulder.
‘Oh, and the, er, unimaginable riches? When might I be expecting them?’
The man sniggered: not thrice, as the doctor might have expected, but four times, with four different voices.
Then one of the voices asked, ‘Have you ever heard anyone say life’s a rich tapestry?’
‘Why yes, yes, I suppose I have,’ the doctor replied curiously.
‘Well there you are,’ another voice hissed back at him, ‘only a few moments ago, you couldn’t have imagined getting out of this alive, could you?’
And of course, it didn’t take the Queen of Crystals to foresee that the doctor wouldn’t refuse this most remarkable of gifts called life.
When they’re young, many girls dream of beautiful princesses. Of being a beautiful princess!
Even now, however, when most girls her age had put such fanciful dreams behind them, Crystine still found herself dreaming of her fairytale princess.
Not because Crystine actually wanted to dream of this princess, of course.
This princess intruded nightly into her dreams, despite Crystine dreading these invariably regular appearances.
Worst of all, she was an undoubtedly ugly princess.
To go, no doubt, with Crystine’s own ugly, unfairytale-like life.
Because it’s not as if, for instance, Crystine herself had actually been wanted by her mother.
So not wanted, in fact, that Crystine’s mum still acts like she resents that blurry night of conception. Like Crystine herself is somehow to blame.
So sometimes, when Crystine’s mother’s a little drunk, which she often is, when her memories are being reshuffled, with deliberately forgotten memories unintentionally resurfacing, she just might admit that she just might have been drunk then too; seeking a little bit of tenderness in her life, a little bit of love – Well, didn’t she deserve it, at least every now and again?
And so who was Crystine’s father?
Well, Crystine’s mother would say, in the midst of her stupor, she couldn’t really be expected to remember everything clearly, could she?
So that’s why Crystine makes up tales the way other girls her age make up their faces: to try and bring at least a sliver of something good and beautiful and acceptable into her life.
To create some sense of order, if only in her mind. To create a better life for herself at least in her imagination, if not reality.
To keep herself sane.
See, Crystine is just a touch bitter about the way her life has played out so far.
But then, if you’d found yourself living her life, wouldn’t you be a little bitter too?
Seeing Crystine and her mum together, it’s not really very easy to figure out who’s taking care of whom.
Her mum acts like she’s only just clinging on to her own weird version of reality.
Yeah, that’s how crazed she looks, Crystine would often tell herself.
How crazed she acts.
Just managing to hold it all together.
Like a ship in a storm, one requiring just one small gust of wind to cast it upon nearby rocks waiting to embrace it.
Stranger still, no other ships close by even realise there’s a storm blowing.
Life’s all relatively calm to them.
You could trace the blame for this sad state of affairs back to Crystine’s mum’s own parents, truth be known.
Raising her to feel so badly about herself.
Drumming it into her young, highly impressionable mind that she’s no good unless other people tell her she’s good.
Letting her know she’s not really an attractive, likeable person unless she pleases those people.
If you don’t get praise on a regular basis, then how can you flatter yourself you’re in any way worthy?
She’s too weak, too lacking in talent, to face the world on her own: she’ll always need the support of stronger, better people.
She was raised like a great many kids these days, in other words, especially young girls.
God forbid, Crystine thought, that included her.
She’d leave home, as soon as she were able, rather than that!
Like their lives, their apartment was dingy, cramped – unliveable.
It was always cluttered with clothes hung out to dry, as there was nowhere convenient outside. (Unless you counted the old building’s roof top that, although right above them, was inaccessible to anyone but a mythical race called maintenance men.) So the clothes never, ever seemed truly clean, no matter how many times they were washed. They became ingrained with cooking smells and grease.
Furniture was third hand, at best, with no careful owners involved. Carpets, threadbare; curtains, like threadbare carpets.
As if the lack of space wasn’t bad enough, Crystine’s mum hoarded newspapers, magazines, books. She stacked them everywhere, the piles in danger of toppling at any moment.
They were full of articles promising a better life. Setting out, they claimed, the means of improving who you are, advancing your place in the world.
Obviously, none of them lived up to their promise.
Crystine was hardly any better. Like mother, like daughter.
Only her books, her magazines, were a means of escape from this world.
Stories: the more fantastical, the better.
Crystine could become entirely absorbed in them, soaking up the atmosphere more than identifying with the characters. She wished she could be there, in these other, more wonderful worlds.
Even if a world described in a book disappointed her, it served as a jumping off point for her own imagination. It was a springboard into landscapes of her own imagining.
Here she could be whomsoever she wanted to be.
Everything her mother wasn’t.
As she always did whenever her mum was out, Crystine was reading.
As she did, in fact, whenever mum was home.
She had made a chair of sorts from out of the piles of books and magazines. It was far more comfortable than the armchair made of broken springs and torn stuffing; besides, that chair was hidden somewhere beneath the mountain of hoarded books.
The book wasn’t bad; but her own world, the one she’d slipped into, briefly fooling herself into believing she actually lived there, was better. A world of brightly coloured blooms and exotic creatures, of impenetrable jungles hiding doorways into supposedly ancient kingdoms.
A world that was free of boys who had promised to call, who told you they liked you, but…well, they were just a little busy at the moment, with other things to do. (To make things worse, she’d fallen asleep while in class; not the best thing to do if you’re hoping to impress a certain boy you’ve had your eye on for quite a while now.)
Crystine was finding it difficult to concentrate on her wonderful, imaginary world however: there was a great deal of noise coming from the roof above her. It was as if a vast team of maintenance men had at last descend upon the building, having decided to undertake ten years of missed work and complete it all within the hour.
Suddenly, as if one of the men had committed a major blunder, cutting through more than he’d intended to, a leg slipped through the ceiling. It was dangling down into Crystine’s room, just above her head.
It was a surprisingly short and stubby leg, however: more like a child’s that that of a workman.
As perhaps further evidence that the source of the raucous noise was a group of children, the unexpected appearance of the leg was accompanied by mischievous chuckling and giggling. The friends of the leg’s owner obviously found it incredibly funny that he’d just suffered what could be a painful accident.
He’d also, of course, just made a huge hole in the apartment’s ceiling.
Crystine was furious.
She leapt up, jumping out of her world of a revived Atlantis, yelling at the children that they were in trouble now, that they shouldn’t be up there, that it was dangerous.
The giggling came to an abrupt halt, as did the waggling of the leg.
Although the leg remained hanging there, a head next appeared almost alongside it, an ugly, knot-faced man curiously staring down into the room.
‘You can see us?’ he asked bemusedly.
‘Of course I can see you!’ fumed Crystine at the gnarled face peering down into the room from the ceiling. ‘Just as I can see that you’ve damaged ou–’
She stopped. She’d noticed that the head was simply, somehow, sticking through an undamaged roof.
Similarly, there was no sign of any hole where the leg had slipped down into the room either.
‘But…that’s not possible!’ she breathed in awe.
‘That’s right,’ another voice hissed, just before a second head appeared, the face every bit as hideous as the first, ‘it’s not possible that she can see us!’
He peered scathingly at a gawking Crystine.
At last, the leg withdrew. It was replaced by yet another head, another gnarled, curiously peering face.
‘She’s not…’ The man’s eyes widened, obviously taken aback that Crystine was glaring directly back at him.
‘Maybe,’ he said hesitantly, ‘she’s not of this world!’
A fourth head lowered into the room, this one wearing a cap that stuck to his crown despite the fact that he was hanging upside down.
‘Evening, Miss,’ he said cheerily, briefly doffing his cap.
‘It’s not evening, it’s morning,’ Crystine replied sourly.
‘Oh, where we come from, it’s eveni– ouch! What’d you kicked me for?’
He glowered at one of the other heads, who glowered back at him without bothering to grant him an answer.
In a perfectly graceful move involving a somersault, as if swinging down a manhole, one of the interlopers dropped down into the room. He landed as deftly as a cat, upon overly large feet.
Crystine forced herself to stay where she was rather than backing off. She didn’t want to show that she was scared.
Besides, he was a surprisingly small man, child-like in his height if not in his stumpier build.
‘How do you do that?’ she demanded, glancing up at the still perfectly whole ceiling. ‘Come through the roof like that, without making a hole?’
Instead of answering, the little man drew closer towards her. He warily reached out to touch her arm, as if expecting at any moment to burn his fingers.
‘No,’ he said assuredly to his equally small friends, all of whom had also now dropped down onto the floor, ‘she’s definitely of this world.’
Another of the little men reached out to touch Crystine.
‘Do you mind?’ Crystine snapped, slapping his hand away. ‘I’m not an exhibit!’
‘Definitely this world!’ the little man agreed with the first, waving his smarting hand to cool it down.
‘Who are you all anyway?’ Crystine growled irately. ‘Just inviting yourself in here!’
‘Sorry, sorry!’ said the third man placatingly. ‘We didn’t mean to interrupt: it was an accident, a slip of the foot!’
He waved his foot unnaturally high in the air. Crystine recognised it as being the same boot, the same trouser leg, that had first slipped through her ceiling.
‘What were you doing up ther– wait!’ Crystine observed them all anxiously. ‘You’re not burglars, are you?’
Every face looked back at her with shocked, hurt expressions.
‘No, no,’ the man wearing the hat insisted, adding proudly, ‘We’re jewellers, Miss!’
‘Jewellers?’ Crystine repeated doubtfully. ‘You don’t look like jewellers to me!’
‘What’re jewellers supposed to look like?’ one of the men asked, not unreasonably.
‘Well, well,’ Crystine hesitated, realising this was a valid point, ‘I never really considered it before, to be honest, but…but…well, look at your hands!’
She triumphantly pointed to their small if cumbersomely thick-fingered hands.
‘They don’t look like jewellers’ hands to me!’
Each little man observed his own hands as if seeing them for the first time.
‘Goldsmiths, Miss,’ the man with the hat said. ‘I suppose you could call us goldsmiths!’
‘Well, I suppose we simply must be on our way!’ the first little man said, as brightly as if bringing to a close a chance meeting of close friends. ‘We’ve all got our lives to get on with! And, well: it’s probably best for all of us if we pretend all this just never, ever, really happened – right?’
He intently scowled at Crystine, a look brooking no disagreement.
‘Well,’ Crystine replied with a wry shake of her head, ‘I think I should tell mum that four weird littl–’
‘Look, look,’ the man blurted out urgently, his tone instantly changing to one of bitter pleading, ‘I’m sure we can make it worth your while to – a Golden Apple!’
His eyes widened in glee as it seemed to suddenly dawn on him that he had to hand the perfect gift to buy her silence. Reaching into his pocket, he held out a glittering, golden sphere that neatly nestled in his palm.
‘This Golden Apple will grant any wi–’
‘It’s an onion!’
‘What?’ The man frowned, unnerved by Crystine’s unexpected interruption.
‘It’s not a golden apple: it’s an onion!’ Crystine insisted, drawing his attention to the globe in his hand.
‘No it’s not, it’s–’ He glanced at the glowing sphere, smirked in embarrassment. ‘Ohh, wait, yes; so it is!’
With his other hand, he nervously and swiftly felt and patted his other pockets.
‘That’s my lunch,’ he admitted, slipping the onion back into the pocket he’d taken it from. ‘But I did have a Golden Apple somewhere–’
‘You’ve lost another one?’ one of the others exasperatedly snapped at him.
‘Not lost! Mislaid!’
‘Maybe, maybe…’ Crystine said tantalisingly, ‘maybe I could forget having seen you all…’
The four men peered at her hopefully.
‘…if you let me know what you were honestly up to on our roof!’
The hope visibly drained from the four men.
‘It’s not a roof, it’s a warehouse, Mis– ouch! What’d you kick me for?’
‘A warehouse?’ Crystine frowned scornfully, glaring at them all now with a grimace of growing impatience. ‘There’s no warehouse there: it’s just a bare roof!’
One of the men gave a resigned sigh.
‘You’ve heard of fairy storeys haven’t you?’
‘Of course I’ve heard of fairystories! That’s what you’re trying to give me now, isn’t it? Some ridiculous tale about why you were up on the roof?’
‘Not story, as in tale,’ one of the men persisted gamely. ‘Storey, as in another level. And so it’s a fairy storey when it exists in both realms; yours and ours!’
‘But that was the origin of the term fairy story,’ one of the others added quickly, even jovially. ‘Because it was on another level: obvious, when you think about it!’
‘So now you’re claiming you’re fairies?’ Crystine responded sceptically. ‘That’s even more unlikely than you lot being jewellers, you realise that, right?’
‘No, were not fairies!’ the one with the hat declared, like he recognised the impossibility of it all. ‘We’re dwarblins, who – ouch!’
‘Who what?’ Crystine spat back impatiently. ‘There aren’t any such things as dwarblins!’
‘Are you telling me you haven’t heard of Dwarblins Theory of Evolution?’ one of the dwarblins responded in disbelief. ‘We’re what your people would generally think of as being dwarves, or goblins: all terms that aren’t, really, appropriate these days!’
‘So if you’re really dwarblins,’ an increasingly frustrated Crystine yelled, drawing threateningly closer to them all, ‘what were you doing on our roof?’
‘But as we’ve said, it’s not a roof, it’s a warehouse, Miss.’ The dwarblin wearing the hat appeared surprised that no one had kicked him, so he continued with his explanation, ‘A storey – a level – where your world meets up with ours, allowing us to trade, to sell things: such as our wonderful jewellery.’
Briefly taking off his oddly shaped hat, he produced from it the most beautiful necklace Crystine had ever seen: one of wrapped gold and silver, of pearls, of emeralds, amber, and a jewel that glittered as if it were frozen blood, formed into a perfect sphere.
‘I’ve never seen anybody from my world up there!’ Crystine protested distrustfully.
‘It’s an old building: no one in your world remembers when we used to trade with each other.’
‘Hardly anyone from our world remembers either,’ another dwarblin added morosely.
‘Days long gone,’ one said miserably, to sad murmurs of agreement from all the others.
‘So why were you up there, then?’ Crystine persisted, ‘if no one’s aware that this warehouse is still there?’
‘Thinking back to old times!
Now they all grinned.
One of them in particular brightened up considerably.
‘Would this buy your silence?’ he asked Crystine, reaching behind him and producing from there, as if from nowhere, a green bottle. ‘Time in a bottle?’
Crsytine stared at the bottle suspiciously.
‘There’s just a watch in there!’
The dwarblin shrugged, as if he couldn’t really see what the problem was.
‘Ah, she’s a sharp one, this one!’ another said admiringly. ‘I think we’re going to have to offer her…the necklace!’
The man casually holding the necklace abruptly slipped it back into his hat, acting as if he had never produced it from there in the first place. The other two dwarblins gasped in horror, aghast that anyone could suggest giving the necklace away.
‘It’s just a necklace!’ Crystine pointed out scornfully. ‘Beautiful, yes: but I’m not interested in such silly things!’
‘This is no ordinary necklace, Miss!’
The capped dwarblin sounded affronted for the very first time.
‘It can make its wearer irresistible! Incredibly beautiful!’ another added in awestruck tones as the gorgeous necklace was reverently taken from the dwarblin’s cap once more.
‘I’m not interest in being beautiful,’ Crystine sniffed. ‘I think intelligence is–’
‘Then how about this necklace?’ the capped dwarblin hurriedly asked.
Having slipped the necklace behind his back, he had produced what was supposed to be another necklace in his other hand.
‘It’s the same necklace!’ Crystine pointed out furiously. ‘
‘No it isn’t!’ the dwarblin insisted, as if hurt by her accusation.
‘You just switched hands behind your back!’
‘No I didn’t! They’re exactly the same hands!’
The dwarblin swung the necklace behind his back yet again, bringing it back out in his other hand.
‘This is the necklace that makes you beautiful: a completely different necklace, as you can plainly see!’
‘You just switched hands again!’
‘Look, look: this is getting us nowhere!’ one of the other dwarblins declared tiredly. ‘What could be wrong with being beautiful anyway? Every girl wants to be beautiful!’
‘Not me!’ Crystine adamantly assured him. ‘That’s how my mum got into trouble; thinking she always had to please everyone!’
All the dwarblins appeared entirely bewildered by Crystine’s heartfelt declaration. They scratched their heads, swapping confused glances.
‘Ah, but…but,’ the man holding the necklace said thoughtfully, obviously attempting to come up with an argument that Crystine couldn’t refute, ‘if you’re beautiful, right…then…you can control kings, princes–’
‘Are you saying kings and princes are the only people who can run things?’
Crystine was more furious than ever.
Then she noticed something about the necklace she hadn’t noticed before.
Within the sparkling ruby, there was an image of a woman: a crowned woman, possibly a princess or a queen.
An incredibly ugly queen.
The woman who plagued all her dreams.
‘Wait, wait: let me take that for a moment, please!’
Crystine’s sudden interest in the necklace took everyone by surprise.
The capped dwarblin innocently handed her the necklace as she eagerly stepped forward. She almost grabbed it from his hands in her need to get a closer look at this hag queen magically pictured within the gem.
Yes, yes; she definitely hadn’t imagined seeing the woman within the sparkling of the ruby.
It was the sparkling itself that somehow created this remarkably life-like, three-dimensional image of the queen. It was a portrait of remarkably numerous colours, of a crown of emeralds, sapphires and amber.
And yes, it was also definitely the hag queen, the woman who had appeared in all her dreams since she had been a young child.
‘Who is this? She’s–’
When Crystine looked up from staring at the gem, she realised she was once again on her own in the room. The dwarblins had vanished. Her question remained unanswered.
‘Wait, we hadn’t made a deal!’ she wailed to the empty air, stretching out her arm as if attempting to force the dwarblins to take the necklace back.
‘I’m not bothered about being beautiful!’ Crystine snarled dismissively, contemptuously casting the necklace aside.
Or, rather, she attempted to throw the necklace to one side.
Instead, the chain stuck to her fingers, as if firmly held there by glue.
She grabbed at the necklace with her other hand, pulling it free.
But now the necklace was every bit as firmly stuck to this hand.
Of course, she tried standing on the necklace with a foot, at last dragging her hand clear of the chain.
But now it was stuck to her foot. And of course, when she tried to take her shoe off, the necklace somehow still managed to latch itself to her body once more.
Resignedly, she realised that if she and the necklace couldn’t be parted, then she might as well wear it where it wouldn’t look so ridiculous; around her neck.
She glanced in a mirror, wondering what it would look like; wondering, too, what she might now look like.
She looked just the same.
The girl morosely staring back at her from the mirror was still her. Only now she was wearing a beautiful necklace.
She felt such a fool.
The Fool of May (or The Fool’s Story)
Admit it; we’ve all been a fool at least once in our lives.
A fool for someone who will never return our love.
But how big a fool do you have to be to be in love with a princess? A princess, indeed, who will be queen this very First of April, and therefore entirely beyond your reach?
Now naturally, some might not think of this poor boy as being a complete fool once they learn that – in this case at least – his love is retuned by the beautiful princess.
But what kind of queen would she be if she were allowed to marry her fool?
The celebrations marking the crowing of the new queen were – as they always were – magnificent.
The entire realm joined in the merriment. Messages of congratulations and well wishes were received from both the Hag Queen and the Queen of The Fall, even if they made their usual excuses for non-attendance at the coronation.
Indeed, there was only one man in the whole realm who watched the procedures with sadness.
He looked down from the highest point within the cathedral, the clerestory. He wept as the crown of sparkling emeralds, sapphires and amber was gently placed upon his love’s silvery golden hair.
Our love is too strong, too wonderful, he resolutely told himself, for us to end up endlessly separated!
Love can conquer all!
But then, of course, he was a fool!
The celebratory atmosphere suffused the whole realm for the entire month of April.
Time seemed to pass all too quickly for everyone enjoying themselves in this way, as time does when you’re enjoying yourself.
For those like the fool, of course, time passes all too slowly. Such that he wished he could bottle the essence of time, then cast it into the sea; a message to anyone unfortunate enough to find it, and open it, that time is the greatest of all burdens for separated lovers.
And yet the arrival of May naturally made his pitiful condition even worse. For what is May First but the time of lovers?
When couples dance around the May Pole, the garlands bringing them together, entwining them in a glorious embrace.
When girls and boys dart off into the bushes, seeking out their secret loves, declaring their feelings, their needs.
When hair is decorated with sprigs of hawthorn blossom, a symbol of someone seeking love; of someone who could be your love.
Now of course, the fool was an attractive boy, a pleasant character too: and so he aroused a great deal of interest in the single girls. They walked past him in pairs or trios, whispering together, giggling, smiling, flouncing their long skirts: and, naturally, drawing his attention to the white sprigs in their hair.
The smile of one particular girl was beaming bright, like the moon upon still waters.
Ah, but she doesn’t have the smile of my love, the fool thought, for that’s as glorious as the foam of lashing waves.
The hair of another girl hung down her back like a tumbling waterfall of the very darkest waters.
Ah, but she doesn’t have the hair of my love, the fool thought, for that flows as wondrously as full-grown wheat in the fields.
A third girl was blessed with a pair of eyes that flashed like stars in the heavens.
Ah, but she doesn’t have the eyes of my love, the fool thought, for they sparkle like sun-dappled water.
None of these girls came even remotely close to conforming to his ideal of beauty. The only measure of loveliness was that of his love, and only she could attain its highest measure.
‘Can’t you see she’s not for you?’ a well-meaning friend said to him. ‘You should be done with making a fool of yourself over her!’
‘Better to be a fool in love with her than a wise man who’s never known what it’s like,’ came the miserable reply.
Secretly, of course, he still believed that everything would work out to his – to their – advantage.
Wasn’t love the greatest power in the universe?
The greatest power in the realm wasn’t, unfortunately, the queen.
It was the KingFisher.
He would only ever leave his great, dark castle when he came out hunting for anyone foolish enough to have married the April Queen. Or, indeed, any queen.
It was rumoured that he had every one of his victims stuffed and mounted on his walls, as fishermen display their own trophies.
It was disloyalty on a previously unimagined scale: and so in recompense, the KingFisher granted the queen a number of essential powers.
One was the imposition of order through laws that everyone could agree to abide by, despite their unsatisfactory and unfair nature.
A second was the means to enforce rules demanding conformity, thereby ensuring no one need fear being seen as unacceptable to anyone else.
The third was the skill to manufacture the most astonishing jewellery from the most mundane of materials.
Now this third power might seem unnecessary, until you realise that the queen’s magical jewellery was once the only thing the queen’s realm had to trade with the outside world. Not that anyone remained aware that there was an outside world, of course; any memory of it had simply been subsumed into myths, such that no one took its existence seriously anymore.
But then again, it still gave any queen a measure of great pleasure to while away her lonely hours. She would create the most adorable necklaces, bracelets and rings, her materials originally nothing more than berries, blossom, beetles, butterflies and spiderwebs.
Naturally, the predilection of this KingFisher to seek out and kill any king was well known to the present April Queen. And so, too, she had made it known (as the protocol set down in vast tomes advised any new princess) to her fool.
He wasn’t afraid of this KingFisher, he had adamantly declared.
He would fight this so-called fisher of kings; despite having no knowledge of armed combat.
He would resist the sorcerer-like skills of this king hunter: notwithstanding his own lack of any magical abilities.
He would pit himself against any foe this predator of royals could muster in his defence: even though the fool’s only ally was a friend who, like him, was nothing but a musician.
Ah, but I have the power of love on my side, he had always confidently reassured the princess whenever she had protested that it was mad to seek out a man who fished for kings.
‘And nothing can resist such a power!’
Like her fool, the April Queen watched the May Day celebrations with a leaden heart.
She missed him, missed his laughter, his touch, his embrace, his kisses: and most all, she missed the way he had always looked so adoringly at her.
She had always appreciated that, somehow, he saw her differently to how she saw herself. She wished she could see the girl he saw her through his eyes. For that, she believed, was the real her: the princess he loved was the real her.
For isn’t it love that ultimately makes us what and who we are?
Of course, she still saw her love every now and again; his head low, his steps slow, those of a man aged before his time.
She knew that they couldn’t go on living like this,
That she had to talk to him.
Word was sent, in secret, that he should attend court (for, of course, she didn’t dare see him while she was alone).
His presence caused a stir, a ripple of shock, even horror, that ran around the court.
The fool didn’t mind.
Soon, he would be with his love once more.
He jostled his way to the front of the two bands of courtiers lining the way to the throne.
Naturally, when the April Queen at last breezed into the room, in the swirl of a many layered dress, she made sure she wandered past her fool.
She whispered urgently to him.
‘I don’t love you anymore.’
Then she continued on her whirl towards her throne, hiding her tears behind her fan.
But then, what kind of example would she set to her people if she didn’t adhere to the rules?
So who’s the biggest fool?
The one who berates himself for having somehow lost the queen’s love?
Or the queen who would prefer that her love hates her, rather than see him die?
The poor fool, naturally, is in more disarray than ever.
He had heard it from her own delicious lips: she no longer loved him!
What had happened? What had caused this unforeseen change in her – a change that therefore irrevocably changed him too?
He had lost her love; and so now he, too, was lost.
There was no longer any meaning in his life.
No longer any reason for him to continue living.
He would leave the realm of the April Queen.
He would set out on a journey; to where, he wasn’t sure. He didn’t care.
It could be anywhere as long as it wasn’t here, where there was still so much to remind him of what he’d had, what he’d lost.
So are the inauspicious beginnings of what can truly be named The Fool’s Story; for any fool could predict what must happen next.
For it is now, of course, that we could conform to type: to relate a tale of how the brave fool decides he must track down this KingFisher, sulking away in his KingFisher’s castle.
Here the KingFisher’s superiority is obvious from the start. He wears a magical cloak of the feathers of every bird that flies – a gift, it’s said, of the Queen of The Fall, or more possibly the Hag Queen. It glitters with the emerald green and sapphire blue of the kingfisher, granting him the power of flight.
Naturally, we worry for the poor fool’s life.
Yet, somehow, quite remarkably, the fool perseveres.
He overcomes the terrible odds against him, utilising to his advantage some originally unforeseen failing within the KingFisher’s makeup.
Thwarted, the KingFisher falls to his doom.
And that, of course, should be the end of The Fool’s Story.
Undoubtedly, this is indeed the usual tale of love triumphant over evil.
But you’re not, I presume, a fool?
In which case, you can only surely think, Ah, if only life was truly like that!
For reality, of course, is a completely different world.
The sad truth is that our poor, pitiful fool is already defeated before he even sets off on his journey.
For even where he to attempt to follow the maps and directions he might foolishly believe would lead him to the castle, he would find only that they lead him evermore astray: for as long as we’re foolish enough to conform to the directions set by our rulers, we will never be able to overthrow them.
If we prefer to live our lives of ease, of fighting only for the acceptance of others, then we can never truly be ourselves, never even hope to begin to find ourselves; for the real you is hidden beneath so many false layers, so many false yous.
So please, let’s not fool ourselves that we’re capable of rebellion, let alone overthrowing our masters. Quite naturally, our rulers have ever so carefully, ever so cunningly, trapped us within rules of their own devising.
Moreover, without his love to sustain him, our fool feels empty, without purpose, listless: he’s already dead to this cruel, unforgiving world.
He wanders through nowhere but his own mind; wondering where it all went wrong, where he can set his life back on the right track.
How can such a man ever hope to confront and defeat a fisher of kings?
And so, despite (or maybe that should be because of?) the KingFisher’s undoubted wickedness, he will forever remain all-powerful.
The poor April Queen must rule alone.
And the fool goes about his own life blissfully oblivious to his failure.
Now, of course, as the appointed storyteller, I do apologise to anyone who thinks this is an unsatisfactory ending to this tale of The Fool of May.
It probably isn’t the ending you were expecting: it’s not a ‘happy ever after’, after all.
But then again, in all probability this is how the tale would pan out in the real world. Unless you yourself are also a fool, you’ll recognise it’s the most realistic ending.
So why didn’t the love of the fool for his princess conquer all?
Because she is now a queen
And his love for her therefore had to change.
And love can conquer all only when it is no longer your master: and you have conquered love.
Crystine stared once again at the necklace, lifting its glittering ruby up before her eyes.
The queen glowering back at her from within the resplendent gem seemed uglier than ever.
The pearls, however, glistened more wondrously than any crystalline snowflakes. The sapphires had flowing sheens of ever-changing blues, as if reflecting the wings of iridescent butterflies.
The silverwork was so precise and delicate it could have been the tracings of highly creative spiders. The gold glowed as flame-like as any captured rays of the sun.
The door to the apartment clicked open.
Mum was back.
Crystine instantly let go of the necklace, letting it hang down across her upper chest once more, hidden behind the edges of the neckline of her blouse.
She didn’t want to have to explain how she had come by such a beautiful and obviously expensive necklace. Who would believe her anyway?
Mum walked in, attempting a tired grin. As usual, she appeared exhausted, flustered. Her hair, although tied up in a knot, still somehow managed to look array and unkempt.
‘Hi dear, have you – Crystine!’
What passed for her smile immediately vanished. She peered intently and curiously at Crystine’s face, even drawing uncomfortably close.
‘Are you wearing makeup?’ she asked accusingly.
‘Of course I’m not wearing make up!’ Crystine insisted, wondering what on earth was now going on in her mum’s already crazed mind. ‘Haven’t I had it drummed into me often enough by you that–’
‘Don’t lie to me, Crys!’ her mum irately interrupted. ‘I can see the change in you!’
She was not only continuing her probing observation of Crystine’s face, but now also running a finger down a cheek, checking to see how much makeup she had managed to wipe off.
Despite finding no trace of makeup on her fingertip, her accusations became more vehement still.
‘What have I told you about trying to make yourself beautiful? It only leads to trouble–’
‘All you’ve told me, mum,’ Crystine furiously snapped back, ‘is how it got you into trouble! And so you make out we’re all like you, that I’m like you: and all so you don’t have to admit to yourself what a fool you’ve been!’
‘Of course I’m not–’
‘I’m going out!’Crystine stormed, whirling around her mum to head for the door.
The necklace whirled up into the air, leaping free of the veiling blouse. It briefly glittered in the air like freshly spilt blood.
‘Crys!’ her mum yelled in surprise, catching sight of the resplendent gem, the expensive gold and silver of the chain. ‘Where on earth did you get something like that?’
She made a grab for Crystine’s shoulder. Crystine shrugged off her mum’s hand and continued heading for the door.
‘What did you do to get it?’ Crystine’s mum demanded, her tone now one of horror.
‘I’m not like that, mum!’ Crystine spat back as she reached the door.
‘I’m not like you!’ she added viciously as she slammed the door behind her.
It was an old, relatively small building: one that had been converted into apartments (too many apartments!) rather than having been purposely built.
There hadn’t been enough room or money to install an elevator. On the upper levels of the building, even the stairwell was cramped, the stairs steep and constantly turning back upon themselves.
The minute landing at the very top of the stairs only gave you one option, of course: you had to go down.
Yet when Crystine stepped onto the landing, her recent experience with the meeting of the goblins – sorry, dwarblins – made her look afresh at the closely confining walls.
Yes, the dwarblins had dropped through the apartment’s ceiling: but how was anybody else – anyone from her world – supposed to ascend to this fairy storey?
The walls were, like those throughout the rest of the building, in a terrible state. The overly dried plaster was flaking off, with sparse remnants of what had once been a thin wallpaper covering only a few sections of each wall.
Crystine ran her fingers over the rough plaster, wondering if she would come across signs of an old doorway that had been covered up long ago.
But there was nothing there that she could see. If there ever had been a doorway leading to a long-forgotten stairwell, it had been effectively hidden from view.
Come to think of it, she didn’t know of any way of climbing up to the roof.
Wasn’t that unusual? Wasn’t there supposed to be some way of accessing a roof to make repairs and what have you?
With a dismissive shrug of resigned indifference, she continued on her way down the stairs.
Then the single bulb hanging above her head flickered and died.
It wasn’t an unusual occurrence: bulbs in the stairwell were always blowing, sometimes remaining un-replaced for months at a time.
Naturally, Crystine hadn’t been suddenly plunged into complete darkness. The bulbs lighting the lower landings were still working. They threw up enough of a dim glow for Crystine to ensure she wouldn’t trip and fall as she continued to descend.
Then the bulb immediately below her went out with a crack.
Then the one below that one spluttered and died.
Crack. Crack. Crack…
All the other bulbs were going out in quick succession.
The last died with a pained hiss.
Now the stairwell was a well of nothing but the most intense darkness.
Crystine recognised that it was too dangerous to try to navigate her way down the full flight of stairs in such an impenetrable blackness. She turned around, heading back up towards the landing she had left only moments before.
She hadn’t realised she had already descended so far down the stairs. There were more steps to climb than she had anticipated.
Up and up.
When did it end?
She at last stepped out onto a landing. She almost stumbled, she had become so used to finding yet another step rising before her.
She had to reach out in the darkness to find the door, scrambling around blindly for the handle.
When she opened the door, she found herself standing in a vast, empty warehouse.
The warehouse had an air of being abandoned long ago.
Everything was filthy, especially the piles of what appeared to be discarded items: collapsed tables, broken chairs, rolls of material.
The most amazing thing about it all, however, was its incredible size: it stretched out way beyond what should be the confines of the building it had been built upon.
It must be projecting out right across the road lying in front of the house, Crystine realised with a surge of amazement.
She glanced out of windows that had been smashed, or simply fallen into disrepair as the frames rotted. Outside it was the greying light of an early evening sky
Hadn’t that dwarblin said it was evening in their world?
This was obviously their fairy storey. The warehouse they had referred to.
So did that mean that the door on the far side of the room opened up onto their world?
The door facing her on the far wall looked much like the door she had just entered by.
It made sense, surely, that this was the door to the other world?
If sense was the right word to use while standing in a warehouse that shouldn’t by rights exist on top of the relatively small building lying beneath.
As she wandered across the room, heading towards the beckoning door, Crystine nervously wondered if her weight would cause the whole structure to begin to lean, to topple. It didn’t, of course.
The whole structure felt sound, secure.
Even so, as she prepared to open the door, Crystine briefly feared stepping out into the empty air lying above the busy road she knew existed within her own world.
The door did indeed open up onto nothing but empty air, air that violently whirled and pummelled her. Strong gusts ripped past her, seeking entrance into the building.
The gusts struck viciously and unexpectedly, wrenching Crystine up off her feet. They forced the door she was still clinging to wide open.
Crystine couldn’t support her own weight while grasping nothing but a handle.
Besides, the handle turned slightly under her weight, dropping into an angled position.
Before she was aware what was happening, Crystine was falling.
Falling through the empty air lying above the busy road that existed within her own world.
As Crystine fell, her hair, her clothes, whirled everywhere about her.
As if refusing to be confined by the rules of gravity, the necklace also rose up from her chest, breaking free of the veiling blouse. The sparkling ruby hung in the air directly before her face.
The hideous queen inside writhed as if in pain (strangely, Crystine bizarrely noticed, she wasn’t upside down), as if becoming abruptly more hideous still.
Crystine herself was also in agony, the blood rushing into her head, her brain. Her eyes felt like they would explode with the sudden increase in pressure. Everything around her took on a shade of blood red, such that she could have been looking out from inside the ruby.
She struck the ground hard, but with nowhere near the crushing force she had expected.
It felt, weirdly, as if she had simply tripped and fallen.
The thick redness enveloping her at last began to clear, to disperse and drop away, as if it had all been nothing more than a red cloud of disturbed and whirling dust.
A man rushed up to her, a handsome if strangely dressed man.
‘I saw you trip and fall,’ he said concernedly, offering her his hand, wishing to help her rise to her feet, ‘are you all right?’
‘Yes, yes,’ Crystine assured him, surprised that she had survived such a long fall, ‘I’m incredibly lucky–’
The word died on her lips.
She wasn’t outside her house.
She was out in wild countryside, the road one of rutted and packed red dust.
‘Where am I?’ Crystine asked the young man, trying to hide her bewilderment as she dusted herself down.
‘According to my maps,’ the man answered brightly, ‘we’re not far from the castle of the Hag Queen: but yes, I must admit it’s so easy to get lost out here, isn’t it?’
The man’s trousers were stained with the red dust, a sign, Crystine reasoned, that he had been out walking for a long time.
His jacket – if that’s what you insisted on calling it – could have been something whisked here from a much earlier century, partially quilted and with a decoration of what she assumed had to be fake pearls: there were far too many for them to be real. He would be an easy target for any robber, particularly as he wasn’t armed in any way. He had a large, over-crammed pack on his back, all of it topped with a stringed instrument threatening to send his feathered cap flying.
Another, older man was with him, one far more conventionally dressed.
‘Let me take a look at you,’ this other man kindly offered, drawing closer to Crystine to check her skin for cuts or bruises. ‘I’m a doctor.’
He was thorough yet quick in his investigation. As he stood back, he declared that she was fine, no harm done; then held out an open palm for payment.
‘That will be–’
‘Doctor!’ the young man protested, yet in a manner that told Crystine he wasn’t that surprised by the older man’s actions. ‘You can’t charge her for that!’
‘So you’re saying I’m supposed to starve?’ the elder retorted, observing the young man with a tilted head, much as a curious parrot might do.
In fact, the doctor was very bird-like in his fledgling build, his wizened face and hands.
‘How much this time?’ the younger man asked exasperatedly.
‘Well,’ the doctor began as his tilted gaze fell towards the other man’s jacket,‘I have been admiring a few more of your pearls–’
With a resigned grimace, the young man tore off one of the pearls. There were loose, broken threads everywhere about his jacket, as if the pearls were his only means of making payment,
‘Two pearls,’ the doctor corrected.
The young man sighed as he tore off and handed yet another pearl to the greedily grinning doctor.
‘Ah, I meant two more pearls!’ said the doctor, holding out his palm for yet more payment.
‘Three pearls?’ an aghast Crystine protested. ‘Just for checking that I wasn’t grazed?’
‘Obviously, you don’t know the price of things here, young lady!’ the doctor irately snapped at Crystine, his eyes lighting up with even greater greed as she reached for one of the pearls on her necklace.
At some point during in either the fall or Crystine’s dusting down of herself, the necklace had slipped once more behind her blouse. Now that she was fruitlessly attempting to wrench a pearl free, however, the young man saw it for the first time: and he looked at it with a wide-eyed gaze of immediate recognition.
‘The necklace!’ he declared, awestruck. ‘It’s the one my love had stolen!’
‘I’m sorry,’ Crystine apologised ashamedly to the young man. ‘I didn’t know the necklace had been stolen!’
The young man casually, almost distractedly handed over another pearl to the doctor, his interest no longer on the destruction of his jacket but, rather, on Crystine’s necklace.
‘It was years ago now, I’m afraid; yet it happened just before she was crowned queen!’
The man didn’t sound in any way as if he were calling Crystine a thief. His tone was still more one of complete surprise rather than containing even a hint of any accusation.
‘She’s a queen? The woman you love is a queen?’ Crystine asked with almost as much surprise as she vainly attempted to lift the necklace from around her neck. ‘Please, you can take it back – give it back to her – if you can just help me remove the damn thing!’
Instead of attempting to help her remove the necklace, the young man shook his head sorrowfully.
‘She couldn’t take it off either,’ he admitted.
‘Then…’ Crystine paused in her efforts to take the necklace off, ‘how did she lose it?’
‘We don’t know,’ the man replied honestly. ‘She woke up one morning and she was no longer wearing it. She was distraught for a while, thinking it meant she wouldn’t receive the powers to make the magic jewellery.’
‘She made it?’ the doctor asked, trying to hide his eagerness to hear more after quietly listening to the conversation with growing interest. ‘She makes this jewellery?’
‘Not this necklace,’ the young man said. ‘But she can make other kinds. It turned out, thankfully, that the necklace wasn’t connected to her skills.’
He briefly frowned, then grinned sickly.
‘She was worried, though, that I wouldn’t love her anymore.’ He shook his head in disbelief. ‘I mean, it wasn’t as if it was some magic necklace, one that makes you fall in love!’
‘Perhaps if we return it to her, to your queen, I might be able to remove it after all!’ Crystine pointed out brightly. ‘She might know how to–’
She stopped, seeing that the young man was shaking his head miserably.
‘She’s not my love anymore,’ he admitted morosely. ‘I can’t return! She won’t have me back!’
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ Crystine said, seeing the pain in the young man’s entire expression.
The doctor either didn’t notice or didn’t care. He stepped closer towards Crystine, reaching into his cumbersomely shaped leather bag and withdrawing a glittering scalpel.
‘I should be able to help you remove–’
The young man stretched out a long arm, holding the doctor back from progressing any further.
‘No you won’t, doctor! You’ll probably charge her ten pearls for the privilege of having her head cut off!’
The doctor whirled on the younger man, obviously scandalised by the accusation.
‘I’ll have you know I’ve brought more young people into this world than you’ve probably had hot dinners, young man!’
‘Wait,’ Crystine blurted out, recalling something the young man had said after helping her up off the floor. ‘Did you say we were near the Hag Queen’s palace?’
‘Not far at all: so close, in fact, that it should be in view!’
Crystine glanced about herself, looking out for anything that could resemble a castle or palace. There was nothing to see, however, apart from gently rolling hills and woodland.
‘Hah, I meant it should be in view, if it was a normal palace!’ the young man explained.
‘It’s invisible?’ Crystine asked.
‘In its way, I suppose,’ the young man chuckled. ‘But only because she built it upside down: digging down into the earth!’
‘If her palace is hidden way, how do you know we’re close?’
Crystine couldn’t see anything about this part of the land that made it recognisably different to anything else stretching out from either side of the red road.
‘The road,’ the doctor replied, punching his heel into the packed earth, pointing out that just ahead the deep ruts had been scrupulously repaired, completely flattening the surface. ‘No ruts, no holes, see? Not even the very smallest dip!’
‘She keeps her roads well maintained?’
‘Yes, definitely’ the doctor answered with a knowing guffaw. ‘But only for the very same reason that there’s a complete lack of lakes around here. Or, rather, the lakes have been painstakingly filled in, along with any ponds, even puddles.’
The young man couldn’t miss Crystine’s frown of bewilderment.
‘So that there’s nowhere for water to pool,’ he explained. ‘So she doesn’t have to look at her own reflection.’
Under normal circumstances, Crystine might have protested that no one could be so ugly they would go to such lengths to avoid seeing themselves.
But, of course, she had already seen the Hag Queen: seen her staring out at her from within the necklace’s ruby; seen her every night, as she plagued every one of Crystine’s dreams.
‘She even chooses her servants only from those who are no longer of this world,’ the doctor added ominously, his gaze still strangely locked on the red road stretching out into the Hag Queen’s lands.
His increasingly narrowed eyes were focused on a swiftly approaching dust cloud.
‘Is it possible, do you think,’ he added edgily, ‘to outrun horses that have been raised from amongst the dead?’
It was a small platoon of cavalry, gradually taking form in the midst of the dust cloud as if they were appearing out of a morning mist.
They made absolutely no noise, however: there was no thunder of hooves, despite the urgency of their gallop. Neither was there any clattering of hard wheels from the carriage they were escorting.
Their armour was of hardened leather rather than polished steel, for even the points of their pennants had been dulled. Nothing sparkled. Every piece of metal had been painted black, including the brass rings of the reins and saddles.
‘She gets first choice of the dead, it’s said,’ the doctor pronounced fearfully, apparently wishing to shrink even further into his already wasted body. ‘Even the KingFisher is relegated to second place when it comes to picking out the freshly killed.’
The horses exhaled no breath, despite their obvious exertion. There was no sheen of sweat, no stench of overstretched mounts.
Thankfully, there was also no stench of the dead.
There were other signs that the horses had been raised from death, however; their muscles were perhaps a little wasted, their bones maybe a touch more prominent than to be expected.
The men – what could be seen of them beneath their helms – were similarly a touch too skull-like in their expressions, which were blank apart from a stretched grin.
Crystine and the two men stood aside, leaving the road to the riders, hoping the soldiers would simply pass by.
Instead, the small column came to an abrupt halt, such that the carriage stopped exactly opposite them.
The carriage’s driver, seated almost on top of it, had the same, dead stare of the soldiers. The carriage could have been a funereal cart, everything black, the windows heavily curtained.
Not even the slightest nail head was allowed to sparkle upon it.
The edge of one of the curtains shifted a little, someone inside moving it slightly aside, probably so that the occupant could get a better view of the nervous trio.
‘Yes, yes,’ came a harsh yet excited woman’s voice from deep inside, ‘That’s the girl of my dreams!’
The door opened; surprisingly with an ominous creak. Steps dropped down into place with an audible clack.
Every solider, along with the driver, had never taken their gaze off the road lying ahead. Now they all as one abruptly turned their heads, some almost all way around, to directly gaze down on Crystine. Their empty stares were nevertheless completely decipherable: she shouldn’t attempt to run.
‘Just you, girl!’ the woman seated inside the carriage barked.
The doctor sighed with relief. The young man, however, stepped in front of Crystine, holding her back from entering the carriage.
‘No!’ he declared adamantly. ‘I must come with her!’
The woman inside chuckled richly.
‘Fool,’ she suddenly snapped.
As the young fool graciously if unnecessarily helped Crystine to climb up the short flight of lowered steps leading up into the carriage, the doctor turned and walked away as hurriedly as he could.
As she entered the darkened interior, Crystine fought her curiosity to glance the Hag Queen’s way. All she caught in the corner of her eye, in the dim light coming in from the opened door, was a seated woman garbed in the very darkest of materials.
The fool followed after her; and either his curiosity was greater than Crystine’s or he was less capable of fighting the urge to stare.
He gasped, a deep exhalation of complete shock.
As Crystine slipped into her own seat, seated almost opposite the Hag Queen, she no longer had any excuse not to look her way.
She gasped, more shocked even than the poor fool.
The woman’s face wasn’t veiled, as Crystine might have expected.
Neither was she hideous, as everybody claimed.
For she could have been Crystine’s twin.
No: she could have been Crystine herself.
The lowered steps rose back into position, requiring no helping hand. The door closed behind the fool, as if it were simply returning to its most natural position.
The interior was now completely dark.
Crystine sensed that the carriage was turning completely around, even though there was little if any change to the stability of the carriage. Neither was there any of the sounds that would usually accompany such a complicated manoeuvre: the strained creaking of wheels and springs, the horses whinnying as they were brutally urged to wheel their heavy, cumbersome charge around.
‘Don’t try and hide it,’ the woman snarled, ‘I can see the horror in your eyes!’
Crystine’s eyes were gradually adjusting to the darkness, catching odd glimpses of the lighter flesh, the glittering eyes, amongst the otherwise perfect blackness.
‘No, not horror,’ Crystine replied truthfully. ‘Surprise: disbelief. You’re…you’re me?’
‘How could I possibly be you? I thought he was the fool!’
‘He’s not a fool!’ Crystine responded angrily.
‘I’m afraid she’s righ–’
‘Do you know him?’ the Hag Queen demanded, both interrupting and ignoring the poor fool’s modest reply. ‘Haven’t you only just met him?’
‘I do know him–’
‘Don’t lie, girl! I saw in my dreams: you’ve only just arrived here amongst us! From your world!’
‘Her world?’ the fool frowned in bewilderment.
Ignoring the fool once more, the Hag Queen unexpectedly leapt up from her seat, lunging towards Crystine.
Crystine fearfully slunk back into her seat as far as she could; but of course, she had no hope of avoiding the Hag Queen’s outstretched, grasping hands. The fool leapt up from his own seat, reaching out for the Hag Queen in an attempt to restrain her: but he never got even close to her.
The dark straps of the lushly quilted seats lashed out like the blackest of serpents, curling about his arms, his waist, even his head and throat. They mercilessly dragged him back into his seat, firmly holding him there.
The Hag Queen’s hideously withered hands snatched at Crystine’s blouse, almost ripping it apart as she palmed and dragged out the glowing ruby of the necklace.
There was no change in the queen’s blank expression as she stared at the precious stone, so gorgeous that it glittered star-like even in the dark universe of the Hag Queen.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ the Hag Queen hissed with obvious glee.
She briefly dragged her admiring gaze away from the stone’s alluring glow, looking up into Crystine’s petrified eyes.
‘It graces your beauty, my dear,’ the queen declared with an uncharacteristic mildness to her tone. ‘You must, of course, make sure you wear it at all times!’
‘I don’t have any choice,’ Crystine admitted.
Crystine wondered if the Hag Queen could see the hideous woman lying deep within the ruby. If she could, she’d made no sign that she’d seen the ugly queen, whom Crystine had presumed was the Hag Queen herself.
‘Good, good: that’s how it should be!’ the Hag Queen said with great satisfaction. ‘It will greatly add to your already highly impressive beauty! Until, of course, the KingFisher decides it’s time for you to be parted from it.’
‘The KingFisher? He took it?’
The fool had been gagged by the straps, but had managed – after a quick, pained struggle –to force out his exclamation of surprise. But he was swiftly gagged once again by an abrupt tightening of the restraining bands.
‘How does a kingfisher decide?’ Crystine asked, failing to recognise the name.
‘You’ll hear more of him later,’ the queen replied with a dismiss wave of a hand. ‘It’s a long story: one you’ll have to ask your fool to explain.’
She continued to roll the ruby in her other hand, glancing at it appreciatively from all angles.
‘Ah yes, I see her: you were wondering, weren’t you?’ Her voice carried tones of both amusement and threat. ‘And you were also wondering, of course, who she is; for now you’ve seen me, you realise it can’t be me, after all?
Crystine nodded in agreement.
‘Would you like me to take it off?’ the queen asked, looking directly into Crystine’s terrified eyes.
‘Take it off?’Crystine sighed with relief, adding hopefully, ‘You can remove the necklace?’
‘No, no: not the necklace,’ the queen replied with a resigned chuckle. ‘All that will happen in good time: but then, of course, you’ll wish you’d never been parted from it!’
‘So…’ Crystine asked unsurely, ‘what are you going to take off?’
‘My beauty, of course,’ the queen replied mysteriously, using her free hand to indicate her face. ‘Do you really think I’d live amongst the dead if I looked as delicious as you?’
At last, with yet another airy wave of her hand, the queen both released the bound fool and granted Crystine permission to pull the edge of a curtain back a little, allowing her to see where they were headed.
The column entered a thick wood, traveling along a track surrounded by towering trees. Gradually, the track was sinking a little into the surrounding ground, as if they were entering the beginnings of a narrow and shallow ravine. They passed, however, into what could have been the mouth of a cave, veiled by a web of trailing ivy that parted for them.
The corridor they entered was bleak and dark, lit only by the odd blazing brazier, illuminating undecorated walls of hardened soil and rocks. It spiralled ever deeper down into the earth, as if the palace had been formed by twisting a monstrous corkscrew deep into the ground.
‘There used to be a lake here,’ the queen explained proudly, ‘but as it drained away into the earth, I used magic to slowly harden the whirlpool of water and mud.’
This was no palace of open courtyards, of musically trickling fountains. It was one of the very earth itself, as dark as the soil. Yet it was a soil whose life-giving attributes had been restrained, for no flowers grew here, with nothing of beauty being allowed to thrive.
The few sparse items of furniture were of unpolished stone, the rare items of wood deliberately dulled rather than varnished to a shine.
Of course, there were no mirrors to be seen.
The carriage quietly drew to a halt by two large doors of dulled wood, these being opened by dourly dressed servants who – unusually for their roles – had neither shiny shoes not glittering buttons.
Once again, the room’s furniture was basic, practical, and bearing no ornamentation of any kind.
A dining table was set out with places for three, as if the queen had been expecting both Crystine and the fool, unless she had somehow managed to get word ahead to prepare the table.
Naturally, the cutlery and tableware had had all their potential to shine painstakingly etched away.
As Crystine accepted the queen’s invitation to take a seat at the table, and as the servants silently dished up a surprisingly normal looking meal of soup and bread, she thought it oddly ironic that she was staring across the stone top at what could be her mirror image.
The queen had only briefly removed her mask within the carriage. It was a mask that she herself had carefully designed, utilising sketches she had made of her dreams as a guide.
She was, of course, delighted that she had so perfectly captured Crystine’s growing beauty.
Behind that mask there lay the face of the woman who gazed out of Crystine’s ruby.
‘I know you wish to know more about your necklace,’ the Hag Queen declared assuredly as they ate, adding with a mischievous chuckle of pure relish, ‘It’s a tale of yet another queen denied a king by the KingFisher; and also of a palace of mirrors – of thousands of mirrors!’
The Queen of The Fall
The leaves of autumn were as brown, as dry, yet as glorious as the gold of the sun’s rays, the amber of solidified honey.
The Queen of The Fall was no less gorgeous, no less in danger of losing her entrancing beauty.
As such, her palace was adorned everywhere with the most towering of mirrors. Mirrors that could, at any moment, reveal to her her most amazing beauty: as well as, at any moment, reveal the fault lines of the fading of that remarkable beauty,
The mirrors glittered like so many innumerable stars, presenting to the universe the most indescribably glorious beauty that was the moon.
A moon, as the observer was fearfully aware, that must at some point wane and fade away to nothing but darkness.
Who was there to tell her that she was still beautiful?
They would tell her anything!
How could she trust herself to be honest about such a thing?
Besides, she was her harshest critic!
Her love: he would have told her she was beautiful, of course!
He might have lied: he would undoubtedly wish to flatter her.
But he would believe it.
And therefore, it would of course be undeniably true!
The mirrors, they should have told her the truth.
But the interpretation of what she saw in them? – That was down to her and her alone.
And no, she couldn’t be trusted to be in any way fair.
Gradually, she began to darken the rooms in which the mirrors had been placed.
To cut back on the number of candles, the quality of the lamps.
To place thicker curtains at the windows: to draw them a little more closed with the passing of each day.
Until, one day, there was no light allowed into the rooms.
Now the woman who stared back at her from the mirrors could be anybody: yet she sensed that, like the image, it was a woman much much darker in mind than she had previously been.
Then one day, a courtier brought a message to her; he had returned!
Despite everything, he still loved her: he couldn’t live without her!
Like a fool, he had wandered the whole world, attempting to forget her – and yet he had failed.
How could he have possibly hoped to forget someone so wonderful, so unique?
On hearing this, the Queen of The Fall was naturally overjoyed: she almost declared, there and then, than he should be allowed to enter immediately.
But then – she paused.
No, no; that would be ludicrously foolhardy!
How much had she changed since he had been gone?
She needed time to prepare – at least a few hours – before she could grant him audience.
Otherwise, he would be shocked to see how different she looked.
He might not even recognise her!
He might even regret returning!
Hah! It wasn’t hours she needed to prepare before she could see him!
She could never see him like this!
Better, rather, that she at least still remained beautiful and desirable within his mind.
The poor fool accepted, of course, that his love was too busy running her realm to see him just yet.
She was away, with affairs of state to deal with, he was told, and would return as soon as possible.
The queen had indeed secretly fled her palace.
Not, of course, because she didn’t wish to see her love.
She desired, almost more than anything, to see him once more.
To lie in each other’s arms. To share his kisses.
To hear him tell her how beautiful, how wonderful she was.
But all this could only happen, of course, if by some miracle, some profound magic, her beauty had been somehow returned to her. And if this couldn’t be the case: then she feared that he would no longer desire her.
Yet she had been searching for years for the secret of endless – or of at least restoring – her beauty.
The Corded Tail of the White Unicorn. The Bulb of the Venus Lily. The Kimono of Tulips. The Milk of the Moon
Despite the many men she had sent out wandering the earth to discover the truth behind these secret remedies, so far she had failed to find a magical formula, a spell, that restored a fading beauty.
So how could she possibly hope to discover this so far perfectly elusive secret in just a matter of days?
Now the world in general is an incredibly curious place. One of strange happenings, of the most inglorious events.
What would any reasonable person make of such a world?
A world of unfairness, of injustice. And yet also a world of hope, of great joy and wonderful things.
It’s mainly a matter of fate that determines which world we find ourselves living in.
Now the Queen of The Fall had been blessed with her own limited powers, one allowing her to take the most everyday objects and transform them into something truly and amazingly majestic.
It had taken her a ridiculously long time, yet she had gathered together the most fabulous collection of feathers, one from the wing of every bird that flew. She had also brought together an equally extensive collection displaying a wing from every from of insect (oh, how unthinkingly cruel we are to insects!).
Utilising her skills to the fullest, she had painstakingly woven all these together, creating a cloak granting its wearer the gift of flight. And it was this cloak that had allowed the queen to so easily flee her palace, with no one seeing her leave, or knowing where she might have gone.
She flew up into the darkness, her cloak indelibly blending her into the night sky, such that she became of the darkness itself.
She soared over her land, heading towards the Mountains That Overlooked the World. And here she asked the Man of the Mountains the way to the Two Towering Ogres. These she asked to direct her towards the Three Giant Women, whom she hoped could show her the way to the cave of the Four Dark Elves; for she had heard of the eleves’ skills in producing the most magical of artefacts, the most gorgeous of jewellery, the most curiously fashioned mechanisms of enchantment.
As she talked to the Three Giant Women, the very first of them reached high into a soaring tree, picking out from its very highest branches an apple that glowed as red as Venus.
The second of the Three Giant Women took this glorious apple from her sister, cautiously handing it down towards the queen. She held it tenderly by a stalk weeping yellow sap where it had been plucked and severed, being careful not to damage the leaves that glowed a sharper greener than any emerald.
The third of the Three Giant Women explained what the queen must do as she drew closer towards the hidden cave of the Four Dark Elves; she must bite into the apple’s soft flesh, whiter than any pearl – and then the cave of the Four Dark Elves would be unveiled to her. Then she must take another ball of flesh, and another, until she was safely within the cave’s own mouth.
And so, as the queen drew closer towards the dark mountainside where the Three Giant Women had told her the cave lay hidden, she did as she had been told – and bit into the pearl-like flesh of the ruby-red apple, with its emerald leaves on an amber tipped stalk.
The entrance to the cave abruptly glowed in the darkness of the mountainside as if, from a distance at least, it were the bloody maw of the Guardian of the Underworld.
It flickered red with the flames of a great forge. It rang with the sounds of metals ferociously hammered into shapes they resented. There was the agonised hiss of hot metals abruptly cooled as they were bent to the will of others.
When the Queen of The Fall swept into the cave, every elf stopped what he was doing. Each stared with great longing; for queen didn’t realise it, of course, yet she was still wondrously beautiful.
Caught in the net of these dark stares, the queen feared for her safety, even her sanity in coming here.
Now that she had found them, she didn’t wish to ask any favours of these dark elves.
She wept with fear, wept in despair at her own foolishness. Her tears glistened, briefly sparkling like plummeting stars as they fell, as they splintered upon and scattered aimlessly across the dark earth.
They could have been the collapse of suns, the destruction of the whirling of the cosmos.
The balls of white flesh of apple were briefly caught within her startled throat, her gawping mouth.
The apple’s red skin ruptured beneath her tightly clasped fingers, the slash of her nails. It glistened as richly as fresh blood.
The green leaves glittered all the more as they were splattered with juices. The yellow stalk throbbed delicately as the queen fearfully clutched the apple to her heart.
The four elves descended upon her, dancing about her as demons might dance around dark witches on a night; and on each passing, they each dragged a taloned finger sharply across her neck, her shoulder blades and bones – each touch making the queen shiver with both fear and an unfamiliar, unrecognised thrill.
Then they stood back, as if admiring their creation. And from a boiling cauldron of moon silver, there arose the purest sheet of shining quicksilver, a mirror more fabulous than the queen could ever have imagined existed.
Now the four elves each invited her to step closer, to take a look at herself within the smoothly reflecting surface.
Hesitantly, wondering what trick could be being played upon her, the queen nervously drew closer, closer: and she gasped with delight! From within the mirror, she stared back at herself as the young beauty she had once been, only now dressed in the robes of the Queen of The Fall.
Indeed, there was only one difference in the garb she and this imaginary beauty both wore.
For at last, the queen saw what the elves had been working on: a necklace of such indescribable beauty, its materials could have been dragged down from the heavens themselves. It was of the finest wrought gold and silver, the most resplendent pearls and jewels, all of it laced delicately about her neck as if were a perfectly natural part of her.
She immediately recognised the necklace for what it was: an encapsulation of beauty itself.
She fell in love, in love with the necklace, in love with the beauty she had once been.
She sighed with longing, with lust, raising her hand to caress her own shoulder blades, her own neck: and both she and the tantalising image giggled in the sheerest joy.
She did wear the necklace.
The beauty in the mirror was her!
All about the elves, there was shadow, a shadow of the elves’ own making – and yet from that darkness they had forged a brightness that could have been the evening star, captured as it plummeted to earth.
The elves couldn’t mistake the longing in her gaze, for a similar longing similarly glittered within their own stares.
‘It is yours to wear forever,’ one of the elves said, seductively dangling the necklace out towards the queen. Then he added, as if it were nothing more than an afterthought, ‘For the right price.’
The queen couldn’t bring herself to thank the elves, for she couldn’t mistake the glow of evil in every eye that greedily took her in.
Yet she felt that this necklace should be hers, that it would be hers.
She made due reverence to each elf, yet every offer she made for the necklace was refused with a shake of a head, a knowing grin.
‘Then whatever you want for it,’ she declared in desperation, ‘it will be yours!’
‘Four nights; that is all we ask for,’ came the reply, accompanied with the exchanging of wicked grins between the four of them.
It was a miserable price to pay. The wrong price.
And yet the queen’s misery vanished the moment she clasped the necklace about her already delicate, already gorgeous neck.
For it blazed with fire, with every tone of the most glorious rainbow. It was the fruit of the heavens. It was, surprisingly, nature at her rawest and most beautiful, her most frightening yet enchanting.
It was a beauty so rich and infinite that it flowed from the necklace, flooding the queen’s entire being.
‘Now when he sees me,’ the Queen of The Fall told herself proudly, ‘he’ll see me as he remembers me!’
Somehow, however, word had reached the fool of how his love had regained her youth and beauty.
Some say the Four Dark Elves had boasted of their conquest to the Three Giant Women, who in turn had told the Two Towering Ogres, both of whom had gossiped to the Man of the Mountains That Overlooked the World.
Hearing of everything that had occurred, the fool believed the price his love had agreed to pay had been far too high.
So when the queen returned – to a palace of once again brightly illuminated halls of mirrors, to courtiers who gasped audibly at her beauty, to women who glared enviously after her – her fool had already left.
No one could tell the queen where her fool had wandered off to once more.
He might as well have vanished for all the way in which it seemed he had now so completely disappeared from her life once more.
Naturally, she continued to wear the necklace that had cost her her love.
Now, however, it was said that she only wore it as reminder of her foolhardiness.
As a sign of the wrong she had done.
But I can tell you, they are wrong.
For now, at last, she knew she was beautiful.
So why did she need him to tell her this?
Why did her life feel so empty?
Why did she feel so ugly, so deep inside?
The fool had fallen asleep while the Hag Queen related her tale.
‘He’s heard enough of queens, and their fools, I think,’ the Hag Queen observed mischievously as she helped herself to generous sip of wine. ‘And yet he is indeed a fool not to listen: for ultimately it’s a tale of the labyrinthine hall of mirrors we foolishly term the self – a place where we’ve created so many false facades to project onto the world that we can no longer find our true selves amongst it all.’
‘Who is this KingFisher?’ Crystine asked bemusedly. ‘Or do I really have to wait until he wakes up?
‘Hah!’ The queen chuckled as she took another drink. ‘The KingFisher’s of no consequence to me, obviously! Who would marry me? Who would be foolish enough to become my king – even with or without the threat of the KingFisher?’
‘He fishes for kings?’ Crystine said unsurely. ‘He kills them? Kills any king?’
The queen nodded, but accompanied it with a shrug of indifference.
‘The name is a bit of a hint, isn’t it?’ she giggled drunkenly. ‘I’m passed such cares, obviously! But our poor Queen of The Fall, now – she made the ultimate sacrifice, and yet still ended up fearing him!’
‘Then you believe that part of the tale?’
The Hag Queen chuckled richly when the source of Crystine’s confusion dawned on her.
‘Oh no, sorry, my dear,’ she apologised with a wicked laugh, ‘I mean she made the ultimate sacrifice when she later gave up her most treasured necklace: otherwise, how else do you think you ended up with it?’
‘I’d heard,’ the Hag Queen continued elatedly, ‘that the queen tried to make a deal with the KingFisher; that he could have her most prized possession as long as he returned her love to her. As long as, too, she no longer had anything to fear from him.’
‘Yet he took it – and refused to carry out his side of the bargain?’
The queen nodded.
‘Delicious, isn’t it?’ she squirmed with glee. ‘Oh, the food I mean, obviously,’ she added with another guffaw.
‘So he gave the necklace to the April – I mean, the princess, as she then was?’
‘We can only presume so: although gave is probably stretching it a good mile too far! It wouldn’t come free! No one knows what deal the princess herself made with the KingFisher. We can only hope, can’t we, that it wasn’t similar to the one the elves had forced out of our poor Queen of The Fall?’
She chuckled again.
‘You called them elves in your story,’ Crystine said. ‘The one’s I met – who gave me the necklace – said they were dwarblins!’
The queen laughed again.
‘And why not?’ she said. ‘They, of all people, can call themselves whatever they wish! They can be ogres, they can be giants; whatever they wish to make of themselves, in fact!’
Her manner, if not her beautiful mask of a face, abruptly became more serious as she suddenly sat up straight in her chair.
‘As you, my dear, could be a princess: if you so willed it!’
The queen clicked her fingers, summoning one of the waiting servants. She gave him instructions with another flick of a hand, as if it were all an established code.
She hadn’t given Crystine time to respond to the bizarre declaration that a girl could become a princess on little more than whim.
Naturally, if Crystine had been told this years ago, she would have been enthralled. Now she was simply embarrassed.
‘Why would I want to be a princess? she asked not unreasonably.
‘Why?’ The queen sounded briefly confused. ‘Why wouldn’t you, my dear? Are you entirely unaware of the advantages of being a princess? The lifestyle? The air of authority, of command?’
Crystine laughed: it all sounded so childish – being a princess! In the darkness of her childhood, such a belief had been the only hint of brightness; but now, thankfully, she had long outgrown such silly thoughts.
Amongst everything that was so dull and deliberately blackened within the Hag Queen’s palace, the oncoming glow of the returning servant was indeed like the rising of the morning star against the dark heavens. Of course, it wasn’t the servant himself that glowed so brightly, but the platter he was carrying; or rather (for the platter was naturally dulled) the Golden Apple he carried before him upon the dish.
It glowed so radiantly it could have been a sun dragged down from the whirling cosmos itself.
The servant placed the platter on the table between the queen and Crystine. He then smartly withdrew, taking up in his place standing within the shadows once more.
The queen took off her mask, revealing the person hidden beneath: and when she looked into her reflection within the Golden Apple, she wept tears of gold.
The golden tears of the Hag Queen splattered onto the platter.
They ran down the slight angle of the dish, pooled around the base of the Golden Apple: and in the blink of an eye, gold absorbed gold, such that tears and apple were indelibly one.
‘It’s…it’s beautiful!’ an awestruck Crystine stammered.
‘One of many,’ the queen replied nonchalantly, replacing her mask, bringing the falling of her tears to an end. ‘I have a whole courtyard of such apples, I’m afraid. Didn’t you see it on our way in?’
‘Why no, I…’
Crystine paused, doubting herself.
Hadn’t she, in fact, caught a glimmer of something in the corner of an eye as they had descended deep into the darkness?
The queen pushed the Golden Apple closer towards Crystine.
‘It’s worthy of a princess, don’t you think? It’s yours!’
Hadn’t the queen’s own tale warned against accepting an expensive ‘gift’?
The queen couldn’t mistake the mingling of longing and doubt in Crystine’s gaze. She chuckled richly.
‘I’m not expecting anything in return! I’m not some tradesman! Some disreputable elf!’
Her tone of sneering surprise immediately transformed into one of pride, of imperiousness.
‘I’m a queen. And you, when you accept my offer, will be a princess!’
‘I can’t just be a princess!’ Crystine insisted in exasperation. ‘Not just like that!’
‘A daughter of a queen is quite naturally a princess!’
Crystine paused, laughing bitterly at the irony of it all. No one could be further from being royalty than her down-at-heel mother.
‘Your mother’s not a queen?’ the queen asked, as if amazed. ‘Why, but here I am!’
She opened her arms wide, as if she were revealing some long hidden secret.
Crystine frowned, wondering if…if this was either some huge joke or some other massive upset in her increasingly strange life.
‘No, no: not the mother in your world, obviously!’ the Hag Queen snapped, recognising the reasoning behind Crystine’s growing confusion. ‘I mean, I can adopt you!’
‘Adopt me? I don’t need you to adopt me! Besides, why would you want to? I’ll be leaving soon, as soon as I find–’
‘Your way out?’ The queen chuckled in amusement. ‘You still think there’s a way back to your world?’
‘Well, if I came here, surely, there’s also a way out!’
‘And does a lobster, do you think, follow that same reasoning whenever one’s caught in a fisherman’s pot?’
‘Are you saying…there’s no way back for me?’
The queen shrugged.
‘Can you even remember how you got here? I’m sure even a captured lobster can think back that far enough!’
Crystine tried to think back to how she had ended up in this world.
‘It was a warehouse: a fairy storey. Then when I opened the doors, I was falling, and–’
‘So, if you could fall upwards…?’
It could, of course, have been the most mocking of comments: and yet the queen not only sounded serious enough but also, with yet another click of her fingers, called upon another servant to draw closer.
The servant approached from out of the darkness, another equally almost invisible servant alongside him. This second carried another platter, but whatever lay upon this dish was as dark if not darker than its surroundings.
Then again, it glittered here and there with dark sparkles of ultramarine, of emerald.
As the servants halted by Crystine, the first servant reached out for the folds of dark lying so neatly upon the platter.
With a sharp shake, he opened it up before her.
Now it glittered with an emerald and sapphire sheen, the glow of the most resplendently beautiful bird feathers.
It was a cloak; a cloak, Crystine wouldn’t have been surprised to hear, bringing together a feather of every bird that ever flew.
‘Yes, yes: it’s the cloak from the story!’
Once again, the Hag Queen had understood Crystine’s frown of uncertainty.
Crystine didn’t like to ask how the Hag Queen had managed to acquire the Queen of The Fall’s magical cloak.
‘Didn’t I say had a whole orchard of Golden Apples?’ the queen said, as if reading Crystine’s mind once more. ‘Magical apples,’ she added conspiratorially, reaching over to pick up the one lying on the platter.
She threw it up into the air, such that it briefly hovered over a bunch of dark grapes. Here it dissolved, becoming a rain of golden tears once more. The tears splattered over the grapes like so much molten lava cascading over black rocks.
The skin of the grapes became pure velum, its juices a dark red ink. The stalk was now a pen, with a sharply pointed nib.
The sheet of parchment rose up into the air, the quill writing upon it, a flourish that was a vibrant signature.
‘There: I’ve signed it,’ the queen declared with great satisfaction. ‘It’s all officially decreed now!’
‘Wait, wait: you can’t just do that!’ Crystine protested. ‘I haven’t agreed to it yet! I haven’t signed it!’
‘Why, yes you have!’ the queen said, peering closely at another signature lying above her own and drawing Crystine’s attention to it. ‘Correct me if I’m mistaken; but that is your signature, yes?’
Crystine stared in complete bewilderment at the signature.
‘Why, yes, it is! But I don’t see how–’
‘You signed it?’ The queen shook her head, tut-tutting as if scandalised. ‘You really must pay more attention in future to what you’re signing, my dear! Now that you’re a princess, who knows what you could be fooled into signing up to?’
She tapped the pen, which flowed and quivered as it once again went through a transformation, this time turning back into a Golden Apple. But the signed parchment remained, sealed with a golden tear.
‘What do you get out of all this?’ Crystine asked the queen suspiciously.
‘Me? Why, consolation, of course. Now I have a daughter, and a beautiful daughter at that too!’
She looked Crystine’s way, her masked face perfectly similar.
‘We could be mother and daughter, don’t you think?’
She brought Crystine’s attention back to the cloak still dangling from the servant’s hands.
‘Your cloak, my dear: a gift from your equally beautiful mother!’
The servant moved as if to drape the cloak over Crystine’s shoulders.
Crystine nervously slipped to one side. She glanced down sadly at the still sleeping fool.
‘But I can’t just fly off from here!’ she said. ‘I can’t just leave him here!’
The queen looked down at the fool disapprovingly.
‘You can’t?’ The queen sounded genuinely surprised. ‘Surely this is the ideal opportunity to rid yourself of your fool?’
‘He’s not a fool! He’s…he’s…’
Crystine realised she wasn’t at all sure what the young man was.
‘A fool, I’m afraid.’
The young fool had woken up, agreeing with the queen’s estimation of him with a sad, tired yawn.
‘There you have it, my dear,’ the queen announced with only the slightest hint of triumph.
‘Still, I can’t fly away, just leave–’
‘Oh, all right, all right,’ the queen sighed resignedly. ‘If you insist!’
Reaching for the golden apple yet again, she threw it up into the air, where it briefly hovered over the sleepy fool; then became once more a shower of golden tears.
Crystine flew up into the darkness, her cloak blending her into the night sky. She soared over her mother’s land, deliberately avoiding the Mountains That Overlooked the World
She was following the road, looking for the point where the ruts of heavy carts began to carve into the packed dust: a sign that the realm of the Hag Queen had come to an end. More importantly, it would be a sign that she was drawing closer to the area where she had first fallen into this bizarre world of lonely queens and hunted kings.
There were other, larger signs that she was leaving the realm of her ‘mother’. Way ahead, she could see lakes and waterfalls, glittering with a slivery sheen as they reflected the moon’s beauty back to her.
Believing she was close to where she had fallen into the dust of the red road, Crystine began to swiftly ascend almost directly upwards, seeking out anything that might even remotely resemble a warehouse, or at least a set of doors: perhaps they were hidden amongst the clouds, as the cave of the Four Dark Elves had been veiled by the darkness of the mountainside?
The cloak of feathers made her weightless, flowing about her like vast wings. They allowed her to fly through the clouds at unbelievable speed, to swoop, to rise, to glide – and yet she found nothing that hinted at a route leading her home.
Coming in particularly low across the road once more, she was surprised to see a lone traveller, heading as swiftly as he was able away from the Hag Queen’s lands. A cumbersome bag barged relentlessly against his legs, yet still he forced himself into a hurried stride that only made the barging of the bag all the worse.
The doctor: it had to be the doctor who had been with the fool when they had discovered her sprawled in the road.
She thought of landing by him, reassuring him that he had nothing to fear now from the Hag Queen.
Then she recalled how he had so greedily stared at her necklace. How much more enviously would he regard the magical cloak?
She decided, instead, to pass silently over him in the darkness: to land some way ahead, and wait for him there.
She wasn’t sure how or why, yet she felt sure that the doctor had something of importance to tell her.
Crystine landed on the road at a point where the doctor wouldn’t be able to see her until at least a few minutes had passed.
This gave her time to remove the cloak, and then her bracelet: the gold bracelet presented to her by the Hag Queen.
She wasn’t one for jewellery, yet she seemed to be gradually accumulating more than she believed to be even remotely attractive.
The bracelet was graced by a charm, glowing with the tiniest of jewels. Yet it was an odd one by any standards; for it was a fruit pie, a dessert of some kind.
An Apple Fool, to be more precise.
As instructed by the Hag Queen, Crystine threw the bracelet up into the air.
Here it ever so briefly hovered before dissolving into a shower of golden tears, the fool himself appearing amongst its glittering waterfall.
‘Were you all right in there?’ Crystine asked him concernedly as a Golden Apple dropped back into her hands.
‘In where?’ the fool asked, looking about himself in disbelief. ‘How did we get back out here?’
‘Never mind,’ Crystine said, lying her cloak down upon the road then throwing the apple into the air to hover over it, ‘your friend’s approaching: the doctor.’
‘The doctor’s not really a friend,’ the fool replied distractedly as, with wide-eyed surprise, he saw the golden rain transform the cloak into a glittering charm bracelet. ‘Just someone I met on the road: a travelling companion.’
Crystine picked up the bracelet, observing the single, bejewelled charm of a sparkling bird as she slipped it onto her wrist.
Being a princess did have its advantages after all.
The doctor’s cry was understandably nervous; he was, after all, drawing closer to two dark shapes patiently waiting for him to approach on a lonely road.
‘It’s only us, doctor,’ the fool announced jovially.
‘But…’ It didn’t sound as if the fool’s brightness had completely allayed the doctor’s edginess. ‘The Hag Queen took you!’
‘Only for a quick talk; she let us go,’ Crystine added, emulating the fool’s brightness of tone, ‘and dropped us off here.’
‘I didn’t see you pass,’ the doctor replied, more suspiciously than ever.
He was now so close to Crystine and the fool that, despite the darkness, they could quite clearly see him looking around and behind him, as if trying to work out how anybody could possibly have passed him on the road.
‘Across land; by horse,’ Crystine tried to explain with a lie.
The doctor glared at her, his scepticism still all too apparent in his frown, the narrowing of his eyes.
‘What did she want to talk to you about? Didn’t she say something about seeing you in a dream?’
‘She’d mistaken me for someone else, obviously,’ Crystine lied again, recalling that the queen had indeed referred to seeing her in a dream. ‘She hoped I might be able to help her interpret a weird dream she’d had.’
Crystine was getting tired of having to explain herself to this man. Tired, too, with having to lie.
At least the doctor was no longer directly glowering at her. His eyes were now greedily focused on the dazzling bracelet.
‘Another fabulous piece of jewellery?’ the doctor demanded. ‘A gift from her, this time?’
‘No, no: not from her.’
She had lied again, which she hated: but what choice did she have. How could she explain by telling the truth to such an obviously untrustworthy man?
‘I was wearing it before,’ she continued. ‘My blouse sleeve must have hidden it from you.’
The doctor didn’t sound as if he had been in anyway persuaded by Crystine’s lies. Unexpectedly reaching out, he clasped the charm in his palm, admiring the sparkling gems.
‘Remarkable,’ he breathed. ‘It could be a gift from the Fisher Queen herself!’
‘Fisher Queen?’ the fool chuckled. ‘I think you must mean the KingFisher!’
Abruptly glancing up, the doctor glared at the fool.
‘I know what I meant!’
‘There are queens aplenty in this land, admittedly!’ The fool didn’t sound as if he’d taken offence at the doctor’s rudeness. ‘But, I assure you, good doctor, that there’s no Fisher Queen!’
‘The tale of the Fisher Queen!’ the doctor protested. ‘Surely you’ve heard of that at the very least?’
The fool paused as if briefly considering this, then sadly shook his head.
‘No, no; I’m sorry, I haven’t. But if there is such a tale, then obviously it’s nothing more than a silly little fairystory.’
Crystine didn’t like to ask how you could have a fairystory in what seemed to her to be a fairystory land.
‘It’s not a fairystory!’ The doctor was now almost belligerently insistent. ‘If it were, how would you explain this?’
He reached into his bag, pulling out a glistening, dark blue crystal dangling upon a chain.
Crystine watched the slowly twirling crystal in a mix of wonder and a discomforting sense of recognition. For it sparkled as if it were a captured sphere of the universe.
‘That?’ the fool scoffed. ‘Hasn’t it got you into enough trouble already?’
‘Only because I don’t entirely understand how it should be used!’ the doctor exasperatedly spat back.
The fool glanced Crystine’s way with a grin.
‘It’s nothing to do with any non-existent queen,’ he assured her adamantly. ‘It’s already had us kicked out of a number of homes and inns, because he claims it can predict–’
‘Not predict!’ the doctor fumed, as if exhausted by constant repetitions of an explanation of the difference. ‘It ensures that your child will be of a certain gender!’
‘Well, any one of two, anyway!’ the fool gleefully corrected him. ‘We’re lucky to still be alive!’
‘I just haven’t mastered it yet!’ the doctor persisted. ‘But it definitely does work; because it’s the Queen of Crystals!’
The doctor had left the crystal seductively dangling in the air, where its steady twirling, its capturing and scattering of the light, had entranced Crystine.
‘This Fisher Queen; where does she live?’ Crystine asked curiously.
‘She doesn’t live, Crystine,’ the fool said kindly, using her name for the first time that Crystine herself had noticed. ‘Unless you count living in someone’s imagination!’
Crystine pouted, considering this.
‘Yes, I do count that!’ she said assuredly.
Just as the doctor had, only moments earlier, unexpectedly reached out and grasped the charm, Crystine now deftly palmed the glowing crystal.
She shivered as a surge of cold blood coursed down her arm towards her heart.
How could it do that?
She sensed a connection with the crystal; sensed that it had something to do with her – to do with who she was,
How could that be possible?
How could a crystal have anything to do with determining who she was? Especially a crystal existing only in a world completely (well, almost completely!) separate from the world she had been born in?
She glanced at the crystal glowing so darkly blue in her palm; and in it she saw a child, a tiny babe, calmly resting in the waters of the womb – she was sure!
‘How much?’ she asked the doctor, probing his startled eyes for any clue that might reveal how desperate he was to cling onto the remarkable crystal. ‘How much for the crystal?’
For some reason, she found herself deliberately avoiding saying ‘your crystal’.
‘The necklace!’ the doctor said with only a moment’s pause for thought.
Crystine placed a protective hand around the ruby,
No, not the necklace: she was somehow connected to that too, she realised. It had something to do with bringing her here, she was sure.
In which case, it was probably the only thing that offered her some route back home.
Besides, she was still literally connected to it; she hadn’t worked out how to remove it yet.
She shook her head.
‘The bracelet, then,’ the doctor said triumphantly.
Again, Crystine sadly shook her head.
The cloak was too valuable to part with so easily, even for this remarkable crystal. The Golden Apple, too, was far too precious a gift to give away so wilfully.
The doctor sniggered.
‘So, what else do you have to bargain with?’
‘Pearls,’ the fool declared, preparing to rip away yet another handful of precious stones from his already seriously damaged jacket. ‘How many?’
Now the doctor guffawed scornfully.
‘Pearls? For a crystal that could make me a fortu–’
‘Make you a prisoner, more likely!’ the fool reposted.
‘I only need to figure out how it works!’ the doctor said pointedly once more, snatching the crystal from Crystine’s hand with a deft flick of the chain.
Crystine shivered again, but this time with a sense of loss.
But it wasn’t the babe in the womb waving goodbye; it was the Fisher Queen.
That definitely wasn’t possible!
And yet it was something she had definitely sensed.
She stared back at the doctor, speaking to him perhaps far more sternly than she had originally intended.
‘Why do you think this is from the Fisher Queen?’
‘I…I don’t know,’ the doctor stammered hesitantly, as if surprised by his own admission, as if it had only just dawned on him that this was the truth. ‘It was just…something I sensed.’
He grimaced in embarrassment.
He didn’t realise this made perfect sense to Crystine: for hadn’t she just undergone her own weird experience of sensing a connection with this supposedly fairytale queen?
‘You sensed that it was hers?’ the fool jeered. ‘Is that all?’
‘I know it sounds ridiculous!’ the doctor sneered. ‘Up until…up until a second ago, I honestly thought there was a more reasonable connection!’
‘This tale of the Fisher Queen–’
‘A tale only,’ the fool interrupted. ‘Are you sure you should be interested in such nonsense, Crystine?’
‘How long will it take us to find lodging for the night?’ Crystine asked.
‘From what I can remember when heading out here,’ the doctor answered, ‘it’s around an hour’s travelling to the next village.’
‘Long enough then,’ Crystine said authoritatively, ‘for you to tell me this tale of the Fisher Queen.’
‘The Princess Perryvale found herself lost one day amidst the low lying swampland of the farthest extremes of her realm. Here the mist could abruptly descend upon you, confusing you all the more in an area where it was already difficult to spot landmarks that might help you determine where you were.
‘Everything looked the same: flat islands of coarse reeds, surrounded everywhere by rivers and streams that continually turned back upon themselves to form a bewildering labyrinth of swiftly flowing water. The soil, of course, was useless for building any structure, even the poorest of hovels.
‘So imagine the princess’s surprise and joy when, rising out of the mist, she spotted what must have been the very tallest tower she had ever seen. Urging her mount on to leap over the streams lying between them and the soaring tower, she thanked her great good fortune that she had by pure chance come across such a magnificent building, the abode – surely – of nothing less than a great duke!
‘As she hurriedly made her way there, however, she came to a section where the streams were widening into meandering rivers, to the point where she began to fear that she would never be able to persuade her horse to leap across such wide and rapidly raging courses of water.
‘But then – thankfully, once more – she heard a cry of greeting.
‘“Welcome,” came the cry, “if you’re seeking somewhere safe to stay, you’ll find yourself more than welcome at my home!”
‘The princess was at first startled by this welcoming yell, which seemed to come out of nowhere: but then she saw a boat lying low amongst the towering reeds, in which was seated a ferryman and a queen – a queen who was fishing in the darkly swirling waters.’
‘Wait, wait!’ Crystine cried out. ‘Stop! I know this tale already!’
‘You do?’ the doctor asked, the relief in his voice quite clear.
‘You do?’ the fool said in surprise. ‘But why would a queen be fishing?’
‘I mean, yes; I’ve heard this tale before – but it’s not of a Fisher Queen! It’s the Fisher King!’
‘Aren’t you confusing it with tales of the KingFisher?’ the fool said. ‘If not, then any tale involving a king – even a Fisher King – must at some point involve the KingFisher!’
‘No, there’s no KingFisher involved!’ Crystine stated confidently. ‘It’s the tale of Percival, a knight, and how he comes across a Fisher King who leads him to the grail, the Holy Grail!’
The fool appeared merely bemused by this, while the doctor was completely bewildered. His expression was one of complete confusion, as if he were struggling to recall and reconcile long forgotten memories.
‘But…I seem to remember…no, no! It’s definitely the Fisher Queen!’
‘Then what happens later?’ Crystine asked. ‘Is there a procession within the tower, of girls and boys, carrying a certain something of great importance?’
‘Why yes, there is!’ the doctor agreed happily. ‘They’re carrying branches of May blossom, apples, autumn leaves; and dew droplets that shine as brightly as golden tears!’
Now Crystine was the one who frowned in confusion.
‘Then…if that’s true, maybe it is a slightly different tale.’ She paused thoughtfully, wishing she hadn’t interrupted the doctor after all. ‘But what is the main object they’re carrying? If, that is, there is one?’
‘Oh yes, yes; of course, all these other objects are just minor things compared to the young girl who enters bearing in each raised hand a glittering sphere, one of gold, one of silver.
‘Now these glittering spheres seemed in some way immaterial, for they not only touched, but merged into each other, forming between them what could be the most wonderful, almond-shaped jewel!
‘And within that sparkling jewel, there was first a new born babe, then a child, who in turn became a girl, a woman, and an old crone. And as she withered, she became once again a child within the womb.
‘Now Princess Perryvale wished to know more of this marvel she saw: yet she believed it would be impolite for her, a mere guest, to ask questions of her gracious host. For naturally, it would be an infringement of all the rules that have been set down defining etiquette and decorum. And the princess, of course, did not wish to appear to all the world and even the heavens as an unsophisticated ignoramus!
‘She retired to bed still marvelling at this wonder she had seen, determining that she must, at some point in the new dawn, pluck up the courage to ask for an explanation of what she had seen; but unfortunately, she awoke to find herself all alone within the tower.
‘No matter how much she called out, no matter how much she wandered around the tower’s uncountable corridors, she could find no one who could explain what she had witnessed the previous night.
‘And yet, as she finally, resignedly mounted her steed once more and trotted out across the tower’s drawbridge, the drawbridge immediately rose up behind her as soon as the horse’s rear hooves left the wood and touched the road. The portcullis dropped down into place, and the great doors clattered shut.
‘Then the whole tower itself dissolved before her very eyes, becoming nothing but tear droplets of silvery mist.’
It wasn’t, of course, a large inn. The rooms were spartan, with only the most basic items of furniture; that is, a simple wooden bed with sheet-covered straw, and an even simpler wooden chair.
The rooms, including one for the doctor, had been paid for with yet another pearl ripped from the fool’s jacket.
At this rate, Crystine reasoned, the poor fool would soon have very little left of his once marvellous jacket.
As she lay upon the uncomfortable mattress of stale-smelling straw, Crystine was surprised to find that she was tired: for, after all, when she had left her own world it had still been morning, not evening as it had been here when she’d first literally dropped into it.
Then again, if the two worlds differed in this way, how was she to know if time actually progressed at similar rates?
No time at all might have passed back in her own world. Or it could just as easily be the case that whole months had flown by, perhaps even years.
If so, what had had happened to her mother when she had discovered that Crystine had vanished?
Did everyone automatically presume Crystine must have run away? Had the shock of it all finally tipped her poor mother completely over the edge?
Crystine realised she had to get back home as soon as possible, if only to ensure her mother wasn’t suffering unnecessarily.
Sleep beckoned, for it seemed the only answer to her problems at the moment.
Wasn’t that how your subconscious was supposed to help you? To direct your actions, to present your options, through lucid dreams?
Leaning a little across her bed, she blew out the small remnant of candle she’d been given to light her room. Naturally, it had hardly given out any illumination, yet now it’s oily yellow light had been extinguished, she missed it. The darkness was almost complete, but for a few slivers of moonlight that came in through the gaps in the closed shutters at the window.
The incredibly black, angular shadows seemed alien, giving the whole room a frighteningly otherworldly air. Even the chair, upon which Crystine had carelessly, exhaustedly stacked her clothes, seemed strange and alive.
‘Good evening,’ the man sitting in the chair, in the darkness, declared jovially. You’re later than I’d expected.’
‘Who…who are you?’
She couldn’t help it: her voice was tremulous, squeaky.
She wished she hadn’t doused the candle: wished she had something to relight it.
Instead of just sitting here, shouldn’t she be leaping up from her bed?
But then what?
Should she leap at him?
Or away from him? Hoping, ridiculously enough, that somehow placing the bed between them might somehow protect her?
‘No one for you to fear,’ the man in the shadows declared, shifting only a little in his chair, as if making himself a little more comfortable. ‘Unless I’ve made a complete fool of myself, and you’re actually a king!
He chuckled at his own witticism.
‘You…you’re the KingFisher?’ Crystine asked uncertainly.
What could have been the head of the dark figure appeared to nod a little in agreement.
‘And you’re a princess, I hear: and therefore I’m here to help you! To help you become queen, whenever you so wish!’
‘I hadn’t heard that the KingFisher had a good side!’ Crystine replied sceptically.
‘But you haven’t heard everything yet, have you?’ the KingFisher pointed out.
As her eyes slightly adjusted to the darkness, Crystine saw that his otherwise exceptionally dark body glittered every now and again with glints of sapphire and emerald. There was also a hint of a feather-like quality–
Crystine had to check that she still wore her bracelet to reassure herself that it was still firmly secured around her wrist.
The KingFisher either didn’t notice her alarm or wasn’t perturbed by it.
‘Everyone, I believe has their good side,’ he said.
‘Yet if I’m to be queen,’ Crystine said, ‘I have to rule without a king?’
The man shrugged.
‘Do you really need one?’ he asked. ‘If you’re queen: why would you wish to share that power, let alone allow some arrogant man to begin to accrue all that power for himself?’
‘Who’d say I’d allow it?’
‘Who says you’d be capable of stopping it? Men can be cunning, untrustworthy; by the time you’d figured out whom he really was, it could all be too late for you!’
‘If you’re really here to help me, could you help me return home?’ Crystine asked hopefully.
‘But you’re a princess now! You can’t just flee your responsibilities!’
‘I didn’t want to be a princess!’
‘Oh, come now: yes you did, when you were a child! Besides, I didn’t want to be the KingFisher – and yet here I am! Do you see me abrogating my responsibilities, betraying those who are dependent upon me fulfilling my role?’
‘Then – could you introduce me to a queen?’
The dark shape seemed to rise from his seat and theatrically bow before her.
‘At your service, m’lady: but haven’t you already met the Hag Queen?’
‘Yes, but now I wish to meet the Fisher Queen–’
The KingFisher laughed, perhaps a little nervously.
‘The Fisher Queen?’ he said, as if unsure that he had heard Crystine correctly. ‘The Queen of The Fall; the April Queen – for these I can arrange introductions! But this Fisher Queen; who on earth could have been filling your head with such nonsense?’
‘Are you saying she only exists in a fairytale?’
‘A fairytale? I wasn’t aware she even existed in such a silly thing! A world of make-believe! Another world completely different to this one of reality!’
‘And yet, here I am,’ Crystine replied.
Naturally, Crystine couldn’t see the confusion in the KingFisher’s expression, yet she flattered herself that she could detect it in his voice.
‘Yes; here you are,’ he said, as if attempting to understand what she might mean. ‘And you, surely, must be inquisitive enough to want to know how you must behave as a queen? And who better to instruct you in that than another queen?’
‘If I’d wished to know that, I could have stayed with the Hag Queen.’
‘Surely we both recognise that the Hag Queen would be capable of teaching you only so much?’
‘She didn’t strike me as being particularly eager to give me any further instruction.’
‘Yet she told you about the necklace, I believe?’
Crystine could only presume that the man was in some way indicating the necklace she was wearing. It was too dark to be entirely sure.
‘You seem to know a great deal of what passed between myself and the queen!’
Crystine managed to sound suitably affronted, the implication being that she regarded the KingFisher’s knowledge as an intrusion into a supposedly private conversation.
The man shrugged nonchalantly once more.
‘I did say I took my own responsibilities seriously.’ His own tone had now switched to an accusatory one. ‘You know, the last time I saw your necklace, it was adorning the April Queen’s throat!’
‘Oh er, yes,’ Crystine stammered nervously, taken aback by the KingFisher’s sudden change of attitude. ‘It seems she lost it…’
‘Lost it? But fortunately, you found it? So you’ll be wanting to return it immediately, yes?’
‘Why yes; I mean no, I can’t–’
‘Can’t?’ The man chuckled grimly. ‘Please, don’t be upset by my attitude; I just wanted to present your unfortunate position as an example of how we ourselves can end up being painted in a bad light. There are tales, don’t you know, that insist I stole it from her!’
‘And did you?’
‘I’m not the one wearing it, am I now?’
‘That didn’t really answer my question,’ Crystine persisted.
‘She lost it in a locked room: even the fairytales of my supposed theft agree on that point. I’m assumed to have transformed myself into a beetle! Enabling me to get in through the smallest gaps! How ridiculous is that now? Even if such a thing were possible, how would a beetle carry the necklace back through those small gaps?’
Crystine almost nodded in agreement, until it suddenly occurred to her that there was a flaw in his argument.
‘You could have briefly become a man again, throwing the necklace out of a window you opened.’
The man hummed, as if fleetingly considering this.
‘All very complicated, don’t you think?’ he said. ‘I’d prefer something much simpler! You see, I’m not like the Hag Queen, who prefers to tell such ridiculous tales with such unnecessary detail, such relish, delighting in the fall of others.’
The door to the room burst open with a loud crack. A dark shadow rushed into the room, throwing itself at the seated KingFisher.
Before the hurtling shadow had a chance to strike him, however, the KingFisher dissolved, rising up from the chair as if he were nothing but a dark dye within a fluid. In that same easy curling of movement, he transformed into some huge and many tentacled sea creature – a cross between an octopus, Kraken and squid.
It spat out a thickly enveloping white fluid at the attacker.
Now the dark attacker moved slowly, as if also deep underwater. And as the streams of white fluid rapidly whirled about him, he took on an increasingly recognisable shape.
It was the fool; the fool attempting to take on the KingFisher.
As the swirling streams of white fluid curled everywhere about the fool, they became thicker, more material-like, and sticky. They could have been made up of quickly hardening glue.
The many tentacles now whirled with an equivalent speed, taking the ends, the rising curves of the strands, and swiftly weaving them about the fool – transfixing him into a ridiculous pose of a man caught in mid leap.
There was another, sudden flow of materials, of the physical abruptly becoming fluid once more: and the KingFisher was once again calmly seated upon his chair. He ensured, however, that this time he was almost comically positioned, the poor fool forever frozen in his fruitless attempt to strike out at his foe.
A horrified Crystine clasped the thin bedsheet about her. She leapt up from the bed and rushed towards the petrified fool.
‘What have you done?’ she wailed, reaching out with a free hand to touch the entrapped fool. ‘Is he all right? He isn’t…dead…?’
The KingFisher waved her fears away with a dismissive flip of a hand.
‘Oh, he’s fine,’ he said coolly. ‘He’s just briefly disabled: you see, despite all the tales unfairly blackening my name, I’m not an unreasonable man.’
‘Then please; you must let him go!’ Crystine pleaded.
Despite the scarcity of light, Crystine was now so close to the KingFisher that she could see him pout thoughtfully; then grimace, as if doubting the truth of her statement.
‘I think must is too strong a word, regarding our present situation.’
‘I don’t understand; what do you mean by our present situation?’
‘As I’ve already explained; I’m here to help you. I just don’t like unnecessary intrusions.’
‘So: once you’ve helped me – you’ll release him?’
The KingFisher nodded.
‘Of course! In any game I play, it adds to my amusement to give the less fortunate an otherwise unwarranted advantage!’
‘Game? What game?’
‘Life, of course! All of life’s a game, isn’t it? In which we’re all trying to gain a better position? In which we hope that everybody’s fair and plays by the rules?’
‘I suppose so; yes,’ Crystine replied only a little doubtfully.
‘Then, let me tell you of another player in this game of life: for I sincerely hope it helps explain a few things that might otherwise puzzle you.’
The Knave of Devils
Our player was a gambler, one down on his luck.
The cards never, ever seemed to go well for him.
His palming of cards, his clever shuffling of packs: it all counted for nothing. It never does when Lady Fortune is completely against you.
He cursed her, cursed his increasingly long run of bad luck.
The more he lost, the more he gambled on the next turn of the cards. Hoping he’d make up for all that he’d already so uselessly thrown away.
The more he gambled, the more he uselessly threw his money away.
He felt ill, feverish: hot. He was sweating uncontrollably, no longer able to hide the anguish in his eyes as he was dealt yet another totally useless hand.
The man seated across from him grinned, gaining amusement from the player’s misfortune, his growing frustration.
That was all the player could see of the man; his grin.
For the rest of him was hidden by the lantern that hung so low over the table, illuminating nothing but the clear green playing surface.
‘You’ve palmed the Queen of Hearts,’ the man declared coolly. ‘And you brought up an Ace in the last shuffling of the pack.’
Now the player sweated all the more.
‘You’re mistaken,’ he insisted, hoping he was hiding the tremor of guilt in his voice. ‘I always play by the rules!’
‘More fool you then,’ the man chuckled.
He threw a card down into the centre of the table.
It was a card the player didn’t recognise.
It was the Knave of Devils.
‘What sort of card is that?’ the player asked, bewildered.
Even so, he was glad that the conversation had veered away from his cheating.
‘It’s any card you want it to be.’
‘It’s a Knave: but of no suit I recognise.’
The symbol representing the suit was like a mingling of all the other suits – the diamond, the heart, the club, the spade – for it could have been the bloodied black tail end of the devil.
‘The Suit of Devils,’ the man explained. ‘Hence, it can be any of the other four: and being a knave, of course, he’s not interested in playing by any rules.’
‘And it’s backing, it’s size?’ the player demanded sceptically. ‘Even if what you said were possible, any difference in the pack itself would reveal that I was cheating.’
Rather than answering, the man reached out and deftly flipped the card a number of times.
And each time the card changed.
The Queen of Hearts.
The Ace of Clubs.
But the pattern on its backing also changed. As did the size of the card.
As did the quality and state of the card, going from pristine to handmade and well-worn in the blink of any eye.
‘But what of the older cards,’ the player persisted, determined now to have this remarkable card, yet determined also to carp about its quality in the hope of bringing down its price. ‘The suits of Wands, Cups, Swords and Pentang–’
He gawped as the now constantly flipped card went through every suit he mentioned.
‘Of cherries, of May blossom…of princes…’ the player continued, determined to test this card to the fullest.
On every call he made, on every flip of the card, it became the suit he demanded, no matter how outrageous its definition.
‘How much?’ he asked at last in the intolerable heat of desperation.
He feared what the price might be; for being no fool, he believed he had already figured out the identity of his opponent.
It had to be the Devil himself!
The constant flipping of the card had come to an end.
It was the Knave of Devils once more.
In many ways, it was so similar to a regular court card, with its graphic representation of the wryly grinning knave: his two heads – one inverted, of course – set against what could be a bundle of tangled, redlined linen.
And yet on second glance, the player noticed that what he’d taken to be the standard representation of an upturned head was, in fact, a large Knave of Devils card, one being played by the original knave.
He smiled in admiration at the originality of it all.
How was such a card made?
He’d pay a king’s ransom to have it.
But what if the price was his soul? Wasn’t that the usual fee in such transactions?
‘How much?’ he had asked, like the world’s greatest fool; and now he almost instantly regretted asking such a stupidly dangerous question.
‘Oh, the card’s manufacture costs me hardly anything,’ the man seated opposite coolly informed the startled player, ‘and therefore will cost you hardly anything too.’
The player was still torn: ‘hardly anything’ means so many different things to so many different people.
‘I’m not sure I can afford–’
With a raised hand, and a smile, the man stopped the player’s embarrassed protestations from continuing any further
‘I’m thinking only in terms of, say…well, I believe it’s worth at least an egg-sized diamond, don’t you?’ the man declared jovially.
The player almost burst out laughing in surprise, in disbelief.
With a card like this, he could make an equivalent sum in one night alone!
There had to be a reason why it would be so relatively cheap.
‘What happens if I play a card already held by another player?’ he asked suspiciously.
The other man was unfazed by this.
‘I believe you have the Queen of Spades in your hand?’ he said.
He calmly flipped the Knave of Devils, transforming it into the Queen of Spades.
The player picked up his own hand.
He no longer held the Queen of Spades.
It was the Queen of Clubs.
Had he made a mistake earlier?
‘You’re confused; wondering if you made a mistake earlier?’ the man observed accurately with a mischievous chuckle.
‘And with such a remarkable card,’ the player said more suspiciously than ever, ‘how can I be sure you won’t switch it on me once we’ve made our deal?’
Despite the accusation, the man remained nonchalant.
He picked up the Knave of Devils, flicked it across the table. The card spun through the air, such that the player had to catch it in his hand before it struck him in the face.
‘Take it,’ the man said assuredly, what could be seen of his face turning slightly as he looked out across the room to other groups of players, ‘try it out at another table, even another club.’
This man wasn’t the devil!
He was a fool!
The player chuckled inwardly: he would make more than enough to pay for the card.
How could he possibly lose?
He moved over to another table, one were a large group had gathered, the stakes being played foolishly high. He put on display what was actually the last of his wealth, giving the impression that it meant little to him, that he was more than willing to lose it all.
He was invited to take a seat.
Even to shuffle the cards.
It was a clean, honest shuffle.
They were watching him; it was a test.
He didn’t mind: he didn’t need to shuffle the cards to his advantage anymore.
To have any card you wish for, at any moment in the game.
It was the dream of any player.
The Knave of Devils lived up to its name, such that the player could have won hand after hand.
But he wasn’t a fool; he made sure he lost a few hands every now and again.
He won only the ones where the pot had grown. Even so, he was accumulating so much money now that it was impossible to leave it all stacked up before him on the table.
The banknotes he began to gather up, to slip into his inner pocket with a barely concealed smirk, declaring with apparent modesty that it must all be down to Lady Fortune, that obviously she was smiling down upon him tonight.
‘I think it’s less to do with Lady Fortune,’ a man snarled ominously, rising so angrily from his chair that it was sent flying backwards, ‘and more to do with you cheating!’
In the small circle of dim light thrown out by the table’s overhead lantern, the player could only see grimly set mouths.
‘Look, look, I can understand your dismay at your misfortune,’ he admitted, hoping to diffuse what was obviously a dangerous situation, ‘so to make amends, I’m willing to return a small part of my winnings!’
Drawing out the loosely bundled banknotes he’d placed within his jacket’s inner pocket, he casually tossed the money out across the tabletop.
From all about him, there were abrupt gasps of fury.
He glanced down at the table, his eyes widening in horror; it wasn’t scattered with banknotes, as he’d expected, but an uncountable number of cards – every one of which was the Knave of Devils.
‘Wait, please, please: I’ve been tricked!’ he pleadingly insisted, attempting to draw their attention to the many faces of the mischievously grinning knave. ‘See, he’s the Devil; he made me use them!’
The man who had stood up, who still loomed over him threateningly, frowned in bemusement.
‘Devil cards?’ he sneered, reaching for a handful, throwing them back over the player as perfectly regular cards. ‘It’s just a normal deck: one you’ve been slipping in amongst our own!’
‘I can prove it’s the Devil work,’ the player swore, resigned now to handing over the Knave of Devils, reaching into the sleeve where he’d temporarily stored it. ‘See,’ he said, flicking it through the air towards the looming man, ‘it’s magic; it becomes whatever you need it to be!’
And in a dangerous situation like this, what else could the player need other than a glittering dagger?
It struck the man in his heart.
With his spade slung nonchalantly over his shoulder, the gravedigger watched the execution of the player with an habitual indifference.
The blade took the murder’s head off cleanly, he was glad to see.
The head dropped into a basket of tangled redlined linen, there for the gravedigger to wrap up and take away.
And as the gravedigger twirled the bundle in his hand, it became a card, a card featuring a wryly grinning knave.
And the knave was holding another card, a similar card; one of a knave holding another card,a similar card; one of a knave…
Forever and ever.
‘So now you’ll release him?’
Crystine was far more concerned by the fool’s plight than she was with interpreting any tale.
‘Off course!’ the KingFisher replied gaily.‘For the smallest of fees, naturally!’
‘You wrapped him up like this!’ Crystine gasped exasperatedly.
‘Oh, only to show willing on your part, I main: to recompense me for the exhaustion of my powers–’
‘How did wrapping him up exhaust your powers?’
‘Surely, it’s only fair…’ the KingFisher answered in a knowingly wheedling manner, holding out a raised and upturned palm.
‘I…I don’t have anything to give you!’ Crystine admitted miserably.
‘That’s a very nice bracelet,’ the KingFisher observed, reaching out and delicately fingering the charm. ‘I like birds!’
‘No, not the bracelet…’
Crystine’s rebuff faded away; she had nothing else of any worth that she could give him.
She slipped the bracelet off her wrist, handing it to him with obvious regret.
‘Why, thank you,’ the KingFisher said, immediately throwing it up into the air.
The bracelet twirled within the air: became once more the magical cloak, the magical Golden Apple.
The KingFisher expertly caught both. He slipped the apple into an inner pocket, even as he slipped the feather cloak over his own, remarkably similar feather cloak.
The cloaks blended, until they could have been one and the same garment.
Crystine was thoroughly bewildered.
Why would he want a cloak just the same as the one he already had?
How could she be so foolish that she’d handed it over to him so easily?
She was furious with herself, with him.
‘You knew?’ she snapped.
‘Oh, the Hag Queen always gives her daughters the most fabulous gifts,’ he answered casually. ‘It’s such a pity that her children never appreciate either her of her gifts!’
Crystine fumed, but what could she do now to get her bracelet back? Besides, the poor fool was still entrapped within the web of white strands.
‘So you’ve made a fool of me,’ she admitted, ‘but will you now please release my friend?’
‘Your friend?’ He glanced about himself as if looking for this mysterious ‘friend’.
‘You know who I mea–’
Her growl of anger was cut short as, with a twirl of a hand, the KingFisher produced a gleaming knife, as if out of nowhere.
Crystine stepped back, her gaze never leaving the threateningly held blade.
With a grim chuckle, the KingFisher tossed the knife onto the straw bed.
The air in the room briefly regained a strangely viscous fluidity: and the KingFisher was abruptly a crow, flying towards the shuttered window.
‘The deal! You haven’t released him!’
Crystine was so furious that she almost flew after him.
The crow landed on and clung to the top of the shutters.
He said, ‘Whatever do you think the knife’s for?’
Then the KingFisher transformed into a beetle, flying out through the small gap between shutter and window.
That was all it took to release the fool?
And she’d given away her Golden Apple and cloak of feathers for that!
She’d have been better exchanging them for the doctor’s strange crystal.
Now, she had nothing.
The knife cut through the woven strands as easily as if they were nothing but straw.
As more of the severed strands fell to the floor, suddenly the whole weave abruptly gave way: and the fool continued on his headlong lurch across the room, as if he had never, ever been interrupted.
Pitching forward, he grabbed at the darkened chair, it’s body of discarded clothes. He wrestled it to the ground, briefly tussling with it before bewildering realising it had no substance.
‘What? Where did he go?’ he asked, completely mystified.
He glanced everywhere about himself in an obvious state of shock.
Seeing Crystine standing close by, he also added with a similar air of complete bafflement, ‘How did you get out of bed so quickly?’
I’m tired, Crystine suddenly realised. Too tired to try and explain everything that has happened tonight.
‘Can’t it wait?’ she pleaded, carefully making her way over towards him. She didn’t want to disturb the sheet she was using to cover herself. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Fine, fine!’ he declared happily, just about leaping back up onto his feet in his excitement. ‘I mean, yes, it’s a shame he managed to get away from me: but it just shows what a fool I’ve been to fear him all this time! And all for absolutely no reason at all!’
‘What do you mean?’
Crystine wasn’t quite sure if she had misunderstood whatever it was he was trying to say.
‘The KingFisher, of course! Didn’t you see him? Of course, it was dark: perhaps you didn’t see everything – but I almost had him!’
‘It was just my clothes that–’
‘No, no! Not just now!’ the fool insisted, a touch irritated that Crystine thought he was such a fool he’d confused the clothes with the KingFisher.
He tossed Crystine’s blouse aside, as if to demonstrate his recognition of the difference.
‘Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to–’
He realised it was too late; he had already contemptuously flung it across the floor.
‘When then?’ Crystine asked, politely ignoring the fact that her blouse probably needed a good clean now.
‘Earlier! Before when, I know, he just seemed to vanish, didn’t it? Until then, though I’d had him beat! That was the only way he could escape; by using magic to disappear!’
‘He didn’t just disappear!’
‘That’s what I mean; it was a hard fight he’d put up, I’ll give him that!’
‘You were tied up, with all those strands–’
She tried to draw his attention to the severed strands she’d let fall across the floor. But all there was there now were pieces of straw, as if she’d scattered her bed about the room.
The fool observed her quizzically.
‘Are you all right?’ he asked concernedly.
Crystine thought that the knife the KingFisher had given her would prove her version of events.
But all she held in her hand was an old card, a knavish looking Joker.
Not surprisingly, then, the fool didn’t accept any of Crystine’s many attempts to offer an explanation of what had really happened.
‘It must have just been a terrible nightmare,’ the fool pointed out when she began to explain how the KingFisher had turned into an octopus, a crow, a beetle.
‘Don’t you see how important all this is to me, to the princes– the queen?’ he persisted. ‘I’ve shown that all these supposed powers of this KingFisher are nothing more than a myth! We can head back; you can meet the April Queen, Crystine!’
‘But my bracelet–’
‘You’ve lost a bracelet in the dark: and picked up some old card as you’ve sleepily searched for it. Or maybe he just snatched it as you slept!’
‘I know what I saw!
‘But so do I, Crystine! I’ve even got the bruises to prove I fought him; and would have won against him, if he hadn’t cheated and scuttled off like the coward he is!’
‘Bracelets don’t just disappear!’
‘Necklaces do, remember?’
Even in the darkened room, Crystine recognised a slight hesitation in the fool’s voice.
‘Disappear?’ Crystine repeated challengingly. ‘Isn’t the tale told that it was probably stolen – by the KingFisher?’
‘Well I what?’
‘I have an admission to make,’ he announced ashamedly.
‘The night she lost it; I saw her that night…when she lost it.’
‘How?’ Crystine asked in response to the fool’s admission. ‘Wasn’t her bedroom supposed to be locked?’
‘Room? Well, yes; of course – I suppose so.’
He seemed strangely puzzled by Crystine’s statement, as if his memories of the event were far from clear, as if he were trying desperately to make sense of things that didn’t – when he tried to think about them in any detail – make any sense at all.
‘Being a princess, I suppose there must also have been guards on the outside of her room too, of course!’ the fool said, as if trying to persuade himself that this must be true, frowning once again as he tried to recall things more accurately.
‘No, no; I wasn’t invited in! It was a dream, it must have been – or at least, I’d thought I was having a dream. At least, until the next morning, when I discovered what I’d seen was true!’
Crystine was disappointed. A dream? That’s all he was describing?
But hadn’t her own dreams of the Hag Queen turned out to have a basis in this bizarre new reality she found herself caught up within?
‘What had you seen exactly?’ she asked. ‘That the princess wasn’t wearing her necklace?’
‘No, as I said: I saw her when she lost it! As she lost it, I mean. When I first saw her, asleep in her bed, she was still wearing it. She looked so content, smiling as she slept! But then…’
He paused, as if he were trying to remember everything accurately.
‘…then, almost in an instant, she wasn’t! It had…gone!’
‘It seems more than ever that some form of magic was involved then!’
‘Yes, I suppose…so,’ the fool began unsurely, only to suddenly readily agree, almost with poorly disguised relief, ‘Yes, yes; that must be it, mustn’t it? There was definitely magic involved!’
‘That may also explain why you saw it all happening in your dream; there was a connection between you and the princess, obviously – and the use of magic briefly strengthened that connection!’
As she confidently made this assertion, Crystine was naturally thinking of the weirdly strong connection that she had sensed existed between herself and the crystal.
‘That’s right,’ the fool elatedly agreed. ‘Earlier in the day, she’d told me she was so happy: she seemed almost blissful, as if every care had vanished from her mind. And I’d felt that way too, because it was like we’d sensed this deep – yes, as you said – connection between us, like we were meant to be together!’
‘So,’ Crystine continued excitedly, trying to make sense of all the confusing tales and events that she had recently heard or experienced, ‘the KingFisher took the necklace; then gave it to the elves – to give to me!’
‘No, the elves gave the necklace to the Queen of The Fall,’ the fool pointed out, correcting her. ‘And that was long before my love lost her own necklace.’
‘Yes, yes; that’s right. But the elves also gave me–’
‘No, Crystine! Not the elves! Surely you didn’t–’
‘Of course I didn’t! What must you think of me? I simply promised them I wouldn’t tell anyone that I’d seen them in my world!’
‘Yes, you know: the world beyond this one!’
‘The fool frowned, puzzled.
‘You mean…the world of the dead?’ he asked hesitantly.
‘No, no – I didn’t mean beyond…I meant: meant it’s another world – one completely different to this one!’
‘Ahh,’ the fool said, sounding like he was having difficulty taking all this in, as if it were a struggle for him to accept what Crystine was saying to him.
Seeing his confusion, Crystine instantly realised the mistake she’d made; not everyone here seemed to be aware of her world.
‘I know it sounds ridiculous…’
‘No, not at all,’ the fool surprisingly replied. ‘Although, yes, when I’d first heard of the existence of this other world, I must admit I was shocked – doubtful. It didn’t fit with anything I’d been told about our world; unless you included the childish myths of a time when we used to trade the jewellery made by our queens with another world, long since vanished.’
‘When you’d first heard of this world?’ Crystine repeated uncertainly, wondering if she had heard him right, or simply misinterpreted what he had meant to say. ‘When was that?’
‘When the doctor–’
‘The doctor? He knows of this other world?’
‘Like you, Crystine, he claims to have come from it! Of course, I didn’t believe him; but now you’re saying virtually the same thing, then…well, what am I supposed to believe, but that there must be some truth in it all!’
‘Look, look,’ Crystine said exasperatedly, ‘I’m sorry I keep repeating what you’ve just said, but this is so important to me to get the details right: what do you mean when you say virtually the same thing?’
‘Why, the elves, of course; giving him the crystal he blames for bringing him here!’
‘How did it bring him here?’
‘That’s when it gets really crazy: he says he was supposed to return the crystal to the elves. But instead of going down the stairs from where he’d been, he found himself heading up – towards a large room than opened up into here, into our world!’
‘Off course!’ Crystine exhaled jubilantly. ‘The crystal! That’s why I felt a connection with it! Like the necklace, it’s a link between our two worlds! It might help me get back there!’
‘Get back there?’ the fool said sadly. ‘But…but…’
He seemed to choke a little, as if a piece of apple he’d been eating had briefly caught in his throat.
‘But I don’t understand why the elves had to give you this necklace!’ he said firmly. ‘It’s not as if you need it: you’re already…already…well, you know – beautiful!’
Crystine felt oddly flattered yet also embarrassed by his nervous outburst.
‘To be honest, I wasn’t always so, well, beautiful, I must admit, so – wait!’
Her eyes widened as something dawned on her, as she attempted to recollect everything that had so far been revealed to her.
‘I just realised something really odd: the Hag Queen told me a story, how the Queen of The Fall had been tricked into giving the necklace to the KingFisher…’
She paused, allowing the fool to take in what might possibly be new information to him. His eyes narrowed as he began to shuffle this in amongst the many cards of his other memories, bringing some to the top, discarding others as presently unnecessary.
Crystine decided she would have to give him a little more help.
‘…so why did he have to then steal it from your princess – sorry, from the April Queen?’
Now the expressions of the poor fool signalled that his mind was a whirl: and Crystine immediately regretted mentioning the Hag Queen’s story.
‘No, no,’ she blurted out hurriedly. ‘I think I might know what you’re thinking here, but–’
‘No, it’s not your fault!’ the fool snapped irately. ‘It’s mine! Yes, I have heard these stories at some point – I remember that now! I’d hidden them away, hadn’t I? Put them to the back of my mind where, hopefully, I’d forget them!’
Crystine reached out towards him concernedly.
‘We can’t say for sure that–’
‘How did my love come by the necklace, if it was in the possession of the KingFisher?’
He pronounced love bitterly.
‘A man who we now know delivers his gifts using the dark elves!’
‘We don’t know that this is how–’
‘Huh, only a fool would believe that this KingFisher would just give her this wondrous necklace out of the goodness of his heart!’
‘Can’t you see that there are too many holes in what we know?’ Crystine protested. ‘There’s just so much information missing that we–’
‘So you’ve got things missing too, have you?’
The blunt interruption came from the doorway. The half-dressed landlord was standing there, alongside a similarly dishevelled landlady.
She was holding a lamp. He was holding a raised sword.
‘But as he came with you,’ the landlady declared sternly, glaring unforgivingly at them both, ‘it’s beholden on you, I believe, to pay us recompense for what your friend’s stolen!’
‘Ah well, at least we know what happened to your bracelet now,’ the fool said brightly, observing with a satisfied grin the severed strands of cotton that had previously held three of his jacket’s pearls in place.
That had been the price demanded by the irate landlord and his family on finding that the doctor had fled their establishment in the middle of the night. He had taken with him a number of expensive items he’d helped himself to as he’d quietly flitted through most of the inn’s many rooms.
Now the fool and Crystine were out on the road once more, the eyes of both of them locked on the far horizon; which was fortunate for the fool, as otherwise he might have witnessed his companion’s furious scowl.
‘I’ve told you what happened to my brace–’
‘A dream, like mine, that’s all. Come, you have to admit it makes far more sense that it was stolen by the doctor; along with all the other things taken from that poor family?’
In the cold light of day, nothing of what she’d seen the previous night made any sense; a man who transformed not only into a crow, not only into a beetle, but also into some kind of octopus, using the air as if it were as fluid and manipulatable as any patch of water.
Worse still, she thought she might have found her way home when she’d learned that the doctor was not only from there too, but also had a crystal linking the two worlds.
And now he and the crystal had gone. Vanished in the night.
If only, as the doctor had suggested, she’d traded her bracelet for the far more valuable crystal!
Or even traded her necklace for it, if she could have removed the damn thing!
They might have both been made by the elves, but at the moment the crystal sounded like it would be of far more use to her than the necklace.
But if they’d both been made by the elves; then that meant, surely, that the elves knew how to create links between the two worlds!
After all, they were also the ones who had come through to her world on at least two occasions that she knew of.
‘The elves; we have to visit the elves!’ she suddenly blurted out to an extremely surprised fool.
‘Why would anyone wish to visit such odious creatures?’ the fool stated sourly. ‘Unless…no, not you as well, Crystine?’
‘No, no: of course not! Haven’t I already said I’m not like that? I mean, I just need to ask them how to get back to my own world!’
‘Back to your world?’ the fool repeated a touch miserably, brightening up a little as he added, ‘But, of course, thankfully it isn’t so easy to just visit the elves, is it?’
Even as she said this, Crystine recalled how the Hag Queen’s story had mentioned giants and ogres giving directions. But surely that was all just some sort of poetic licence?
‘Well,’ the fool replied with a grin, ‘I don’t know which version of the tale you heard, but it’s not just a question of finding the elves: the Mountains that Overlook the World would take months to reach. Unless you happen to have the queen’s magical cloak, of course!’
‘Oh yeah, of course,’ Crystine murmured gloomily.
Despite Crystine’s many attempts to persuade the fool to give her directions to the elves, he refused each time with some excuse or another.
‘Besides,’ the fool said bitterly after giving yet another reason not to visit the elves, ‘they can’t be trusted.’
‘Look,’ Crystine snapped in exasperation, ‘you can’t believe everything you read in a story! Because, yes, I’m not stupid: I know all these excuses all come down to you being upset with your April Queen possibly meeting these elves!’
The fool seemed about to protest, but Crystine wasn’t going to give him the opportunity.
‘You know, have you just considered the possibility that there might be some completely innocent explanation? Just how much credence do you give your “love” anyway? Why haven’t you considered that your queen might have put one over on the elves? Have you thought about that? No matter what bargain she had to make with these elves, it doesn’t mean she ended up…you know, going along with it!’
‘Honouring, it, you mean?’ the fool said wryly. ‘Or maybe people aren’t expected to honour the agreements they’ve made in your world?’
‘Well, of course they–’
‘And if she didn’t honour any agreement she made, then how could she henceforth be trusted in her role as queen? It’s a matter of principle, isn’t it, for a ruler to stick to the rules? Otherwise, why should anybody else bother adhering to them?’
‘But if the elves have asked for something completely unreasonable–’
‘So you’re saying we should behave as badly as they do? In our world, we tend to believe that there are reasons for rules, for behaviour; yes, not everyone will keep to those rules, but if everyone abandoned them, well – then we’d be living in chaos!’
‘Okay, okay,’ Crystine said, raising her hands to show that she yielded to some of his points, but adding quickly, ‘but personally I think it’s perfectly reasonable to look for some way out of a deal you’ve been tricked into!’
‘Ah, but a deal you’ve been tricked into is a completely different thing!’ the fool replied, not unreasonably. ‘But we don’t know that my lov– that the queen was tricked into any deal! And therefore, as a matter of principle, she would have to honour it; even at the loss of her honour, if that was the ridiculous agreement she’d made!’
He chewed his lip bitterly.
‘But then, why should I care; she’s no longer my love, after all!’
‘Well I think you’re being unfair on her, until you know for certain what she had agreed to!’ Crystine retorted. ‘My mum used to tell me tale, a tale she said she could never remember actually reading, yet she knew it by heart: and that, aptly enough, was called The Principle of Princes.’
The Principle of Princes
If you were asked to imagine a beautiful princess, do you think she would look like someone else’s idea of a beautiful princess?
Some, obviously, would more or less agree with you.
But, equally obviously, many wouldn’t.
‘Beauty’ means so many different things to so many different people.
So, to make sure we can all imagine a princess whom we can all agree is indeed beautiful, let’s make things a little easier.
Imagine, instead, her heart.
And so now, if you’re a realist – one of those who flatters themselves that they know the way of world, complete with all its grim qualities – then you will quite rightly be thinking of a muscle of blood and flesh.
If, however, you are more romantically inclined, then you have doubtlessly visualised a heart as it has been portrayed by both artists and poets throughout the centuries: that is, in the familiar flawless heart shape, it’s red more that of a sweet cherry, rather than of blood.
Well, as ridiculous as it might sound (for both realists and romantics alike, if we’re being honest, as we must), this is the most perfect description of this particular princess’s heart.
How could anyone live with such a preposterously unreal heart?
(And yes, we all know even the romantics amongst you are thinking this too!)
Well, let me explain a little more; and then you can decide for yourself if such a thing is really so impossible.
For unlike any normal child, Princess Cherish had actually grown around her heart: and her heart had grown from a cherry seed.
And by revealing this, I hope I am not giving away too much too early.
As we find in many stories, ours actually begins with a couple who had everything they could want for – bar a desperately wished for child.
Now when I say they wanted for nothing, apart from this child, I do not mean that they are by any means wealthy in the usual sense of the word; the truth was that they were poor in terms of material wealth, their life being rather hard compared to many, if not one of excessive toil and starvation.
And yet some people can quite happily accept such a life; indeed, they can regard themselves as being luckier than most. And so their life is one of happiness, full of wonder of the glories of the world around them. And therefore they enjoy sharing a love of all things and each other.
If only they had a child, this particular couple thought, their life would be perfect in every way.
Naturally, they had heard of the remarkable powers of the Hazel Witch.
She could, with the incantation of a spell, the administration of certain potions and fluids, bring the glory of new life into the most barren. She was frequently called upon by the highest courts, by kings and queens, even emperors and empresses, all of whom were willing to pay the earth to ensure the production of a heir.
For of course, the Hazel Witch always expected due recompense for the administering of her arts. She wasn’t, indeed, renowned for doing all this purely out of the goodness of her heart.
And so, unfortunately, all her skills at producing children might as well have been on the other side of the moon as far as the impoverished couple were concerned.
Even so, it seemed as if fortune had smiled on the couple after all.
For the Hazel Witch had heard of both their inherent goodness and their plight.
And she wished to show that she wasn’t in anyway as hard-hearted as she had been painted.
The Hazel Witch called when she knew the husband would be out, reasoning that this was a matter best discussed purely between women.
‘I’ve heard of your wish for a child,’ she coolly informed the poor, startled woman, ‘for I’ve also heard that you and your husband are loving and kind: and I wish to help you, for the child I have in mind will cost me little, and therefore will cost you hardly anything too.’
The woman was torn: it was indeed, of course, her dearest wish to have a child.
But what would the price be?
‘Hardly anything’ means so many different things to so many different people.
‘I’m not sure we can afford–’
With a raised hand, and a smile, the Hazel Witch stopped the poor woman’s embarrassed protestations from continuing any further.
‘I believe you can’t afford not to,’ she said. ‘Naturally, my guiding principle is that I should receive a honourable payment for the great joy I bring to people’s lives. Yet my real fee for this gift to you, if you must know, is that when it’s heard how I helped such a graciously good couple as yourselves, it will also become known that I am not this grasping, tetchy hag that I have been falsely taken to be. All I ask of you, by way of a fair recompense, is that you promise me nothing more than a single apple; one of my choosing, on the day of my choosing, when I most sorely need it.’
How could the poor woman fail to agree to such a remarkably generous offer?
And yet her joy instantly turned to dismay when the Hazel Witch produced from beneath her dark cloak not the cherished babe but, rather, nothing more than a minute cherry seed.
‘Please don’t be disappointed, my dear,’ the Hazel Witch said concernedly as soon as she saw the poor woman’s consternation.
‘Trust me on this,’ she pleaded, taking care to hold the woman’s hands gently as she handed her the seed, ‘plant this on a night when the moon has waxed to her fullest, watering it with your own most special blood: and as well as regular watering, repeat this each month. In this way, I promise you, you shall have a child beautiful beyond all imagination!’
Well as you know, this is exactly what happened.
Naturally, the child was called Cherish.
Naturally too, the husband couldn’t fail to see that magic had been involved in the birth of his beautiful daughter. And that could only mean the magic of the Hazel Witch.
But he didn’t wish to challenge his wife to find out what deal she had made with the witch; rather, he preferred to remain ignorant. He reasoned that no good could come of accusing his poor wife of foolhardiness, especially when her agreement had brought such immense happiness into their lives: happiness beyond all previous imaginings.
For Cherish was a delight in every way.
Which really shouldn’t be such a surprise, for she had the most natural heart of anyone born.
The kindest of hearts.
The purest of hearts.
The beauty and tenderness of this remarkable child of nature soon became famed throughout the nearest villages, the nearest towns, the nearest cities.
Soon, these tales reached the ears of the rich and powerful. She was discussed at the tables of wealthy men, as if she were no more than one of the trifles they devoured hungrily, spitting the seeds away. She was talked of in the terms of being a desirable possession, one that could be bought, used and traded, perhaps with only the very slightest loss in value. Though, of course, as she aged…
She was the possession of a poor couple, they had heard. And therefore she would have to understand that she could be bought, provided the price was right.
And some of these wealthy men, of course, couldn’t quite see why any price at all should be involved, when they could quite rightly take what they believed should be theirs.
The poor couple first heard inklings of these discussions of the wealthy when they noticed the growing number of well-dressed men either riding past their land, calling in on their house with some odd excuse, or even simply turning up and demanding that their horses were watered. Now although these men appeared fabulously garbed to the naive couple, they were in fact little more than servants to the truly wealthy men they served, sent out by their masters to check that the tales of this beauty were entirely true.
The rich and powerful were gradually circling, the only thing holding them back from striking and taking control of this valuable artefact being their uncertainty as to who else might have already laid claim to her: for the guiding principle amongst the rich and powerful was that you didn’t anger anyone with greater riches and power than yourself.
The rich and powerful, naturally, had rules to abide by. And one of the most important of these was that you didn’t steal anything from those in higher positions than yourself.
In fear for their daughter’s honour, the couple fled their home with her.
They would seek the help of their prince, a prince who would soon be king, a man reputed to hold the very highest of principles.
‘Principles’ means so many different things to so many different people.
And so the couple’s idea of principles unfortunately differed so much from the Principle of Princes.
For naturally, the guiding principle of princes is to ensure a smooth running of their principality
And who amongst their people could help them achieve this?
Why, the rich and powerful, naturally! The wealthy, who owned and controlled their own large areas of land.
And in this great scheme of things, the worries and cares of people like our couple are obviously regarded as being of no importance whatsoever.
As for the beautiful daughters of peasants, well, shouldn’t they be grateful for the attentions of men who would otherwise fail to give them a second glance? They should make the best of their beauty while it lasted, and be grateful for what they had been granted.
And yet, and yet…hadn’t we already all agreed that the beauty of Cherish was a beauty on a whole other level?
So when her parents innocently appeared before the clerk of the official who served a lower magistrate, they were not immediately dismissed as nothing more than foolish time wasters.
The clerk showed them through to the official.
The official showed them through to the lower magistrate.
The lower magistrate paused, taking in Cherish’s remarkable beauty, wondering if he were powerful enough to keep her for himself.
He showed the family through to a higher magistrate.
The higher magistrate showed them through to a clerk of the court.
The clerk showed them through to an official, one serving a rich and powerful courtier.
And this, usually, was as far as (and the only way) even the most beautiful of girls could expect to rise through the ranks of officialdom. If she were lucky, she might be spotted by the king, becoming his plaything for a while, at least until he became bored with her.
Yes, it was a harsh world. But if you’re willing to play by the rules set by the rulers, what better can you expect?
Fortunately, the beauty of Cherish, as we have seen, was one from a whole other world.
‘Beauty’ means so many different things to so many different people. But in Cherish’s case, everyone had to agree: this is what all ideals of beauty must now be measured by.
Everywhere she went, she caused a stir, a fluctuation of the gossip, the whisperings, that always circulate around a royal court. By the time word of her beauty reached the prince, the ripples she had caused so far off had become a storm of praise, of wonder.
Naturally, the prince laughed at these tales: he had heard so many stories of marvellously beautiful girls, only to be profoundly disappointed when he finally caught sight of this ‘wonder of nature’.
Of course, he arranged for the family to be directed to the garden lying beyond his chambers. Here he would be able to see for himself this girl, this ‘very finest creation of Nature herself’.
And as soon as he saw her, his amused smile immediately vanished from his face: for in his heart, he realised he suddenly had no real power at all.
She was the one who held all the power – the power to make him the happiest man in the world, or the most miserable.
By rights, the prince could insist that this girl must do as he commanded.
If she refused, he could take her by force. Even have her killed, if she continued to displease him.
But in what way would any of those courses bring the anguish in his heart to an end?
Each action, in its way, would only inflame that anguish, tearing him apart from inside.
The way she smiled, the way she talked, the grace of her movement, her kindness, the nature of her laugh: how could forcing her to do anything against her will ever hope to preserve rather than completely destroy these qualities?
He wanted her to love him the way that he saw she loved life, to cherish him the way she cherished the flowers, the trees, the birds and the animals.
He wanted her sparkling eyes to light up as he entered the room, not to narrow with loathing.
He wanted her lips to respond to his with softness, not resistance, anger and detestation.
And, most of all, he wanted her heart to pulse with joy whenever she even heard his name, not pound with a furious hatred at his mere mention.
And he wanted this because that was how his own heart reacted whenever anyone now spoke of Cherish.
To ensure the poor girl’s safety, the prince declared, she and her family would be housed within a cottage on his own private estate.
Here he could visit the family a number of times a day, asking after their wellbeing, or if their needs were being adequately attended to.
He was soon to be king, and yet whenever he appeared before Cherish he could have been nothing but the most foolish of young boys.
He never dared reveal his true feelings for her, fearing that he would be rejected, his whole world collapsing immediately about him.
And so he kept up the pretence of being only interested in ensuring the family was kept safe from the rich and powerful men who would wish to make Cherish theirs.
‘Love’ means so many different things to so many different people.
And some can take a curiously resigned pleasure even in the intensely sharp pain of unrequited love.
A king, of course, cannot forever remain within the power of another.
That is the very first Principle of Kings.
And so immediately after his coronation, the new king sought out a witch infamous for the success of her concoctions, including – naturally – the most effective of love potions.
He presumed the price for such a wondrous potion might be high, but he was willing to pay almost anything to win the love of Cherish.
Yet the Hazel Witch only laughed when the king mentioned the price. For she had heard of this lovesick loon’s dotting over this Cherish, a girl who could be said to be one of her own children, a beauty who was undoubtedly her finest creation.
How much more would her fame increase when people heard how a child she had gifted to the poorest of peasants had ensnared a king and his kingdom?
Naturally, she didn’t reveal her real reasoning when she informed the startled king that she expected little in way of payment from him.
‘I’ve heard of your wish to win someone’s love,’ she coolly said, ‘for I’ve also heard of your anxiety that she will see you only as heartless if you attempt any form of enforcement. I wish to help you, for the potion I have in mind will cost me hardly anything, and therefore will cost you precious little too.’
‘Precious little’ means so many different things to so many different people; especially where desperate kings and cunning witches are involved.
‘I can afford anythin–’
With a raised hand, and a smile, the Hazel Witch stopped the king from continuing any further.
‘I believe you can afford almost anything I ask,’ she said. ‘Naturally, my guiding principle is that I should receive a honourable payment for the great joy I bring to people’s lives. Yet my real fee for this gift to you, if you must know, is that you, our king, will know that I am not the heartless woman I am so unfairly painted to be. All I ask of you, by way of a fair recompense, is that you promise me nothing more than a single apple; one of my choosing, on the day of my choosing, when I most sorely need it.’
How could the king fail to agree to such a remarkably generous offer?
And yet his joy instantly turned to dismay when the Hazel Witch produced from beneath her dark cloak a potion that had obviously already been prepared long ago.
‘Please don’t be offended,’ he pleaded, ‘but I fear I require the most special of your concoctions: for I fear that her heart might already be turned against me, maybe too damaged to be in anyway recoverable. She must regard me as being no better than those wealthy men she fled, who wanted her as nothing more than a plaything they could discard once they’d had their fill of her!’
‘My dear,’ the Hazel Witch said concernedly as soon as she saw the poor man’s consternation, ‘you must trust me on this: this is the most perfect blend of the blood of cherries, of the dew distributed by the moon when she has waxed to her fullest. Its whole purpose is to mend a broken heart of the very kind you have described; indeed, it would work on no other heart but hers – for as you are obviously aware, her heart is of the most special and unique kind!’
She pressed the potion into the king’s hands.
‘There should be no need to warn you, I hope,’ she said, her gaze probing in its intensity, ‘that when she drinks, you must make sure that it is you and no one else who stands close by her!’
Is there any tale involving a love potion that doesn’t relate its foolish misapplication, resulting in – at best – hilarious consequences?
If there is, I certainly haven’t heard of it, let alone told it.
The rules have not been followed, the tales warn us, and so chaos ensues.
Well, happily our king is not in any way foolish.
As I hope you have begun to realise by now, he is a ruler whose heart is definitely in the right place!
You disagree with that?
Ah, I see; you believe he shouldn’t have resorted to using the subterfuge of a love potion!
But hadn’t we already agreed that ‘love’ means so many different things to so many different people?
So, please, could we now continue with our tale?
No one had ever seen a king and queen so much in love with each other.
They complemented each other completely, for the king allowed his queen to have equal influence in the ruling of their realm.
She was not only considerate and kind, but also supremely wise.
This was the Principle of Queens: that everyone should be treated justly and fairly. Which, of course, the rich and powerful saw as being neither just nor fair.
And so when it was announced that the queen was soon to give birth to an heir, the vast majority of her subjects rejoiced.
One such subject, who was particularly ecstatic at the news, didn’t bother with the usual procedure of attending the clerk, who would show her through to the official, who would show her through to the lower magistrate, who…
She preferred, rather, to suddenly appear out of nowhere before the king, the queen, and her parents.
Although initially startled, everyone but the queen (who, of course, had never been given any inkling of the Hazel Witch’s involvement in her life) greeted her as if she were the most kind-hearted person they had ever known.
Indeed, neither the queen nor her king were aware of the pact that had been made with the witch by her parents.
Similarly, neither the queen nor her parents knew of the transaction agreed by the king to win her love.
‘I believe,’ the Hazel Witch declared brightly, glancing around the room with a jubilant glow in her eyes, ‘that it is time for me to collect my agreed payment!’
The only one shocked by this announcement was the queen, for both the king and her parents assumed the witch must be talking only to them: although the heart of the queen’s father sank, for he now naturally feared that the deal his wife had made must somehow involve the new child.
The queen knew enough of the Hazel Witch’s dealings to immediately comprehend the meaning behind the demand for payment: her parents must have originally been childless, while her king…of course, now she understood where that strange concoction had come from.
The witch looked towards them all.
‘The agreed fee was an apple of my choosing, correct?’
The queen and her king where startled to see the queen mother nod in agreement.
The queen and her parents where similarly startled to see that the king also nodded in agreement.
The witch glared at the king.
‘Of the king,’ she growled, ‘I demand your Adam’s apple!’
She glowered at the queen’s parents.
‘Of you, I demand the apple of your eye!’ she snarled, pointing towards Queen Cherish.
She was, of course, demanding the deaths of both the king and queen!
‘Obviously,’ the Hazel Witch exclaimed in delight, relishing the horrified faces she saw gathered about her, ‘an “apple” means so many different things to so many different people.’
If not the very first Principle of Kings, it is an important rule that a good king must be prepared to forfeit his own life rather than jeopardise his realm or his people.
The Hazel Witch was far too powerful for the king to refuse her demands.
‘I accept,’ the king declared with all the pride he could muster: yet even as he spoke, he drew closer to his queen, tenderly taking her hand and adding, ‘Regarding my wife, however, I would beg you to consider some other form of payment, no matter how outrageous it might seem.’
‘I accept no such thing!’ the queen stated adamantly. ‘Don’t presume, witch, that just because I’m nurturing our child I’m made foolish by cares and considerations! Our deaths don’t benefit you in any way: they are merely demands placed upon the bargaining table, there for you to trade and achieve what you really seek!’
The witch stared back at the queen, smiling, impressed by the intelligence and forthrightness of her creation.
Truly, all this was turning out far better than she could have ever hoped.
‘Why, what I want is what a great many mothers secretly end up wishing was theirs; the beauty of their daughter!’
‘I accept!’ the queen snapped proudly.
Both the king and her parents leapt forward to protest; but it was all too late.
The witch was already taking on all the beauty of the queen.
While the poor queen was withering away, like the shrivelling of a once glorious cheery tree.
The rapidly ageing queen might have more readily accepted her condition if she had at least been allowed to keep her child.
Unfortunately, it was increasingly obvious that the witch desired even this attribute of the queen.
Her belly was waxing to its fullest, the child due quite soon.
She caressed the almost semi-spherical roundness of her middle, delighting in the joy of being a mother.
‘Ah, a new heir for my realm,’ she purred mischievously, scornfully looking down on the distraught king, on the wailing parents who would soon have a daughter older than themselves. ‘For which of your subjects would now accept this crone as their beloved queen; when here I am in all my glorious beauty, for everyone to see!’
‘For the good of our child, My Lord,’ the once wondrous queen wheezed, glancing tiredly at her weeping husband, ‘you must do as she says and take her in my stead.’
‘In your stead?’
The now marvellously beautiful eyes of the witch widened, first in surprise then in amusement.
‘Oh, but obviously you don’t understand, my dear! A queen doesn’t need a king to rule! The king still has his own payment to make!’
From beneath her dark cloak she produced the very finest of daggers; and, stepping forward, handed it to the king.
As the dagger was handed to the king, the rapidly ageing queen took it instead from the witch’s hand.
‘Not yet,’ she croaked defiantly. ‘Isn’t it the Principle of Queens that everyone should be treated justly and fairly?’
The new queen smirked even as she nodded in agreement.
‘Although I would add,’ she sneered, ‘that “justly and fairly” means so many different things to so many different people.’
Ignoring her, the old queen shuffled as quickly as she could towards a nearby cabinet. Opening one of its many doors, she withdrew a small bottle of blood-toned liquid; a love potion, and one of the most effective ever devised.
‘Before I truly became queen, the king asked me to take a drink of this,’ the now elderly queen said, returning to the witch and pressing the bottle into her hands. ‘Perhaps you might like to do the same?’
The witch looked at the bottle in her hands, her beautiful face beaming with growing amusement.
‘My dear,’ she chuckled, ‘do you really think me so foolish that you could trick me into taking some silly love potion?’
‘No,’ the gnarled queen replied, taking the witch a little by surprise, ‘but then, my husband didn’t believe he should trick me either. He confessed his love for me, but said he would rather I loved someone else than that I became his falsely held prisoner. And even if I hadn’t loved him before, I knew then that I had no choice but to love him!’
With a gentle nod of her head, she indicated the bottle in the witch’s delicately beautiful hands.
‘It’s still all there: it was unnecessary. My husband has no debt to pay.’
‘But rules are rules, my dear!’ the undeterred witch declared. ‘According to my version of all these principles, his debt can hardly be negated by his neglect to follow the instructions!’
‘Then you give me no further choice,’ the crone responded.
And taking the dagger she had been handed earlier, she plunged it deeply into her heart.
Had she lived, she would have looked so much like a woman constantly on the verge of dying.
Now, with her heart deliberately severed into two pieces, she collapsed upon the floor.
‘No, no! Not yet!’ the witch complained miserably. ‘The transference of all your beauty isn’t complete! There’s still–’
She clutched at her heart.
‘No!’ she shrieked. ‘Not your death! I don’t want to take in–’
Her heart, like that of her daughter, like that of the one she was now indelibly linked to, had split.
She crumpled to the ground, the bottle of love potion slipping from her loosening fingers, crashing to and shattering on the floor near to the fallen queen.
The spilt lotion was no ordinary concoction, of course.
It was formed from the most perfect blend of the blood of cherries, of the dew distributed by the moon when she has waxed to her fullest; its whole purpose to mend a broken heart of the most special and unique kind.
Indeed, it would work on no other heart.
Just as the heart had grown from a cherry seed, and the child had grown around the heart, the queen recovered not only her life but also all of the beauty the witch had briefly stolen but no longer required.
You may wonder, though, what happened to her own child; indeed, you might even be wondering what kind of a heart she might have been born with.
Well I can tell you (and by revealing this, I hope I am not giving away too much too early) it was the very strongest, the very dearest, of hearts.
It was the most perfect blend of the blood of cherries, of the dew distributed by the moon when she has waxed to her fullest.
And the Principle of Princesses?
To no longer abide by rules developed to keep us subservient.
As Crystine finished her tale, the fool appeared thoughtful for a moment.
‘They each innocently made agreements that were deliberately misinterpreted: is that what you’re saying?’
‘Well, speaking personally,’ Crystine admitted, ‘the tale means something wholly different to me; but yes, that is what I’d hope you’d take from it. I’m saying, I suppose, that at the very least you’ve got to give your queen a chance to explain herself.’
‘Of course,’ the fool replied, as if this was all self-evident.
‘So; which way is it towards the April Queen’s palace?’
‘I don’t suppose you happen to have two mirrors upon you, do you?’ the fool asked curiously.
Crystine didn’t even have one mirror on her, let alone two.
In a next village they came to, they had to ask around for the large mirrors the fool declared would be more suited to his purpose. They were rare, and therefore expensive.
Four more pearls vanished from the fool’s increasingly sorely treated jerkin.
Taking Crystine and the two mirrors off to a quieter, more deserted part of the small hamlet, the fool began to look around at the barns and sheds surrounding them, shaking his head disappointedly every time until, at last, his face brightened.
‘Yes, yes; this is more like it!’ he exclaimed excitedly, thankfully yet carefully placing the largest of the two mirrors upright on top of a wrecked cart that had been leant against a rotting wood wall.
They were in a narrow corridor running between two apparently long-abandoned barns. Directly opposite the mirror he’d already positioned, he stacked a number of other discarded farm implements, creating a support of sorts for the second mirror to stand upon.
‘Now,’ he said proudly, taking Crystine’s hand and leading her into the space between the two mirrors, ‘it’s time to see my love once more!’
He indicated that he wanted her, like him, to stare into one of the mirrors.
Naturally, Crystine could now see her own image, along with that of the fool, reflected time and time again, repeated it was said an infinite number of times.
An infinite number of Crystines.
An infinite number of fools.
Multiple images, all stacked one against the other, such that they could have been nothing more than a pack of cards, all constantly reshuffling a little each time either she or the fool moved even slightly.
‘So,’ the fool said cheerfully, even though his expression was one of serious concentration, ‘we want to be there, see?’
He pointed off to the right, trying to draw Crystine’s attention to just one particular pair lying deeply amongst all the others.
‘Fifty fifth image along, got that?’
‘What do you mean?’ Crystine demanded, being totally perplexed. ‘How am I supp–’
She stumbled on her feet a little as the ground seemed to abruptly shift slightly beneath her.
She had the strangest sensation that she was being whisked along through a crowd, a crowd of Crystine and fool clones; or as if she were once again a card in a pack, one being shuffled through so many other similar cards, such that that card was being deftly manipulated until it was placed higher up the deck.
She glanced to her left, now experiencing the weird sensation that she was looking back to a place where she’d been standing only a moment before, a place fifty five places back from where she was now.
Impossible, of course,
‘Ah, here we are!’ the fool announced merrily.
Crystine looked away from the multiple images caught within the mirrors.
They were no longer in the narrow confines running between two dilapidated barns.
They were standing in a resplendent hall of brightly illuminated mirrors, the sheer sheets of glass looming over everything as if they had been formed from a cathedral’s vast waterfall of windows.
Seeing herself repeated endlessly within these glorious mirrors, Crystine briefly felt that a part of her was somewhere hanging over the very edges of the world, or even residing somewhere in a far corner of the heavens.
Everything sparkled, giving the impression that she was living amongst the glittering stars.
A third person walked into the midst of the multiple images, the whole thing made disconcerting because Crystine was momentarily confused, wondering where the real third person had intruded into their world; a wild card slipped in amongst the pack, a knave who lived within every one of an infinity of universes.
The fool turned to talk to this man, and at last Crystine realised that he was there with them in the hall.
A servant, dressed in the kind of livery that anyone could have mistaken for the garb of a court card.
The fool took him aside, talked to him a while, then returned with an expression that signalled he wasn’t sure whether to be happy or sad.
‘She – the queen I mean – is apparently busy; but he’ll inform her that we wish to see her as soon as he can. Oh, he did recognise me, by the way. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be so easy to get him to announce that we’re here.’
‘So, do we wait here?’ Crystine asked, not exactly finding that an altogether unpleasant proposition.
She was entranced by the otherworldly gorgeousness of the palace. When the Hag Queen had described the mirrored halls of the Queen of The Fall, her imagination had obviously failed to do it justice even if it were only half the size of the April Queen’s palace.
She finished her question half-heartedly.
‘Or do we have to leave and find someplace else where we can wait?’
‘How about we do both?’ the fool said, so elatedly he was almost grabbing Crystine by the hands and launching her into a whirl of dancing. ‘We stay here, but we also go someplace else for a while?’
If the fool had said that only a few moments ago, Crystine would have believed he was just a little crazy. Now, looking at all the multiple Crystines looking eagerly back at her, she was enthralled by the challenge, the incredible potential of it all.
‘Where? Where do we go?’
‘Why,’ the fool replied, ‘where better than the palace of the Queen of The Fall?’
This time, Crystine was more prepared for the odd shifting sensation through so many multiple identities.
This time, she sensed that her progress, although remarkably rapid, involved a shifting from person to person, from one to the next.
It was as if she were being made aware of the various personalities she normally found herself having to present to the world. The characteristics she briefly adopted to at least have a chance of success in certain situations, in certain areas of her life.
Some were false identities, with characteristics her real self would hardly regard as being her.
Some were identities that even she believed represented her real self.
But which was the real her?
Where was her core, her heart?
Was she nothing more than all these layers that, onion-like, could be gradually stripped away; but only, in the end, to reveal that nothing substantial lay at the very centre of her being after all?
To reveal, in fact, that ultimately all these false layers were the real her?
Her confusion was enhanced all the more when, on the fool gleefully declaring ‘We’re here!’, she found herself standing in the very same grand hall of mirrors.
As before, a third person walked amongst them; becoming, like them, one of what could be millions of perfectly identical people.
It was the knave again.
And yet, no; it wasn’t.
His livery was different – not the bright gold and silvers of the sparkling mirrors, but the darker shades of reflected shadows, of the dulled backing that lay hidden behind every silvered mirror.
The fool appeared every bit as surprised by the servant’s appearance as she was. He obviously hadn’t intended to announce his arrival to the queen, as he had at the April Queen’s palace.
‘Oh, er, I realise your queen is probably ever so busy…’ he began to explain hesitantly, hoping no doubt that they would be almost instantly dismissed and allowed to travel back to the younger queen’s mirrored hall.
The servant’s unamused grimace gave the fool hope that his ploy was about to work.
But then, catching sight of the glittering necklace draped around Crystine’s neck, his manner changed completely.
‘Not at all,’ he stated with a surprising hint of great joy, ‘the queen will be absolutely delighted to receive you!’
Before the fool had any chance to protest that they needed to leave, the queen’s servant ushered him and Cyrstine through a huge door lying hidden directly behind a nearby mirror.
Here the room was entirely different to the hall of mirrors; or rather, it had probably looked exactly like the brightly sparkling hall at one time, but now all the mirrors had been covered with dark veils of the various tones of brown.
A figure draped in similarly dark brown veils was seated with her back to them, garb that would have been regarded as funereal had it been of sheer black rather than these colours of trees about to shed the beauty of their leaves. The woman’s elbows were resting on a large table that dominated the room, her head bowed as if contemplating an interesting book lying open before her.
Hearing the opening of the door and the steps of their entrance, the queen whirled around, her anger at being disturbed plain even beneath the face veil.
But then, just as with her servant, her manner entirely changed as soon as she caught sight of the jewels adorning Crystine’s neck.
‘At last,’ she breathed with relief. ‘Here it is at last!’
Abruptly euphoric, the queen rose from her seat.
She stepped forward to excitedly greet Crystine, even as she dismissed the servant with a grateful recognition of his observance, his diligence in following her instructions.
‘I’d told him to look out for a girl beautiful beyond belief,’ she explained to Crystine, ignoring the fool but for the politest of nods, ‘and if she was wearing an equally gorgeous necklace, she was to be sent in to me immediately!’
She delicately caressed Crystine’s cheek, her long, elegant hands draped in the same dark veils as the rest of her.
‘Ah yes, yes; its effects are truly wondrous, aren’t they?’ she sighed blissfully.
Her hand, her long fingers, deftly dropped towards the glowing ruby of the necklace, embracing it in her palm.
‘And yet, so so deadly!’
She let it fall back against Crystine’s chest, almost as if it had suddenly burnt her, or at least become too hot to handle.
‘If you’d like your necklace back then–’
With the raising of a hand, the queen brought to a halt Crystine’s fruitless attempt to lift the necklace over her head.
‘No no; we both know you can’t remove it, darling. It’s now rightfully yours. And, I assure you, I don’t wish to have it back!’
‘But the beauty–’
‘The beauty it grants to its wearer?’ the queen chuckled grimly. ‘Are you hinting, darling, that I’m in dire need of “refurbishment”?’
Crystine was momentarily horrified that she had insulted the queen. Thankfully, however, the queen chuckled once more.
‘But that is exactly why I don’t wish to have it back,’ she added. ‘Why, indeed, I rid myself of it in the first place!’
‘We were told you’d traded it with the KingFisher,’ the fool said, speaking for the first time since they had entered the queen’s apartments.
‘The Hag Queen: she told us,’ Crystine explained, detecting a sudden air of confusion about the queen.
‘Did she now?’
The queen laughed bitterly.
‘Ah, all these tales, all spreading like wild fire, giving us no opportunity to point out their falseness, their lies.’
‘Then – it’s not true?’
‘Like many such stories, it contains a grain or two of truth: which, of course, is what makes them all so believable. And yes – please forgive me, I obviously can’t be sure which version of the tale you’ve heard – the Four Dark Elves did indeed appear before me once more, pointing out what they called “the flaws” in their creation. There was also a suggestion that I might wish to meet up with their master; but my brain wasn’t so addled that I didn’t realise the Hag Queen would be desperate to take it off my hands!’
‘The flaws?’ Crystine repeated worriedly.
‘Oh, naturally, I was rather remiss in bringing its flaws to the Hag Queen’s attention!’ the queen answered, misinterpreting Crystine’s concern. ‘Otherwise, even she would have refused to take the cursed thing!’
‘But how did you give it to her?’ Crystine asked, assuming that the flaw must be connected to the way you couldn’t remove the necklace once you’d accepted it.
‘Well, isn’t it obvious? Didn’t I already say? She was naturally desperate to obtain it; you must have seen how hideous she is! Not that I believe that even that remarkable necklace could have brought her even the briefest relief from her ugliness: she must have had so little inherent beauty to draw upon, don’t you think?’
‘That’s how it works? It draws on inherent beauty?’
Hearing this, Crystine experienced a relaxing sense of relief; if the beauty was inherent, didn’t that mean it had just been previously hidden? In which case, it wasn’t a false, imposed beauty. She could, indeed, say this was the real her; the real her unveiled and released from all those covering layers.
‘Why, of course!’ the queen replied gaily.
She once again reached forward and palmed the necklace’s ruby. This time, however, she peered more closely at it, carefully observing the fluctuating light patterns lying deep with it.
‘There you are, see?’ she declared enthusiastically, pointing out the image of the hideous queen lying at its heart.
‘No no!’ Crystine objected. ‘That’s the Hag Queen!’
The queen observed her with narrowed, doubtful eyes. She smiled with wry amusement.
‘Ah, that’s what you’ve told yourself is it, my poor darling?’
She stared intently into the blood red stone once more, her eyes still narrowed but this time with concentration.
‘No, definitely not the Hag Queen!’ she announced assuredly. ‘I know her well, of course; and that isn’t her!’
‘Then who is it?’ the fool asked anxiously, remembering the many times that his own love had vehemently declared that the hideous queen glaring out of the ruby must be the Hag Queen.
‘Why, it’s the poor girl who’s wearing it of course!’ the queen replied. ‘That’s what she’ll look like a few years from now; when all her beauty has been drained by her youth!’
‘No, that can’t be!’
Crystine was naturally horrified by the queen’s revelation that the hideous woman portrayed within the ruby was none other than her future self.
She rudely snatched the ruby from the queen’s hands, determined to prove her wrong.
This hideous woman couldn’t be her! It had to be the Hag Queen!
But the more she looked into the ruby, searching for the details she hoped would prove beyond doubt that it could only be the hag queen, the more she had to admit that the similarities between this dreadful woman and herself were indeed quite startling.
Yes; it was how she would look years from now!
The fool couldn’t fail to notice the dawning of awareness in Crystine’s increasingly alarmed expression.
The queen grinned, amused by his own startled appearance.
Even so, it was to Crystine that she spoke.
‘Ah, it seems your love’s shocked by the revelation that you will one day age and lose your considerable beauty, my darling.’
‘Oh, er, she’s not – I mean, I’m not her love!’ the fool stammered in embarrassment, his face blushing so wildly it was obvious even in the dim light of the room.
The queen’s amusement reached new heights as she stared disbelieving at the angrily red fool.
‘It’s true; we’re not lovers,’Crystine confirmed.
The queen observed Crystine intently, briefly yet swiftly studying her, her eyes narrowed yet again as they probed for any signs hinting at lies or, maybe, even self-delusion.
‘Oh, yes, yes; I can see that you’re telling the truth, girl. But then, hasn’t it always been that way – that in a relationship, the more beautiful of the two will tend to dominate, to garner all the power?’
‘Your mistaken,’ the fool stated adamantly, the redness of his skin more pronounced than ever. ‘There’s no such relationship between us!’
‘But you wish it were otherwise, don’t you?’ the queen persisted.
‘Of course not!’
‘Please: the advantage of decorating a place with mirrors, even ones now veiled, is that they reveal to me odd glimpses of the things people hope to hide from others – even from themselves. I’ve seen in the reflections how you look at her, how you thrill at every word she speaks, every move she makes–’
‘This isn’t true!’ the fool snapped irately. ‘My love is the queen, the April Queen–’
The queen gasped, now looking rapidly between Crystine and the fool as if suddenly aware of something shocking.
‘Please please tell me you didn’t go to the April Queen’s palace; not together, at least, surely!’
‘Why yes, if you must know!’ the fool admitted, unable to understand why the queen appeared so dismayed by this. ‘Though I can’t see what it has to do with yo–’
‘But you don’t see, do you?’ the queen interrupted. ‘Weren’t you aware of how the queen’s beauty had faded? That she had already begun the covering up of mirrors within her apartments? And then you turn up to see her accompanying the realm’s newest beauty?’
‘She didn’t see us–’
‘Oh, and the servant? When he informed his queen that her lover was here, with a beautiful woman?’
‘Surely he wouldn’t–’
‘Most surely he would: for that’s the effect that the beauty of your friend has on men – addling their brains completely! So the poor queen, what else must she think but that she must somehow restore her beauty before seeing you? And that explains why I’ve heard that she’s gone seeking out the Four Dark Elves–’
‘The elves?’ The fool was aghast. ‘No!’
‘She wants a new necklace?’
The fool said it as if still hoping there might be some other explanation.
‘But she didn’t need to go to the elves!’ Crystine pointed out, raising the ruby of the necklace up from her chest. ‘I don’t want this one!’
The queen shook her head sadly.
‘Oh, if only her servant had been as observant as mine; then you might have been shown through! Then she might have been able to take the necklace from you; being, of course my darling, far more desperate than you, and still obviously unaware of its flaw!’
‘She cannot have lost so much of her beauty that she’d need to beg the elves for help!’ the fool whimpered, perhaps hoping to persuade himself more than anyone else.
‘She’d begun to cover her mirrors, as I’ve already said; when you reach that stage, my darling,’ the queen said morosely, turning towards and addressing Crystine once more, ‘when you no longer take delight in seeing yourself, it’s like closing so many doors; like you’re leaving behind so many layers of the person you used to be. And with that, you’re also jettisoning all those years of joy you’ve had, such that your life seems empty, purposeless.’
She glanced off towards her own veiled mirrors, almost half a hundred of them just in this room.
She raised a handkerchief up beneath her face veil, towards her eyes, dabbing at them as if to absorb tears.
‘No matter; no matter,’ she said resolutely, ‘all these things will one day be resolved!’
She turned back towards Crystine.
‘Naturally, I’d heard the stories of how these dark elves appear before a naïve young girl, tricking her into accepting their necklace–’
‘I didn’t want–’
The queen airily waved aside Crystine’s protestation.
‘Of course, of course; you weren’t interested in being beautiful! Why in the world would any girl want to be beautiful beyond all imagination?’
‘But I really didn–’
She was brought to a halt by another casual wave of a hand as the queen interrupted her once more.
‘Please, my darling; I’m not accusing you of being in any way shallow or foolish! Isn’t that the way of the world, the way we’re expected to put on this false face simply to be accepted; a demand made by those who wouldn’t accept any such stipulation themselves? Aren’t we told, Oh you’re kind, you’re caring, you’re nurturing; and with these grains of truth, we swallow the whole lie that therefore we can’t possibly be anything but also weak and subservient, and in need of protection. And that is the beauty of the necklace’s subterfuge: for as it pays us compliments, supposedly granting us power, its wields its own power over us!’
The Queen of Tears
A great many tales begin in a similar manner, with a young girl dreaming of being a princess or a fairytale queen. Or, at the very least, of obtaining some measure of success in their world.
And so this tale is different – for it begins with a queen dreaming of being a girl; of an impoverished girl, with little hope of achieving anything in her world.
And yes, that queen would love so dearly to be that girl, rather than being herself.
For the ridiculously poor girl is at least beautiful – whereas the incredibly wealthy queen is infamously ugly.
Of course, it hadn’t always been this way (even if, as far as the queen was concerned, it seemed as if it had).
She had once possessed a necklace envied by every other person; not only because it was the most beautiful one ever devised, but mainly because it also made its wearer irresistibly beautiful too.
Naturally, few people were aware of how it managed to do this. But equally few people didn’t know that it was an artefact created by the Four Dark Elves of the Mountains That Overlooked the World.
As with any item worthy of the elves’ darkest talents, it was wrought from a mix of precious metals, the gold of the sun and the silver of the moon, woven together in the very tightest of embraces. The pearls adorning it could have been bright, miniature moons, the emeralds the clear waters of the brightest streams, the amber the glow of trees before the autumn fall. Its centrepiece, however, was the crowning glory, a perfect sphere of what might have been freshly spilled blood, such that it glistened with the ebb and flow of life, the sparkle of purest energy.
And within the very midst of that blood there grimaces the most hideous hag imaginable, a reminder of what the necklace was capable of saving you from becoming.
The queen revelled in her unnatural beauty, adorning her palace with the most gigantic mirrors that could be constructed, the glass alone devouring whole beaches, the frames complete forests, the gilding whole mines: and the silvering of quicksilver stole the sensibilities of craftsmen, who succumbed to toxic fumes that made them as crazed as any March Hare.
Still, the queen’s palace, if not their minds, blazed with light.
The queen delighted in meeting herself afresh every day, no matter in which direction she looked.
Indeed, when the mirrors were positioned just so, she found herself in a crowd of equally beautiful people, all as equally enthralled with each other.
But after a while, something began to go wrong.
In some mirrors, the person admiringly staring back at her scowled, her disappointment in what she was seeing obvious; for, even before the uglifying scowl, there were clearly creases to be made out within the once flawless complexion.
In other mirrors, dark shades had appeared beneath the eyes, the sparkle of the eyes themselves dulled, unhappy with the woman appearing before them.
In still others, the hair was no longer so lustrous, the neck not quite so perfectly smooth, the skin of the shoulder blades a touched blemished with unsightly taints of a darker flesh.
And the number of these rebellious mirrors was increasing with the passing of every day.
At first, the most displeasing of the mirrors were lightly veiled.
Then the most unsatisfactory amongst them were covered, hidden behind thick drapes.
Finally, the very worst of the mirrors were completely removed, with orders from the queen that they were to be complete shattered, the splinters that had witnessed her increasing haggardness to be pulped to little more than a silvery dust.
But as more and more of the once omnipresent mirrors vanished from the halls and corridors of the palace, the rooms took on an undeniably all-pervading darkness, a dullness that brought with it a sense that all forms of light had entirely vanished from the queen’s life.
With the passing of each mirror, the queen suffered the loss of a once familiar companion, one who had delighted her just with her presence, one whose happily beaming smile had brightened up her life.
So why didn’t she simply take off this necklace that was causing her such heartache?
Well, there is your clue!
For this, of course, is a necklace that appears to draw on your hidden beauty, that raises it up from its previously hidden depths: and to achieve this, well, it has to be as much a part of you as your heart, hasn’t it?
So ask yourself this: would you be capable of tearing out a shard of your own heart?
Just as the last two mirrors were about to be cracked in front of the vindictive queen, the Four Dark Elves appeared as if out of nowhere.
‘Do we detect dissatisfaction with one of most prized creations?’ one of them asked, his tone one of complete bewilderment.
‘Surely there couldn’t be a fault with it?’ another declared as if startled even by the mere thought that such a thing might be possible.
‘Oh, wait,’ a third said, with all the air of something suddenly dawning on him, ‘it couldn’t be anything to do with that rather unfortunate flaw, could it?’
The queen glowered at them.
Not that it was possible to make the elves feel in anyway ashamed.
Not that it was easy to tell that the queen was glowering, as her face was now permanently crumpled into a hideous scowl.
‘Flaw?’ she rasped, unamused. ‘Do I look like I’m unaware of this flaw?’
‘Ah, but that’s only because you didn’t use it wisely!’ the fourth elf insisted with a wagging finger.
‘Wisely? How can you wisely wear a necklace you can’t remove?’
The queen’s eyes narrowed with distaste; not that it was easy to tell.
‘Did you follow the instructions?’ the first elf asked.
‘There weren’t any instructions!’ the queen rasped exasperatedly.
The four elves all tut-tutted.
‘Well now,’ one of them said, speaking as if he were lecturing someone over their incompetence, ‘perhaps if you’d made yourself aware of how the necklace works, you wouldn’t have been so desperate to wear it!’
‘I think I have worked it out,’ the queen stated confidently, giving rise to theatrically exaggerated expressions of surprise amongst the elves.
‘Well we were going to kindly explain…’
‘But if you know so much…’
‘Then please enlighten us with your superior knowledge!’
‘The hideous woman in the stone,’ the queen replied assuredly. ‘It’s not a reminder; it’s a prediction. I finally noticed the similarities in her and me; it is me! Me as I will eventually look, as I almost look even now!’
The elves clapped rousingly,
‘Well done, well done, my queen!’
‘Is there anything else you can tell us?’ one of them asked with overly enhanced enthusiasm.
‘Just as when a well runs dry, and you endanger yourself if you continue to drink the filth you’re dragging up,’ the queen snapped bitterly, ‘there’s only so much inherent beauty to draw on.’
‘Oh, but we tend to see it more as a form of loan,’ an elf corrected her, as if hurt by her accusation, ‘in which you’re simply borrowing from your future self!’
‘Brilliant, really, if you think about it,’ another enthused.
‘Where else is your inherent beauty supposed to come from?’ said a third.
‘Your younger self gets to enjoy all that concentrated beauty when she needs it most!’
‘Rather than it all just been wastefully scattered throughout your declining years!’
‘Like many transactions, you’re simply putting off paying for it all until later.’
‘Do I look happy?’ the queen snarled.
‘No,’ came the honest reply, ‘but it is hard to tell when you are happy.’
‘Of course, the downside of any loan is that there comes a point when you’ve completely spent the loan,’ an elf said, with a second one adding, ‘And now you’re in an even worse state than before, because your payments are now due!’
‘I should have been warned!’ the queen wailed.
‘Warned?’ The elf put on an expression of mock astonishment. ‘But what of the ruby?’
‘You’ve said you recognise that it was yourself portrayed in there all along!’
‘So, really, you just blissfully ignored the warning!’
‘Which, I hope you agree, is a fault that can hardly be attributed to us.’
‘Enough!’ The queen raised a hand to bring to a halt the line the conversation had taken. ‘So, what do I do about it now? I’m not a complete fool: I do realise you’re here for some reason other than to celebrate my looks!’
‘Well, we do so hate to have a dissatisfied customer–’
‘I said enough! Would I be right in assuming you’re here because you’ve had everything out of me; and now you’d like your creation back so that you can make use of it again?’
The four elves exchanged embarrassed grins.
‘Well, you could, naturally, persuade someone more desperate than yourself to, shall we say, take it off your hands–’
‘Anyone must be more desperate to wear it than I am! Which means there’s another clause I need to be aware of, isn’t there?’
The elves once again self-consciously glanced each other’s way.
‘Of course,’ one said, ‘it is just about the only thing now keeping you alive…’
‘Making sure you pay for everything you, er, withdrew earlier,’ another said, finishing the sentence for him.
‘So why didn’t you tell me all this sooner!’ the queen snapped.
‘Oh, you wouldn’t have appreciated that at all…’
‘You see,’ another elf said, taking up his companion’s point, ‘as soon as you remove the necklace; well, you’ve already drained so much of yourself away…’
‘And so it will all obviously rapidly catch up with you!’
‘You can’t just bring a loan arrangement to an abrupt end without penalties…’
‘Although if you do continue with your, er, withdrawals, then, well, as we’ve sort of already explained…’
‘At some point, you simply find you’ve run out of beauty to draw on.’
‘Then…maybe I should simply take this necklace to the grave with me,’ the queen resolutely announced, carefully ensuring that the elves weren’t aware of her narrowed eyes closely observing their reaction, ‘to ensure it’s never used again to plague some other young innocent!’
Even though they tried to hide it, the four elves were obviously startled by the queen’s declaration to take their creation away from them forever.
‘Now, er, our master…’
‘He, er, said we could – if needs be – come up with some kind of deal…’
‘It’s yours,’ the queen declared imperiously, ‘to use again as unforgivably as you wish: but only if you promise me that I can know once again what it’s like to be beautiful!’
The deal was made.
And the elves naturally kept to the letter of the agreement.
The necklace was passed on to some other poor, unsuspecting girl, one who marvelled at how it so enhanced her beauty.
And, just as she had requested, the queen knew once again what it was like to revel in such incredible beauty.
For she was allowed into the girl’s dreams.
Allowed to see what it was like to be so entrancingly gorgeous once more.
Yet as she herself was still so hideous, it only added to her anguish.
So within the darkness of her palace, she weeps, almost endlessly.
Some, the realists amongst us, call her the Hag Queen.
More kindly souls, the romantics, have named her the Queen of Tears.
Her tears are the only things that still sparkle in her life.
They well up in her eyes, to fall like so many bright, miniature moons.
They splatter across the floor, like the brightest of streams.
Then they strangely solidify, transubstantiated into a red gold, glittering brighter than any freshly spilled blood.
And within the very midst of it all, our miserable queen still fails to see them as a reminder that she still has the very deepest well of all to draw upon for solace: for deep within every woman, if she were only to realise it, there lies the true spirit of self, one too long abandoned in preference for nothing but the fleeting and false.
Crystine stared at the hideous woman captured within the thickly bloody glow of the ruby.
‘This is me!’ she said fearfully to the fool. ‘Me unless I’m prepared to foist this necklace on some other poor unfortunate girl!’
Her tale told, the Queen of The Fall had left the two of them on their own to discuss their next course of action.
‘No, no; you don’t have to!’ the fool declared excitedly, grasping her by both hands in in his eagerness to allay her fears. ‘My love – I mean, The April Queen – she got rid of it, didn’t she!’
‘So all I have to do, right, is hope the KingFisher decides to steal it from me? But it was his bloody elves who gave it to me in the first place! And I still can’t work out why he took it from the queen anyway – I mean, why didn’t he just let it continue to draw on her beauty, if that’s the way it’s supposed to work?’
‘He didn’t steal it!’
The fool was now almost dancing for joy, his eyes glittering.
‘Then…who did?’ Crystine backed off a little from the fool, eyeing him warily. ‘Not you?’
‘No!’ the fool assured her, his shocked expression displaying a hint of being affronted. ‘Of course not! I’m not sure I could’ve done, even I’d wanted to! It felt more like I was in a dream, remember; not actually there! Besides, we’d both tried working together to remove the necklace, and hadn’t got anywhere!’
‘So what did happen that night? The night you first saw her without the necklace? Didn’t you say it just there one minute; and then gone the next?’
‘Yes, yes; and that’s all true! But…but I also saw…well, that sort of minute in-between – when I actually saw what happened to it!’
‘Go on,’ Crystine urged sternly, a little peeved that he hadn’t told her this before.
‘Please forgive me,’ the fool said, noting the hardening of her attitude, ‘it all just sounds so crazy: I thought it just had to – well, that it couldn’t possibly all have happened like I thought it had!’
‘Just tell me, can’t you?’
‘Right, right: it was the necklace – it all just sort of dissolved. As if it had been one of the queen’s own creations gone wrong, all the pearls and jewels transforming back into nothing but pieces of half-eaten apple! Only here there really were pieces of gold, all in little balls; not something like the queen would have used, such as yellowed stems, or corn stalks!’
‘An apple? Wasn’t the Queen of The Fall eating an apple when she went to see the elves?’
‘Wait, wait: there’s more! The spheres of gold? They were tears! And they ran back up into my lov– into the April Queen’s eyes!’
‘The Queen of The Fall; when she was eating the apple, in the cave of the Four Dark Elves – she was crying too.’
‘So…?’ The fool frowned, puzzled by Crystine’s excited statement.
‘So if the necklace was made of golden tears, of pieces of apple: then, somehow, she made the necklace – not the elves!’
‘But the elves made her pay for it!’
‘Well, they would, wouldn’t they?’
‘Wait, though; you must be wrong! As we’ve just heard in the tale, as we’ve seen for ourselves, it was the Hag Que– the Queen of Tears who weeps tears of gold!’
‘Yes, but I’m sure there has to be a link, a connection betwee–’
She stopped talking, a bright glint having caught her eye in the otherwise grey dullness of the room.
She stepped towards the table, towards the seat where the queen had been seated.
She picked up the minute, sparkling orb that lay caught between the pages of the book the queen had been reading when they had first entered.
It was in the shape of a tear.
A golden tear.
The fool grimaced, racking his brain as he tried to fit everything together, to work things out.
‘She was crying, yes; but does that mean she’s the Queen of Tears?’’
‘If not now, she will be soon; replacing the Hag Queen. They’re linked, caught in a circle of repetition. Which means the April Queen–’
‘Has already fallen!’ the fool finished for her resentfully.
He instantly brightened, excitedly taking Crystine’s hands in his once more.
‘But then the princess becomes the April Queen…’
Crystine gave an embarrassed laugh.
‘Yeah, whom the KingFisher makes sure can’t have a king: just great, right?’
‘Oh I’m not scared of the KingFisher anymore, I can–’
Crystine politely shrugged her hands out of his.
‘This all explains so much, don’t you see?’ the fool said, trying to take her hands again, only for Crystine to turn away as if deep in thought and oblivious to his actions.
‘No, no; it doesn’t explain why they, why the queens, don’t see these links for themselves!’
It was indeed something that was puzzling her.
But she’d also deliberately misinterpreted the fool’s comment. She feared it was far too full of enthusiasm to be a simply innocent statement regarding the questions revolving around the queens and their ultimately shared identities.
She was hoping to distract him. She wanted to at least give herself long enough to try and work out what was going on between him and her.
It seemed to her – although she hoped she was mistaken – that he was regarding her differently, his eyes wide, glittering. He was close to her too, too close.
She was confused: this wasn’t supposed to happen, was it?
Him and her.
Her and him.
She just didn’t feel that way about him – did she?
What was wrong with her?
A friend; that’s all he was to her – and that at the very most!
She just couldn’t feel any other way about him!
‘Don’t you feel how this was meant to happen?’ the fool asked, drawing even closer, this time slipping his arms about her.
‘No, no; this isn’t right,’ Crystine protested, even though she didn’t step away from him this time, anxious that such a hard rejection might upset him too much. ‘I’m not the one you love…’
‘But you are, don’t you see?’ the fool insisted gently, holding her even more tightly in his arms, holding her eyes with his. ‘You’re the one I always really loved: you’re the one who’s everything I’d been fooled into thinking the April Queen was!’
Crystine didn’t have the energy to object anymore.
She relaxed, let herself rest against him.
She was exhausted.
She’d been plunged into the weirdest world imaginable, where reason itself didn’t make any sense.
Why should it be her who had to try and make sense of it all?
Was it even possible to make sense of everything that had happened to her?
It would all just be so much easier to let this happen.
To accept someone who loved her – where could be the harm in that?
To let him take on part of the burden.
To let all her cares vanish.
How blissful would that be?
Someone else could sort everything out.
She felt a sense of relief wash over her, like someone who’s no longer struggling against the flow, but just letting themselves go with it.
Letting someone else take responsibility for their wellbeing.
She just wanted to rest, to go to sleep.
To drift off into a pleasant world of dreams in his arms.
She flowed once again through all those innumerable reflected images of herself, moving swiftly from one to another, experiencing one again that strange sensation that she and they were all nothing more than cards, cards being expertly shuffled, manipulated; some coming higher up the deck, others relegated, palmed to the bottom of the pack to be left there and deliberately forgotten.
And amongst the pack, just to confuse matters further, someone had slipped in a Knave of Devils.
She should have been angry with him for not mentioning the way he felt about her earlier.
But then, he had said it before, hadn’t he?
He’d said it…
He had said it, Crystine felt sure of that.
Well, no; only sort of sure, to be honest.
She had every right to just forget everything, to let the queens themselves work out–
No, she didn’t have that right!
She pulled herself free of the fool’s arms.
‘You said you felt all this was meant to happen?’ she blurted out.
‘You felt that too?’ he grinned foolishly.
‘Yes…I mean no!’ she hastily corrected herself as the fool moved to draw her closer once more. ‘Not the way you mean, at least!’
‘What other meaning could it have?’ the fool asked.
‘I mean – don’t you see? – you’re caught in the circle too! You’re part of it. You’re supposed to fall in love with me!’
The fool grinned stupidly once more, tried to pull her closer once more.
She held him back once more.
‘And to complete the circle, I’m supposed to fall in love with you too!’
The fool smiled blissfully.
Crystine had to stop him from drawing closer, from slipping his arms about her.
‘Look, I’m sorry; but we have to work out what’s going on here! We’re being…well, sort of being played here: like the KingFisher’s just shifting us all around; like we’re nothing more than his cards!’
‘We’re hardly cards!’ the fool chuckled. ‘I don’t know of any card that can say it’s not going to do what you want it to do!’
Crystine briefly paused, considering this.
‘But what if the card…what if it…’
She couldn’t think of a way of refuting the fool’s argument.
If what she was saying was right, why hadn’t any of the queens recognised that they were subserviently following a revolving storyline, one set out for them by the KingFisher?
Why hadn’t the April Queen, when she’d woken up minus her necklace yet surrounded by apple pieces, connected it to the story of the Queen of The Fall?
She must have known the story of the Queen of The Fall, surely?
Crystine grabbed the fool’s hand, instantly regretting it when he beamed happily.
‘Your dream of the April Queen and the vanishing necklace,’ she said urgently, ‘did you see – or did you hear of – whatever happened when she woke up and found her shoulders draped with pieces of apple?’
‘Ah, well,’ the fool began hesitantly, a little ashamedly, ‘she didn’t actually wake up with apple pieces around her.’
‘Go on,’ Crystine said.
‘Obviously, I couldn’t let her wake up looking such a mess: so I removed them.’
‘Removed them? In a dream?’
‘I don’t know, I don’t know: maybe it wasn’t a dream, after all!’
The fool threw his arms up in exasperation.
‘I can’t remember!’ he admitted, flustered. ‘It just all seems so…I don’t know – hard to remember everything right!’
He glanced about him, taking in the darkness of the room, the lack of light making it seem dusk like, a time for rest, for sleep.
‘Thinking about it now, I’m not even sure it was a bedroom; yes, yes – it was more like this room! It was dark, dim – she wasn’t in her bed.’
He looked down at her.
‘She was in my arms: yes, I remember that now!’
Crystine also glanced everywhere about herself, taking in the room, touching her necklace.
‘That’s exactly what’s supposed to happen again!’ she said confidently. ‘We don’t realise we’re just going through the same motions as long as just certain pieces of our memories – like the pieces of apple – are removed.’
‘So, if it’s all supposed to happen, and it feels right…’ the fool began doubtfully, reaching out for Crystine yet again, but far more tentatively this time.
‘No, not this time!’
Crystine saw the hurt in the fool’s eyes, but realised she had to press on.
‘Something’s different this time!’
‘What? What do you mean? What could be different?’ the fool asked.
Crystine paused again.
Yes; what did she mean?
‘The doctor!’ she blurted out.
‘You’re in love with the doctor?’ The fool was aghast and wounded.
‘No, no: of course not!’
Crystine was aghast that he could even contemplate such a ridiculous thing.
But she had more urgent things to think about than the fool’s idiotic misinterpretation of her words.
‘I mean, the doctor is the thing that’s different this time; I’m just about sure of it!’
‘I’ll marry you!’ the fool announced. ‘That’s what will make you different from all the other queens; you’ll have a king by your side!’
Inwardly, Crystine sighed.
Why had she been chosen for all this?
She wasn’t even from this world!
Then again, perhaps that was the reason why she’d been chosen.
Who would be more confused than someone taken from a completely different world?
A girl who’d grown up here might have learnt enough about it to suspect something wasn’t right about all this.
Besides, she’d have a stock of memories firmly rooted in this world.
Whereas Crystine, of course, had originally had no idea this place had even existed, the contact between the two worlds having come to an end centuries ago; perhaps deliberately so, ensuring the KingFisher had free rein when it came to manipulating the memories of the princesses and queens’.
‘The KingFisher would kill you,’ Crystine assuredly warned the fool. ‘Don’t you see that he’d have to? With no one to reassure them that they’re loved, the queens set too much importance on their own beauty, obediently following what they believe are helpful rules; rules devised by the KingFisher.’
‘So, will you one day be following his instructions?’ the fool asked, perhaps with a hint of bitterness. ‘Like the April Queen, will you one day be going off to stay with the Four Dark Elves?’
Crystine gasped with excitement.
‘Yes! Of course! She is going to see the elves, isn’t she?’
And without another word, she rushed towards the nearest mirror and began to tear down its covering veil.
‘What are you doing?’
The fool stared at Crystine in complete bemusement as she struggled to pull the huge veils aside from the looming mirror.
‘As you just said, she’s going to see the elves,’ Crystine replied.
‘That’s what the Queen of The Fall told us: that she’d heard the April Queen had gone to see the elves.’
Crystine rushed past him, crossing the room to pull down the veil covering another mirror.
‘But how could the Queen of The Fall have heard that? The April Queen’s servant seemed to think she was still in her palace, and we only left moments ago! The Queen of The Fall only thinks she’s heard this, because she knows that’s what’s supposed to happen next!’
Grabbing the fool’s hand, she pulled him into the space lying between the two partially unveiled mirrors.
‘If we get back to your love before she goes, I can give her the necklace: and we break the circle!’
‘But they’re different mirrors,’ the fool wailed, even as they both began to be shuffled through their multiple identities.
‘So it’s a different time; we’ll be too late anyway!’
When they stopped moving, it seemed for a brief moment to Crystine that they hadn’t moved at all.
They still appeared to be standing together in the very same room she’d intended to leave, with its huge table, its veiled, looming mirrors.
No, of course; here the veils were green, not brown.
As she might have suspected, if she’d thought about it, the veils had been pulled down from the mirrors to either side of them
The rooms were connected, after all.
The doors towards the end of the room opened, the doors through which the Queen of The Fall had exited.
The April Queen entered, her veils of the same green as those covering the mirrors.
She halted, her stance one of complete shock.
‘We were in time!’ the fool gasped in relief, happily rushing towards her.
They blissfully collapsed into each other’s arms.
‘I…I can’t let you see me like this!’ the queen pleaded, backing away ashamedly from the fool once the first exuberant displays of love were over, the movement of her head a clear indication that she had noticed Crystine.
‘There’s no need to visit the elves,’ Crystine began to joyfully explain.
Now the queen’s stance and moves were ones of confusion.
‘But…I’ve already been to see them!’
The fool’s whole body slumped in disappointment.
The queen reached out a veiled hand to touch him tenderly.
‘Please, it’s not what you think.’
The fool took her hand in his, if a little unsurely.
‘Yes, I went there hoping for some miracle to restore my beauty,’ the queen confessed, ‘but at the entrance to the cave, I almost choked on the apple given to me by the Three Giant Women.’
The fool expressed an anguished sigh; this, after all, was how the story always played out.
‘What I saw made me weep!’ the queen continued innocently, unaware of the adverse effect it was having on the fool.
‘The elves were torturing some poor man, telling him he had to return the crystal!’
‘The doctor!’ Crystine exclaimed in surprise. ‘It has to be!’
‘Doctor? I’m not sure who he was,’ the queen said, ‘but he tried to buy them off with a purse of pearls; until one of the elves said they’d already taken it, and it had nothing but sticky May blossom in it.’
The fool gave Crystine a fleeting, shameful glance before at last responding to the queen’s urgent, tender touches with a concerned query.
‘Did the elves see you? How did you get away?’
‘They were too busy with this man to see or stop me; they were furious. They said the crystal had made fools of them, and had got them into trouble with their master!’
‘The crystal had caused them trouble?’ Crystine repeated curiously. ‘So why did they want it back? Did they get it back?’
‘They said it hadn’t been from their master, like they’d thought. I…left before I saw…’
The fool wrapped her arms around her once more, gently bringing her close.
‘Good,’ he said assuredly. ‘You don’t need any necklace.’
He reached for her face veil to pull it aside; but the queen stopped him.
‘I’m hideous, I know,’ she whispered ashamedly, even as she made the decision to reveal herself to him after all.
‘Please forgive me,’ she murmured.
The fool smiled.
‘You’re beautiful,’ he said truthfully, ‘as beautiful as ever.’
‘And as you’re beautiful,’ Crystine declared with a mix of relief and sadness, ‘then that means I have to find the elves and this crystal on my own.’
‘No, don’t go!’ the queen exclaimed, turning away from the fool to concernedly look Crystine’s way, ‘I’ve seen enough of these elves to know they’d–’
‘Rip your blooming head off!’ one of the four elves snarled, as they all appeared in the room between the two sparkling mirrors.
The maliciously scowling elf was holding the blue crystal in a raised hand.
With his other hand, he pointed accusingly at Crystine.
‘This is something to do to with you, we believe!’
As the fool bravely rushed towards the elves, one of them cast a cloud of dust over him, freezing him in the action of half leaping across the floor.
The queen anxiously dashed towards the motionless fool, her pleading for him to be released ignored by every elf.
‘Me?’ Crystine was mystified by this accusation, but also no less intrigued and excited by it.
‘Yes, you, little missy,’ the elf wearing the hat growled irately, stepping forward to probe angrily at Crystine with a hard, stumpy finger. ‘We were told you were going to be a boy: but you never were! It was all just a lie!’
‘But not me,’ Crystine insisted. ‘I didn’t lie – obviously!’
‘If not you, it was one of you lot then!’ a fourth elf snapped, pointing threateningly at the stupefied queen.
‘I’ve never seen it before!’
‘Well one of you somehow made out you were our master!’ the first elf exasperatedly declared. ‘Telling us lies!’
In the corner of Crystine’s eye, she caught the remarkable sight in one of the mirrors of what appeared to be a crowded room stretching on to infinity. And yet it was more crowded than she’d expected, with what could be suits of armour mingled amongst them, armour that was stealthily moving.
How many of them there really were, it was impossible to say; but two of the soldiers stepped into the room, closely followed by another two.
Also noticing this, the elves began to vanish one by one with a frustrated shriek.
The last one to notice was the one who been holding the crystal.
As he too prepared to disappear, Crystine leapt towards him, making a grasp for the hand holding the crystal.
She grasped the hand; but it was too late.
The elf, along with the crystal, had gone
The soldiers trooping into the room bore the colours of The Fall. The queen followed on behind them, explaining that she had sensed the presence of the Four Dark Elves in the mirrors and rushed to help a fellow queen.
The fool was thankfully moving once again, completely unaware of the predicament he had been in. He believed instead that he had heroically fought off the elves long before the arrival of the soldiers.
It should all of been a cause for celebration; but Crystine sighed miserably.
She had been so close to obtaining the crystal, only for it to literally slip from her grasp.
Then – she felt something cold in her hand.
She raised her hand, opening it slowly, hoping…hoping…hoping.
It wasn’t the crystal; it was just a few broken links of the chain it had been suspended from.
It snaked in her hand as if alive, a motion granted it, she assumed, by the slight moving of her palm.
‘Well, if only the Hag Queen were here, then that would mean all the queens were finally together as one!’ the fool cheerfully pointed out.
‘We’d still be missing the Fisher Queen,’ Crystine corrected him glumly as she rose to her feet once more.
‘The Fisher Queen?’ the Queen of The Fall chuckled good-naturedly. ‘You’ve been listening to too many tales, I’m afraid.’
‘It’s a wonderful story,’ the April Queen agreed, ‘but only one for children; to give them a sense of hope for the world.’
There was a vibrating buzz in the air, the throb of the wings of a swiftly passing insect.
It was the sound of an airborne beetle, almost invisibly winging its way around them all, perhaps looking for the best place to alight: having made its way through the tiniest gap, its minute size enabling it to enter even a locked, even the most carefully guarded, room.
‘The KingFisher?’ someone said warily.
No one was quite sure who had spoken, the attention of everybody being on trying to ascertain the beetle’s whereabouts within the room.
‘There, is that it?’ a soldier asked, pointing towards what could be an emerald coloured beetle upon the April Queen’s dress.
‘No, there it is!’ the fool announced confidently, indicating a jet decoration gracing the Queen of The Fall’s veiled gown.
‘What colour would he be?’ the April Queen asked, glancing everywhere about her, confusing first a sapphire and then a ruby for the beetle.
Within the multiple reflections of the mirrors, the beetle could be any one of an uncountable number of glittering jewels (for the April Queen hadn’t yet removed such sparkling objects of beauty, as the Hag Queen had done, and the Queen of The Fall had started to do).
‘Catch him, if you see him, catch him!’ the Queen of The Fall commanded, striking out at an amethyst she had falsely believed to be him.
Naturally, it was a chaotic scene as everyone wildly reached out for a creature who not only moved and flew so rapidly fast, but who would also only fleetingly land before rising swiftly into the air once more.
‘Where is he?’ an exhausted fool eventually sighed in frustration, having already grasped at nothing more than sparkling reflections a number of times.
‘He’s here,’ a voice said: a woman’s voice.
It came from a beetle glistening like the brightest amber amongst a glorious display of May blossom.
It launched itself into the air, where it shivered, dissolved; and became in an instant the Hag Queen, wearing a fabulous cloak of feathers.
‘Where’s the KingFisher?’ a bewildered fool asked, noting the long cloak the Hag Queen was wearing. ‘Did you defeat him?’
‘Why would I pit myself against someone who has brought so much benefit to me?’ the Hag Queen retorted scathingly.
‘You’ve been helping each other?’ The April Queen was astonished.
‘Well haven’t you all always blamed me for betraying you all anyway, when I traded your precious necklace with him – and all in a foolish quest to regain my beauty?’
‘You should have realised he’d only trick you!’ the Queen of The Fall scoffed.
‘You should have realised that it’s impossible to regain beauty!’ the April Queen agreed.
‘To regain, yes; that’s impossible!’ the Hag Queen said, drawing closer towards Crystine, tenderly, even longingly, stroking the perfectly clear flesh of a cheek. ‘But to relive; that’s entirely achievable. Again and again and again!’
‘You didn’t help each other…’ Crystine began a little doubtfully, adding even more unsurely, ‘you’re the same person? You are the KingFisher?’
‘Naturally!’ the queen chortled. ‘To become a man, to take on his attributes of power, of selfishness; that was the best – the only way – of achieving success!’
She whirled on the others, glowering at them accusingly.
‘Aren’t I allowed some small measure of enjoying the beauty you have all otherwise denied me?’
‘Denied you? How could we deny you your beauty?’ the Queen of The Fall protested
‘It’s just a matter of growing old! It’s unavoidable,’ the April Queen agreed.
‘And yet neither of you accepted it as such an unavoidable part of life, did you?’ the Hag Queen sneered in reply. ‘If you had, then maybe you wouldn’t have given something as ridiculously fleeting as beauty such a ridiculously high level of importance!’
‘We didn’t give it such high importance!’
‘That’s what’s expected of us, of women, isn’t it? To be beautiful!’ the April Queen added, nodding in agreement with the Queen of The Fall’s retort. ‘Or at least to be caring, to be nurturing.’
‘How easily you let the words, the rules, of others trip from your tongues!’ the Hag Queen said, walking amongst them, still regarding them all with accusatory glares. ‘Making yourselves subservient to their wishes, their demands; for, of course, it would be so unwomanly to resist!’
‘What else were we supposed to do?’ the April Queen jeered. ‘We can’t just change the way the whole world works!’
‘And so what of wisdom?’ the Hag Queen said. ‘That, once, was seen as a womanly quality; so that when they became like me–’ she pointed at herself disparagingly – ‘they weren’t seen as being no longer of any use; they were the one’s consulted for advice! And that – in your foolish acceptance of all this nonsense about the need to be beautiful – is what you denied me!’
‘We’ve given up nothing! We’re queens!’ the Queen of The Fall insisted vehemently.
‘Nothing?’ the Hag Queen smirked, pointing accusingly at the Queen of The Fall. ‘You would once have been seen as a seeker after truth, who risked her spiritual wholeness in that quest; but instead you’re falsely painted as a trollop. And so you wrapped your shame in your tears, tears that are misused and wasted, for they are from the only well allow a nurturing of yourself ’
She turned on the April Queen.
‘And with you, my virgin queen, it all starts, apparently innocently enough; for you go along with the subjugation of the powerful sexuality that all men fear.’
‘But you’re the one who denied them a king!’ Crystine fiercely pointed out.
‘Oh, I did didn’t I?’ the Hag Queen replied coolly. ‘But only because they’d raised this idea of a king to a height were only he could reassure them that they were worthy of love.’
With a mischievous chuckle, she looked towards the fool.
‘And for the sake of that, they’d put up with any fool; seeking his approval as a measure of their worth!’
She stroked Crystine’s cheek tenderly once more.
‘To break that circle, we have to take on self-responsibility, to risk throwing away our sense of security: and you know, when people are put in that position, they really, really don’t want to make the sacrifice!’
‘At least your circle of false memories has been broken: things were different this time; it’s all changed.’
‘Broken? Changed? Really?’ The Hag Queen appeared genuinely surprised by Crystine’s pronouncement.
With a dissolving, a whirling of form, she became a beetle once more, briefly fluttering in the air just before Crystine; then taking off to soar over the heads of the fool, the queen, the soldiers.
The chaos of many futile attempts to capture the swiftly swooping and diving beetle returned, the scenes repeated endlessly within the infinite images of the mirrors.
The images shuffled, like so many cards.
And everything became confused, such that no one was sure anymore where they were; or even whom they were.
Crystine woke up.
She felt sleepy but incredibly content.
Even, yes, blissful.
She was lying in the reassuringly strong embrace of the fool.
They were seated within one of the large, comfortable chairs set a little back from the vast table that dominated the room. It was quite a dark room, of course, the windows and multiple wall mirrors all heavily veiled in the colours of The Fall: no wonder, Crystine thought, she had drifted off to sleep.
The whole effect was one of a great wood, with only the very slightest of the sun’s ray’s penetrating towards the lower reaches of the forest floor.
‘Sorry,’ she said to the fool lazily, ‘I must have drifted off.’
‘I don’t mind,’ the fool replied happily, kissing her cheek tenderly. ‘It was nice just seeing you smiling so contentedly as you slept.’
Crystine smiled. She kissed the fool.
She gasped in surprise, realising something was different.
That something had changed.
‘My necklace! It’s gone!’ she declared, touching herself about her neck and shoulders, seeking reassurance that it had indeed vanished.
‘It must have fallen off!’ she said, glancing worriedly about herself.
‘I thought you wanted to be rid of it!’ the fool reminded her with a chuckle.
Crystine turned back to the fool, her brow creased with worry.
‘But…that’s what made me beautiful,’ she sighed miserably. ‘You won’t love me anymore!’
The fool held her reassuringly tighter.
‘Of course I’ll still love you!’ he laughed.
‘But…I’ll have no powers!’ Crystine persisted. ‘I can’t be April Queen if I can’t transform things into beautiful jewellery!’
‘We’ll, let’s see about that, shall we,’ the fool said calmly, reaching out for a branch forming part of a nearby display of autumn berries and golden brown leaves. ‘If the Queen of The Fall can put on an unseasonal show, then let’s see what you can do.’
He handed her the branch, giving her a reassuring nod that he believed in her capabilities.
As she touched the branch, it transformed into one covered in perfectly white May blossom.
Crystine giggled joyfully, but her anxiety hadn’t been completely assuaged.
‘It’s not quite the same as turning them into gems, I suppose!’
Noting that the fool’s jacket was in a sorry state, with loose threads hanging everywhere, Crystine began to tap each strand with the branch; and a May blossom bloom became a securely tied, glistening pearl with every gentle touch. Soon the whole jacket was more or less resplendent once more, bar a handful of severed cotton threads left hanging pearlless, as there was no more blossom left on the branch.
Crystine stretched out to grasp another branch, enabling her to finish her work; but she stopped when she saw the remains of a partially eaten apple scattered across the top of the table supporting the display’s vase.
‘You ate while I was asleep!’ she chuckled, giving the fool a playful nudge.
She gingerly picked up the pieces, turning the white flesh into fresh pearls, the leaves into emeralds, the stalk into amber, the red skin into a bloody-red ruby.
‘A shame to waste them,’ she declared gleefully as they both admired the now beautifully finished jacket.
‘The jacket!’ she said, grabbing him fearfully in sudden realisation. ‘You’ll need it, and more: I mean, once I’m queen!’
‘Do you mean that once your queen I won’t be allowed to share in your good fortune?’ the fool asked with a mystified laugh.
‘I mean I’ll no longer be able to see you, of course! The KingFisher; remember?’
‘Oh, I don’t fear him! I’ll marry you; things will be different this time around, you’ll see!’
Even as the fool comforted her in his arms, Crystine had enough sense to recognise that what he had said wasn’t true; he would never be her king.
It’s always easy to say something like that, even to believe it for a while.
But the real world didn’t work like that, did it?
They would never be free from fear, never, ever feel safe. Their lives would be ones of constant anxiety.
She stroked the fool’s face tenderly, sadly, knowing that soon she would have no choice but to say goodbye to him
On her finger, she noticed something glittering, something calling her attention.
It was a ring, one made from a small segment of chain.
Pulling her hand away from the fool’s face to take a closer look at the ring – which, bizarrely, she couldn’t recall ever wearing before – she realised that it wasn’t a true ring at all: it was just a loose piece of severed chain. Yet it had somehow wrapped itself tightly around her finger, snake-like in the intensity of its firm grip.
She plucked the chain free of her finger, dropped it into her palm, sensed it nestling into the curves and creases.
It was far too plain to be a leftover from her vanished necklace.
‘Sorry,’ she said as she rose from the fool’s embrace, heading over towards one of the mirrors, feeling herself strangely drawn to it, ‘I’ve just got to see…’
‘What’s wrong,’ the fool asked.
Crystine couldn’t answer; she really didn’t know what it was she’d ‘just got to see’.
She briefly stood by the mirror.
She began to pull aside some of the draping veils.
Within the mirror, of course, she could see herself.
Of course, the fool was still seated out of view.
He was puzzled.
‘Are you all right?’ he asked concernedly. ‘I’ve never seen you act this way before!’
‘Yes yes,’ Crystine reassured him. ‘I’m just trying to remember something; but I can’t remember what it is I m supposed to remember!’
‘Well, naturally!’ the fool laughed.
‘Yes, naturally…’ Crystine replied less surely, turning around, heading over towards the facing mirror.
‘If you’re thinking of heading back, these are different mirrors–’ the fool began to explain as he watched Crystine set to uncovering the second mirror
‘Which means a different time,’ Crystine said distractedly as she fished pulling the veils aside. ‘I remember you telling me?’
‘Did I? I can’t recall telling you that.’
Crystine wasn’t listening.
The severed piece of chain was writhing in her hand.
She raised her hand towards the silvered glass.
She placed the severed links against the mirrored surface.
Within the mirror, the reflection naturally completed the circle, transforming it into the semblance of a complete chain once more.
The light in the mirror flickered, like the flowing of brightly sun-dappled streams, the reflection of perfectly blue skies in clearest water.
She sensed an increase in weight in the chain.
She pulled back on it tentatively, trembling in astonishment as the chain began to come away from the glass whole once more.
The fool hesitatingly made a step forward, reaching out to stop her, as if suffering a fleeting premonition of what was about to happen; then instead he came to a halt, grinning sickly.
‘Crystine… I do love you…I mean; please, you won’t forget me will you?’ he pleaded resignedly.
‘Of course I won’t forget you,’ Crystine chuckled curiously. ‘How could you even think of something as crazy as that?’
The last of the chain pulled free of the glass; and on its end, there dangled the most wondrously blue crystal, one as perfectly round as the moon.
Deep within the crystal, Crystine saw the babe in the womb that she had first seen when the doctor had handed it to her
There was no glimpse, however, of the Fisher Queen, whom she had flattered herself she had seen as the crystal had been taken back.
It was a sphere containing the heavens themselves, the sparkling of the stars like so many glistening tears falling in a darkened room. And the more those tears caught and threw back the surrounding light, the more the dark blue of night became a shimmering silvery blue, such that the crystal was now a dangling moon in miniature.
The mirror reflected the light of the moon; but it reflected it once only, not countless times in an endless repetition.
She too, Crystine realised, was now only reflected the once, not forever and ever.
It wasn’t a clear image, either.
It quivered, altered; nowhere near as definite, as well-defined, as she would have expected.
Circular ripples were spreading out across her reflection, their source the point where she had pulled the crystal from the glass.
Only now it wasn’t glass, it was water.
A flowing stream.
Now it was Crystine who had a fleeting premonition of what might be about to happen next.
She turned towards the fool.
‘Wait, I just remembered; you never told me your name!’
But he wasn’t there.
Neither was the room.
Crystine was kneeling on the banks of the stream.
The stream flowed into a river, into meandering, wide and rapidly raging courses of water.
It was a labyrinth of water courses, dividing the land into little more than reed-conquered, swampy islands.
Crystine glanced back at the reflection in the shimmering water.
The blue glow of the dangling crystal had been joined by that of the glittering ruby, like the spheres of the Moon and Venus coming slowly together.
The babe about to be born in one. The hag in the other.
They crossed, they partially merged, the spiritually blue waters of conception mingling with the blood of life.
And within that almond of perfectly luminous lilac there appeared a queen of queens.
‘Crystine,’ came a cry as if from nowhere, startling her.
The cry came from an approaching almond shaped boat, one draped in sheer veils of that gloriously wonderful lilac.
And in its very centre, there calmly stood the Fisher Queen, holding out a hand to invite and help Crystine aboard.
‘You’re taking me back?’ Crystine asked hopefully.
‘No, of course not,’ the queen replied, ‘you’re leading me back to where I belong!’
Behind the Fisher Queen, the land was of the very deepest red, as if it were all illuminated in the bloody glow of the descending evening star. The meandering, intertwining streams ran like veins between what could have been so many small islands.
The waters flowing around the boat raged forcibly. Directly beneath the hull, they seemed at first to Crystine to be foaming in a particular urgency of movement, until she realised it was a writhing shoal of wild salmon fighting their way upstream.
As Crystine took the seat offered her by the Fisher Queen, a brightly coloured beetle landed alongside her. Crystine shied away from it in panic; but the Fisher Queen nonchalantly reached across her to let it innocently clamber onto her hand.
‘I could transform her into something less ugly and frightening, if you preferred,’ the queen said with a kindly smile. ‘A butterfly, maybe? What do you suggest?’
Crystine recalled the Hag Queen’s lament that she wasn’t recognised for her wisdom.
‘Doesn’t a butterfly only live for a day?’ she asked.
‘A fleeting beauty; that’s true,’ the queen agreed.
‘An owl then,’ Crystine declared resolutely. ‘Not the brightest of plumage; but the brightest of all in terms of wisdom!’
In an instant, the beetle had become an owl, one staring about itself curiously, its eyes wide and taking everything in.
With a flick of her hand, the queen sent the owl rising up high, its wings gloriously smooth in the confident strength of their beating of the air.
It flew across the silvery blue orb of a moon, one that strangely seemed to be spinning a little to the left.
‘Night time already?’ Crystine said, puzzled by the moon’s abrupt appearance.
‘Yes; because it’s time, I think,’ the queen coolly declared. ‘Time for your conception.’
The waters stretching off on every side of the boat were calmer now, bluer, apparently lit by the moon’s own wonderfully silvered hues.
It was a sea that curved away from them no matter which way Crystine looked, giving the impression that they were floating on a miniature planet completely enveloped in water.
‘Conception?’ Crystine repeated curiously.
With a graceful motion of an elegant hand, the queen directed Crystine to peer over the edge of the boat.
Below her within the clear waters, Crystine saw a foetus, growing until it was at a point due for its appearance within the world; but then it would fade away to nothing, until with a swirl of mingling fluids, the child began to form yet again.
‘Who…who is she?’ an awestruck Crystine stammered, her breath taken away by the beauty of it all.
‘It could be you,’ the queen replied, ‘about to be born; or maybe, even, about to be conceived.’
‘But…I’ve already been born: I’m here!’ Crystine declared worriedly.
‘Yes, here you are,’ the queen agreed, ‘but the child we see here is still you, waiting to be reconciled with her temporarily absent spirit.’
‘Me?’ Crystine said, recognising that this was exactly what the queen’s unwavering stare implied.
With her own eyes, Crystine asked permission to dip a hand into the waters.
The queen acquiesced with a slight nod of her head, a pleased smile.
As Crystine’s hand lowered into the water, she shivered with the sensation, one of impulses of endless movement, a sign that the waters themselves were alive.
The slumbering child opened her eyes, grinned; then drifted back to sleep immediately on Crystine withdrawing her hand.
An enthralled Crystine grinned hugely.
‘I said it could be you,’ the queen pointed out, gracefully dipping her own hand into the gently rippling waters.
This time, the baby rapidly became a child, became a beautiful girl, became a woman; became the Fisher Queen, but with the face of Crystine’s own mother.
Crystine gasped in a mix of shock and horror.
She whirled around in the boat, glaring at the Fisher Queen with mingling bewilderment and fear.
The queen nonchalantly pulled aside her face veil.
Of course, Crystine wasn’t looking into the face of her mother.
For it was her own smiling face looking back at her.
‘This just gets crazier!’ Crystine sighed with only a tiny sense of relief.
The queen had withdrawn her dangling hand from the lively waters.
The foetus, first growing then fading to nothing, had returned.
‘What’s so hard to understand?’ the Fisher Queen replied. ‘I’m you as you could be; and I’m also your mother as she could have been – just as the other queens are you if you stick to the script written for you, if you fail to remember what has passed between us if you return.’
‘If I return?’ Crystine repeated fearfully.
‘There is a way to ensure my connection with the world is reborn,’ the queen said, ‘but it would probably be asking far more of you than anybody should be expected to sacrifice.’
‘I’ve learnt so much about me here: I’m a stronger, better person that I ever believed I could be.’
The queen nodded in agreement.
‘And yet the world you come from offers so many seductive distractions, things we tell ourselves it would be foolish to give up.’
The queen glanced down at the child.
‘There would be no you at all if your mother hadn’t failed to recognise my presence; but now, if you wish, she could call on me – and stop seeing herself as a gift to be packaged up for the pleasure of others.’
She briefly dipped her hand into the waters once more; and once more the Fisher Queen briefly appeared there instead of the child.
‘You’re saying I don’t have to be conceived?’ Crystine asked uncertainly. ‘And that’s my choice?’
The Fisher Queen nodded, her wan smile an indicator that she realised Crystine was being given a difficult choice.
‘I’m saying,’ she said quietly, ‘that you could break the circle.’
As she always did whenever her mum was out, Crystine was reading.
As she did, in fact, whenever mum was home.
Because then they’d both be absorbed in reading; absorbed in their own little worlds of imagination rather than the far more uncontrollable, far more frightening world actually surrounding them.
Like mother, like daughter; isn’t that what they said?
God forbid, Crystine thought, that included her.
She’d leave home, as soon as she were able, rather than that!
She wasn’t ready to do that just now, of course.
Not just yet.
She couldn’t leave her friends. Her schoolwork.
She wasn’t quite sure how to look after herself anyway.
Besides, her mother needed her, didn’t she?
Crystine was finding it difficult to concentrate,
She was waiting for a phone call.
Hoping for a call.
From a certain boy she’d had her eye on for quite a while now.
He’d forgotten her, obviously.
Forgotten he’d promised to call.
The phone rang.
Crystine jumped up from her makeshift seat, letting the opened book in her lap slip aside.
She picked up the receiver.
‘Hello?’ she said into the mouthpiece nervously.
It was him.
She recognised his voice, even in nothing more than the slow, confident ‘Hi.’
She had to apologise; that was the first thing to bring up she realised.
She needed to let him know how ashamed she’d been at falling asleep in class.
How she didn’t want that to make him feel any less about her.
‘I don’t mind,’ he replied happily, adding jokily, ‘It was nice just seeing you smiling so contentedly as you slept.’
‘I do love you…I mean; please, you won’t forget me will you?’ she pleaded resignedly.
‘Of course I won’t forget you,’ he chuckled curiously. ‘How could you even think of something as crazy as that?’
His reply made Crystine giggle with delight.
Then she paused.
Yes; How could she even think of something as crazy as that?
If you enjoyed reading this book, you might also enjoy (or you may know someone else who might enjoy) these other books by Jon Jacks.
The Caught – The Rules – Chapter One – The Changes – Sleeping Ugly
The Barking Detective Agency – The Healing – The Lost Fairy Tale
A Horse for a Kingdom – Charity – The Most Beautiful Things (Now includes The Last Train)
The Dream Swallowers – Nyx; Granddaughter of the Night – Jonah and the Alligator
Glastonbury Sirens – Dr Jekyll’s Maid – The 500-Year Circus – The Desire: Class of 666
P – The Endless Game – DoriaN A – Wyrd Girl – The Wicker Slippers – Gorgesque
Heartache High (Vol I) – Heartache High: The Primer (Vol II) – Heartache High: The Wakening (Vol III)
Miss Terry Charm, Merry Kris Mouse & The Silver Egg – The Last Angel – Eve of the Serpent
Seecrets – The Cull – Dragonsapien – The Boy in White Linen – Porcelain Princess – Freaking Freak
Died Blondes – Queen of all the Knowing World – The Truth About Fairies – Lowlife
Elm of False Dreams – God of the 4^th^ Sun – A Guide for Young Wytches – Lady of the Wasteland
The Wendygo House – Americarnie Trash – An Incomparable Pearl – We Three Queens – Cygnet Czarinas