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I felt like a fraud. But you know what they say – fake it till you make it.
If I could trace it all to a beginning, it was probably that morning in spring. I was watering the plants and feeding the chickens as I normally did. When I walked towards the orchard to check on the apple trees, I noticed a figure running in a distance. It was odd, because we didn’t usually expect anyone, especially not at this house. I put a hand over my eyes and tried to make out the face, but was almost immediately startled by another yelping furry thing that was reaching my legs. I jumped with a gasp as the black and white dog stopped right before me, with its mouth opened wide and tongue hanging out.
“I’m sorry!” The figure, a tall man with broad shoulders and strong arms, caught up and reached for the dog. “Max means no harm. He seldom gets the chance to run about in such a wide field, and he got a bit carried away.” With the dog snug in his arms, the man stood up and looked as though he was about to say something else but stopped when he saw me.
My heart jumped. He was unexpectedly handsome. His dark hair was running wild in the wind, and there was a faint hint of stubble on his cheeks and chin. But it was his eyes. I could not decide if they were blue or green, and I could not seem to pull away from them. It felt as though I was being sucked into a beautiful whirlpool.
I blinked and looked down as my cheeks began to feel warm.
“I’m sorry if Max startled you,” he said again, a deep but gentle voice, and I could hear the smile in it.
“No, I’m fine, don’t worry about it,” I said, as I did a quick scan of his attire. Plain cream blouse, casual brown pants, and well-worn riding boots. “Are you from another village? Here for an errand?”
He looked surprised by my question. “Oh, I, uh…”
“Sorry, it’s just that, we don’t usually get visitors this side of the village, and you look like you’re on a journey of some sort…” Was I being too presumptuous? It didn’t concern me anyway. But he was at my field, so that gave me a right to know? Was I speaking too much with a stranger?
“No, it’s alright,” he said, with a smile that seemed to make his eyes twinkle. “Yes, Max and I were, uh, travelling around a bit, and we were actually on our way back when he did this little detour.” He ruffled the dog’s head and chuckled when he got a wet kiss in return. “Well, I’m glad he did.” He turned his eyes on me again, and, almost abruptly, put the dog down to extend a hand towards me. “Edward, at your service.”
Belatedly, I remembered my manners. “Oh!” I put my hand in his and did a little curtsy. “Helena. Please to meet you.”
That was the first of our many meetings, as Edward often dropped by for visits. “It’s on the way between errands,” he would say. Seeing him quickly became the highlight of my day, or even week. He never could stay long, but whatever time we had together was good enough. My parents, as usual, were seldom home as they had much to do at the field, and so had only seen Edward once or twice. If they knew that we were getting close, they never mentioned it.
With Edward, it felt as though I was living another life. No longer was I just a farmer’s daughter who was mostly left alone to clean the house and tend the garden. He somehow made me feel like a queen.
We were sitting on the hill one day, my head on his shoulder, as we waited for the sun to set before he would be on his way, when he turned to me and said, “Has anyone told you that you are as magnificent as the sun?”
I laughed. “Because of my hair?”
“Well, it’s true that your hair looks golden,” he said, leaning forward and holding my gaze. “But it is also because you absolutely glow. You are the ray of sunshine in my life, Helena. I’m so glad I found you.”
He kissed me, and at that moment, I really did feel like a glorious sun.
Winter was finally over, and my father had brought back a whole chicken for celebration. As we busied around in the kitchen preparing for dinner, we heard the sound of galloping horses in the distance. We paid no heed to it initially, until the sound became louder and nearer.
By the time the horses stopped outside our house, none of us were doing anything except staring at the door. My mother whispered urgently, “Who could it be? Did you do anything wrong Herbert?”
“Me?” My father replied rather indignantly, but his eyes never left the front door. “Of course not! I have paid my taxes as required and do not owe anybody anything.”
“Then who are they and why are they here?”
“I don’t know, woman, stop asking me.”
“Well what are we going to do?”
Just at that moment, the door shook with a knock. My father exhaled, and walked to the front. I expected the worst as he opened the door, but all that happened was him going out and closing the door behind him. From where we were, we could not see who or what was outside.
I heard voices speaking, but they were too soft for me to make out the words. As I strained to listen, the door suddenly opened and both me and my mother stood up in fright. And my fear quickly turned to confusion.
He beamed a smile when he saw me. “Helena, my love.”
I was relieved, but at the same time, something was nagging at me. Something did not make sense.
“How did you get in? There were men in front of our house, and -” I trailed off as I noticed his attire. Gone were his plain shirts and pants and riding boots. Instead, he was in clothes only powerful lords could wear, right down to the heavy, embellished boots. He was also wearing a golden crown.
In two strides he was right in front of me, holding my hand. “Helena, my love,” he looked at me with a sheepish smile. “I’m afraid I haven’t been completely honest with you.”
My eyebrows drew together, and one hand went to my heart.
“My love, I am not an errands boy. I am, in actual fact, the King.” He put a finger on my lips when I shook my head and tried to speak. “I have hidden my identity from you not because I didn’t trust you – you mustn’t think that,” he said that quickly. “It’s just, we were having such a great time together and you loved me for me, not for being the King, but for being Edward. But now, Helena, I cannot live another day away from you.”
The wooden floors gave a thud as he went down on one knee. I tightened my grip on his hand as I felt myself sway.
“Helena, my sweet Helena, my love. You have brought me so much joy, and you have mended my heart. You are truly the glorious sun in my life. Will you please do me the honour of becoming my Queen?”
I never knew that a royal wedding took so much work. Not only was I constantly being measured and fitted for gowns (how many gowns did one need for a wedding?), but, as I was not born into a noble family – much less a royal one – I had to go through quick, thorough lessons after lessons. Some seemingly trivial such as how a queen should walk or wave, to important ones that weighed on my head, like the list of kingdoms we were in business with, the families we absolutely had to be courteous to, and what to do should the kingdom come under threat.
More than once I found myself pinching my own cheeks, just to check if I was indeed not in a dream. At times I yearned to hear my mother’s nagging, or to see my father working hard at our field. “No Helena,” my father had said when I assumed they were coming with me. “You go, and be a great queen. Your mother and my place is here. We are proud of you, and we are happy for you.” He gave me a pat on my head, as though I was still a little girl, while my mother hugged me quickly before I climbed up onto the carriage.
I waved and waved as the carriage moved and their figures became smaller and smaller. Then I settled in the carriage and stared at my hands and wondered what I was doing. My parents were right; our place was there, in the fields. How foolish was I to think that I could fit in with the upper class, and as their queen?
I gave a little shake to erase that memory. Nothing could be done now; I was here in the palace, was I not? And the royal wedding was only a month away. And – I touched the golden ring on my finger – I was with Edward. That was the most important thing. Everything else would turn out to be alright.
Just as my handmaiden took off the veil they were trying out on me, the doors of my chambers opened and everybody did a quick bow and curtsy as Edward strode in with a big smile on his face. At first, all I could see was him and everything within me lighted up. And then, I saw her.
Her little hand in his, she was nervous, I could tell, about meeting me, yet, she kept her eyes on me with a small smile on her face, brave as how a princess must have been trained to be.
I was not as brave. My smile faltered and words suddenly left me. All I could do was stare at her until they came to stand before me.
I knew that he had a daughter. He had told me about his first wife who had died due to the autumn fever, and that was how I knew about their daughter too. But all those times when Edward and I were together, his daughter seemed to be so far away and removed from our lives, that I only thought about her as how one normally thought about a distant relative who lived overseas. But now, here she was.
And this lesson was, by far, the hardest – how to be a mother. A stepmother.
I never had a close relationship with my mother. It wasn’t that she was cold or cruel. She was just too busy with helping my father with his field and business. He had always been her first priority, and I came in a far second. She loved me, that I knew. She did the duties that were usually expected of a mother, and she clothed me and fed me. But I had heard of how other daughters spoke to their mothers about their fears and heart’s desires, and I did not. So now, looking at Edward’s daughter, I felt exceedingly lost.
She was about ten years old, with jet black hair that cascaded over her shoulders with little waves. She had such fair and dewy skin that somehow reminded me of snow, and lips as red as the apples that grew on my father’s trees. Such a beautiful little girl that looked almost like a porcelain doll. She was still looking at me with a little smile on her face, with so much expectancy and eagerness. And all I could do was stare back. What was I supposed to do? What did motherly mothers do?
I knew without looking that Edward was keeping his eyes on us both, as though waiting to see the love connection spark between us. After all, how could the two girls he loved most not love each other too?
I forced a smile to my face and carefully patted her arm. “Hello, it’s so good to finally meet you.” I didn’t even know how I should introduce myself. Should I have told her my name? Or should she address me as the Queen? No, that would be too formal. But she couldn’t possibly call me Mother. My smile wavered as I continued to think hard of what else to say.
She, however, was contented with that opening line, as her smile widened. “You are just as beautiful as they say! You should hear the songs they sing about you, my lady! And your hair! It really is as golden as the sun!”
Such excitement from the child. I gave an awkward laugh. “Thank you, that’s very sweet of you.”
Edward laughed and his face was full of love and satisfaction. “I knew the both of you would get along.” He held the both of us in his arms. “The two girls whom I love more than the world, and who are the most important in my life right now.”
I leaned my head into his neck, and felt a little out of place, but oh so grateful.
The first few months after the wedding were magical. Being able to be close to Edward every day made everything else worth it. Although there was now so much more to consider besides just helping my parents with the house and the field. I had often heard of stories about people who coveted the throne and yearned for the power to rule. Whatever for? There were so many things to consider before even taking a step, and so many eyes were on you that it felt as though you didn’t belong to yourself anymore.
Edward, as always, knew my heart even without me saying a word. One morning, I woke up to see a lush apple tree in the courtyard outside the window in my chamber, and I gasped in delight. He came up to me from behind and kissed my head. “So that you have something from home.” I turned and hugged him tightly.
As for my relationship with the child, well, I was working on it. There were whispers around that I was being cold and aloof to the girl, and it bothered me. How I wish I was like one of those ladies, naturally loving with motherly instincts. All I had was awkwardness around her. But, was it an evil thing to not be comfortable around children?
Edward was very understanding. “You just need more time,” he assured me. And I believed him. I just needed time.
The time did come, sooner than I thought. I began to be excited about children when the doctor told me that I was expecting. It was such a miracle, to have a life growing within me. Day by day, I watched as my belly grew, and I almost squealed when I felt the first flutter of movements. I looked at Edward in awed wonder while my hands moved around my belly, trying to coax the baby to give me another kick. Edward grinned back at me, but I knew that this was not as magical for him as it was for me. After all, he had gone through this before.
Realising that dampened my joy a little, like a wave of disappointment washing over me. At that moment I knew, that I was alone in this journey too.
My belly soon became so round and huge that I could no longer see my own feet. As the palace prepared for the baby’s arrival, Edward presented a turquoise box wrapped with a silver ribbon to me. It was heavy. “What is it?” I asked, smiling wide as I tried to shake the box a little next to my ear.
He gave me a kiss. “Just a little something to celebrate the upcoming birth of our child, and to say I love you.”
I pulled away the ribbon and carefully opened the box. Perhaps it was the pregnancy hormones, but my eyes teared and my throat ached the moment I saw what was inside. It was a clear glass apple, with emeralds studded in where the leaf was, and the apple itself was reflecting light so brilliantly it looked as though it was emitting rainbows.
“A glass apple,” I said as I carefully touched it. “I love it so much. Thank you my love!”
He was looking at me with such tenderness that I really felt as though my heart would burst at that moment with too much love. “Anything for you, my Queen,” he said. I wrapped my arms around him and saw our reflection in the mirror on the wall – I was safely in his embrace, and his hand was on my hand which was on my belly. My face was the face of the happiest woman in the world, blessed beyond measure.
Alas, Life has a way to mock those who think they had it all.
It was a morning like any other. Ordinary. I looked as the apples began to ripen in the tree outside my window, and listened to the birds sing. Everything was how it should be. Until my handmaiden burst through my bedroom doors with the chief general right behind her. I should have known something was wrong from the way my handmaiden had a hand on her mouth, as though trying to hold herself back from wailing. I should have sensed it from the general’s taut face, with eyebrows drawn tight together and jaws working to find words. But nothing could have prepared me for what came next.
“My Queen, there has been an accident.”
I ran as fast as my belly and skirts would allow. The child was already by his side, hugging his hand to her cheeks, shoulders shaking. There was a chorus of wailing around me, but all I could hear was my own heartbeat in my ears. It was as though my spirit had come out of my body, and I was looking at someone else’s life unfold at that moment, looking at myself stumble forward towards the man in bed.
Time seemed to have stilled, while my mind screamed against what it was processing. By the time I reached him, my vision was blurred by tears. I was shocked by how cold his hand was.
Somewhere behind me, a voice was talking. It happened too fast… an arrow was shot off target… the horse panicked… His Majesty was thrown off… no foul play…
I kept my eyes on the handsome face in front of me. It looked as though he was just asleep, and, as though I possessed magic, I was willing him with all my might to open his eyes, willing this to be untrue. “Edward,” my voice came out a cracked whisper. “Please, my love. Wake up. You’ll be alright. Please. Please wake up.” I shook him a little, as the child came to my side and held my arm. “Please Edward, please open your eyes. Don’t leave me. You can’t leave me.”
My chest felt so tight and heavy, my throat ached and I couldn’t say anything more. I couldn’t breathe. There was a sharp pain in my belly, and the last thing I saw was the child shouting over me “My lady!” and then everything turned black.
When I woke up, I wished I hadn’t. Because then, this would truly just had been a nightmare.
The baby… We are so sorry my Queen…
I felt numb. Even tears seemed to elude me. All I could do was lie in bed with the glass apple and stare at the tree outside my window. It had come to full bloom, and red apples filled the tree. But all I could think of was, now I was truly alone.
The child visited often, but I had neither the strength nor the ability to say much to her.
A few years passed, and the kingdom was now used to being ruled by a Queen. Not that everybody was happy about it. I did as much as I could to make the best decisions, but of course, not everyone agreed with me all the time. Many of the officials did not appreciate having to listen to a lady, and many others felt I should just marry to put a king on the throne. And there had been many that sought my hand. But I was not interested.
Rumours swirled, within and without the palace, that I was not wise enough to be a ruler. Some were not as kind, and even went as far to claim that I had caused the King’s death so that I could take over the throne. The first time I heard that, I broke down. To be accused of harming the one that I loved more than anything, it was as though I was killed myself. But soon, I learned to shut my ears. I learned to hold myself up, rigid and regal, without a crack in my composure when I faced them. Although that, perhaps, added to the belief that I was cold and emotionless.
It was overwhelming at times. And when it got too much, as it often did, I would retreat to the safety of my chamber. I would curl up on my bed, trying to feel the remnants of his warmth on the sheets. I would hug the glass apple in his place, holding on to it as though through it I could touch him and our son.
The sunlight broke through the windows, and while the handmaidens got me dressed, I kept my eyes on the apple tree outside. It was another morning to deal with documents, decisions and court officials. I was not looking forward to it, but I would do this, for Edward’s sake.
As the handmaiden put the crown on my head, I looked at the mirror and saw the farmer’s daughter, all decked out in a queen’s attire. Sometimes I wondered if I knew what I was doing at all. Without Edward by my side, I felt so out of place. I felt like a fraud. But this was not the time to doubt. I straightened myself, lifted my chin, and steeled myself for another tough session with the officials.
Just as we reached the doors of the throne room, I realised that the glass apple was not with me. “I need to return to my room,” I said to my handmaiden.
She looked up at me in surprise. “My Queen, is there something you need?”
“Yes, my glass apple. I need to get it.”
“We can get a servant to retrieve it, my Queen, you don’t have to –“
“No, I will go and get it myself,” I said, perhaps a little too sharply than I intended, as she widened her eyes before lowering them immediately and bowed.
My entourage tailed me as I walked swiftly back to my chamber. When the doors were opened, I saw the child in there, near my bedside table. Perhaps I should not call her a child anymore. She was, after all, approaching her sixteenth birthday soon. I did whatever I could as a mother – I clothed her, I fed her, and I provided counsel as and when she needed. But still, our relationship was not exactly warm.
“Is everything alright, Princess?” I called to her.
She swirled around at my voice. “My Queen!”
I was alerted by her expression immediately, and took another careful step in.
“I’m so sorry my Queen, I didn’t mean to! It was an accident! I was just trying to look for Father’s pin, and I didn’t realise that it was there below the papers… I’m so sorry!” she gushed out, almost tearfully.
My eyes darted to the floor where she was standing, even as my heart began to sink. There were shards of glass on the floor.
I rushed to the bedside table. No. No. No!
“What have you done?” I bit out. She cowered at the look on my face, and at that moment, it was as though the dam had broken – everything that I had carefully and tightly kept within me was now being unleashed. “What have you done?” I screamed again.
“I’m sorry!” she cried.
“That was all I had left and you broke it! You foolish girl!”
She was crying now. “I’m sorry! I know how important it is to you…” she said, but was interrupted by the sound of the vase I smashed onto the floor.
“You knew, and still you broke it! You foolish girl! You are a horrible girl!” I knew I would regret this, but at that moment, I did not want to hold back. Like poison that was seeping out of the snake’s tongue, the words tumbled out. “It must be you – you brought death to your mother, and you brought death to your father. Is it not enough that I am stuck here with you without me wanting it? Are you now wishing death on me as well?”
She looked stricken, as though I had slapped her.
“Get out!” I screamed, as I pushed the bedside table to the ground. “I don’t want to ever see you again, you hear me? Get out!!”
The child ran out of the room in tears, past my entourage who witnessed it all and who were now rooted to the ground, unsure of what to do. Should they comfort the princess, or would that ignite more fury from the cruel queen?
The anger left me as quickly as it consumed me, and I collapsed to the floor. My handmaiden came to my side, just as a soldier rushed in. “My Queen! The Princess has taken her horse and ridden out of the palace! Should we go after her?”
I quickly wiped the tears off my face and stood up. “Of course you should! Go, go after the Princess now!”
Within an hour, a servant ran up and whispered to my handmaiden, who then bowed before me and said, “My Queen, the men have lost track of the Princess. She was too fast and the snow is too heavy.”
My mind worked quickly, and immediately I summoned for the best huntsman of the kingdom. When he finally stood before me, I said, “You are the best huntsman in this kingdom, and so I am sure you will have no problems tracking the Princess even in this snow. Bring her back safely, and you and your family will be well rewarded.”
He put a fist on his heart and bowed deeply. “Yes, my Queen.”
The hours moved by slowly as I paced around the room, waiting to hear from the huntsman. Soon, the sun went down and the room darkened. My handmaidens tried to get me to eat, but I had no appetite at all. Finally, the doors opened and the huntsman entered. I rushed up from my seat. “Where’s the Princess?”
He quickly went down on his knees and bowed his head. “I am sorry my Queen. I followed her tracks, and found that they led to the Enchanted Forest. With the snow being as heavy as it is, and the sun down, not even I am brave enough to enter. Nobody would survive the woods,” he added quietly.
I stared at him.
He threw himself down on the ground. “Please forgive me my Queen. I have failed you. I do not deserve to live.”
I turned and staggered to the window. What have I done? I have lost the only one thing that Edward loved and entrusted to me. I should have protected her, and now she is gone. What have I done?
“Go,” I pushed the word out and waved at the huntsman to dismiss him. He looked up at me before throwing himself down again. “Thank you for your mercy, my Queen!”
Just as he reached the door, however, he turned back. “My Queen,” he started hesitantly.
He looked at his feet. “I just thought that you should know, that the people are saying… the rumours…” Another deep breath. “Many have heard that you chased the Princess out in anger. They believe I was sent to kill her and to retrieve her heart. The word on the street is that you are cruel and not a ruler who is fair enough for this kingdom… I’m sorry my Queen.”
With that, he quickly exited the room.
I leaned on the table, and heard his words again and again in the silence. Cruel… not a ruler who is fair enough…
After all that I had done and given to the kingdom, was I still not fair enough?
I let my eyes move to the mirror on the wall, and saw a regal queen, dressed with the best gown and crowned with the most valuable jewels. A regal queen so far from where she came from. A regal queen who has lost more than she could bear. A regal queen who continued on despite it all, because of her king, because of her people.
But it was still not enough. Not fair enough. I was still not fair enough for the people.
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall,” I sobbed. “Who’s the fairest of them all?”
– THE END –
I loved the story! Esp. that twist at the end! Now I’m wondering if Cinderella’s stepmother has some sort of a backstory to her too
Thank you for reading, and I’m so happy you loved it! As for Cinderella’s stepmother, that’s food for thought… 😉