It was on the doorstep when Cinderella and Snow White got home from lectures, no card, no note. Cinderella took it inside, despite Snow White’s misgivings, and set it on the table in the kitchen diner.
An apple. Perfectly formed, with deep red skin that glistened like a ruby. It rested on a small wooden platter beneath a glass dome.
Cinderella’s fingers danced on top of the glass. It was so tempting.
“Don’t.” Snow White had deliberately stayed on the other side of the kitchen. “You don’t know where it’s come from. It’s just weird, leaving it like that. We should throw it away.”
Snow White hated apples. They made her choke.
Rapunzel looked up from the sofa. A book, as usual, lay open on her lap. She watched Cinderella’s long fingers curl round the handle of the dome.
“Don’t be daft Snow,” Cinderella said as she lifted the glass. A heady scent swirled through the room. “It smells gorgeous. What do you think Rapunzel? Schrodinger’s apple? Poisoned AND not poisoned?”
“There lies the conundrum.” Rapunzel pretended to be nonchalant. She tried to ignore the strange gift. It stirred melancholy within her; it reminded her of…
Cinderella plucked the apple from its platter, holding it up to the light just as Alice wandered in from the back garden. She’d been trying yet again to fix a hole under the fence where next door’s rabbit kept getting through.
“What’s that?” she asked as she added her mug to the line.
“A gift,” said Cinderella.
“A curse,” said Snow White. “But she won’t listen to me.”
Alice examined the apple in Cinderella’s hand. She was wary of food with no provenance. She had been caught out before. Badly.
“I wouldn’t eat it if I were you,” she said. “Don’t know if I’d even have touched it. You need to be careful with these things.”
“THANK you.” Snow White distributed the mugs, then sat by Rapunzel.
Cinderella turned it this way and that. It shone. It was the most wondrous apple any of them had ever seen, rounded and luscious, full of promise.
Rapunzel sipped her coffee, kept sipping even though it burned her tongue. Anything to block that pervading scent, the bitter sadness it awakened.
“Really. What harm could it do?” The apple drifted closer to Cinderella’s lips.
“I’m sure Eve said the same thing,” Snow White said. “It could kill you, is what.”
“Don’t Ella, really,” Alice added. “Who leaves apples on doorsteps anyway? It’s beyond curious.”
“But it smells soooo good.”
Alice took the apple gingerly by the stalk and put it back on its wooden plate. She clapped the glass dome over it and placed it up on the windowsill. The tantalising fragrance disappeared immediately.
But not for Rapunzel. It was in her bones now, her blood, in the tears that burned behind her eyes. He’d always brought her apples. He knew how she loved them.
“We need to get moving,” Alice continued. “We’re supposed to be at Dorothy’s in an hour. Don’t want to be late.”
“You coming out tonight, Rapunzel?” Snow White asked. Rapunzel shook her head.
“Essay due on Monday,” she said. “No time.”
“You work too hard,” said Cinderella. “Live a little. It’s just one night.”
“Might do you good,” Snow White added. “It’s been a while.”
They didn’t understand. How could they, with all those happy endings.
Later, as the front door closed, Rapunzel stood in front of the mirror, curling a strand of hair round her finger. It was short now, chin length. She’d had it cut when he’d left her. The scent of the apple reached up from the kitchen, curling and twisting through her memories.
How he had been a prince amongst frogs.
How perfect they had been together.
How he had led her out of her turret into the light.
How she had taught him to love books.
How his eyesight had begun to fail.
How the headaches had got worse.
How he had changed, become harsh and unkind.
How the doctors had found the tumour.
How he had left her, refused her support, discarded her love.
He was still out there. She’d heard that treatment had been successful. But he wouldn’t take her calls, reply to her messages.
She still loved him. He didn’t love her.
She had climbed back into her tower and she was the one who had fallen to break, spectacularly, on the ground.
Bitterness tainted her tongue. She was tired of feeling stuck. Change was possible, she knew that. The strange gift proved it.
Rapunzel left her room and went down to the kitchen. The apple beckoned from the windowsill and without hesitation she freed it from its prison. Then, standing by the window, watching next door’s rabbit hopping through the daisies on their lawn, she opened her mouth and took a great big bite.
See the little cottage in the clearing ahead. That is where we will take our repose tonight. We have walked for many hours; you are hungry and need to rest.
“Who lives here?” you ask.
No one now, but it is a place of welcome. You will find whatever it is you need. Food, drink, warmth. A bed to sleep in. Comfort and healing for everything from a broken heart to a wound of the flesh. See, there are lanterns lit in the windows. It is all ready for you.
How did they know you would come when you did not know yourself? Well, that is the magic; it is not to be questioned, just accepted with gratitude. Try the door. It is not locked.
The table is laid for us and the fire is dancing in the grate. Come. Sit and I will tell you how this cottage became enchanted.
Once upon a time, long ago and far away, a great king lived in a beautiful castle with his wife and their daughter. The land he ruled was peaceful and prosperous, for his greatness lay not in the battles he had won or the power and wealth he had accumulated but in his fairness, his honesty and his generosity. Merchants traded freely and fairly with the neighbouring realms. Farmers grew abundant crops and their livestock were healthy. Artisans and crafters flourished, creating both the practical and the beautiful. There was music and art, poetry and learning. People cared for each other and disputes were settled quickly and honourably.
Often the King would ride out amongst his subjects to share with them their fortunes good and bad. The Queen and the Princess rode by his side. As the Princess grew up, she learned justice and government from her father and healing from her mother. She knew herself to be truly privileged and wished only to become as good a leader as the King.
Now in that country there was a legend: that whosoever held the sacred jewels of wisdom, truth, justice and love was the true ruler of the realm, and that so long as the jewels were protected then so also was the land. The gems were kept safely within the castle. The sapphire of wisdom, the diamond of truth and the emerald of justice were set into the crown that the King wore during state business; the ruby of love was deemed so precious that it was kept in a secret hiding place.
Some had tried to take the jewels, by theft or by force, but none had ever succeeded.
Years passed. But In the shadowy forest at the northern edge of the kingdom, a dark force was growing, cloaked by malevolent magic. There lived a powerful sorceress, whose greed and hatred knew no bounds. All she saw she needed to possess; the wealth and abundance of the realm had drawn her to it and the jewels were her heart’s desire. So she plotted and planned and conjured all manner of evil to do her bidding. She sowed seeds of destruction and discord throughout the region; a fight here, a failed crop there, food spoiled in a tavern kitchen, missing coins from the notary’s pouch. Whispers of plagues and rumours of war spread and festered, making the people fearful and angry. They began to doubt the King’s integrity and to question his leadership. Into this cauldron of distrust the sorceress poured false promises of a better way, a new leader to protect them.
The King tried to reassure his subjects but he did not know what he was fighting. Turmoil and trouble grew until, at the state celebration of the Princess’s seventeenth birthday, the sorceress swept into the castle with her legions and claimed it for her own. The King was cut down instantly, and a spell cast on all present, immobilising them.
“Where are the jewels?” she demanded of the Queen, but the Queen would say nothing save “They are all here.”
So the sorceress had her minions ransack the castle and they returned triumphantly with the crown. Setting it upon her head, she seated herself upon the throne, saying “I am truly the Queen now, and you will kneel to me or die.”
With that she cast another spell; the guests knelt before her, whether or not they wished to. They found themselves back in their homes, still on their knees.
The Queen and the Princess stood, unable to fight the evil magic.
“Where is the last jewel?” the sorceress asked, but the Queen refused to speak. “Very well. You will pay for your stubbornness. Cast her into the dungeon with the brat.” She walked over to the Queen, spoke just before the guards dragged her away. “It will not stay hidden for long. You will tell me. She,” she indicated the Princess, “will make sure of it.”
The two women were bundled away by the guards and dragged down into the dungeon. It was dark and empty – it had not seen a prisoner for years. One guard lifted a set of rusty keys from a nail in the wall while the others cast them into a cell. The door clanged shut and the footsteps faded away.
Tears blurred the Princess’s vision. Her mother took her by the shoulders. “They will be back soon,” she said. “When they have searched again and failed to find the ruby. You must not be here when they return. I fear what she may do to you.” The Princess opened her mouth to speak but the Queen hurried on. “I have a charm. It will create a door for you to escape through. You will have to hide who you are but at least you will be safe. One day you will return. I know this.”
“You must come with me,” the Princess said desperately but here mother shook her head. She reached into her pocket and drew out a silver pencil. Holding it momentarily over her heart, she used it to draw a rectangle on the thick stone wall. A door appeared, light glimmering round its edges.
“Open it,” the Queen instructed and her daughter obeyed. On the other side was a room.
“I cannot come with you,” the Queen continued. “Only one may pass.” She embraced her daughter. “Be safe, my darling. May we meet again.” Then she pushed the Princess gently through the door. As soon as she was on the other side, the opening vanished and the wall became stone once more.
Thus the Princess found herself in a tiny cottage in the woods on the border of the kingdom. (This cottage). Scared and alone, she had little choice but to try and make a home there and learn to live off the land. She remembered watching farmers planting seeds and bakers baking bread, how the seamstresses sewed clothes and the maids lit the fires in the hearths. She recalled the knowledge she had gained from her parents and from all those who had lived and worked around her. Though her heart was well and truly broken, she would not give up.
As days became weeks and weeks became months, she began to carve out a new life, simple and quiet. She planted a garden and grew food and the healing herbs her mother had taught her. She collected fallen wood for her fire and water from the stream. Sometimes she would walk through the wood and onto the road, following it to the village nearby where she exchanged vegetables for bread, flowers for cloth, kindling for sugar and salt. She offered healing for those that needed it, balms, tinctures, liniments and syrups. These she gave freely.
“This is the gift my mother gave to me,” she would say. “A gift that I can pass on to you.”
But she noticed the change. A deep sadness covered the land like a blanket. The sun struggled to shine and the stars were dull in the heavens. Gales whipped the air and the rains were heavy. It was as if the very skies wept.
As one year became two and then three the people struggled more and more. There was little music or poetry. Smiles were rare, laughter rarer still. The new Queen, angry that she had not yet found the last jewel, ruled with an iron rod. Her guards searched constantly, leaving terror in their wake. She demanded tithes and tributes from everyone, even those who could not afford it. Fields became fallow, livestock sickly. Flowers would not bloom and children could not play. The Princess grieved for her parents and her beautiful country as she continued to offer healing for those in need. Her garden, somehow, seemed unaffected by the blight that cursed the rest of the land.
Word of her abilities and her kindness spread. People came from further and further away to seek her skills. One day a woman knocked at her door, hooded and cloaked. The Princess ushered her in, thinking that she must be very afraid to need to stay so hidden. Once inside, the woman lowered her hood and the Princess recognised her mother’s maid.
“I have come to bring you home,” the maid said. “For you have grown into a wise and strong woman and your kingdom needs you.”
“What can I do against the wicked magic of the sorceress,” asked the Princess. “I don’t have the power to fight her.”
“You have more power than you think,” the woman said. “You are the heart of this land. That is why your garden grows when little else will. Why you still heal others when all around you people fight and steal. You are the reason that the sorceress cannot find the last jewel.”
“I don’t understand. Please, sit. Tell me first of my mother.”
“She still languishes in the dungeon. The sorceress was furious when she realised that you had escaped. She keeps your mother prisoner to taunt her. She still believes that eventually she will gain the location of the ruby.”
“I do not know where it is. How is it that I keep her from finding it?”
The maid smiled. “Because it is in your heart. Unlike the other gems, the ruby chooses its own guardian. It chose you. That is where your healing power comes from, the strongest magic of all. Love. And that is how you will defeat the sorceress. The wicked cannot survive in the light of pure love. Come back with me now. Save your people.”
The Princess was aghast but she did as she was asked. Fearful as she felt at the prospect of facing the sorceress, she longed to see her mother again and bring harmony back to the land. She was shocked as they travelled, by the bare fields and dried up rivers where before there had been a velvet patchwork of crops and softly flowing waters. There were few people on the roads now and many of the buildings were in a state of disrepair.
The castle however was as beautiful as she remembered it. She wrapped her cloak around her and pulled up the hood as she knocked on the door and asked for an audience with the sorceress.
“On what business?”
“I have information about the missing jewel.”
That got the guard’s attention. She was shown into a small anteroom while he scuttled off to announce her. Finally she was shown into the great hall where the sorceress sat on the wooden throne, the King’s crown on her head. She walked toward her, suddenly unafraid.
“Why do you not bow to me?” the sorceress demanded. “And why have you not bared your head in my presence? I am your Queen.”
The Princess stood in front of the dais in silence.
“Your audacity astounds me. I should hang you from the tower as a snack for the buzzards. Tell me where the jewel is or that is exactly what I will do.”
The Princess calmly lowered her hood and stared at her. A shock of recognition crossed the sorceress’s face.
“The jewel is here,” said the Princess placing her hand over her heart. “It has come home but it will never be yours.”
“We’ll see about that,” the sorceress shrieked. She rose, pulling from her robe a sharp black blade. “I will cut it out myself.”
But the Princess stood fast and light began to shine from all around and within her. It grew brighter and brighter and as it did, the sorceress grew smaller and more withered until finally she was nothing more than dust. The crown fell to the floor, Truth, Justice and Wisdom glowing brightly in the light of Love. Her guards were shocked into stillness, not sure quite what to do. The Princess picked up the crown and turned to them; they bowed deeply, in awe of the gentle strength that emanated from her.
“Please free my mother.”
The two women wept with joy as they were reunited. The Princess offered the Queen the crown.
“It is yours now,” said the Queen, “but I would be honoured to help you in any way I can.”
That is how the Princess began her next adventure, rebuilding the realm into the happy and prosperous place that it had been before. And this cottage is the legacy that she left behind, a place of welcome and of refuge, where anyone may come to find food, rest and safety.
So, now we should eat and take the chance to sleep. We still have a long way ahead of us.
Are you frightened? You do not need to fear me – I will not
harm you. Well… not unless you give me reason to. Threaten my family, my pack
and I will not be held responsible for my actions. Otherwise you go about your
business and I go about mine. Mutual respect.
You don’t say it but I see the question in your eyes. The
things you’ve heard about wolves. The stories that are told about us following
people, misleading people, carrying them off and tearing them limb from limb.
Tricksy, nefarious, dangerous wolves.
You shouldn’t believe everything you hear. I did not eat the grandmother or destroy the houses of the little pigs. As for the girl in the red cloak… I did not lure her from the path. She sought me out. She wanted things she could not have. She is dangerous, that one, a wild, dark spirit that should never have been contained in human form. But she wanted what she wanted and when I could not give it she wreaked vengeance not just on me but on my whole bloodline. Words have power you know. A rumour here, a story there, a pretty young girl with a sad face and a knife covered in her grandmother’s blood well hidden in her basket… no wonder the woodcutter was taken in.And the huntsman and the villagers and so many people since. Including you, it would seem.
What did she want, you ask? My skin. Not just to wear it, but to inhabit it. She wanted to oust me from my own body, to use it at will, become a shape shifter. She thought I had the power to make it so, that I would capitulate for one so young and pure and beautiful. But I cannot perform sorcery. I am just a wolf. A talking wolf, you make a fair point, but a wolf nonetheless. There are far stranger things than me in this forest. And even if I could, I am too fond of my own skin to give it up. So I snapped and snarled and eventually ran, her promise ringing in my ears. That I would regret my choice. That my skin would be difficult to live in for ever more. And her lies have made it so. I am maligned, hated and hunted along with the rest of my kin.
You have heard of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. The irony!
The girl, the innocent, who wanted to wear a wolf, just because she desired
more power, more control than her looks and her wiles gave her. What big eyes
she has. All the better to see you with. What a lovely smile she has. All the
better to lure you with. What a sweet voice she has. All the better to fool you
with. What a black heart she has. All the better to break you with. It’s her
you should run from, not me. She still roams these woods so be sure not to
stray from the path…
“Have you ever seen it? The path, I mean? It changes and it moves, so it’s hard to find, even if you’re looking for it. Because you never really know what you’re looking for…”
In two weeks time, on the 16th September in fact, the path will lead to Thorncombe Village Hall where you’ll find The Faeries’ Bazaar.
It’s a mystical narrative of interlinking pieces that leads you through the Bazaar and introduces you to the various shopkeepers and characters to be found there. From the Apothecary to the Bookseller, the three sisters in the Sewing Room to Amily the street magician, each has a tale to weave around you.
My older son Jed has composed a beautiful soundtrack that laces all the stories together. He plays as I read; he is the Troubador.
Younger son Zack, who is a most excellent chef, is the Innkeeper, while my husband Brian is our troubleshooter and all round good guy.
All proceeds from this performance will go to The Word Forest Organisation, carrying out amazing reforestation and educational work in Kenya. Check out what they do here: wordforest.org
So, if you’re local (or even if you’re not) please join us for an evening of music and storytelling.
As you know, I hate writing! And I also loathe reading! So don’t you feel sorry for me, having to read amazing new books and make editorial suggestions to earn a few pennies? Oh, the trauma…
Meanwhile, back in the real world (whatever that is)…
I have been privileged to have been given the opportunity to edit three absolutely cracking new books over the last few months, and they are all due out on very soon. So here’s a little summary of each to tempt you.
‘The Dreamer’ by Sue Hampton
This children’s book, set long ago and far away, is a green allegory encompassing adventure and fairy tale. Moro, a rich, heartless landowner holds a village in his power, but it isn’t enough. Lark, the mute peasant girl, can never please her father however hard she works. She finds solace in carving animals from clay and wood, her art frequently destroyed by her bullying brother. Her friend Fedor, the lame goatherd, never understood why his father left and still hopes he will return. The pair befriend The Dreamer, an old blind man who lives alone on the mountain. He introduces them to the magical world in his crystal story bowl and the myth of the Flower Bird. Their world falls apart when Moro obtains the bowl and – coveting the crystal which lies behind the waterfall – wreaks havoc on the mountain. As greed threatens to destroy the life of the village, can two children and a blind man find the courage and resources within themselves to stand up and lead the way to a better future?
The Empire of Evil by Gordon Strong
Magic is a paradox, one that can never be fully resolved. Within other worlds are mysteries beyond the imagination. It is these extraordinary realms that our psychic investigator willingly explores. Standley-Strange, arch magus, scholar and man-of-the-world is saved from becoming an eternal recluse by a surprise visitor.
Vivacious Cyndi flees to England from a dangerous darkness in America, her intuition guiding her unerringly to the very door of Standley-Strange! He offers her shelter and they speedily become magical allies when Standley-Strange is called to the aid of Debroneth, a Medieval province, inexplicably manifested in another dimension. The magus vows to protect its people from the ravages of the Evil Empire, but must also face his own challenges when he confronts the Emperor Tortius and Bredon Shaft, his vicious Chief Inquisitor.
Treachery, tyranny and a ruthless desire for power are the hallmarks of the Empire. Add in a lost lady, a magical minstrel, kidnapping, rebellion and multiple dimensions and the ride is set to be anything but smooth.
Blind Cupid by Max Brandt
Nick Sloane has a moral compass that no one understands but him. The last thing he needs is a touchstone that hurls it into confusion.
Simon Nicholson’s job at Freeways children’s home is tough, fighting on the front line of child abuse cases and coping with the fallout from neglect. The last thing he needs is one of his youngsters disappearing.
DCI Montgomery Flute has dark memories that are interfering with his work. It’s almost a year to the day that his life-partner, Tom, committed suicide and the last thing he needs .is a complex murder enquiry throwing fuel onto a fire that’s already burning him up.
The discovery of a tortured body in an isolated spot turns out to be an ex-resident of Freeways. Dark secrets from all their pasts are being skilfully woven together by a calculating killer. It’s the very last thing anyone needs; especially the children.
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