Two days after the Queen died, they sent for me.
I was sixteen. Barely more than a child. Father and Mother could do nothing. News of my supposed beauty had reached the capitol, so they came, they saw me, and they took me. Dressed in a great fur coat and a long, velvet dress trimmed with white ermine, I was bundled into a carriage and never saw home again. Mother and Father’s faces grew distant, like clouds, until they were as indistinct as clouds, and then they were gone.
Four days of cramp and cold and squatting in the forests while guards averted their eyes as I relieved my bladder went by. I ate little. Said nothing. Then one day a castle loomed into view and an old man welcomed me as wife. Our wedding night was brief, painful, and full of a thousand humiliations. He was dry and bony, the grunt of his ecstasy pulsed through me in waves of hot embarrassment. I considered jumping off the balcony.
Then I met you.
It was at dinner the following night when I was presented as Queen to the court. My family home had never seen such gluttony as that feast: the fat, roasted hog crowned with creamy potatoes and rich gravy, the opulent candlesticks and taste of sharp, strong wine. The scent of seared flesh, parsley and garlic was overwhelming, and I was ashamed when my mouth watered like a starved mutt.
My husband sat in his great cloak and crown, guzzling port and raucously telling jokes to other men. I considered the knife at my wrist.
Then you walked into the room.
The eldest of the king’s three children, and the most arresting girl I’d ever seen. Barely two years my junior but your smile was already so much wiser than mine. Everyone watched the sway of your hips, the glossy sheen of your raven hair, the swell of your pale breasts. The room was suddenly charged: a cave of hungry eyes.
“Children,” boomed the King. “Meet your new mother.”
The absurdity of it twinkled in your gaze.
“Your majesty,” you chimed and bowed.
Blood flew like swallows to my cheeks.
Later, when we toasted the King’s good health, your eyes cut to mine over the rim of your glass. You smiled. Prim and amused and full of contempt.
I tasted nothing of that meal. When you swept from that hall in a whirl of admiring eyes and admiring words, I too was caught in your spell.
The seasons went by quickly after that. Winter yielded to the rise of sticky sap twice, to the flowering trees and the hum of bees. Those hot nights still haunt me: twisted up in sweaty sheets and heavy limbs, praying he would fall asleep before any wifely duties could commence. Misery made me weak and mean. The days passed in a waking stupor, I spoke only when spoken to and often went into the garden to clench my fist around a rose, to squeeze until blood fell.
That’s where you found me— flower crushed in my fist. My cheeks burned with shame when you smiled, that amused, secret smile. Without a word you took my hand, led me through a labyrinth of rooms until we lighted upon your own. Cauldrons bubbled with the tang of herbs and green plants festered in every corner.
“This palace will eat you alive if you let it,” you said, bandaging my torn hands. Then you looked me in the eye. “Don’ let it.”
From then on time wasn’t measured by seasons, it was measured by you. Our visits. Fleeting at first. Shy conversations stolen at dinner, odd hours in the library, a snickered joke shared during a joust or a meeting or any other official thing where we were meant to look pretty and nothing more. I began to seek you out. It proved more difficult than I first anticipated. Queues of admirers flocked to you, begging for any scrap of attention, and you knew how to handle them. How to wring the secrets, the intrigues from their lips. Still, you would always make time for me.
The court admired the bond forged between the princess and her new mother. Oh, the irony of it.
Long afternoons we spent in that room of herbs. You taught me everything: how to heal, how to harm, teas and tonics and creams. Rose hip for beauty, belladonna for sleep. The way the candlelight played in your dark hair… it drove me to lunacy. And, always, when the night hour struck, I was loathed to go.
“I can’t stand the thought of you with him,” you whispered one afternoon.
My heart rose to my throat. You took my hand.
I didn’t. We found pleasure in each other, sweeter than anything I’d ever known.
When I found my husband later, he beat me round the head. Until a bairn was in my belly, my nightly presence was required. It was the first time I felt the dark, true prick of hate.
We began to mix him a sleeping draught and slip it into his evening wine. Many a time he collapsed on top of me and I wriggled free, escaping into your waiting arms. He knew nothing when the next morning he awoke to my sweet smile and a timid thank you trembling on my lips for such a lovely night. He was content. He didn’t know the scent of you still lingered on my fingers.
But it wasn’t enough. I was learning quickly. Surrounding countries were raiding our land and the king was too weak, too feeble to do anything about it.
“I hate him,” you admitted to me one night. We were tangled up in each other in a spare, disused room. The way you looked then, bare-breasted and pale as snow, I can remember it so clearly even now.
“He’s foul and old and insufferable. Mother had not been dead a week before he sent for you.”
“Don’t be,” you silenced me with a kiss. “He thought he brought you here for his pleasure. But you are only mine.”
Then she cried.
“He talks of marrying me off— to some visiting noble.”
My heart sank.
It wasn’t a noble. It was a prince, and he arrived three days later. There was a parade, entertainment. I organised it all, and from my eternal perch at my husband’s side, I saw the way you softened in the prince’s arms, saw the way your hand brushed into his hair and his grip slid down your back.
“A good match,” the king intoned.
When the serving maid spilt his drink, I had her whipped.
The marriage date was set. I was losing time. You wouldn’t see me. I was desperate. I had to act.
Night fell and I took the king’s wine, the belladonna, and added a concoction so foul I worried even the heady scent of wine would not hide it.
It was fifteen minutes before he began to foam at the lips.
“What did you do?” you demanded when I summoned you to our quarters.
Her father was a yellow corpse at my feet.
“I did it for us.”
“We can be together now.”
You looked at me like I was a stranger. Like I disgusted you. Panic set in.
“Guards!” I shrieked. They came. I was crying. Hysterical. That part was true. I pointed at the princess. “Murderer!”
They found all of the evidence they needed in the herb room. Judgement was swift and you were thrown into the dungeons. Morning came, and I was Queen alone. Quickly, I solidified my position. All of those meetings, standing silent, I had been listening. Ministers were axed and replaced. My rule was absolute. All that was left was for me to pardon you, for all to be between us as it was before.
But then you escaped.
For years, I searched. Silver began to streak my hair early. Stress, the physician said. Every hour, every waking second I devoted to finding you. To hunting you. I grew gaunt and thin, people began to whisper. The word witch followed me like a constant spectre. I sent soldiers, huntsmen after you so that I might possess your heart again. All failed me.
Then, one night, a spy informed me of a cottage of men. You’d been working there as a cook and cleaner and God knows what else.
This was it. No one could be trusted save myself.
Away I stole with naught but a cloak, horse and basket. It was a two-day ride before I spied you through the trees as you sang and hung laundry. It was like catching a glimpse of God after years in the dark.
My hair was full grey by now, and with the hooded cloak I was sure you would not recognise me. I offered you the basket and stared, transfixed, as you wrapped that sweet, familiar mouth around the apple and sank your teeth into its flesh. You choked once and then you knew it was me.
I kissed you as you fell. Cradled you. You bit me and blood stained your lips. I stroked your hair and felt your beating heart still beneath my hand.
They say they put you in a glass coffin. It’s just as well. Such beauty should not go to waste. I am content with my throne and empty bed as long as no other feels your touch. They talk of hair as dark as a raven’s wing, skin as white as snow and lips as red as blood— my blood.
Let them look. Let them come. It will do no good. For as long as I breathe, the fairest of them all will belong to me.
– Charlie Wrigg