This story began with a conversation in the Fairytale Courtyard Facebook group. Erika Everest and I were discussing Charles Perrault's version of Sleeping Beauty and wondering about the woman with the spindle. Who was she? How did she come to be in the castle and not know about the ban on spinning wheels?
This story is my attempt to answer that question, as well as many others raised by our discussion. I am telling it in parts and pieces. The first two are The Woman with the Spindle and The Farmer with the Story.
I hope you enjoy them.
And if you want more stories like this, I send free short stories to my newsletter every month. You can join here.
The Woman with the Spindle
Hanna stopped under the shade of a large tree and adjusted the bag slung across her back. A five day journey. She had thought she understood the implications of that when she began. She had packed plenty of food. Refilled her canteen at every stream she passed so she wouldn’t run out of water.
But now, after four and a half days of walking, she understood why everyone in her village had laughed at her plans to journey to the capital city. Why they had tried to talk her out of it or warned her against packing her spinning and knitting supplies. Her entire body ached. Her feet were covered with blisters. Her face and arms were sunburned.
And in spite of her best efforts, she was constantly thirsty. The summer sun might have been pleasant for an afternoon picnic, but nearly five days of constant exposure left her constantly parched.
Hanna pursed her cracked lips together and shook her head. There was no call to feel sorry for herself just because the journey was harder than expected. She still believed in her mission, and she was still determined to succeed.
She resisted the urge to drink the last of the water splashing around the bottom of her canteen. According to the innkeeper at the last village she passed through, she wouldn’t find another stream until she reached her destination. Best to save the water a little longer.
“Are you going far, dearie?”
Hanna jumped. Where had that voice come from? She searched the landscape around her. The dirt road meandered through grassy fields dotted with patches of trees. There weren’t many places to hide.
The voice crackled with dry amusement. Hanna looked down. Even knowing there was someone there, it took her a moment to find the old woman nestled against the tree trunk. Her tanned skin was creased and knotted in a similar pattern to the bark. The tattered clothing and blankets wrapped around her blended in with the dirt. Her hair was curly and tangled and a sort of gray-brown that reminded Hanna of the dry twigs a bird would use to build a nest.
Honestly, she wouldn’t have been surprised if a bird landed on the woman’s head and claimed the space as a home.
“Good morning,” Hanna said.
The woman cackled, as though she had said something amusing. After a few moments, Hanna smiled in spite of herself. The laughter was endearing somehow.
The woman’s laughter turned into a rasping cough. Without thinking, Hanna pulled out her canteen and offered it to the woman. She clearly needed a drink, poor dear.
The woman took the canteen and drained the water in a single gulp.
Hanna’s heart sank, and the dryness in her own mouth intensified. Now she was the one in trouble. Perhaps that had been a foolish thing to do, giving the last of her water to help a complete stranger.
“Thank you, dearie. That was kind of you.”
The woman’s voice sounded much stronger now. Still brittle, but more like wood instead of straw. Hanna tucked her canteen back into her bag and glanced at the road. She really shouldn’t tarry. The woman followed her gaze, studying the road as if it might come to life and do something interesting.
“In a hurry, are you? What brings you all the way out here by yourself?”
Hanna spit the word out, trying not to choke on it. She didn’t want to tell the story, but perhaps it would be good to practice. Perhaps it would get easier over time.
The woman inclined her head slightly, encouraging Hanna to continue.
“They attacked my village. They- They ate my brother.”
Tears welled up in Hanna’s eyes, and she wiped them away. She needed to stay rational and calm. She needed people to believe her. She needed to look believable.
Memories came flooding back, and Hanna struggled to push them away. She needed to keep moving. Walking, spinning, knitting. Anything to keep her mind distracted.
“I am sorry.”
The woman’s face creased further as she frowned. She truly did seem distressed.
“I’m going to tell the king,” Hanna said. “I sent word with a merchant, but no one responded. Either he never got the letter, or he doesn’t believe me. Or he doesn’t want to believe me. But he needs to know. This won’t be the end of it.”
“So your village sent you?”
“No, everyone thinks it’s a hopeless mission. That the king won’t accept an audience with an uninvited peasant from the outskirts of his kingdom. We’re so far out that we never get the official announcements or correspondence. I don’t know how he chooses who to see. I don’t know anything about the court.”
“And you walked all this way to find out?”
Hanna shrugged. The woman studied her with bright, black eyes that reminded Hanna of the robins that often perched on her windowsill back home. The birds gave her a similar look before flying away.
“The king does accept audiences, but not many,” the woman said finally. “You may have to wait a long time.”
“I’m prepared to wait. I brought my spinning to pass the time.”
The woman studied the bag with raised eyebrows.
“You fit a spinning wheel in there?”
“A drop spindle and a supply of wool. And knitting needles in case I finish my spinning before he agrees to see me.”
Hanna patted the bag, squishing the wool to prove her point. It wasn’t heavy exactly. Or at least, it hadn’t seemed heavy when she started her journey. She had questioned her decision to bring it more than once over the past four days, but the spinning gave her a way to escape. A way to forget.
“I see you are determined. Give me your hand, dearie.”
The woman held her hand out. It was as gnarled as the tree trunk, with knobby knuckles and veins like wayward roots.
Hanna took it and found herself surprised by the strength in the woman’s grip.
“You will be believed,” the woman said. “When it matters most, you will always be believed.”
Wind stirred the grass around them. It swept through Hanna’s hair and sent a shiver up her spine. The breeze carried something with it. The scent of rain and a crackle of lightning. Hanna looked up to the sky, half convinced that it was about to storm. Would the tree provide enough shelter from a sudden downpour?
But the sky was as blue and cloudless as ever. The wind faded as quickly as it had come. The woman squeezed Hanna’s hand before letting it go and leaning back against the tree.
“You’d best get going,” she said. “You’ll reach the capital before dark if you keep moving. Turn right at the city gate to reach the castle.”
Hanna hurried away, then slowed her pace as guilt filled her chest. Important as her mission was, she shouldn’t leave an old woman in this wilderness alone. Perhaps she lived nearby and needed help getting home. Or Hanna could escort her to the nearest town. It would slow her journey, but it was the right thing to do. Henry would have-
Hanna choked on her grief, torn between her desire to help and her desire to hurry.
But when she finally looked back, the woman was gone.
The light shifted, and for a moment she thought she saw the woman leaning against the trunk with a contented smile on her face.
Then she blinked and saw only the tree.
“Hello?” Hanna called.
The wind answered. It swept over the grass and into the trees, catching her skirt and pushing her down the road.
Hanna adjusted her bag and hurried away. The wool stuffed in her bag pressed against her back, growing warmer and warmer as the sun shone down. She took a deep breath and focused on her steps. One foot then the next. That was all she could do. The only way she could help.
When her mind began to wander, she focused on her dry mouth instead. Or her sweaty back and sunburned nose. On any pain but the one in her heart.
The sun hung low in the sky by the time the castle’s spires came into view. Hanna quickened her pace. It was easier to hurry when you could see the end. She reached the city just as dusk swept over the sky, turned to the right, and hurried to the castle. A guard stood at the gate. Not knowing what else to do, she walked up to him.
“Can I help you, miss?”
The guard’s expression was wary. Hanna knew she must look frightful. Sunburned and sweating with an enormous bag on her back.
“I need to see the king.”
Her voice was raspy from thirst. The guard studied her for a moment, then hailed a passing servant.
“You there. Fetch some water for the lady.”
The servant scurried away, and Hanna shook her head.
“That’s very kind, but I need to see the king.”
“And why is that?”
“Ogres attacked my village.”
Hanna braced herself for the inevitable laughter. The scoffing. But the guard simply looked confused.
“I sent a letter but received no reply. Official correspondence often doesn’t reach us. I thought-”
The servant returned, bringing a carved wooden cup full of water. Hanna drank gratefully.
“Ogres,” the guard said thoughtfully.
“I saw them.”
“I believe you. What’s your name, miss?”
“Corporal Brian at your service.”
He gave a little bow, and Hanna stared at him.
“You believe me?”
“Why would you travel so far to lie about such a thing?”
“I- I wouldn’t.”
“Unfortunately, the king and queen are away for a few days. Come. You must stay here until they return. I’m sure the king will want to hear your report.”
Corporal Brian summoned another guard to take his place and escorted Hanna through the gate into the castle. He sent and received a flurry of whispered messages through servants as they traveled through the courtyard. He seemed to be arranging something. Asking permission for something?
Hanna fell into step beside him, dodging the servants and trying to process what was happening. He believed her. Against all odds, he believed her.
The people she had met on her journey had been skeptical at best and scoffing at worst. Even some of the villagers hadn’t believed that ogres were responsible for the deaths. Her friends had said that she was mistaken, and it must have been wolves. Ogres never crossed the mountain. The fairies kept them away.
Except, there had been some incident with the fairies years ago, and Hanna couldn’t shake the feeling that the two events may be connected. That perhaps the fairies weren’t guarding the mountains as carefully as they once had. But word traveled slowly to her village, and details of the fairy incident were lost along the way. Over the years, Hanna had pieced together a strange, distorted story about a royal dinner, petty fairies, and a ban on wheels.
Apparently that ban had been lifted. Servants bustled through the hallways, pushing food and firewood in wheelbarrows.
“We’re near the kitchens,” Brian said, answering the question she hadn’t asked. “It’s even busier when the king is here.”
“You’re giving me a place in the servants’ quarters,” Hanna said. “That’s very generous.”
“The servants wouldn’t appreciate that. Their quarters are always crowded. You’ll stay in the guest chambers.”
“I insist. It’s already been arranged..”
Brian ignored her protests and led her through the kitchens and servants’ quarters to a wing of the castle. Hanna tried not to stare, but found herself gaping anyway. It was the finest place she had ever seen, all marble floors and tapestries and glass windows twice as tall as she was. Quite a contrast from the one room cottage she had shared with her brother before-
Hanna inhaled sharply and focused on the steps. Left, right, then left again. Repetitive motions. Occupying her mind with something else was the only way to forget.
She was paying such close attention to her steps that she didn’t notice when Corporal Brian stopped and turned towards a room. Hanna crashed into him and dropped her bag in the impact. It fell to the floor with a soft thud. Corporal Brian picked it up for her and led her into the room.
“I can’t stay here,” Hanna said. “It’s far too fine.”
“You are the king’s guest and bring important news. He wouldn’t want you staying anywhere else. I should warn you, he may not return for a few days. Any of the servants will be happy to show you to the library if you get bored. Or there are gardens.”
His voice trailed away, and Hanna found herself staring into warm, hazel eyes fixed on her.
“You’ll be alright?” Brian said finally. “I need to get back to my post, but I hate to leave you alone.”
He sounded genuinely concerned. It was such a contrast from the scorn of everyone she had met on the road, that Hanna’s throat tightened with emotion.
“I’ll be fine.”
If she said anything more, she might burst into tears. Corporal Brian seemed to understand this.
“Please contact me if you need anything else. A maid will stop by shortly to check on you.”
Then he bowed and hurried away. Hanna sank into a chair. Memories flooded over her, but sleep swallowed them.
She awoke to movement in the room and swallowed a scream. Where was she? What had happened?
“It’s alright, miss,” a soft voice said. “I just came to see if you needed a fire.”
Hanna blinked, and the friendly face of a young girl came into focus. She took deep breaths, trying to calm her racing heart.
“No, thank you. I don’t need anything.”
“Perhaps some refreshments, miss? I could bring some to the parlor for you.”
Hanna considered this, then nodded.
“Yes, thank you. Yes, that would be lovely.”
She gathered her bag and followed the girl through the winding corridors of the castle. The building seemed to go on forever. They climbed more flights of stairs than Hanna would have thought possible until they finally reached an airy room that was comfortably furnished.
“I’ll return with refreshments, miss.”
Hanna collapsed into a chair and stared out the window. The servant had brought her up to a tower. Probably to keep her out of the way of the nobility, but the view was worth the climb. The kingdom stretched out around her. It looked small from up here. A green patch of land surrounded by mountains.
Hanna followed the road she had walked until it curved into a forest and disappeared. Then she pulled out her spindle and wool. Keep busy. That was the best thing to do. She had expected to wait, and now she was waiting. She should count it a blessing that the waiting was in a more comfortable situation than she had expected.
She twisted the raw wool into the yarn she had already spun and twisted her drop spindle. Then she let it loose. It spun rapidly like a top, spinning the fluffy wool into a single strand.
Hanna fell into a rhythm. Twist, drop spin. Twist, drop, spin.
She stopped when she heard someone giggling. Hanna looked up and saw a pair of bright eyes watching her from the doorway.
“What are you doing?” a soft voice asked.
A girl with golden hair bounced into the room. She was finely dressed. Probably one of the nobility. Hanna smiled at her.
“How do you do it? Let me try!”
The girl darted forward and grabbed the spindle. Hanna let out a small squeak of alarm and tried to pull it back. The spindle flew into the air. The girl reached out to catch it, and the tip dug into her hand.
She fell onto the floor unconscious. The spindle rolled from her hand and a single drop of blood glistened against her pale skin.
“Miss? Miss, are you well?”
Hanna knelt beside the girl and gently patted her cheek, trying to revive her. The girl remained in a deep swoon and did not respond.
“Help!” Hanna cried. “Someone help! She’s fainted!”
The servant girl returned with the tray of refreshments. She dropped it when she saw the girl on the floor and ran away screaming. Hanna heard scuffling on the stairs, then three ladies burst into the room. They gasped in unison and clustered around the girl.
“Princess! Princess, are you well?”
Hanna backed away as the ladies sprang into action. One unlaced the princess’s dress. One fanned her face. The other pulled a vial from somewhere in her gown and held it under the girl’s nose. The scent of rosemary filled the tower room, but the princess did not move.
“She’s not dead is she?” Hanna asked.
“Still breathing,” one of the ladies said. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. I was spinning, and-”
The three women said it in unison and sounded absolutely horrified. They whirled around to stare at Hanna, who flinched at the intensity of their gazes.
“You were spinning?” the woman said. “How could you? Where did you get a spinning wheel?”
She searched the room as if looking for one and noticed the drop spindle in the princess’s hand. She gently removed it from the girl’s fingers and let out a sob.
“A spindle. After sixteen years of caution, we are undone by a foolish peasant with a spindle!”
“I don’t understand.”
Hanna retrieved the spindle from the woman and tucked it back into her bag. The sight of it seemed to upset them. Perhaps they would calm down if she put it away.
“Fetch guards to carry Her Highness to her bedroom, and send a message to the king. Tell him the curse has come.”
The woman by the princess’s head issued the orders in a sharp voice, and the others hurried to obey her. Hanna remained, still not understanding what was happening.
“You stay,” the woman said. “The king will want to speak with you. You have doomed us all.”
“I meant no harm. I did not know.”
The woman blinked, and her expression softened.
“I believe you,” she said. “But the guards may not. Perhaps you should leave before they come.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Sixteen years ago, a fairy cursed the princess to die by pricking her finger on a spindle. Another fairy was able to alter the curse so she would only sleep for a hundred years, and the king banned spinning wheels from the kingdom. Anyone caught using one will be put to death.”
Hanna swallowed. Not wheels. Spinning wheels. Spinning wheels had been banned, but as so often happened, the decree had not reached her village. At least, not intact enough to do any good.
She stared at the girl asleep on the floor. A hundred years of sleep. Hanna knelt beside her and smoothed her golden hair. She was just a child, poor thing.
“I did not know. Truly, I had no idea.”
The woman nodded.
“All the same, you should go. Quickly.”
It occurred to Hanna that the woman was saving her life. She swallowed.
“Leave the spindle. We’ll say that she found it in this tower while exploring.”
Hanna pulled the spindle from her bag and put it back in the princess’s hand. She stopped at the top of the stairs and turned to face the woman.
“Ogres are attacking-”
“Go now if you value your life, woman!”
Hanna slid her bag over her shoulder and hurried down the stairs. She passed a troop of guards in the hallway. They ran past her, not noticing the peasant woman in their hurry to get to the princess. She heard the news spread through the castle. The cries of alarm as each new person heard the news.
Word traveled faster than she did. The village bells rang out the news by the time she reached the castle gate. Corporal Brian gave her a questioning look as she passed him.
“The princess,” Hanna said.
“I thought as much. You can only run from destiny for so long before it catches up with you.”
Lightning crackled around them, and suddenly a tall woman in a gossamer pink gown stood in front of them. Delicate wings peeked out from behind her back.
“A fairy,” Hanna breathed.
The fairy ignored Hanna and looked to the corporal.
“The king and queen have been summoned?”
“They are expected to return at any moment.”
She gave a sharp nod and swept past them into the castle. Before Hanna could recover, the sound of galloping horses echoed through the town. Corporal Brian pulled her aside as the king and queen and their guards galloped into the courtyard.
“What will happen?” Hanna asked.
“I don’t know. I-”
Corporal Brian slumped back against the wall and slowly slid to the ground. Hanna screamed, but then he let out a soft snore.
Thorns began to creep over the castle walls, growing so fast that magic could be the only explanation. Hanna jumped back, watching in horror as the thorns covered Corporal Brian and wove a barrier over the castle gate.
The corporal snored again, and Hanna relaxed a little. He was still alive.
And still asleep.
Something very strange was happening here. Hanna backed away, wanting to leave but also unable to look away. Other villagers joined her at the castle gate, watching as thorns swallowed the entire castle.
“So the curse came true after all,” one man muttered.
“You can’t stop destiny,” a woman answered. “They were foolish to try.”
The thorns parted from the gate like a curtain, and a man and woman on horseback rode out of the castle. The thorns closed behind them, once again blocking the castle.
“Your Majesty,” someone in the crowd said.
Everyone bowed when they realized the couple in front of them were the king and queen.
“My daughter is asleep,” the king said. “She will sleep for one hundred years, as will everyone in the castle.”
A few people in the crowd cried out in alarm. Hanna ducked her head. Doubtless many villagers had family and friends working in the castle. Sleeping for a hundred years was almost the same as them dying.
The king raised his hand and motioned for silence.
“We did everything we could to stop the curse, but in the end, we couldn’t. I am sorry. The queen and I are traveling to our summer home. It will become the capital until our daughter awakes.”
“What about us?”
This came from somewhere in the middle of the crowd. The king sighed.
“You will be safe as long as you don’t try to enter the castle. The good fairy cast a spell of protection to keep the sleepers safe. No one will be able to enter for one hundred years. Then a prince will find my daughter and the spell will be broken. Your loved ones will awaken, and the thorns will vanish.”
Murmurs of protest swept through the crowd, and the king and queen shared a nervous glance. Hanna took a quick breath. They were going to leave. They were going to ride away and leave the villagers to sort through the curse and their grief alone.
She had to give her message before that happened.
“Ogres are attacking the mountain villages!”
She yelled it as loud as she could. The king’s gaze swept over the crowd, and he nodded.
“We will look into it.”
Then he and the queen galloped away.
The Farmer with the Story
Matthew leaned against his pitchfork and watched the horse and rider gallop across his field. The horse’s hooves would crush the new plants just peeking through the dirt, but there was nothing to be done about that. The rider was a man. Young if his haste was any indication of age. His features were blurred, but Matthew could make out bright clothing and flashes of jewels easily enough.
Probably the prince. Who else would ride so recklessly and dress so brightly? Had it been a hundred years already?
Matthew had never been good at numbers. He counted on his fingers, trying to remember the age of his mother and grandmother when he was born. Had he ever known that information? If he had, it had only been mentioned in passing and slipped from his mind.
For that matter, how old was he? Ages and dates were immaterial on the farm. The seasons and weather patterns were far more important, and those slipped into an easy rhythm that lapped up the years like a cat drinking milk.
Matthew shook his head and chuckled to himself. He’d better stop daydreaming before the prince arrived. It didn’t really matter if it had been exactly a hundred years or not. The prince was coming just as his grandmother had said he would. Just as Matthew had always believed he would.
The prince pulled his horse to a stop as he reached the farmer. Matthew bowed low, noting the stiffness in his back. Perhaps those passing years had mattered after all.
“Good morning, farmer,” the prince said.
He was a jovial sort of boy with dark hair and bright eyes that glittered with more excitement than intelligence. The horse lowered his head and began to nibble on Matthew’s pea plants. Matthew narrowed his eyes at the animal, but the prince seemed oblivious to both the horse’s eating and the farmer’s displeasure. He surveyed the countryside around him with a breathless sort of wonder.
“What place is this, farmer?” he said. “I’ve not ridden here before.”
“Then I welcome Your Highness to our valley,” Matthew said.
“How do you know who I am?”
The horse snorted, and Matthew wished he could do the same. His initial assessment of the prince’s intelligence might have been generous, but perhaps the boy had simply been sheltered.
“A lucky guess,” Matthew said. “There are not many around here with such fine horses or clothes.”
“I did not know that,” the prince said with a grin. “It seems my plan to ride around the kingdom and get to know it better was a good one. Tell me, farmer, is there anything worth exploring in this area? I seek adventure.”
“There is the castle of thorns.”
The prince’s smile widened.
“Tell me more.”
Matthew had the strange sensation that he had become a character in his grandmother’s bedtime stories. Or perhaps he always had been. Everything was happening exactly as she had said it would.
“It’s a story my grandmother told me,” he said. “A hundred years ago, a beautiful princess was cursed with enchanted sleep, and thorns grew up around her castle. It is said that she will not wake until a handsome prince goes to the castle to save her.”
“A prince! Well, this is a fortunate coincidence, and more adventure than I had hoped for!”
Matthew glared at the horse, who had finished off one row of tiny plants and shuffled sideways to devour another. The sooner he was rid of this bothersome pair, the better.
“There’s another story about this valley,” the prince said, settling back in his saddle and showing no sign of leaving. “I’m sure I remember something about it.”
Matthew offered no further explanation. His grandmother had told him the story about the ogres just once, but he remembered everything about that evening. There had been a crackling fire, and he was wrapped in blankets and sitting at her feet. Her voice had tightened when she spoke of the ogre that ate her brother, and the howling winter winds added weight to her words.
“That’s right,” the prince said. “They used to live around here, didn’t they? Lucky that’s all behind us now, although I’ve heard rumors that there are still a few ogres hiding around the kingdom. Do you think there’s one hiding in the castle? I wouldn’t mind fighting an ogre.”
He patted the sword at his side, and Matthew rolled his eyes.
“It’s a princess.”
He had never doubted his grandmother when she told the story of the sleeping beauty, and the prince seemed to believe Matthew’s words just as easily.
“Better not keep her waiting then. Thank you for the story, farmer.”
“It was my pleasure,” Matthew said with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.
The prince nudged his horse, which huffed in annoyance that his meal was being cut short before galloping away. Matthew watched them go, then stared sadly at the stalks of his pea plants. A shadow crawled along the ground, and Matthew jerked his head up to see what had caused it. A large crow landed in a tree at the edge of the field, and Matthew saw the silhouette of a woman sitting against the trunk.
He stepped forward, meaning to ask if she needed help, but a gust of wind blew dust into his eyes. When he rubbed them clear, the woman was gone.
The Chef's Deception, Part 1
I have a mind to eat little Dawn for my dinner tomorrow.”
“I will have it so, and I will eat her with a Sauce Robert.”
The dowager queen swept out of the room, leaving the chef gaping in horror. Rumors had circulated since the king married his bride nearly thirty years ago. Rumors that only an ogress could be that wealthy. Whispers that the queen’s favorite necklace was identical to one that had belonged to a duchess eaten by an ogress.
Then there were the disappearances of servant’s children. The hasty explanations that they had wandered too deeply into the woods and been eaten by wolves.
But all that had happened before Chef Andrew arrived at the castle. He had always dismissed the rumors as just that: rumors. Malicious gossip directed at a woman who had the misfortune to be both beautiful and wealthy.
Andrew realized he was still holding the knife he had been using to cut carrots and quickly set it down. Memories connected in his mind like pieces of a puzzle. The mysterious way the former head chef had disappeared without a trace, leaving Andrew in charge even though he hadn’t completed his training. The strange way the prince had kept his bride and two children secret for years before bringing them to court. The way the old king had never left his wife’s side.
But the old king was dead now, and his son was out of town on business.
And the ogress wanted to eat her granddaughter for dinner.
Andrew’s father had told him stories of the ogres and fairies and the sleeping beauty in the castle throughout his childhood. He had written a letter, telling his son when the prince rode through their family farm and woke the princess. Andrew had thought that was the end of the matter. The conclusion of a rather strange series of events that his family had been skirting the edge of for generations.
And now he found himself pushed into the middle of something far worse.
Andrew shuddered. The dowager queen had made the command casually, but she expected to be obeyed without question. To disobey would cost him his life. He had no doubt of that. Perhaps his wife’s life as well, if the ogress was feeling particularly vengeful.
He had to warn Celia. He would get her out of town, then find a way to fix this. He picked up his knife again, reluctant to leave the kitchen without some way of protecting himself, and hurried through the gardens.
“Good morning, Mr. Chef!”
Andrew froze in place as young Princess Dawn waved to him. What was she doing in the garden alone? She was far too young to be out without an escort.
Then he saw the dowager queen standing in the shadows. She waved to him, a malicious smile creeping across her face. Andrew waved back and realized too late he had waved with the hand holding the knife. The dowager queen smiled even wider, gave a nod of approval, and left the garden.
“Are you chopping vegetables?” Princess Dawn asked.
She was a pretty thing. Four years old, with golden curls and a bright smile. Her cheerful manners made her a favorite with the castle staff, and Andrew’s stomach churned as he thought about what the dowager queen expected him to do. The ogress had delivered the child to his keeping. Doubtless he was supposed to lure her away and slit her throat.
A cold sweat formed on Andrew’s brow. The ogress could still be watching even now. If he ran, Dawn would not be safe. The dowager queen would simply find a more willing servant to do her bidding.
“Princess Dawn, would you like to come with me and meet my wife? She baked cookies this morning.”
The child’s eyes lit up, and she offered her tiny hand to the chef. He took it, feeling the familiar pang of regret that he and Celia hadn’t been able to have children. He pushed it away. Now was not the time to feel sorry for himself, and he could do something to help this child. That was the important thing right now.
He and Princess Dawn walked through the garden to Andrew’s cottage at the edge of the castle grounds. It was near the woods where the other children had disappeared a few years ago, and Andrew once again fought back nausea at the thought of what had happened to them. What had possessed the king to marry an ogress?
Money, probably. Or perhaps the hope of peace?
Celia took one look at Andrew’s face when he walked through the door and knew something was wrong. She whisked little Dawn into the dining room, gave her a plate of cookies, and hurried back to her husband.
Andrew explained as best he could, and Celia took his hand and squeezed it while he spoke.
“We’ll hide her here,” Celia said when he finished. “We’ll keep her safe until the king returns. He can deal with the ogress then.”
“But dinner,” Andrew stammered. “What will I give the dowager queen?”
Celia thought for a moment.
“Perhaps a lamb? Cut it into small pieces and make the sauce strong. She will believe you.”
“If she doesn’t-”
Andrew couldn’t finish the thought. His wife leaned close and kissed his cheek.
“She will believe you, and I will keep Princess Dawn safe here.”
Andrew carried those words close to his heart as he prepared the Sauce Robert. He could only make it so strong without ruining the flavor, but he added as much extra vinegar and mustard as he dared. Then he gritted his teeth and chopped up the lamb.
The dowager queen ate dinner in her room. Andrew carried it to her chambers, doing his best to ignore the distraught whispers around him. Dawn was missing. Queen Aurora was frantic.
The panicked atmosphere only seemed to add to the ogress’s enjoyment. She beamed when Andrew brought her meal and ordered the other servants to leave her.
“It smells heavenly,” she said.
Her eyes flashed yellow and her teeth grew pointed. Andrew flinched.
“All ogres can shapeshift however they please,” she said. “Becoming a beautiful woman was simple. Now becoming a dragon or a mouse, that’s a challenge.”
“I’m sure it is, Your Highness.”
“So, you’ve prepared little Dawn for me?”
“Yes, My Queen. I have cooked the Princess Dawn as you requested.”
Andrew said it with confidence and set the dish in front of the dowager queen with a smile, wrapping Celia’s words around him like armor. He would be believed.
He clasped his hands behind his back and maintained the smile as the dowager queen took her first bite. She sighed with happiness and took another.
“It has been far too long since I feasted so well. My compliments, chef. You have cooked the child to perfection.”
“Thank you, Your Highness.”
Andrew fought back the bile rising in his throat. He could not show his disgust now. That would be the death of him. He stood still as a statue while the dowager queen finished her meal, relaxing a tiny bit as she smacked her lips.
“An excellent meal, Chef.”
The yellow faded from her eyes, and her teeth lost their points. Andrew bowed, glad to be finished with the matter. Celia would keep Dawn occupied by giving her sweets until the prince returned. Then they could turn the matter over to him.
“I will eat little Day tomorrow with the same sauce.”
“He is only three years old. He should be even more tender than his sister.”
The dowager queen smiled and dismissed Andrew with a wave of her hand.
Andrew walked back to his house with a heavy heart. Hiding one child was difficult. Hiding two would be even more so.
He opened the door and was greeted with the sound of giggling. Celia was wearing a black cloak and chasing Dawn around the cottage while the child shrieked with delight.
“Help!” she said between giggles. “An evil witch has captured me!”
“Come back, my child,” Celia said in a rasping voice that was meant to be a witch. “Come back and have more candy. My entire house is made of candy. Don’t you want it?”
“No!” Dawn said.
“Then I’ll have to eat you whole!”
Celia caught the princess and tickled her toes. The girl shrieked with delight as she tried to escape. Andrew watched the scene with a strange mixture of emotions. Celia smiled up at him, but the light in her eyes died as soon as she saw his face. Andrew sighed. He never had been able to keep anything from her.
Celia offered him a small, reassuring smile, then turned back to the princess.
“If I can’t eat you, you’ll suffer an even worse fate. Off to bed with you!”
“No!” Dawn shrieked.
She laughed even harder as Celia picked her up and carried her to bed. Andrew sat in a chair by the fire and stared at the flames. He had fooled the ogress once, but could he do it again?
“Another excellent meal, Chef.”
Andrew bowed, praying the king would return soon to set things right. Day was hidden in the cottage with his sister, but how long could Celia keep two energetic children occupied?
“I will eat their mother tomorrow with the same sauce I had with her children. Queen Aurora may be a little tough since she’s older, but I trust your skills.”
Andrew walked through the castle in a daze. The dowager queen’s madness was growing. If she was reckless enough to eat her grandchildren and daughter-in-law, who knew where this would end? Would she turn her appetite to her son when he returned? Would she start picking off the servants?
He would not be able to keep up this charade much longer. And he certainly would not be able to deceive and kidnap the queen as easily as he had taken her children.
Chef Andrew clutched his knife tightly as he shuffled through the castle, working his way out of the dowager queen’s wing to the suite of rooms that belonged to the former sleeping beauty. He stood before her door, trying to work out what he would say, but his thoughts were too scattered to organize. He gave up on creating a convincing speech and knocked on the queen’s door.
Want to be notified when the next part comes out? Join the Royal Readers and receive a free short story every month!
A. G. Marshall
Bonus scenes, glimpses into my writing process, and more!
Join my newsletter to get new release updates and free bonus content!