The kingdom was renowned for the quality of their spider silk thread and the many textiles that were made from it, gowns, cloaks, rope, and even armor. The reason for the quality and abundance of the silk was a large, but benign, spider that lived only, it seemed, in the kingdom named for it, Tortanak.
Indeed, the kingdom established the Royal Spider Company, comprised of the most gifted of spiders who were employed spinning silk for the royal court. Most spiders only made the silk threads. It was human hands that weaved the thread into wondrous things. But some spiders, like the royal spiders, could themselves weave their own silk into fine garb and tapestries. They were treated with special dignity and offered many riches, though most only sought such humble gifts as a warm place to live and spin.
Once, a contest for the hand of the prince was won by a talented weaver whose spiders and silk were so fine, strong, and beautiful that she must have been using some manner of enchantment. She herself was beautiful, as darkly radiant as the prince was golden and fair. The court was eager for the prince to marry, as his mother, the queen had passed a year prior, and his father, the king, was bedridden with a grave illness.
Not long after the prince wed the lady, the king died, and the young couple was crowned the new king and queen. Young though they were, they governed wisely for some years. Then they had a child, a girl born with her mother’s clever hands, and her father’s calm and gentle manner. They named her Lucine. Her mother and father believed she would be a fine ruler someday. As she grew older, the rest of the court thought so as well. And the people adored her.
All was well, until the little princess’s twelfth birthday. Her mother fell ill for some reason that none could fathom. She held on to life by a frail spider’s thread for two years, trying to teach her daughter the ways of the weaving. The princess had never been much interested and preferred to learn the ways of governance and leading from her father. But for her mother’s sake, she sat patiently for her lessons. For her mother’s sake, she paid heed and focused. And she learned much, but not all of what her mother knew.
The queen soon passed on and the kingdom mourned. But none mourned as deeply as the king, who had loved his wife so, that he lost much of his will and even, it seemed, his pallor. The princess Lucine, who had been close to her mother before and moreso after the queen fell ill, grieved, but even she saw that her grief was no match to her father’s. She resolved to be his strength. She resolved to continue her mother’s work, to rule for her father, to assure that the kingdom’s greatest gift to the world, its greatest treasure, abided. And if she did not have the same talents for weaving as her mother did, she would find the finest weavers and spinners in the kingdom and nurture them.
Such were her thoughts for many months as her father remained aloof. She tried to see him, and sometimes decided to leave him be. Soon her fifteenth year approached and the king went on a trip. The princess was saddened by this. She pitied herself, but the king returned from his trip just in time to celebrate the turning of her fifteenth year. And he brought her a gift, though the princess did not know what to make of the gift as first.
The king had married while he was away, in secret, and without the knowledge of any in the court save his most trusted advisor, whom he had taken with him.
The princess, deep down below, felt betrayed, though she knew it was not her place to feel so. The woman who had married her father was now queen. She was now the princess’s stepmother. Though she was queen, she had yet to be crowned, and in the manner of propriety, she bowed to the princess. She did not smile, but when the princess looked up into her eyes, perhaps defiantly, she saw kindness and compassion, and just a touch of pity. The queen held out her hand and clasped hands with the princess. She said she understood that she would never equal the queen who came before her, and she would never replace the mother that Lucine had known, or the wife that the king had loved, but she would do her best, out of duty and out of love, to help the king and the princess.
Before her mother died, Lucine had received from her a key to a wardrobe that her mother had crafted for her and moved into the princess’s chambers. She had warned Lucine not to open the wardrobe until her nineteenth year. After that time, she could open the wardrobe any time and claim what lay within it.
Lucine burned with curiosity, and she often pressed her ears to the wardrobe, for she had surmised what must be lying within. She could see the spiders coming and going from holes in the wardrobe. They were weaving something in there, something that would be finished when the princess turned nineteen. It was likely a gown. The princess was sometimes fond of wearing gowns, but more and more, she preferred trousers and tunic. Still, a last gift from her lost mother gave her much comfort, especially when her father grew distant.
The princess did not want to like her stepmother, but she did. The new queen had no talent in spinning. She was not very skilled at governing either, though she learned much in her first years. Lucine remembered her mother telling her it was much the same when her mother first became queen.
Her stepmother did have a talent, and an idea for another great export for the kingdom. Apples. The few orchards that surrounded the lands sprawling around the castle became a few dozen. The new queen experimented with cultivating new varieties, even as spider nurseries continued to breed new varieties of spiders.
There were apples all over the castle. The kitchen baked apples or fried or boiled them, every day. There was always a bowl of apples on the princess’s breakfast table. And a special tree grew in the orchard within the castle grounds, a tree filled with vivid red apples. The new queen was quiet, easy of will, and mild of temper. It was only when she walked among her orchard, or spoke of her apples, that she came alive with passion.
For the new queen’s sake, the princess learned of apples. This so pleased the new queen and she showed such humility about her passion that she endeared herself to the princess.
Soon the princess turned seventeen. She had not yet finished her studies, but her father spoke of finding a suitable match for her. He did not want to wait until he or the queen lay dying. He had been lucky to find two worthy queens, but he did not want to leave anything to chance with Lucine.
The queen objected, saying the princess was still too young. She admitted she wanted the child to herself for a bit longer. She even dared to invoke the will of the princess’s natural mother.
The princess was surprised but pleased at her stepmother’s defense, for she did not yet want to marry. She had been enchanted by the allure of young men for some years, but had made no advances nor accepted any made towards her. She was teased, and often pitied, by her companions. But the princess, who knew that she was duty-bound to marry whom she must, still dreamed of true love.
The king was not pleased at the defiance of his wife and his daughter. But nor was he angry.
Though it seemed there was no ill feelings, the princess sensed a shift in the castle, the court, the king, and the queen in the days and weeks that followed. There seemed a sense of unease, but when she asked, none would tell her what, if anything, was the matter.
Then one night, the princess was woken from sleep with a hand clamped over her mouth, and her stepmother’s face looming close by. Her stepmother entreated her to be quiet and to rise from bed. The princess listened. She listened for sounds of invasion, for the clashing of swords, anything that might account for the alarm she saw on her stepmother’s face. But she heard nothing. And yet, when she tried to ask, her stepmother once again clamped her hand on the princess’s mouth and shook her head. Her eyes shown with fear.
Her stepmother produced an apple from the folds of her gown. She took a bite, and instead of hearing the crunch, Lucine heard nothing. But now, her stepmother spoke.
“The apple of silence. It’s enchanted, so we can speak without being heard.” She handed the apple to Lucine and gestured for her to take a bite. This Lucine did and again there was no sound from her biting into the apple. It was sweet and somehow, sparkling. She swallowed and felt a slight dizziness. Her stepmother reached out, grasped her shoulders, and steadied her.
“There is much I must tell you and little time,” the queen said. “Before she died, your mother came to me and bade me to look after you and your father. We were estranged for so long, I was surprised. We were sisters, you see. Your mother and I. I know that must seem troubling to you.”
Lucine was stunned. She said nothing.
“I was vain and wicked in my youth,” her stepmother continued. “And I was quite sore for losing the contest for your father’s hand to my younger sister. I thought at that time that I was a better weaver. I am better than many, but I was never better than your mother. Not even close. I grew so bitter, I cursed her name, and swore that we were no longer sisters. But after she left, after my envy faded, I realized how stupid and cruel I had been. By then it seemed to late. And I was too afraid. I didn’t even go to her wedding. I didn’t go see her when she had her first and only child. I finally dared to write to her many years later. You would have been perhaps in your seventh year then. I begged her forgiveness and told her that I would stay away for I did not deserve to share in the joy of seeing my dear niece. I would love her and you from afar.”
Lucine was still waking. She could not quite fathom what her stepmother was saying. She only understand that something was wrong. “What is the danger that you fear?” she asked. “What is out there?”
Her stepmother shook her head. “Pay no mind. Just heed my words. For your own sake, flee, into the woods.”
“Why? What is happening?”
“They are coming to take your heart, Lucine. You mustn’t hide. You must flee. Far away from here.”
Before Lucine could ask or say more, her stepmother departed, pulling another apple from her gown, a black-and-purple apple. She tossed it to Lucine.
Lucine had learned of many varieties, but she did not recognize it. Still unsure of what to think and what to do, the princess only had time to hide the apple before several people came barging into her chambers. Her father and stepmother were not among them. But one of the court advisors was there and he pointed Lucine out to a man and woman dressed all in white. They were both almost as pale as their dress.
They looked Lucine over and after ordering some guards to watch over her, they ordered the princess to make herself ready and wear great finery for the following morning there would be a grand announcement concerning the kingdom. The princess asked about her father and stepmother. She asked with as much politeness as she could muster who the woman and man were. But she received no responses.
Lucine could not escape that night. The intruders left her chamber with no more ado. But they posted guards within and ordered the court advisor to remain with the princess. Lucine did not speak to the man. She did not think she had to, for his demeanor spoke for him. He could not meet her eye and he cast his head down in a manner that bespoke of great shame.
In the morning, the advisor and the guards left her room. The advisor shuffled off quickly, but the guards warned her they were just outside and that she must not try to escape. The guards seemed reluctant to be harsh with her, but when she questioned them, they said nothing though their eyes appeared knowing. It seemed to Lucine that everyone knew something she did not.
The guards also warned her not to jump from the window or try to climb down, for there were eyes watching everywhere. She was expected in the throne room at a certain time, and if she dilly-dallied, the guards would barge in and take her, whatever her state of readiness. She was offered the assistance of servants, but Lucine insisted that she dress herself.
She tried to think of what she might do as she began to pick through her gowns for the most comfortable one, all the better to try a desperate escape.
In the back of her mind was the gown that she was certain her mother’s spiders were still spinning into being in the wardrobe. She opened the wardrobe and saw that she was right. Within was a gown, and though she had opened the wardrobe two years early, the gown appeared almost finished. It was a somber light gray color. That seemed appropriate to the occasion, for she feared the intruders were there to usurp the throne.
She had a moment to wonder why her mother had had the spiders make such a plain dress. There were spiders still spinning, weaving, and crawling all over the gown. Lucine begged them to stop and to tie off whatever thread they were working with, for she had need of the gown.
“You are early,” a voice spoke from the darkness of the wardrobe. The princess peered into the corner of the wardrobe and spied a spider as big as her hands.
This was the master spinner, who had been guiding the spiders all those years, content to abide in the comfort of the warm wardrobe, all her needs met by the spiders who brought her food and swept away the messes that she and they made.
Lucine quickly explained why she had opened the wardrobe early and how she was in haste.
Because the gown was not finished, the master spinner told Lucine that she must allow some of the spiders to go with her and continue spinning. She summoned her fastest and most clever spinners. They were only nine and they received from their master the patterns for finishing the gown, according to the design of the long-dead queen.
As custom and good manners required, Lucine bowed to the master spinner before receiving the gown.
“May it serve you well,” the master said. Lucine locked up the wardrobe so the spiders would be safe in there from whatever was to come.
The spiders hid in her gown and when she put it on, she realized how wondrous it was. They had woven trousers under the skirt. The skirt itself flowed with soundless grace and could be removed and used as a cloak. The blouse was soft and the vest-like bodice over it was firm of form, and fit her well.
The entire gown, though made of many folds and layers, was light and flexible, and it felt strong. But the greatest surprise happened when she put on her jewelry before her mirror. Her gown began to slowly blush, then bloom the colors that matched the red, black, and blue of her necklace, earrings, and rings. The silk must have been enchanted for Lucine had never before seen such a quality in garb made from spider silk.
When Lucine entered the throne room, there were fewer than a dozen people in attendance. She was used to seeing the room filled with supplicants, visitors, officials, nobles, even at such an early hour. She was used to the many doors of the room being opened. But the doors were all closed and the click of her shoes echoed through the chamber as she approached. Her father was present, but her stepmother was nowhere to be seen. When Lucine asked after her stepmother, the pale woman with the dark eyes pointed to a platter. On it was a heart, still beating, still dripping blood.
“It’s your stepmother’s heart,” the woman said.
She then took an apple from another platter, an apple whose skin was pure yellow. She bit into it and began chewing as Lucine watched her father, who gazed at the wall as if in a stupor. Lucine guessed that he must have been enchanted or drugged. Hidden within the pockets of her new gown , Lucine had an apple of her own, the black-purple apple her stepmother had given her before disappearing.
The pale woman said nothing more, but finished eating her yellow apple. The pale man stood beside her, locking his eager eyes on Lucine.
There were a few guards present, ones Lucine did not recognize and took to be the pale woman’s guards. All the court advisors were present. And all but one appeared confused and troubled. Their reactions too told Lucine much. She was not the only one who did not know what was happening and how this woman and her small band of minions had gained control of the castle.
But what happened next answered many questions.
When the woman finished eating the yellow apple, the air around her seemed to ripple and thicken and in an instant, she was transformed. She looked just like Lucine’s stepmother. Just like the queen. She sounded like the queen too, when she spoke.
The woman announced that she would be acting as queen thenceforth. And only those in the chamber would know of it. The king would remain in a stupor. She would take the hearts of anyone who defied her, or perhaps the hearts of their loved ones for any who was not deterred by threats to themselves. She would not be defied, for if their queen, who possessed great knowledge and skill, if she could not stop the pale woman, then no one in that room could.
“After all,” the woman said, “I am the one who taught her everything she knows about apples and their many, many properties. But I did not teach her everything I know about apples.”
The woman—the queen pretender—approached Lucine, trailed by the pale man. She eyed Lucine’s gown favorably.
“You have a habit of losing mothers, sweet princess. But rest assured, you will not lose me.”
Just then, two of the spiders attacked the pretender and the pale man. Lucine didn’t realize what was happening until she saw a spider crawling away from the pretender’s neck, a jet-black spider with red markings on her underside.
The pale man collapsed. Before Lucine’s eyes, he ceased to breath and fell dead. He had been bitten by a brown spider and he must have been bitten many times to die so quickly. The brown spider tried to crawl away, but the pretender saw him. She crushed the spider underfoot. She caught the black widow and squeezed her to death with her bare hand. The queen pretender did not cry out in grief or rage. She did not cradle the pale man or even kneel over him. She only breathed, so deeply and quickly that her chest and shoulders rose and fell as if they were trying to contain something that was about to burst.
One of the remaining royal spiders crawled onto Lucine’s shoulder and told her to run. Lucine ran. The pretender ordered her guards to chase. But Lucine was quick and she had already reached the door. She heard the pretender’s command fly over her head. She ordered the confused castle guards to stop the princess. Most of them let Lucine go, ignoring the command of their queen. Lucine could hear them dying for their loyalty behind her, and she ran all the harder.
It was snowing outside. Lucine should have been freezing in her gown, but only her face and hands felt the cold as her gown kept the rest of her warm. The pretender had regained enough composure to ask the guards not to harm the princess, but only to catch her. She was queen, so far as they could see. The yellow apple had made a glamour around the pretender, an illusion that fit as closely as her own skin and garb. She need give them no reason for hunting the princess. She was queen. That was reason enough.
As she hid behind a column in outer courtyard, Lucine watched her gown change color to match the snow, and she understood. The gown had changed color to match her jewelry. It had changed color to match the snow. The gown would hide her. She raised the hood of her gown and dropped to the ground as the guards searched. The seven royal spiders were still with her. They told her to trust their creation and to stay steady as the guard tramped the snow above her and even walk over her. The enchanted gown somehow kept their weight from crushing Lucine. When the guards moved away to search elsewhere, Lucine slowly rose and escaped into the forest.
For two years, Lucine hid deep in the forest, while the seven royal spiders worked to finish the work that was meant for seven million of them to do, and to do work that they had never expected to do. For Lucine asked them to weave her a mask to hide her identity.
The pretender ordered that all spiders be hunted and killed. By her decree, apples would be the new wonder of the kingdom. While many in the kingdom were troubled by the decrees, none found it unusual that the queen favored apples, for all knew the queen was fond of apples. Lucine learned how to use her knowledge of apples from what her stepmother taught her.
The pretender slowly destroyed the true queen’s name by becoming a tyrant, a spiteful, malicious, and petulant tyrant. Lucine heard of her father through her spies. Her first mother loved spiders best, but Lucine also befriended other creatures. Her favorites were the small ones for she was small, not having inherited either parent’s height. She favored the mice and the sparrows. The mice of the castle and the mice of the countryside gathered news and told the sparrows, who flew it to Lucine.
If her father had been killed, Lucine might have abandoned the throne and lived her life out in hiding. For she did not know how to rally her people to help her. She did not know if her people even would help her. The pretender was powerful. The people had much to fear from her. They had nothing to fear from Lucine. Nor did Lucine seek their fear. But even if she could not fathom rescuing her people and her kingdom, she longed to at least rescue her father. She plotted to spirit him away and let the pretender have the kingdom.
Because of the pretender’s decree, the spiders were being hunted, so they too were driven to hide in the forest. Lucine’s little cottage, hidden by oak and cave, became a haven for many spiders, and they assisted the seven royal spiders in their work. Lucine entreated the spiders every now and them to leave the gown be, for it would have no use. But the spiders insisted they must finish it, for they had promised so to their master spinner, who had in turn promised so to Lucine’s first mother.
Lucine soon heard of how the pretender was sending her minions out to terrorize the countryside. At last, she felt compelled to do something, even if it were something foolish. The spiders were finished with their task. The gown had been mostly finished when Lucine first claimed it. The spiders added more pockets and beautiful embroidery within which was hidden the shape of every spider who had aided in the weaving, their signatures. The task undone was the weaving of gloves, and to Lucine’s surprise, a pair of fine boots. Spiders were more than capable of spinning fine boots, of course, but they rarely did so. Boots were the cause of many a spider’s death after all.
Lucine donned her gown, gloves, and boots. The pretender’s minions had come to a nearby village to collect treasures for their superior. They had come many times before and the villagers had little left to give, but they gave. Unsatisfied, the minions beat a few of the villagers, while Lucine, hidden and invisible because of the silk, watched helplessly.
“Leave them be!” she cried.
The rumors of the stupidity of minions were much exaggerated. They turned immediately to the sound of her voice and though they could not see her, they aimed their arrows toward her.
Lucine jumped down from the tree in a panic. In doing so, she disturbed the branches, and her enemies knew exactly where she was. The arrow flew and struck her in the hip. She was knocked down in such pain that she could not cry out. If not for the spider silk, the arrow would have pierced her. She crawled away into the brush, trying to stay as quiet as possible. Three of the royal spiders had come with her, the ones who produced the deadliest venoms, and they readied themselves to attack.
But suddenly, there arose a commotion in the village. Lucine watched as a short, stout, and strong figure, dressed in rags and dented armor, swept an axe through the half dozen minions. Lucine thought he was a short man at first, but she soon realized that he was a dwarf. And the minions were no match for him. He beat them and bloodied them and stole the riches they had stolen from the villagers. As the villagers watched in fear, the dwarf made off with their riches.
Lucine forced herself to rise, though the bone of her hip ached and throbbed. She followed the dwarf, intent on returning to the villagers what was theirs. When she reached the cave where the dwarf was dwelling, she saw that he had not taken the sack of treasure after all. He had taken a sack of grain, which one of the villagers had desperately hoped would appease the minions.
“Come and sit by the fire,” the dwarf said, startling Lucine.
She hesitated, but then she sat by the fire. She did not pull down her mask or hood, but she pulled a green leaf from her pocket and lay it on her lap. Her spider silk trousers, bodice and jacket, and cloak, all turned dark green. The dwarf betrayed no response.
As he doffed his rags and armor and wiped his dusty face with a kerchief soaked in a bowl of clean water, Lucine was surprised to see how fair he was. He was paler even than the queen pretender, but his skin seemed more like the fresh white of snow. His eyes too were light, being the color of a stormy sky. His hair though was as dark Lucine’s. His features were heavy and pronounced. He was rather handsome.
The dwarf told Lucine that he could tell she was untested. He couldn’t see her and that was good. But she was loud moving through the forest, so the concealment was moot.
Lucine was thunderstruck, for no one had spoken so to her since she was a child, being scolded by her tutors. She composed herself and smiled smugly when she found a way to criticize the dwarf.
“I’m glad you picked up the wrong sack,” she said.
The dwarf laughed and replied, “Did I?”
Lucine then realized that the dwarf had taken the grain sack on purpose. She had never before met a dwarf, but had heard of his people. They were rumored to be greedy for gold and treasure. If some hero gave the villagers back their treasure, the pretender’s minions would only return when the hero left and be even crueler to the villagers. But if they believed a dwarf absconded with their treasure, he would be the one who earned their ire. He would be the one they pursued.
Lucine was impressed and intrigued. She did not forget that the dwarf was still a stranger and perhaps even a danger to her. She signaled the spiders who were with her so they would be ready to strike if the dwarf meant her ill. She asked his name and he gave it. He was called Oscar.
He did not ask her name, but tended to his fire.
Lucine asked if he would teach her some of his ways, perhaps not the fighting, but the stealth and thievery. He refused. She said (though not in earnest) that she would follow him around making a ruckus until he did teach her what she sought. The dwarf Oscar looked at her then with his keen gray eyes. He said that she had to give him something if she wanted something from him. Lucine hesitated. One of her spider allies had crawled onto the dwarf’s arm and was at the ready.
Lucine told the dwarf to name his price. He said that he wanted to see her face. She hesitated again. Then in a moment of recklessness, she reached for her mask, but the dwarf raised his hand to halt her and at the same time, he saw the spider and shook it off.
“If you keep your face covered, I imagine you have good reason to,” he said. “I did not expect you would show me.” He smiled then. “I will teach you.”
He said his price would be something else, something that was once abundant in their land but had become rare. He pointed to her gloves and said he wanted a pair of spider silk gloves, and he believed that she could pay that price, for he saw the signatures on her garb.
Lucine never spoke unless she had taken a bite of that same kind of apple her stepmother had used on the night she disappeared. When she first fled, the castle guards kept finding her. They would know exactly where she was, despite the spider silk gown’s power to hide her. She then remembered her stepmother’s warning and did not speak for several days. The guards could not find her when she went silent.
She found the apples and used them when she needed to speak. She learned how long the effects lasted. The pretender had some way of following her voice. Her sparrow friends told her that the pretender had an enchanted mirror and if ever Lucine spoke near any other reflective surface, be it mirror or pool, her voice would pass through that surface to the mirror in the pretender’s chamber. The pretender had been preparing for her usurpation long before that fateful night. She had tied Lucine’s voice to the mirror and no one, not the king, the queen, the court, no one had known.
After Lucine learned from, then partnered with Oscar, the two began to menace the pretender’s minions. The countryside soon brimmed with hope because of the ghostly maiden and defiant dwarf.
When others wanted to join them, Oscar was reluctant. He preferred to be alone. He preferred not to trust so easily in a land that was slowly being torn asunder from within, where neighbor spied upon neighbor, and brother turned against sister. But Lucine insisted. She still dreamed of rescuing her father someday.
Though she let none of her allies see her face, save the spiders and sparrows, Lucine flourished in the deep of the woods and in the villages of the countryside. Though she could not sit in taverns with her allies as they cheered every small victory against the pretender’s minions, she watched from afar. To Oscar and to the rest of her allies, she was known as Luna. It was her first mother’s name.
Sometimes she wondered if any would recognize her, and if they did, what they would do. It was not betrayal she feared the most. It was the opposite, blind loyalty to the rightful heir of the kingdom. She feared that someone would plot for her to retake the throne from the queen whom everyone still thought was Lucine’s stepmother.
The pretender had her own spies. And one day, at last, they brought back some news that she could use to harm the runaway princess. She learned about the apple that Lucine was using to hide her voice. But rather than use the knowledge to find Lucine, the queen pretender devised a far more devious plan. Her knowledge of apples was indeed superior.
She used only three seeds of the apple of silence. She went down to the roots beneath the earth and found all the trees of that variety in the kingdom. She poisoned every one of the apples of silence. The mice learned of what the pretender had done. They told the sparrows. The sparrows raced to Lucine.
The quickest of them found her in the forest, a half-day’s journey from her cottage. He found her lying on the forest floor. Beside her open hand was an apple of silence. She had taken a bite. She still breathed, but she was dying.
The sparrow flew to the cottage and there found the seven royal spiders and the dwarf. He told them what happened. They rushed to Lucine’s aid. She hadn’t had time to pull up her mask and hood, so Oscar saw her face, and he was taken aback for he recognized it. So it was that Oscar learned who his beloved ghostly maiden truly was. His heart sank, for he had fallen in love with her and meant to tell her so, but he did not think a princess would return his favor. The seven royal spiders examined the apple she had eaten. She had taken only one bite, and so they determined she would lie as if in sleep, living but unmoving, for five days and five nights. Then she would die.
The spiders told Oscar of the black-purple apple that Lucine had been given by her stepmother and that she had kept. It was enchanted and had never spoiled. The spiders told the dwarf to feed Lucine the juice of that apple, but he refused. The spiders were confused and they argued that Lucine would certainly die if they did nothing, so the black-purple apple could do no more harm. But the dwarf, angered by his beloved’s impending death and by the truth of the rumors that she was the princess of the kingdom, refused again and turned away.
By this time, the other sparrows had reached Lucine. The sparrows replaced her mask. The spiders began to spin a shroud around her.
In the meantime, the dwarf had come to his senses and realized the spiders were right. He went to the cottage to fetch the apple and there he was ambushed by an unexpected foe. The queen pretender. She had found the black-purple apple. She had eaten most of it. There was nothing left but the core. As the dwarf watched in horror, she threw the core into the fire.
Oscar engaged in battle with the guards. The pretender announced that she would be leaving to find the body of the princess. But just then, millions of spiders emerged from the cracks and crevices of the cottage. They had hidden in fear from the pretender, not knowing what she had done to Lucine. But when they heard her speak that she had killed their friend, they suppressed their fear and as one converged on the pretender. They bit her, again and again, and she fled the cottage.
The dwarf dispatched the guards and burned himself fetching the apple core. He took the apple core to Lucine, warning the spiders to stop spinning the shroud around the still-living princess. He tried to squeeze some juice out of core, but alas, there was none to be found. He bit off pieces of the core and even the seeds and tried to feed it to her, but to no avail.
Saddened, he lifted up and lay her within the roots of a great oak. He took one of her hands and laid it on her belly. He took her other hand in his own. He began to weep and sing a song of love and freedom. He vowed to continue her legacy. Seven of his tears fell upon her face and she began to stir. The dwarf, his head now bowed deeply, did not see. She woke, and seeing Oscar and the sparrows and spiders gathered about, she realized what had happened.
She sat up, pulled down her mask and hood, and leaned toward the startled dwarf’s face to kiss his bearded cheek.
The dwarf, the seven royal spiders, and the sparrows all rejoiced. When they told Lucine what happened, she first tended to the dwarf’s burns. Then she hatched a plan.
Lucine took a page out of her enemy’s book. With her allies, the dwarf, the seven royal spiders, and the sparrows, she headed straight to the castle. Lucine knew from her spies that the pretender did not trust any but herself to grow the yellow apples that granted her the power to make herself look and sound like the true queen. Lucine had always wondered if she could do something to take the apples away from the pretender, but she had never felt bold enough to do anything. For all the trouble she was causing in the forest, she had still been too afraid to approach the castle.
Lucine had learned something about enchanted apples that her stepmother had not had time to teach her. Eating an enchanted apple gave one the knowledge of how to grow it and how to use it. So in eating the poisoned apple, Lucine had learned how the pretender had poisoned all the kingdom’s apples of silence. But growing enchanted apples was not easy. It would take a while, but she would poison the yellow apples and reveal the pretender.
So she did. But unlike the pretender, Lucine sent warning. The pretender examined her yellow apple trees and saw that the warning was no bluff. She could not eat the yellow apples.
With her spider silk garb, Lucine snuck back into the castle. The pretender sent the guards out daily to look for Lucine, now knowing that the princess was there in the castle, in her own chamber the whole time. The seven royal spiders had reunited with their family in the wardrobe and learn much about the goings-on in the castle. They learned, indeed, something that even the mice had somehow not known, that Lucine’s stepmother was still alive. She was locked in a dungeon far below ground.
Lucine used the gifts her friends and allies had given her, the spider silk garb, the silence of a thief, the knowledge of a dungeon she had never known existed in the castle, to find and free her stepmother.
“How can it be?” Lucine said. “Was it not your heart I saw on the platter?”
“Yes, daughter. She ripped my heart from my breast and stole it from me. So great is her power. But she could not take my soul. She could not take my life.”
And so, the pretender had locked her up. The true queen, though frail and weak, wanted nothing more than to help Lucine overthrow the pretender.
Lucine helped her concoct an elixir for the king to counter the effects of the pretender’s stupor potion. The elixir would take many months to work, and while it did, the king would be bedridden. Many days passed, but the pretender’s glamour remained. The true queen did not know how long it would last without the yellow apples. But she regained her strength. And the dungeon she’d been put in was so deep and dark that none knew she was missing, for even the guards feared to venture within. No other prisoners were kept there. Only ghosts remained.
At last, it seemed the glamour was fading. The pretender retreated into her own chamber, ruling through the court advisors. It was time at last for Lucine and her allies to act. Just as the pretender had done, Lucine’s stepmother, the true queen, approached the court advisors. She told them first who she was and what had happened. With their help, she convened an assembly in the throne room. But this meeting was not for the advisors and the royals alone. All would be invited to this assembly.
The pretender arrived, wearing a veil, believing her advisors had summoned her to present at last, her enemy. And there stood Lucine. But then the advisors signaled the guards to open all the doors to the throne room, and in came guards, nobles, villagers, merchants. In came the people of the kingdom.
The pretender tried to flee, but she had nowhere to go, for the true queen appeared and blocked her way. Lucine gazed proudly and happily at her stepmother.
Then, all was revealed. For the true queen asked the pretender to remove her veil. The glamour had faded. The pretender was a pretender no longer. She was once again, the pale woman.
Lucine stepped forth and explained everything to the court and to her bewildered and disturbed people.
As expected, after many years of rule, the pretender had many under her thumb. A skirmish ensued, but the royal guards, who were loyal to the throne and had suspected that the ghostly maiden fighting the pretender’s minions in the wild woods might be their lost princess, brought order to the throne room.
“Behold,” Lucine said, turning to her stepmother, “our true queen. As heir to her throne, I and my allies return rule to the rightful ruler.”
“Forgive my absence,” the true queen said. “I will rule for the time being, until my daughter is ready.” She placed a hand on Lucine’s shoulder, and a cheer broke out among the people as they realized the truth.
Lucine understood. The king and queen, even if they could be loved, had somehow allowed their rule to be usurped and their kingdom to be corrupted. The pale woman was once her stepmother’s teacher. The people would want and need new rulers.
“If that is the case,” Lucine said, “then I will need a king.”
Oscar had been standing upon the dais, guarding the pale woman. Lucine turned to him and proposed to the stunned dwarf. He accepted and there was more rejoicing as he too was loved by the people.
“I made you the heroes that you are,” the pale woman said to Lucine as the guards led her away. “You would have been a spoiled little royal elsewise. I made you a leader.”
“Perhaps,” Lucine said. “And for that I will reward you by not killing you.”
It would be some time before Lucine would become queen, some time before she and her king-to-be were crowned. But before that came the wedding, the grand forest wedding attended by her father, her mother, the sparrows, the mice, her thieving allies, and the royal spiders. She wore her spider silk gown, which took on the hues of all the flowers and fruits that she passed by the banquet table, until she met her Oscar, who walked toward her. They met and clasped hands, and her gown took on the color of his eyes.
Later, Lucine would give him a wedding gift. A pair of fine spider silk gloves.
Copyright © 2016. Nila L. Patel