by Tala Bar
The wife of a rich man died and he married another, who had two daughters of her own. They were fair in face but foul in heart, and it was now a sorry time for the poor little girl. They took away her fine clothes, and gave her an old grey frock to put on, they made her lie by the hearth among the ashes and called her Ashputtel (which, in the language of fairytales, means Cinderella).
- The Grimm Brothers.
"I want to tell you, Daddy, I can't take much more of it!," the girl complained in a very quiet but still determined voice. "You wanted to marry a new wife after Mother died, all right, but why should I suffer for it?" She was no longer a little girl but a maiden of sixteen, as beautiful as any could be. She had a pale, moonlike appearance with long, shiny straight blond hair, glowing transparent complexion and light blue eyes, and she had been called by her late mother Moonbeam.
"Suffer? Why, Cindi, what's the matter?"
"Here, You see! Even you call me by that hateful name. You can't even remember that Mother called me Moonbeam, not Cinderella!"
Her father gave her a long look, as if to remind himself what she looked like, and recalled the sight of his dead wife
"I'm sorry," he sighed, "you're absolutely right. And she used to talk about you as her special moonlight beam who poured shiny light on her troubles." Cinderella's loving father fell for a moment into reminiscences of his first wife, who was pale and lovely but very sickly. Certainly, the main merrit of his new one was her glowing health. "But she did die, you know," he continued, "and I did need a wife, especially to keep the house which she is doing so well, taking care of everything when I am going on my travels."
Yes, thought Moonbeam bitterly, it was true that the house was kept so well, and her stepmother would not even have been so terrible if it were not for her daughters - that couple of frogs! as she saw them. they were pretty enough in a sort of common way, but as mean as could be. It was they who had given her that hateful appelation, Cinderella, as if she was really sitting in cinders all day. She had much better things to do than that, studying magic as she was! It was true she was messing about with all sorts of things, and at the end of the day her clothes, face and body were not kept so clean and orderly as her stepsisters' were, being so lazy that the servant had to run about cleaning after them all day! But to give her such a name! And her father did nothing, absolutely nothing to prevent them from mocking and derogating her! If only her Mother was there! But of course, if she were, nothing of that would have happened at all.
Her talk to her Father occurred in the morning, when he was again taking off on his travels as a merchant. They were rich as a result of these efforts of his, so he did not think they had much to complain about. Not that he did not like these trips - getting away from home and the many women in his life, meeting different people of both sexes, having an interesting kind of life for himself with not too many worries about home. But Moonbeam thought differently, and for the umpteenth time was considering running away from home. She had nowhere to run to, however, and with no money of her own she was not sure how she could do it. Her magic powers, though advancing nicely, had not advanced enough so she could use them safely and confidently. She definitely needed help, and did not know where to get it.
Except in one place which she had been thinking about for a while. The Healer woman, with whom she had been taking some leasons, was a very nice person. Not that she was going to take up that job - there was too much of the physical side to it, not enough of the mental approach she appreciated; but Arena was sympathetic, and wouldn't mind listening to the complaints she would put before her, and perhaps she would know someone...
Arena, who was married to a lesser minister in the King's government of the Central Kingdom, lived with her husband and a couple of children on the outskirts of the Capitals, where she had access to open fields and woods in which she could gather her plants and herbs for her medicines. The house was smaller than the rich merchant's mansion, but Moonbeam found it more comfortable and congenial. She had met the minister but had not exchanged many words with him; in her visits, she usually walked straight through to the back yard, where Arena had her special shed which she used for the preparation of her potions, oinments and poltices. The girl had never met any of the Healer's children, but today she had a surprise.
Towering over the Healer, who herself was a woman of no small dimentions, stood a young man of about twenty-four or five, handsome in a rather crude way with strong muscles, dark blond hair and soft gray eyes. Standing for a while at the entrance, Moonbeam had a chance to witness an intimate scene with a tinge of envy in her heart. From time to time, the woman was addressing the young man, occasionally exchanging her smile with a frown.
"Ah, child," she interrupted herself as she noticed Moonbeam, "come over and meet my son, Mark. Mark, this is Moonbeam, daughter of that merchant I've told you about, who is going to get me some stuff from abroad which I can't get hereabout."
The girl approached hesitatingly, stretching a small hand which was immediately swallowed in the man's enormous palm. But his shake was tender, and his smile shone on his rough face.
"Have you talked to your son about me?" Moonbeam asked with a slightly shaking voice.
"Not too much," Arena admitted with a crooked smile. "But I think he can help you."
"To get away from home - wasn't that what you wanted?"
"Yes, but -"
"Well, he knows just the place, and there's an opening right now, isn't there, Mark?" As the man nodded, she added, "Tell her about it, then."
"It's a very special place," said Mark, his voice soft and slightly hoarse. It's called The Seven Dwarves, because there are usually seven people staying there. But right now there are only six of us, the seventh has left to get married; so, if you want, and if your'e accepted - because it's up to Sheva, he's the one whose word is law."
"One man's law? It doesn't sound very appealing," remarked the girl, who has had enough of her stepmother's law.
"Not at all, he only determines who can join us and who can't. Once you're in, you're free to do what you want and live your life the way you like it."
"And where is that marvelous place where people do what they like?" she asked, rather suspecious, not having known any such place anywhere.
"Right at the edge of the Forest. The house is comfortable, suitable just for seven people - that's another of Sheva's laws. Would you like to come and see? No one would force you to stay if you don't like it. And if you do, you can always leave any time you feel like it."
Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who had no children. Then the queen had a little girl that was as beautiful as a rose; a vague prophecy claimed she would sleep in the palace surrounded with roses, so they called her Rosebud.
The Grim Brothers.
In the Royal Palace of the Southern Kingdom, chaos ruled, as usual. After Rosebud was born, the King and Queen began having children one by one, until the Queen had decided enough was enough and put a stop to it. There were now six young people of various ages roaming the large edifice, causing havock anywhere they went. The Royal Couple, for so many years yearning for offsprings, were too soft-hearted to issue commands against those they had hoped for, and no amount of nurses was enough to bring order to that chaos.
Rosebud herself was now nineteen, a grown, very beautiful girl. A mane of reddish-brown hair fell in waves on her shoulders, surrounding a round face with rosy cheeks, sensuous mouth and laughing green eyes; she was of medium height, and had curves in all the right places, and she had a will of her own. There were two passions in her life: creating figurines in clay, and making love; but while a special area was alotted for the former hobby, the latter was becoming more problematic as she grew up. Rosebud had never been claimed heir to the thrown, because a boy was born soon after her, who would be king according to the rule of the land. So, while most attention had been put in him, her education was rather neglected in the area of decorum.
But now, things had gone too far. That morning, a young man, unknown to any of the family, came out of the Princess's suite of rooms, scantily dressed and looking for the way out of the Palace. The Queen sent for the Head Nurse, who was told to fetch the First Princess as soon as it was possible. Rosebud, almost properly dressed but not quite, all flashed and agitated, came and stood before her Royal Parents, half defiant, half adamant to keep her dignity. On her way through the Hall she picked a red rose from one of the vases that stood there in profusion, and it shone now on her young, thrusting bosom in full glory.
"Rosie," said the Queen in a gentle though decisive voice, showing she had discussed the issue with her husband, "as you have come of age to make a choice for your bed, it's time you got married and settled down. Your behavior prevents us from keeping our dignity, while creating a very bad example for your young siblings and espicially the Crown Prince."
"Married!" the Princess cried out the only word she had noticed from this lecture. "To whom?" Than she added, as if in an after thought, "And don't call me Rosie, it's demeaning. I am Rosebud!"
"If you don't want to be called by a childish name, you should behave suitably," said the King, a little more severely than the tone he usually took to speak to his eldest and most favorite child.
"Well," the Queen continued, "we've been thinking about going by tradition, and have a ball for all the young eligible high-rank men in the Three Kingdoms, so you can choose from them. But you can't go on the way things are."
"Married! No, I will not get married! I will not be bound to one man I barely know after one meeting at a ball. No! No! No!" With that last cry she turned and left the room, found her way outside the Palace and into the gardens that surrounding it. Her parents knew she was going to spend a long time among her favorite roses, and let her be for the time being.
"Now what shall we do?" the Queen turned to the King, who sat in his seat, lost in thoughts.
"You know," he said at last, "there is that woman I met at the recent conference for social affairs - you didn't go because little Lilly was sick and wouldn't let you leave."
The Queen, unlike many of her rank, was an excellent mother and would not let her children be looked after by others in times of need. As a result, she had to accept the situation of her husband meeting other women away from the Palace, in her absence. She only nodded and waited for him to continue.
"Well," he said, "that woman - and don't worry, she's as ugly as a toad - is the Dean of the College for Social and Family affairs. I think she could give us some good advice about what to do with Rosie." In private, he could not avoid referring to his daughter in this age-old pet name.
A few days passed. By a silent agreement Rosebud refrained from bringing any more young men to her suite, and the Dean was invited to the Palace for a conference with the Royal family.
She indeed was not a handsome woman, but quite impressive in her portly appearance and the strong features of her face. Full of dignity, she paid her homage to the King and Queen, and turned to look with some curiosity at the beautiful Princess. Rosebud looked at her with some of her defiance, though not quite hostile as she thought she ought to. The King then presented their difficulty with their daughter, and the Queen added her wish for a peaceful life in the family.
After a few moments of thought, the Dean said, "I do know Sheva, that philosopher from the College of Humanities in the Central Kingdom. I think he's the one to turn to in this kind of problem."
"And what can this philosopher do?" asked the worried Queen, who wanted more action than thought in the matter.
"He can take her in," replied the Dean, "if he has vacancy, that is. Get in touch with him and you'll learn all about it. His place can afford the Princess both with the shelter and the freedom she wishes for, without disrupting the life in the Palace, and without causing harm to herself in the long run."
And so it was. A letter was sent by way of a magical pigeon, and in due course an affermative answer came back. A flying carpet was ordered from a known magician, and Rosebud was flown to the Capital of the Central Kingdom, in the vicinity of which the Seven Dwarves' house was situated, at the edge of the Wild Forest.
A young queen sat at a window, sowing, looking out at the snow. She pricked her finger with her needle and a drop of red blood fell on the snow, and a black raven came and stared at it, curiously. The queen thought, 'I wish I had a daughter as white as the snow, as red as the blood, as black as the raven. Then I shall call her Snowdrop.
The Grim Brothers.
"Enough! I am fed up with all this!" Sweeping her arm to encompass the whole Palace, Snowdrop walked with her most dignified steps out of the Royal Chamber. She had no difficulty looking dignified as, at eighteen, she was tall and slender, impressively beautiful with her shock of wild, jet black hair, snowy white complexion, and a pair of red lips. She did not, however, pay much attention to her appearance, and all her wish in life was to study and acquire knowledge; and though she was a sole child and heir to the throne, the idea of ruling a kingdom was as far from her mind as the moon is from the earth.
Snowdrop's parents, the King and Queen of the Northern Kingdom, were left sitting in their seats, looking at each other with frustration. Scenes like that have happened before, but not with such ferocity. With all their love for their daughter, they had very mixed feelings about all that was happening.
"All I wanted her to do was." The King started but the Queen interrupted him, "It's no good, Dear, she won't do it. She's not interested in training to be a queen and I don't see how we can make her."
"But what will become of her? What do you think she's going to do?"
"She's going to leave the Palace, of that I'm sure, we just have to make sure she's not going to be lost, and for that purpose."
"I have been in touch with the Widow Queen of the Central Kingdom and she pointed out to me a certain man who could help, a scholar at the College of Humanities in the Capital, where Snowdrop has been attending. He is a philosopher, actually one of her teachers, who has created a small bohemian group inhabiting a house at the edge of a forest, not far from that Capital. He's a very reliable man and I was assured nothing will happen to her in that company. It seems to be what she wants, and it may serve as an alternative training for her."
"Becoming a Bohemian? But what if she gets too used to this kind of life and does not want to come back to fulfill her duties as Queen, when the time comes?"
"Let's leave things until they happen, Dear."
"Well, let's call and ask her, because I am at the end of my tether."
When called in and asked, Snowdrop admitted having met Sheva, and even that she liked and trusted him.
"Have you heard about that small community he had created in the Central Kingdom?"
"I have, and I was going to ask you about going there, but I was almost sure you'd be against the idea."
"Why should we?" said the Queen. "We only want your best. You can go and spend a couple of years there, and I hope when the time comes, you'll come back to take up your place and your duties."
Snowdrop shook her head slightly. That would never happen, she thought, but said nothing. She admired Sheva, and was certain any people in his company would be worth knowing as well.
Chapter Two - The Seven Dwarves
"So, tell me Sheva, about that refuge of yours. It sounds rather improbable to me, but I suppose with you, anything is possible." Snowdrop spoke familiarly to the philosopher because that was her democratic habit, not paying attention to manners of class or age, and he knew it from the time she was his student.
Having been transported from the Northern Kingdom to the College of Humanities in the Capital of the Central Kingdom by way of magic, the Princess was riding now by the side of the philosopher towards the edge of the forest, where the Seven Dwarves house was situated.
She found the man, small and dark with a mephistophelean face of about thirty-five years of age, very easy to talk to, with no need for any sort of mannerism. She also trusted him to give her direct answers to direct questions, and expected to get from him enough information to help her get along in a strange place.
"The place itself is unremarkable," he said, comfortabley, "except that it's rather secluded and borders on the wild forest. What is special are the people I bring into it and the relationships that are created among them, because not everyone is able to adapt to this kind of life, even for a short time."
"All right, so who are these people?"
"There is no uniformity among them; I bring in different people according to their characters and needs. I can only tell you who is there now, waiting to welcome you among them."
"You sure I'd be welcome? But that's beside the point, isn't it. I suppose they have no say in the matter."
"No, I am the one who determines who joins the group, because the whole setup is my creation."
"Wow! That's some personality you have here, isn't it?" Snowdrop showed her white teeth in a lovely red smile to soften her words, but she noticed no insult in the face of the man.
"First of all," he continued as if nothing of the kind had been said," I make a point as much as possible to create a certain social balance between the genders, usually by having three women and four men to make up the seven."
"Why is it seven, particularly, and why are there more men than women?"
"Seven is the most balanced number in existence, and women have more spiritual weight than men."
"Are you going to tell me who they are, or should I find it all by myself? It should take some time if I don't know something about them in advance."
The philosopher cast the girl a discerning look. "Some people would prefer the surprise of meeting strangers, but I can see your mind works in a different way. So, Here comes. First, the two other women you'd share your accomodations with."
"There's no privacy, then?"
"You'll have your own little bedroom, but the three rooms alotted for the women are connected among them, with a little sitting room in case they want to have a meeting away from the men. That's why the men usually call it Women's Club; but I have an idea this time, with the three women I've got now, the name would definitely be changed to Beauties Club."
"Beauties' Club, ha! Do you want to tell me all three of us are beauties?"
"That's exactly what I am telling you, and you'll see what you have to compete with... Joking! Still, it's a treat for us, men, and it does not happen often."
"So, tell me about these other beautiful women beside me - as I suppose you regard me also as beautiful, which is nonsense. But who are they, and you realize, I hope, that I am more interested in character than in beaury."
"Well, one of them is another princess - Rosebud from the Southern Kingdom. Have you met her?"
"No, but I've heard of her. I know she's slightly older than me, and there're stories about her birth after years of barrenness, and the many siblings she's had since then. A little weird, I thought."
"Well, she's a little wild, and her parents thought well of sending her away for a while. She brings much life to any company she's in."
"And the other?"
"The other is very different. She's called Moonbeam, the daughter of a rich merchant, and she does not get along with her stepmother and sisters who, for some strange reason, call her Cinderella."
"Wouldn't she be better off if she got married and had a home of her own?"
"Not Moonbeam, though it could work for other girls. First of all, she's still a little young, only seventeen. And secondly, she's studying to be a sorceress."
"A witch, ah? The only magician I've met was the one who sent me to the Central Kingdom. Magic isn't exactly my scene, you know, I prefer solid study."
"I know, of course, but I don't think there should be any difficulty here. I have mentioned that it's supposed to be a mixed company at the Seven Dwarves, and this is one such mixture. Besides, I hope you can find things in common even with a would-be witch, on the basis of affinity of character."
"Hmmm," Snowdrop uttered, then she suddenly laughed, an outburst of the one who does not laugh often, only when she is really amused. "Good for you, Sheva. I look forward to meet that young witch. Now, tell me about the men."
"One is me, of course, of whom you know much, perhaps, but whom you don't know well at all. I hope this will be remedied. Then there is Terry, who is only fifteen and can barely be called a man. In early childhoos he was found wandering alone in the forest and taken in to an orphanage, from where I rescued him two years ago. For the time being, until he grows up completely and can take care of himself, he is a constant resident in my Refuge."
"And why is that? I didn't know you are in the business of fostering orphans?"
"I'm not. But this boy has a special interest and knowledge of the forest, which is his whole life. He is concerned with its wildlife of animals and plants, and tries to take care of them more than anyone I know. Of course, he's still learning, and that's why I'm keeping him with me; it's quite possible he'll want to stay in the forest when he becomes adult, making it his permanent home."
"So, what is left are actually only two men - forgive me for discounting you. I'm sure you're man enough when it comes to that, aren't you, Sheva." With the thought, she suddenly looked at him with new eyes, searching his appearance as if trying to penetrate his cover of mental being and get to the physical man underneath. He gave her a smile which lightened his dark face, and a whole world of promise spread over it.
"Let's talk about the other men for a while, shall we? Mark is a man I'm sure you'll like and I hope you'll find much to talk to about."
"Is he a scholar, then?" she asked, innocently.
"On the contrary. Though he is studying with his mother to be a healer, there's nothing of the scholar in him. He is a pure physical force, something which has been sadly missing from your life."
"I don't understand."
"I am the scholar in this company, and you are my female counterpart, so there's no need for another. But Mark strengthens our little society in ways, I think, you'll have to learn for yourself. Let's leave it at that for now."
There was a long pause, Snowdrop trying to assimilate and absorb Sheva's words and meaning. Suddenly she smiled to herself, her black eyes shining like a pair of onyx stones. "All right," she said at last, "so what about the last one."
"That's Sunny," he said and fell silent.
"Sunny, ha? And is he as sunny as his name implies?"
"It's not his real name, I may as well tell you, but a nickname, so that people won't know who he really is."
"He's famous, then?"
"Quite, but not actually known to many people. What is known is more who he is than what he is, if you know what I mean. He's rather a recluse, a poet by nature and action, who has needed an escape, an actual refuge from the humdrum of life, some introspection into his own soul."
"I can't see myself getting even close to such a man," the Princess commented. "What does he look like?"
"Sunny, like his nickname, not very tall but with a shock of golden hair, like the sun shining over the deep water of his dark blue eyes. A charming man, actually, with impeccaple manners, very easy to like, but not so easy to know."
"Is he young or old?"
"I am the oldest by far, none other is anywhere near thirty. Sunny is about twenty-two, and Mark is twenty-five. Now you know them all by character, and soon you'll know them well by appearance, as they are very different from each other. Here we are, then, that's the house over there, just in front of the dark forest."
"Two years! I can't believe I've been here so long, I can't believe the time has flown so swiftly without me getting bored or annoyed!" Snowdrop was sitting on a rock jutting out of the ground on the side of the Seven Dwarves Refuge, with Sheva standing over her, a light smile hovering on his thin lips, lighting his dark face.
"I'd like to talk a bit, to sum up the time you've been here and what you feel about it. But first, haven't you had a letter from home this morning?"
Her face clouded as she produced the missive. "My mother is ill again. I think I would have to go back in the end, though she does not need me to look after her, she has enough nurses and the care of my father. But I don't think it's fair not be with her now."
"I know, and I think you're right. That's one reason I wanted to have this talk. First, will you tell me if there's anything which worries you about the people here?"
"Do you have such talks with anyone, or only with me?" she asked, lifting her eyes toward his slight figure. "And why don't you sit here, it's not comfortable raising my eyes to you like that."
With her tall stature, Snowdrop was unused to look up at people, but it was more of a physical discomfort than a mental one; she was still as democratic as she had been before coming to the Refuge, if not even more so.
"Not with everyone, only with some of them. Not every person is able to express their opinion in the frank and insightful way I need," Sheva said as he sat down on the ground, slightly lower than the girl on the rock, thus resuming their normal physical relationship. There had been some physical relationship between them at the beginning of her stay, before she tried the others and discovered her preferrence for Mark. Indeed, the utter physicality of that small giant of a man, with his bulging strong mascules and slightly rough movements, had charmed her to the depth of her dignified, overpowering personality. Mark was the only man among the Seven Dwarves who was taller than Snowdrop - Sheva was shorter than herself, Sunny was the same height and the half-grown Terry promised to outgrow his present stature. She and Mark had found they were more compatiple than anyone would give them credit for. Except Sheva, of course.
"I've been thinking about Sunny," she said now. She had had her share of relations with him as well, finding his body as well as his soul elusive and lacking of enough substance for her needs.
"What about Sunny? Do you think anything is wrong with him?"
"Actually, it's about him and Rosebud. I think they are avoiding each other's company."
"Really," Sheva said, pondering for a moment; "I thought they were quite compatiple."
"They were, and used to spend quite a lot of time together, until lately. That's why it's strange."
"Did you try to talk to her?"
"I can't do that, interfere, I mean. It's against both my nature and my principles," she said with as much dignity as she possessed.
"Well," Sheva said after a short pause, "I think it's perhaps for the best."
"The best? What'd you mean? Why should they avoid each other? I thought they actually liked each other, I've had some hope for them when I couldn't make anything out of him and decided to keep my distance from him."
"I can't answer you right now, but you shouldn't worry, I hope everything will settle itself sooner or later."
Snowdrop had to settle for this enigmatic answer, turning her thoughts to another subject. She pondered for a while on Rosebud herself, and her relationships with the other men in their small company. The girl was certainly restless, and in the three years she had stayed at the Seven Dwarves house - one year more than Snowdrop - she had tried anyone of the men as fancy took her. She had had some good time with Mark before Snowdrop had joined them, as she heard from everyone; she had taught a few things to Terry, with whom she was the first, before he was taken over by Moonbeam; and Snowdrop knew that she and Sheva had a friendly attachment which told what words would not. But Rosebud would continue her relationships with the men simultaniously with no discrimination, even when her affection to Sunny was becoming more and more prominent.
"Well," Snowdrop said at last, "you know best, Sheva," addmitting her shortcoming at analysing her friends' emotions. Affectionately, she touched his knee slightly, and he turned his head toward her, kissing her cheek. They did understand each other, even more so now that they did not sleep together any more. She did not, though, understand his attitude toward the others, but did not think it was her place to interfere. If the philosopher said it was all for the best, he should know what was what.
"How about Moonbeam, you're not worried about her, are you?" he interrupted her meditations.
Snowdrop gave a short, slightly mocking laugh. "You can't worry about Moonbeam, really. That girl knows exactly what she's doing, and since she has hitched up with Terry, no one can stop her. You would not believe the power that lies in this slight frame, expressed in these pale, luminous colors that envelop her. I think she will be a great sorceress. At least, I utterly depend on her to send the megical pigeons between here and the Palace at the Northern Kingdom, to hear about my mother's health. Anyway, she and Terry spend most of their time together, when she does not go to town to meet her mentor witch and learn the skill of her craft. To see the two of them walking hand in hand, she with her long, silverlike hair and pale complextion and he, with his brown complexion and dark yellow eyes, topped by his brown curley hair - I simply have no words to describe the effect that love of theirs has on me. Because it is the most profound emotional state I myself have ever witnessed."
"Well, that at least sounds like good news," announced Sheva. He was the one who had initiated Moonbeam into the mysteries of sex, hoping the girl would not fall in love with him as a result. But the young witch certainly had her head sitting sqarely on her slight shoulders, because it did not take her a few weeks, first to try her new experience with Mark, whom she had known and liked since childhood, and then a failed attempt at approaching Sunny. But she switched to Terry very soon afterward, sensing their mental more than physical closeness, never to separate from him again. Some people thought she was made exactly for Sunny, thinking it was suitable for the golden-headed poet to get together with the fair-haired sorceress, who looked like the appearance of the sun and moon in one sky; but this myth did not work out in this case, neither Sun nor Moon showed any preferrence for each other.
Snowdrop and Sheva sat together in mental companionship for a time, until the philosopher said, "You're going tomorrow, then. Do you think you'll want to come back?"
She looked at him for a long time, as if trying to etch the memory of his sight in her mind. Then she shook her head slowly, her black hair moving like a cloud around her white face. "I don't think so," she said, uttering the words slowly, with a tinge of regret sounding in her voice. "That phase of my life is over, and I feel I have to prepare for the new one."
"Was it any good for you, then?" he asked.
She rose and he did too and, approaching him deliberately, she kissed him hard on the mouth until both grew pink in the face. "It could never have been any better, sweetheart," she said, "whatever happens now."
Chapter Three - Matches
"Your mother wants you, Your Highness," one of the Queen's nurses came into Snowdrop's study, curtsying. It had been a couple of months since she returned from the Seven Dwarves refuge, to sit by her sick mother and help the King with matters of the Kingdom. She was learning the skill of it now, finding some interesting aspects in ruling which she had not expected. She had always regarded it as very remote and different from studying science, literature or philosophy, but now she saw that here as well there were things for deep thought and insight.
"I am coming," she told the nurse, "how is she?"
The woman shook her head. It was clear that the Queen's days were numbered, and either her daughter or her husband left her side only when she was taken care of by the professionals.
In a special sickroom adapted specially next to the Royal Chamber, the Queen lay on her magnificent bed, looking very white among the pastel-colored sheets. Her eyes had been closed, but she opened them when Snowdrop came in, as if sensing the approach of her daughter. She made a slight movement with her frail hand, signing her to get near her side.
The tall girl stood over the bed, looking down with her severest expression. Her eyes were dull and she said nothing.
"Snowdrop," she heard her mother mumbling, and she bent her head to get nearer to the sick woman, to hear her better. "I'm going now, and you're left to take care of your father and of the Kingdom. I know you'll be a good queen, in spite of all the - " she paused, breathing hard. Snowdrop put a gentle hand on her shoulder, as if granting her mother some of her young strength, but the Queen shook her head. She had to complete her message before she was gone. "But I want you also to be a good person, not to be ashamed of yourself. Good bye," she ended suddenly and closed yer eyes.
The girl signed to the nurse. "Call the King," she whispered, "this is the end."
After the Royal Funeral, and an additional short period Snowdrop had allowed herself for mourning, Snowdrop joined her father in the practice of ruling the Kingdom. Always a good student, she soon picked up the main principles of it, again allowing herself time for getting into the fine practical details. A year after she left the Seven Dwarves refuge, a missive arrived for her, saying,
The Princess is invited to take part in a ball held in honor of Prince Charming of the Central Kingdom, on the occasion of his 25th birthday, and for the purpose of choosing a bride for him.
Snowdrop stared at the fine card with unseeing eyes.
"Well," said the King who had taken it from her frozen hand and perused it for himself, "you must go, of course."
"Prince Charming? I can't marry him!"
"Why not? It's a very suitable match for you."
"But what about the Kingdom? I am a single child and so is he. Where, then, shall we rule together?"
"You don't have to rule together. You can marry and still remain each in her or his Kingdom, make children together who would inherit you, each ruling separately in each Kingdom. It does not seem too difficult to me."
"It's a disgrace! To marry without love, and to live separately, just make children together, as you say? How can you talk like that, Father, you who had such a fine, loving marriage with Mother? I am sure that's not what she would have wanted for me!"
"It's true that we were lucky, but not everyone is. Anyway, at least you have to go to the Ball, to show yourself there. It may not come to be you and Prince Charming, but perhaps you could find someone else there."
"It's for single girls, isn't it? Not men!"
"But there would be escorts for the girls, and you might meet relatives of some eligible men..."
"You're babbling, Father, and I don't feel like a ball, with Mother barely in her grave..." Rare tears appeared in her eyes, which she did not bother to wipe.
The King hugged his daughter, saying gently, "Once you get there, I'm sure you'll know what to do. And I am also sure you'll make me and your Mother proud, Snowdrop. You'll certainly be the Beauty of the Ball."
The invitation to the Ball arrived in the the Seven Dwarves house for Moonbeam. She was still living in the forest with Terry, who was sixteen now and considered almost a man; but, although they they had no other official address, she had used her magic to build a magical hut in the thicket, in which they could have everything they wanted when needed. They spent a great deal of their time among the trees and shrubs, animals and birds, happy to do what they liked and found necessary, but Moonbeam was still studying and practicing her magic and Terry was still learning what was needed about the ways of animals and plants. A present member of the Seven Dwarves was sent by Sheva to take her the invitation, and she came up with it to the house.
"Do you understand this, Sheva?" she asked.
He gave her a searching look. "You're still unmarried, are you?" he asked.
She shook her head. "What do I need to get married for? I have my man, I have my magic and I have my life."
"Wouldn't you like to marry a prince and be a queen?"
"A witch queen? Not likely. These are two kinds of powers which do not, or should not, go together."
"I suppose they weren't quite aware in the Palace that you're a witch. They just know your name and that of your father, and his standing in society, and found it suitable to be chosen for the Ball."
"You are a clever man, Sheva, aren't you. What would you suggest I should do?"
"I think you should go home, get washed up - you really look like a proper Cinderella, living like that in the wild forest and never having a bath! When is the last time you washed yourself?"
"I wash in the brook when it's not too cold - now, don't scold, Sheva! Anyway, the forest dwellers don't pay much attention to that, and Terry does not mind -"
"Because he's as dirty as you are! Now, do as I say, go home and have a proper bath, and get yourself some suitable clothes to show up at the ball. You don't want one of your sisteres to marry Prince Charming instead of you, do you?"
"But what if I am chosen bride to that Prince Charming? I told you I could not be a queen to save my soul!"
"You are a witch, arn't you? Even if not yet adept, your powers are quite strong. All you need is know how and when to use them. Also, I think you should go and meet old friends, you've living for too long secluded in that forest. It may be good for Terry, but I am not at all sure about you, Moonbeam."
"So, that's what you think? And I think you really want me to marry Prince Charming and be a witch queen, so that you can use my powers."
He smile at her with his best saturnine jestures, and she returned with a glowing moonlike liminescence. "I'll do as you say, but you'll pay the price if needs be." She kissed him then, smack on the mouth which was closest to hers among all her friends', before activating her magic to take her to her father's house in the Capital.
At home, the family had not expected to see her. They had forwarded the invitation hoping she would not bother to come, and now they were upset that she had.
"Hey, Cinderella, come and help us with our washing and dressing!" The three women called to her as soon as she showed up.
"How are you, Father," she turned to the man who was sitting, a little unhappily, among all the women's paraphernalia.
"Hi Cindie," he called to her without getting up, "I'm so glad to see you. You are really grown and mature, aren't you. You can actually be bride to Prince Charming, I'm sure."
"How can you talk like that in front of my own daughters," his wife complained, but he ignored her, as if used by now to do just that. Moonbeam felt some pity for her aging father, who did not exactly know how to be happy in his own home.
After she had had her very necessary bath, she put on some simple clothes and went to visit the Healer. Mark, who had left the Seven Dwarves to become his mother's partner in her profession, was also there, both welcoming Moonbeam as old friends.
"What'd you think, Arena, should I go to the Ball and take a look at Prince Charming?"
"I'm sure you'll charm them all yourself with your Moon magic, dear," the Healer answered, hugging the girl lightly.
"You look well, Mark," she turned to the giant, "how are you doing?"
"I do miss something in my life, but I'm not sure what it is," he said, simply. Indeed, he looked a magnificent man, glowing with health and almost handsome.
The two women looked at each other, smiling. "Shouldn't he also go to the Ball to find the woman of his life, Mother?" The girl sometimes used that appelation for the motherly woman, since her own mother had died such a long time ago.
"What'd you say him being your escort, ha?"
"I'd love it!"
"Rosebud, Rosie, here's something for you, come quickly!" It was one of her younger sisters, shouting accross the great hall of the Palace of the Southern Kingdom. Rosebud, lingering, came up slowly to look at the invitation to the Ball. Since her return from the Seven Dwarves refuge, she had been pale and listless, had lost all her former liveliness and her mother did not know what to do with her.
"We should have married you off before you went to that place," she got into the habit of saying, "it did you no good at all!" The girl just shook her head in rejection of the idea. She never talked to the parents about her life there, or what had caused her constant gloomy mood.
"Well," the Queen said, "at least in the ball you may find what you're looking for, because I am completely at a loss. Perhaps even Prince Charming would find you acceptable and make you Queen."
"But I am not interested in Prince Charming!" Rosebud cried from the depth of her heart.
"Who are you interested in, then, tell me!" her mother insisted. But the girl escaped to her suite, where no man waited for her. She threw herself on the bed, weeping silently, uttering thoughts she did not dare express aloud, 'Oh, Sunny, Sunny! Whatever has happened to you? Where have you disappeared to?'
Because, a couple of months after Snowdrop had left the Seven Dwarves, Sunny also left in a hurry, and no one there knew what had happened to him. At least, Rosebud did not know, suspecting for a time that he had gone after Snowdrop. Only when hearing the Queen of the Northern Kingdom had died and Snowdrop had taken over the rule shared with her father, she knew this was not so. Then she asked Sheva, suspecting he knew something, but the philosopher would give her only evasive answers, and she did not know what to think.
Now, searching her heart, she knew she had fallen in love with the sunny head and his poetry, but had no idea what to do with this knowledge. She came back home dejected, lifeless, moaning about the place as if she had lost her most precious treasure. And perhaps that's exactly what had happened to her! Oh, Sunny, Sunny, she moaned, not knowing what to do with herself.
"You'll go to that Ball," her mother said; "if you don't find what you're looking for there, at least it will divert you for a while. We're fed up seeing you like that, darling!"
The Ball was as magnificent as any royal event could be, with colorful lights and rugs and pictures and ornaments everywhere, and with fine, lovely gowns on beautiful young bodies, decorated hairdoes and jewelery by the scores. The hall was full of girls and young women of high rank looking their best, while escorts of both genders walked about or sat on the side, adding their dignity to the liveliness of the occasion.
But with all that finery and loveliness, the three girls from the Beauties' Club shone supreme to anyone. Moonbeam, dressed in a garment of fine, shiny silver cloth which clung to her slight body, glowed like a moon beam; Rosebud, her magnificent red hair contrasted by a beautiful gown of glittering green and gold; and Snowdrop, clad in black with thread of gold and silver, her black hair done in a sophisticated hairdo with a silver tiara on it. There was no question who the Beauties of the Ball were, only who of the three would take the big prize.
"Moonbeam, so lovely to see you!" Snowdrop called as she approached the girl and her escort. "And Mark! My, I forgot how handsome you were! How are you all doing?"
"You look beautiful, Snowdrop," said the younger girl, softly. "How're you doing now?"
"I am all right, though missing my mother terribly, when I never thought much about her before. But you know all about that, don't you?"
"Is your father marrying another woman?" Moonbeam asked, innocentlike.
"Not him," the other girl gave a short laugh. "He's grooming me for Queen, so there's no need for that! But I remember that was your trouble. How are you taking it now?"
"I've been living with Terry in the forest for..."
She did not finish her sentence as Mark exclaimed, "Here's Rosie!" and the other two turned to greet their old mate. The Princess of the Southern Kingdom looked nothing like a princess, although her physical beauty had not diminished for har pallor. But all life seemed to have gone out of her. "What's happened to her?" Mark added in wonder.
"It's Sunny," said Moonbeam. "She could not get over him. She'd fallen in love with him, you know, but nothing came of it when he left suddenly. Hi Rosebud," she added as the third Beauty came up to them.
"I'll leave you now, girls, to gossip among yourselves. I know how the Beauties' Club works," Mark said and walked toward the side of the hall, where other male escorts were gathering.
As Rosebud approached her old friends, the trumpets sounded and the widow Queen appeared, leaning on the arm of her son, Prince Charming. The crowd stopped its walking and talking, all eyes turned to the prize of the evening. Who is going to be chosen Queen of the Ball, bride to the Prince and, in time, Queen of the Central Kingdom.
Three pair of eyes opened wide, a blunt whisper burst out of three mouths as one: Sunny!
When the confusion was over and a relative calm returned to the hearts and minds of all concerned, Sunny Prince Charming approached the Beauties' Club and stretched his arm to Rosebud; he gently took her hand in his and pulled her toward the Queen. "Mother," he said, "Your Majesty, my choice has been made sometime ago. Here is my bride and my queen and I hope you'll give us your blessing."
"My, she is beautiful," the Queen said, pleasantly, as Rosebud's cheeks resumed their rosy glow and her green eyes shone in laughter. Bless you, my dear, I'm sure you'll make my son very happy, because he'd been pining for you since he came back from his Refuge."
As the Ball resumed its function, Snowdrop and Moonbeam retired to a corner of the hall, avoiding endless invitations to dance. "So," said Snowdrop, "what now? Are you returning to the forest with that wild man of yours?"
A light smile shone on the younger girl's face. "I need my retreat, but I'm not going to avoid town alltogether, like him. I do need to keep in touch with my clients, when they start coming. So I'll find a suitable place for myself and for them. Now, what about you? Are you preparing a wedding soon?"
"I don't think I'll ever get married," answered Snowdrop, her face darkening.
"But you'll need someone, especially when your father dies... And you must have children, to continue your line..."
"But not necessarily a husband. I prefer to rule by myself with the help of good advisors. I've been thinking of apointing Sheva..."
"But he won't be enough for you, not for your bed at night... And not for giving you children."
"No, for that I am thinking -"
"A healer, of course! A young, healthy, good-natured man who would take care of you if you get sick in childbirth..." Moonbeam laughed, a thin, pure bell-like ringing, as the two girls turned as one to look at the bunch of escorts having a nice time of it near the wall of the hall. There, towering over his companions, shone the dark blond hair and soft gray eyes of the young healer, Mark.
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