by Ava Fischer
Not-so-long ago, in a not-so-distant land, there was a small village nestled on the edge of a forest called Silverwood. For many years, laughter filled the village as the children ran after marbles and play-acted fantastical stories. Little princes with uncombed hair and boyish grins would slay the dragons, saving the little princesses who gathered berries in their skirts and hid at the first sight of danger. Erica, a wide-eyed girl of ten was content just as she was, playing princess. Meg, a girl equal in age, though seemingly unable to temper her wild demeanor, quickly grew tired of the same old stories.
“I do not wish to be a princess,” she said one day. “I want to be a witch.”
The younger children froze, eyes wide, but the older children only sneered.
“There are no witches in this world,” a child of twelve said.
“Though,” another added, looking Meg up and down. “You are certainly as ugly as they come, with your rumpled skirt and your stilted gait.”
At this, Meg stomped away. Erica ran after her, ignoring the mocking whispers of the other children. Further down the hill, Meg slouched, sitting in the tall grass with her dirty skirts and her spindly legs folded up under her. Erica followed suit, grabbing her friend’s hand and squeezing once.
“I think witches are much more interesting than princes and princesses,” said Erica thoughtfully.
Meg looked at her, leaning in so that they bumped shoulder to shoulder.
“You are frightened of witches,” Meg teased, her eyes twinkling with mischief. “They live in the forest and eat little golden-headed girls like you.”
Erica wanted to protest but couldn’t help herself from giggling.
“Isn’t everyone afraid of witches? Isn’t everyone afraid of at least, something?” Erica asked.
“I’m not afraid of anything,” Meg replied stubbornly. “Besides, if I were a witch, I could do whatever I wanted, no matter if my skirts were rumpled and dirty.”
“And what would you do if you were a witch?” Erica pressed.
Meg thought for a moment. The breeze ruffled her dark hair and the sunset lit up behind her, casting a warm glow.
“I would spin straw into gold,” she replied. “We would be rich, and you would no longer have to be a miller’s daughter. We could live together without a care in the world.”
“My parents say we must always care,” offered Erica gently. “They say that the prince will be looking for a bride in a few years’ time and someone rich must come along because taxes on lumber and straw are much too high. But even so, the realm will soon be in debt.”
Erica didn’t quite understand the word “tax.” Though, “debt” was becoming increasingly familiar in her vocabulary.
“Well, I suppose if the prince needs a wife-” Meg jested.
“Did you not hear a word I just said?” Erica complained. “He will host a ball and look for a match who boasts money and power-”
“And beauty and grace,” Meg teased, wrapping her arms around her friend. “Perhaps he will fall for you. The fairest of them all.”
Erica rolled her eyes, though she leaned into the embrace. “He will not. Besides, I could never leave. I would much rather stay unmarried than leave the Silverwood.”
“Then you shall live your days as a spinster,” Meg countered, her mouth quirking up into a smile.
“I suppose we shall have to spin together.”
Meg smiled at that. Erica thought she was the most beautiful girl she’d ever seen.
It did not take a ball for Prince Philip to find his bride. Many years passed, and one day as he returned from a hunt on the edge of the Silverwood, he spied the beautiful blonde maiden. She was fetching grain from the fields, accompanied by a nondescript companion. Immediately taken by the lady, he received the blessing for her hand in marriage. Within three days, the miller’s daughter was whisked to the palace and crowned Princess of the Realm. In time, she became Queen.
The King, however, had done the Realm no fiscal service by taking a poor miller’s daughter to be his Queen, no matter how beautiful and kind. The years rolled by, and the Realm’s coffers dwindled. The poorest of the lowborn faced starvation. When the most secure of the highborn worried about losing their pristine estates, Philip began to hold council meetings behind closed doors.
It was no secret that the Realm required gold, so it was no surprise when rumors began to crop up of a terrifying monster on the edge of the Silverwood. This monster they say, spun straw into gold, offering it to the highborn of the Realm, but only for a steep price.
Both King Philip and Queen Erica ignored the rumors. Philip because he simply did not believe in magic, Erica because she didn’t dare to hope.
One night, after a particularly terrible visit to the poor surrounding villages, Erica locked herself in her chambers and wept, for there seemed to be no hope for her soon-destitute kingdom. She awoke to a glimmering strand of gold spooled on her pillow, right next to her cheek. It was as if someone had taken a thread of yarn and turned it, well, into gold. The next day, after a night of whispered prayers to whoever had sent the gold, another thread, longer and thicker appeared in her wardrobe. On the third day, after a night of the same, yet another thread appeared on her windowsill, the longest, most golden strand of them all.
This time, a note accompanied the gold. Written on the wrinkled parchment was but one name, accompanied by two words.
Erica began to hope.
The years had been kind to the Silverwood, still wrapping around the glen, bending their branches as if embracing the little cottage that now stood at the forest’s edge. The years had been equally as kind to the woman standing in the cottage door, clad in simple flowing robes, her dark hair unbound and free.
Meg’s face was inscrutable. Erica tried to ignore the feeling that her heart might burst out of her chest at any moment.
“You came,” Meg said, by way of greeting.
“You called,” Erica replied, holding up the three golden threads. The gold shimmered in the afternoon light. “How could I ignore the word of the most feared witch in the land?”
Meg pursed her lips, turning on her heel. “Come inside.”
The cottage was small, though hospitable. On the far wall, a fire crackled warmly, across from which sat cozy armchairs atop thick rugs. Meg made no move to sit in the armchairs, instead pausing in the center of the room to turn. Erica’s gaze snagged, for in the corner of the room sat a spinning wheel and a simple basket of straw.
Erica looked at her old friend. “They say it is a monster who spins straw into gold.”
Meg nodded. “That is what they call me. Monster.”
“My citizens call you a monster out of fear,” Erica said after a moment. “They fear your name.”
Meg only raised a bemused eyebrow. “My name?”
“You call yourself Rumpelstiltskin.” Erica chuckled. “A clever play on childhood words.”
Meg only shrugged. “Many monsters come from childhood. I suppose you think ill of me for it.”
“And what do you think of me?” Erica asked, approaching softly. “I suppose you think I am nothing. Running off to wed the prince, just as you always predicted.”
Surprisingly, Meg shook her head. “You had no choice but to leave, I see that now.”
The fire crackled warmly, though Erica made no move to unbutton her traveling cloak, as if her old friend might disappear at any sudden movement.
“Are you lonely?” Meg asked suddenly.
“Up in that cold palace?” Meg pressed. “Are you lonely being Queen?”
At that, Erica had no response.
“I perform my duty to the kingdom,” Erica replied carefully. “For the good of my people.”
“And you are happy?”
Erica frowned. “You are aware that I came here seeking aid. This is diplomacy.”
“Is it?” Meg mused. She seemed to be enjoying this.
Erica shook herself. “What must I do to acquire some of your spun gold?”
“Any manner of things,” Meg said.
Erica only raised her eyebrows. “Such as?”
Meg moved closer to the fire. Erica followed, keeping a distance from the other girl. This was diplomacy. And yet, in the ache of a childhood lost, why did Erica want to wrap her arms around the other girl and never let go?
“For a highborn in need of my services, I might raise a monstrous price.” Meg mused, gazing into the fire. “A firstborn child, perhaps?”
Erica froze in her tracks, only relaxing when Meg laughed lowly: it was but a simple jest.
“But you are a miller’s daughter…” Meg tilted her head, considering. “You are an old friend.”
“And what is your price?” Erica swallowed. “For an old friend?”
Meg hesitated before responding softly.
Erica stilled. Meg was no longer smiling, instead looking curiously at Erica, gauging her reaction.
Erica’s stomach flipped, but she found her voice, nodding once. “If a kiss is what the witch requires.”
“Is it what the Queen wishes?” Meg’s voice was quiet. “I do not wish to force your hand.”
In the golden firelight, Meg was the most beautiful girl Erica had ever seen.
Her heart answered before her mind. “It is what the Queen wishes.”
The first kiss sealed the deal.
As quick as it happened – a ghost of soft lips meeting oh-so briefly, Meg’s hands clasped in Erica’s – Meg pulled back. Erica suddenly felt cold. Was that it? Was the deal struck? Meg searched her face as if she was wondering the same thing.
Meg whispered, “I asked you to come back. And you did.”
“You asked me to come home,” Erica replied. “And I missed you.”
The second kiss was worth more than all the gold in the kingdom. Meg’s lips were warm, and Erica blindly shucked off her traveling cloak, allowing it to land in a puddle on the velvet carpet. She pulled Meg closer, and they held each other so that the space and time and history between them no longer mattered.
Coming back to the Silverwood was like following a thread of fate that had intertwined, tangled, and snapped all when she became a princess. Now, that golden thread knit itself back together, little by little.
After what seemed like either hours or seconds, the queen pulled back, examining the witch’s face.
“Perhaps you should have named a different price,” Erica whispered, her voice hoarse.
Meg looked at her, questioning. “And what would that be?”
“A true monster would take the King’s wife for her own,” Erica said.
Meg stared, not quite daring to believe. “Is this what the Queen wishes?”
Erica smiled against her lover’s lips. “Yes.”
Meg chuckled. “A deal is a deal.”
The third kiss was a burning blaze so that Meg and Erica felt they had never known the bite of cold or the sting of loneliness. Their intertwining thread of fate glowed golden, stronger than ever before.
No one ever saw Queen Erica again. At least, no one who would admit it. Satisfied with the gold, the King had taken a new wife within the fortnight. Erica was known simply as the Queen Lost.
Though, on the edge of the Silverwood, it was known that in a small cottage there lived two witches. Villagers still warned their children against the vices of witches old. But, for the children of millers and farmers, blacksmiths and beggars, within this cottage there could be found a warm fire, a hot meal, and a place to rest, for those brave enough to seek the comfort of companionship.