Twisted Fairy Tale: Happily Ever After by Edward Carpenter
Welcome to the 8th annual #SpookyShowcase! The Spooky Showcase celebrates the dark minds of creatives around the world through short stories and artistic creations that are dark in nature, macabre, or horror themed.
This year’s theme is Twisted Fairy Tales. Expect twisted legends, creepy creations, and dark fairy tales that will keep you up at night. Visit each day in the month of October for a scare. The master schedule is here.
Happily Ever After
By Edward Carpenter
I knew she was trouble the minute I set eyes on her; sweet, lovely, guileless, and reeking of magic. The horses, the carriage – even her dress could have been explained away by a good fortune and a better seamstress, but glass slippers? Really? If there’s one thing that sets my nerve on edge, it’s magic. But I was far less worried about her fantastic footwear than her obviously common background. You can take the slattern out scullery, they say, but you can’t take scullery out of the slattern. All this, unfortunately, appeared to have been lost on my darling son. Frederick is clearly smitten, and believe me, I know it when I see it. I’ve been in deep smit before. That was years ago, when I was little more than a girl. I remember sitting by the well in my parents’ garden, shortly before the tragic circumstances that put me on the throne. I was casting pebbles, and seeking to divine my fortune from the patterns in the ripples, when I heard it – that raspy, croaking whisper – “Help me…” The whisper emanated from a frog, or, to be more accurate, a toad.
Now, I know, these days your run-of-the-mill princess would have thrown up her soft white hands and squealed in terror, but then, I’ve never exactly been your average anything, and besides, princesses in those days had a bit of spine, and weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, which was exactly what happened when I fished the miserable beast out of the muck and listened to its sad tale of being trapped in a toad’s form by an evil witch. That was also back when I was considerably more naïve; these days, I’d have been quick to question exactly why the witch had seen fit to imprison him in that fleshy prison, as most so-called witches that I’ve met haven’t struck me as particularly evil – just pragmatic, calculating, and perhaps a bit lacking in physical beauty. Ah, well, we can’t all be blessed with my genetics, can we? Come to think of it, most witches are rather soft-hearted, if you ask me, always leaving the victims of their curses with loopholes to escape, loopholes usually involving nothing more interesting than a bit of gentle kissing… Yes, soft-hearted, and not particularly kinky… But I digress.
My youthful innocence and a bit of perverse curiosity led me to plant a quick peck on the toad’s warty little lips, which instantly undid the enchantment and revealed quite an impressive specimen of manhood, indeed! And we were soon to be married, as his princely pedigree made him a suitable groom, but alas, my fantasy was shattered when I discovered, quite by chance, that he had been revealing that impressive specimen of manhood to some of my ladies-in-waiting as well. Shocking, isn’t it? Nevertheless, I stood by my man at the altar, sat by my man at the huge reception, and was even so kind as to pour him copious quantities of wine and mead. Then I stood by my man again, as he took a drunken tumble down the flight of no less than 145 steps leading to the bridal bower that I had chosen in our very tallest tower. Had I been thinking a little more clearly, I might have waited a few months to set myself to grieving, until after we had returned to his parent’s kingdom in time to mourn the untimely demise of his parents and see ourselves set up as King and Queen, but my impulsive action had left me still a Princess, albeit a widowed one, and his parents still firmly entrenched on their thrones, with a comely daughter waiting in the wings to provide the heirs that I never would. I, who with a little bit of good fortune for myself and bad fortune for those around me stood to quickly rule two kingdoms now ruled nothing.
Well, an army divided conquers little, so I decided to put foreign affairs on hold and settle matters closer to home. For this, I went a-hunting in the Dark Forest to assuage my widow’s grief, taking along a trusted and well-endowed huntsman. After a few enjoyable days in the woods, I found what I was looking for – a witch of suitable power to lay a curse on the neighboring kingdom from whence Prince Charmless had emerged. I asked her to see to it that life came to a standstill there, until such time as I was ready to deal with matters there and returned to have her remove the curse. Paying her well with what otherwise would have been my dowry, the huntsman and I returned to my parents’ palace, where we both had a bit of business to attend to. His was to appear properly distraught when lugging home my dear Father’s body after an unfortunate scuffle with a wild boar, and mine was to ensure that a suitable lozenge was deposited in my Mother’s wine to ensure that she died of a broken heart upon hearing the news of her poor husband’s demise. So there I was, a Queen without a King, but with a brand new batch of ladies-in-waiting, my previous, devious lot having been properly introduced to another charming maiden, first name of Iron, which had been recently installed in the palace dungeon.
After putting down a half-score of minor insurrections, I decided that at least for the time being, I needed a better half to assuage the worries of the commoners that the land would be left without an heir. Surveying the neighboring kingdoms, I was obliged to conclude that the dating pool was a bit shallow, when one was a Queen. Besides the demesne that I’d had the old witch lock down for me, my Queendom was bordered by three other realms, but the only kingly contender for my hand was the charming old widower who ruled the Kingdom to the West. His sole heir was a twelve-year old brat, a gangly creature with a pale complexion and raven hair, rather like my own. The most annoying thing wasn’t the girl herself, but a magical mirror she’d inherited from her mother. I told you before, I’ve got issues with magic, and this mirror turned out to be no exception, though I didn’t realize it at first. A few years passed uneventfully; I gave birth to Frederick, and persuaded my doting spouse that we should invade the small neighboring principality to the South and bring them to heel. Strictly for the good of their own people, of course – anywhere that the local royalty has nothing better to do with their time than test the sensitivity of visiting princesses by putting peas under their mattresses is really begging for a hostile takeover. But those halcyon days were numbered. My step-daughter in time blossomed into a comely young woman, and I was disturbed to walk by her door one day and hear her asking questions of the damned mirror. Not just the same old “Who’s the fairest?” bit that she’d been on about since adolescence, these were questions about her adopted mother, her dear Father’s declining health, and certain affairs of state. Unfortunately, the mirror seemed to have detailed, accurate answers, and no qualms about dispensing them. This was trouble.
My huntsman was a few years older, but time had hardly diminished his masculine charms, and had in fact improved his technique considerably. I prevailed upon him to take my adopted daughter hunting in the Dark Forest, though not, perhaps in the manner that he and I were accustomed to, and to see that only her heart was returned to the castle. The bloody lump that I received later the next day was hardly large enough to be human, and I should know; I mean really, who hasn’t gone down to the dungeons and taken a look at the mess when some murderous lout is drawn and quartered? It seemed that my once-trusty huntsman had a change of heart, and simply abandoned the poor child in the Dark Forest, hoping that one of the deadlier creatures that lurk in those dismal woods might take care of the job that he himself was loathe to do. I betook myself to have a chat with him, and after our little discussion, he had another change of heart, this one involving a three-quarter inch hole just below the left ventricle. Wiping the dagger on the leg of my riding breeches, I set off to rectify his error myself. The silly girl turned out to be holed up with a half-dozen lecherous little dwarves, and the Lord only knows what sort of perverse things she was obliged to do to pay her rent. Well, actually, I know as well, having taken a peek through the window of their cozy home just before wedging a timber against the door and setting the place alight. Better out with a bang than a whimper, I suppose.
My poor husband had been ill for some time, and the shock of his beloved daughter’s disappearance was straw that broke his back, metaphorically-speaking. So the pillow held firmly against his face was really just an insurance policy. I wore black for a month, and then decided to keep wearing it indefinitely, because it did great things for my figure, and really simplified the process of deciding what to wear. Oh, and it goes well with everything, including armor. See, with both smaller territories under my control, and the third bespelled by the old witchy woman, my sole remaining neighbor, the large kingdom to the North, was getting a bit worried, or so I gathered from the hateful propaganda they started spreading, and the steady stream of good-hearted “champions” they managed to send to rid the world of my corporeal being.
At first these fellows provided a pleasant diversion from the daily grind of listening to the woes of my commoners, passing judgment, attending executions, etc. They tended to share this silly notion that single combat was the only appropriate way to assassinate a head of state, and would call on me to face their blades, or send forth a champion. That would be Siegfried. I must confess I’ve never met his like before, or after – a natural anomaly, that one, about 8 feet tall, despite the crook in his back, with hands that could easily wrap around a grown man’s waist, a huge, square head set on a bull neck, and shoulders so wide he was obliged to turn sideways going through doors. I pity the poor creature’s mother, whomever, or whatever she was, as it could hardly have been an easy labor. Anyway, I had a giant-size set of steel plate made for him, and he’d come shambling up from the dungeon where he whiled away his days tormenting the prisoners, and listen with his head cocked to one side and his lazy eye wandering off to the left as the good champion-of -the-day recited my litany of supposed villainy… Then, when the brave but foolish soul cried “Have at thee!” and started to charge across the great hall, Siegfried would stir, jam his great steel pot down on his matted shock of orange hair, and stand stupidly, his great iron-bound club hanging loosely in his hands. When my would-be-attacker came within a few paces, though, he’d come to remarkable life, swinging that giant club two-handed into the side of his opponent, sending the knight flying sidewise with a most horrible ringing of iron on steel… Most of these doughty fellows never rose, and those that did usually had blood pouring from every orifice and didn’t stay long on their feet. When Frederick was nearly of age, though, I realized this nonsense had to stop, because sooner or later he would take it upon himself to defend my honor, or lack thereof, and find himself carrion for the crows. That would never do. While I’d never met a man fit to rule one kingdom, let alone an entire island’s worth, I had high hopes to raise one that could, and it’s a bit difficult to govern properly with one’s guts around ones ankles.
Having seen the futility of sending gentlemen to do knave’s business, I assembled a small group of fortune tellers and filled their pockets with golden coins I’d lifted from the purse of the latest champion, then sent them on an errand to visit the King in the North. Their acts were not particularly well-received; juggling, balancing, and tricks of contortion – Northern folk preferring more simple-minded entertainment, it seems, but it was the sword-swallowing that really stuck in the craw of my fellow monarch. No, really, I mean that literally. And the fact that his motley-clad assassin had gold from a local earl’s mint set off the expected round of noble clashes that allowed me to roll in a few weeks later and restore order with a minimum of bloodshed. Now all I needed to do was get my favorite witch to lift the curse on the Kingdom to the East, bring it firmly under my control, and wait for Frederick to come into his majority so I could enjoy a well-deserved retirement in the lovely southern isles… Ah, nothing but sunshine, sweet drinks, and handsome attendants, all financed by the royal taxes of what was going to be very large, very profitable domain.
I rode forthwith to the witch’s cottage, a quaint shanty fashioned largely of enchanted gingerbread, but instead of the aroma of cookies and cakes that I had smelled on my last visit, the stench of burnt flesh, to which I am no stranger, greeted my nostrils. This did not bode well. All I found of the old hag was her wizened legs sticking out from the door of her oven. Employing the magic mirror that I had liberated from my second husband’s luckless offspring, I enquired as to what exactly had transpired, and this is the tale it told. Apparently, the kindly witch offered food and shelter to a pair of ungrateful brats whose filicidal parents had abandoned them in the forest. Far from being grateful for her benevolence, this diabolical duo somehow got it into their insipid heads that the old woman meant to kill and eat them, despite the fact that the home into which she welcomed them was a veritable cornucopia of baked goods. So, they had murdered her most cruelly by pushing her headfirst into a hot oven. Wicked creatures! They had deprived me of the one person who could easily lift the curse and allow me to redeem my first husband’s inheritance. Turn about being fair play, I had the little ingrates brought before me and roasted over slow coals, feet first, of course, as the screaming lasts longer that way.
Now I was obliged to see what I could do about breaking the spell myself, so I gathered a small legation of my knights and rode toward the South. As I crossed our border, I noticed the unearthly quiet of the place. Not a creature stirred. Fields stood fallow. Yet there was a farmer, hand on his plow, frozen in place. Time, it seems, was standing still for the former inhabitants of the land. When we made it to the castle, we found the place overgrown completely with some rather large and lively vines, thorny, poisonous, and no doubt responsible for the various sets of rusting armor and moldy bones laying about. It seems more than a few of the same sorts of champions that Siegfried so often disposed of had been attempting to hack their way into this place. Now, why on earth would anyone do that? I’ve generally found that when noblemen strap on their cutlery and go courting death, it’s either to get paid, get laid, or both. I consulted the mirror again, and got much the sort of answer I suspected. The curse could be lifted by – oh how boring – gaining access to the room in which my late husband’s sister, the princess, was trapped in slumber, and waking her with a kiss. Theoretically, the kingdom would wake as well; you’d earn the King’s undying gratitude, his daughter’s hand, and a share of the family fortune. There you go, paid and laid, just as I told you.
Unfortunately, axes and swords seemed to have been of little avail against the malevolent shrubbery, so I ruefully concluded that if the witch had seemed a bit soft-hearted, maybe it had just been a ploy to draw foolish men to their deaths. In any case, I didn’t plan to join them. Instead, my liege followers and I spent a few busy days cutting down trees and looting the village outside the castle of pitch and oil. We made a nice stack of oily, tar-drenched logs around the base of the castle, and set it on fire. Then we spent a few more days watching it burn down to coals, while we made merry, and fashioned a battering-ram capable of knocking down the iron portcullis, which, besides the stone walls of the castle, was the only thing not completely burned.
Once inside, it was child’s play to find the sleeping King and Queen, along with the more troublesome-looking nobles, and lock them in the dungeon, a grim place brightened only by the few shafts of sunlight that entered through a small, solitary window set at ground level. It was a little harder to dig a good trench from the edge of the moat to that iron-barred skylight so that when they awoke, it would be underneath six feet of water, but the extra effort was well worth it to avoid getting blood all over my new castle. Breaking the spell and restoring my new lands to their former vibrant life was even easier; I simply told my Captain of the Guard that if he’d just give our sleeping beauty a peck on the lips, what he did with her afterwards was no one’s business but his own. Haven’t seen either of them since, although I did hear them for a while – the little wench didn’t stop screaming until they rode out of earshot. Ahhh, young love…
So, what do you think? Not too shabby, for a Queen who’s still on the downhill side of thirty, aye? Now I just need to dispose of this little tramp, set dear Frederick up with a suitable bride, and go enjoy the prime of my life abroad… Let’s get a little advice on dealing with my darling boy’s infatuation from someone I can trust, shall we?
“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall…”
All writers of fiction are storytellers, and there’s no sort of storytelling more elementary or entertaining that the classic fairytale. So culturally important are fairytales that a dear friend and mentor, Dr. Anna Vassilieva once told me that to understand a nation’s culture, you must read their fairytales, a pronouncement that led me to read the very wonderful Pashtun Tales, by Aisha Ahmad and Roger Boase. Fairytales are important because human beings learn best through stories; so much so that the Navy’s top admiral hires professional storyteller Kendall F. Haven to teach his personal think-tank how to use stories to get their message across about revolutionary and controversial changes to policy.
Thinking about the power of fairytales goes a ways in explaining my impetus for writing this story. Of the basic archetypes in the classic fairytale, only about one-third are female, and of that minority share, about half are “evil” (witches, unfaithful wives, temptresses) and the other half are nice, but rather ineffective. Good witches whose spells are always a bit less powerful than those of the “bad” witches, damsels in distress, etc. Good girls are young, pretty, patient, and kind. Women who are old, unattractive, or unwilling to suffer fools gladly get cast in the “evil” roles.
But the evil queen or wicked stepmother is a bit of both. She is older than the distressed damsels, but still attractive, which meant she must have been young and pretty once, but wouldn’t that have made her… good? And what is good anyway? Certainly I’m not the first author to address this issue, but I must confess I’ve taken a bit more of an unrepentant approach than, say, the scriptwriters for my favorite musical, who managed to show us that Elphaba (the “Wicked Witch of the West”) was actually good all along. My fictional Queen doesn’t blink an eye at torture, assassination, or all manner of homicides, but then, neither did almost any king or emperor from biblical times through the Reformation. Such behavior is, however, somehow considered more socially appropriate when there’s a man at the helm, or so we might gather from reading fairytales.
Curiously enough, history is full of a great number of queens and empresses, but despite their many worthy accomplishments (and more than a few bloody-handed undertakings) many fail to make it out of the history books and into the awareness of the masses, who can probably name most of the Disney princesses, but probably couldn’t tell you who Theodora I, Isabella I, or Ranavalona I were. These powerful women were all cut from a darker, stronger cloth than most, presiding over, among other things, the quelling of a rebellion in Byzantium that cost 30,000 rebels their lives, the start of the Spanish Inquisition, and the suppression of Christianity in Madagascar. And they are not alone. Catherine the Great, Elizabeth I, the Empress Matilda, and many other women ruled with an iron fist, influenced the course of history and weren’t above breaking a few eggs to make an omelet.
So, this story was my small attempt to give the archetypal “evil stepmother” the voice that she’s been rather unfairly denied, encourage readers to learn a bit more about the many great (and sometimes cruel) women who have shaped history, and was also a fun exercise in looking at some old stories from a new and slightly skewed angle. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it, and if you have, please do check out my other short stories on Amazon and follow me on Twitter to stay abreast of my latest writing projects!
About the Author
Edward Carpenter is a retired Marine and award-winning author who writes for various publications including The Washington Post and War on the Rocks, among others. His books and short stories have been published in both print and digital media and are available through Amazon. He loves working in different mediums, designing his own cover art and creating book trailers. He is currently traveling the world while pitching his first novel and working on several nonfiction projects. Keep in touch with him at Twitter for updates on writing, pictures of mega-fauna, terrible puns and cute baby animals.
Book Trailer for Lethargica
This is the book trailer for LETHARGICA, a new work of short fiction by Edward H. Carpenter. Based on actual events that have been largely ignored by historians, this story explores love, loss, and one of the great unknown tragedies of the early 20th Century.