Once upon a time in the Kingdom of Maxim…
“You turned me into a cliché!” screeched Queen Lucinda. Nobles grimaced and servants ducked their heads to avoid eye contact. “I requested a story to honor our dead king and recognize the kingdom as a realm to be celebrated and admired.”
“Yes, Your Majesty. I mean no-”
“Guards! Seize this man.”
The hair went up on the back of William Writer’s neck as two guards propelled him forward. Everyone knew the beautiful queen had given up magic on her wedding day. But with King Edward dead, his heartless widow might not feel bound to her promise.
“But Your Majesty, I wrote of the generosity and wisdom of his monarchy, the splendor and elegance of his court, the beauty and abundance of the land, and the kindness and diligence of its people.”
“And the vain, mean-spirited queen.” Her sultry voice failed to hide the bitterness behind her words. An oppressive silence fell over the court as she raised an eyebrow at the royal poet who knelt before the throne.
William cursed himself for his folly. He should have listened to his wife and softened his portrayal of the Queen Mother. The royal poet avoided looking into her cold, black eyes as he struggled to find a way out of his predicament. “Your Highness, you misunderstood. It was all in jest -”
“You portrayed me as the wicked witch of a fairy tale.” She jumped from her throne, fists clenched, red splotches spreading across her face and neck. With one agitated wave, the guards removed the poet from her court. “Let him sit in the dungeon and write for the rats.”
Lucinda breathed deeply to calm her seething temper and lowered herself back onto the velvet cushion. She smoothed her satin skirts and patted the stray ebony strands that had fallen from her perfectly coiffed hair. The poet’s desperate pleas echoed through the stone corridor as she turned her thoughts to more pressing matters.
Her stepson Richard, the newly crowned King, would be home any day from courting some pale, weak princess. Lucinda must get even with that imbecile author before his return.
The Queen snapped her fingers and a servant filled her goblet. Sipping on the sweet mead, she held the heavy, bronze cup between her palms and searched the golden liquid for an answer. Her cunning mind whirled with malicious inspiration. A malevolent smile slowly spread across her face.
“Ah, yes. It’s perfect.” She let out a delighted cackle then clapped her hands, calling for ink and paper. “I’ll beat that pathetic poet at his own game.”
The news of William’s imprisonment spread through the village of Chestnut. King Richard had left on matters of State, leaving his stepmother to rule as regent. The unlucky poet became the first casualty of her temporary reign.
The mumblings began softly but quickly grew louder.
“His poor wife is heavy with child.”
“He’ll pay the ultimate price for his arrogance now.”
Without her late husband to keep her under control, Lucinda could turn their world upside down. The townspeople said a silent prayer for the swift return of their king.
All was as it should be in the Kingdom of Maxim. The baker lit a fire for the bread; the tailor took inventory of his cloth; the cobbler cut a pattern for another pair of shoes. Farmers went to their fields and wives and children began their daily household chores. Life was good –until the residents discovered mysterious missives tacked on their cottage doors.
The miller’s daughter ran outside waving a parchment at her father. “Oh, Papa! It’s the royal seal! Could it be an invitation?”
The miller looked perplexed. “Why would the Queen send notices to each household? The town herald reads important proclamations.”
Villagers soon crowded the town square waving their papers with enthusiasm. Clara fingered the unopened parchment in her apron with apprehension. She noticed a strange, repetitious behavior as each of her neighbors read their letter.
“Something is amiss,” Clara said as pandemonium took over the village square. She quickly made the sign of the cross and ran for the safety of her home.
That same morning, the royal steward heard a scream from the kitchen below and hurried down the back stairs.
“What in the - ” he stopped dead in his tracks. The footman held a dead goose over a steaming caldron while the cook frantically tried to snatch it from his hand.
“Help me. Please, sir, he’s gone quite mad!” implored the squat woman as she balanced on her tiptoes and jumped towards the bird held high above her head. “He’s already thrown in the two geese dressed for tonight’s meal. This one’s not even plucked yet.”
The steward and cook held the servant down on the bench and wrestled the goose from him. The glazed look disappeared from footman’s eyes and he heaved a sigh of relief. At that moment, a huge crash came from upstairs. The three exchanged a wary glance before looking towards the ceiling.
King Richard paused at the top of the mountain taking in the lands of Maxim and smiled with satisfaction. The sun shone brightly on his dark shoulder-length hair, warming his skin as he breathed in the fragrant country air. The golden wheat fields, gently sloping hills of emerald green and sparkling streams set against the dense forest could easily be the happy-ever-after setting for an enchanted story. This is where his betrothed must first view her new home. Who could not fall in love with this kingdom – and hopefully its king?
“Hyaa!” Putting the spurs to his horse, he loped down the hill towards the village and wondered what mischief Lucinda had stirred up during his absence.
Taking a shortcut through the woods, Richard spotted a stray sheep. As his huge royal steed caught up to it, the wool unexpectedly fell off the sheep’s back revealing a more sinister figure.
“God’s teeth!” The king pulled his horse to a stop. A wolf in a sheep’s skin? A bad omen, indeed. With a new sense of urgency, the young monarch hurried towards the outskirts of Chestnut.
The main street was full of activity. As he drew closer, the king observed the Chapman family walk in circles while dragging their toes in the dirt. Nearby, the tailor sat in the middle of the square with his jerkin pulled over his face.
Richard’s stallion began to prance and snort. The king dismounted and approached a paddock where a blue horse grazed. Why would someone dye a horse?
He continued through the town center with a nervous equine at his heels and took in the peculiar scene. Tom the Blacksmith intermittently shaded his eyes with his hands, gazed off into the distance, and then took a huge leap.
A wolf in sheep’s clothing, a horse of a different color. Richard nodded to the blacksmith as he jumped past again. “Lucinda, what have you done this time?” he muttered under his breath.
The old midwife ran up to the handsome young king she had helped bring into this world. When she stopped to give a quick curtsy, a dozen or so villagers almost toppled over her.
“Oh, Your Majesty, we are so glad to see you. Yesterday, the Queen Mother imprisoned William Writer for his description of Maxim. This morning, everyone received a strange invitation and began to act possessed upon reading it.” The poor woman wrung her hands as if to wipe away the black magic.
The king laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Why did you not get an invitation, Clara? What about these people with you? They seem clear of mind.”
“Your Majesty, I felt uneasy about opening mine so I waited. These good families behind me had no one in their household who could read so they have been spared, sire.”
Richard tapped a finger on his lips thoughtfully. Ignorance is bliss.
Clara again crossed herself as a man walked by winking and counting. “The whole village has gone mad. Bart the Gatekeeper stands in the cemetery with one foot on his wife’s grave and cannot move. Mort the Gardener continues to poke himself in the side with a thorn.”
“Do not fear, Clara. I will find the cause and set things right.” He was appalled at the calamity in his village. “I have a fair idea who is responsible.”
“Yes, Your Majesty, I am sure you do,” Clara agreed as she stepped out of the way of a woman who walked backwards and pulled a blanket along the ground. “Covering her tracks, she is,” nodding at the girl.
Richard headed for the castle determined to end the upheaval in his kingdom. Along the way, he pulled a timber in front of the Chapmans. One by one, the family members tripped over the log, picked themselves up and bowed low before their king.
“Get a blindfold for Tom so he can’t see where he leaps,” the king ordered as he snatched the woolen shirt covering the tailor’s eyes.
Next he picked up the girl dragging a blanket and carried her several feet to eliminate the footprints. When he set her back down, she curtsied low and looked up with a grateful smile.
King Richard fixed angry eyes on the tower where his stepmother surely watched the scene below. He wanted to strangle her. Lucinda had wreaked havoc in his realm in a few short days. Princess Isabella was coming in less than a month and there was much to do before her arrival. He did not have time for such tomfoolery.
His progress home was stalled repeatedly as he encountered one faithful subject after another needing release from Lucinda’s spell. Fortunately, only a clever mind was required to solve each predicament. Richard was thankful Lucinda’s malevolence was much stronger than her magic. Yet with all he had seen, the king was still not prepared for the chaos at the castle.
He passed over the drawbridge and through the gate to find his faithful knights still as stone, each holding his head with both hands. He spied some fruit in a nearby basket and tossed an apple at each soldier. One by one, the soldiers let go of their heads and caught the fruit. A round of ‘Thank you, Your Majesty’ and ‘Very grateful, Sire’ followed him across the bailey as he looked for a groom to unsaddle his mount.
The king heard grunting noises and peered inside the dark stable to find his grooms inside the stalls. One hung onto a horse’s neck, while another clung to the poor creature’s back legs. A third was trying to lift a small and unwilling pony onto his lap.
“You are a sight for sore eyes, Your Majesty,” the Captain of the Guard said, exhaustion apparent in his voice. “I returned early this morning from border patrol to this insanity. The cook warned us not to read anything with a royal seal so we have not been affected.”
Richard nodded. “I already witnessed the disaster in the village. Time to let Lucinda know I have returned. Meet me in the throne room and bring William Writer. I shall hear his side of the story.”
The captain hurried away reassured that His Majesty would squash the hysteria.
The young monarch bellowed orders to anyone not under his stepmother’s spell as he made his way towards the keep.
“Dump that pot of water so the servants cannot watch it.”
“Take the needles away from those nine girls by the sundial.”
“Get that man off the merchant’s scale and put the salt away.”
He found Lucinda in the Great Hall impatiently waiting for her supper.
“What is taking so long in the kitchen?” Her shriek caused the servant girl to flinch and nervously pull at her skirt.
“I believe you are the reason for the delay, dear stepmother.”
Lucinda’s head jerked up at the sound of his voice. Her tone changed at once. “Oh, my dear boy, come and give your mother a kiss.” Her words were as sickeningly sweet as her smile. “Perhaps you can motivate these lazy servants.”
“The entire kitchen staff is crowded around the hearth adding their own touches to the stew. You know what they say.” He paused, a smirk forming upon his lips. “Dinner may be indefinitely delayed. Meet me in the throne room. I need an explanation, Lucinda.”
“I do not appreciate your tone, Richard.”
“King Richard, if you recall. And this is not a request.”
Much later, the king sat on his throne once again, amazed at the audacity of this self-centered woman. His Captain of the Guard had fetched the petrified poet and both sides of the story retold. King Richard read the original tale then nodded to the author.
“Congratulations, William Writer. Your prose is lyrical, flowing and does indeed pay tribute to my father and my kingdom. Truth be told, the description of the Queen Mother is not flattering but accurate.” He gazed intently at his beautiful, vain stepmother. “I must admit I am curious, Lucinda. Why not just behead the man?”
The queen gave an indelicate snort. “I promised your father on his deathbed I would cause no bloodshed in his kingdom. I am always true to my word.”
She looked down her nose at the poet. “Since I could not kill him in the physical sense, I gave him a writer’s death and poisoned his story with clichés. When the princess arrived and saw the Kingdom of Maxim in such chaos, I expected her to turn tail and run home. This would leave me as regent while you attended to matters of State. I killed two birds with one stone, so to speak.”
“You are foiled on both counts. It may be weeks before I am able to locate all my subjects affected by your spell but I will return my kingdom to its previous condition. And Isabella is neither shallow nor fickle enough to break our betrothal.” King Richard snapped his fingers. “Enough of this nonsense! Let us attend to more important matters of state.”
A servant came forward with a silver platter, upon which lay a parchment with the royal seal and offered it to the Queen Mother.
She gingerly picked it up and broke the wax with one long nail. “I suppose this is an invitation to your wedding. I don’t understand why you -” Lucinda let out a strangled sob while both hands flew to her nose, the paper falling to the floor.
“Whatever is the matter, dear stepmother?”
“Cut off my nose to spite my face? How dare you turn my own spell against me?” Her eyes frantically scanned the room for any knives or blades.
“You wanted to be recognized throughout the realm. A witch without a nose will surely attain notoriety.” The king’s blue eyes twinkled, enjoying her discomfort. “However, there is a way…”
“I’ll do anything.” Her words were muffled beneath her palms as she tried to protect her aristocratic nose. “Anything you say.”
“You must cease your spitefulness.”
“I said -”
“You might as well put a stake through my heart.”
The king shrugged. “Enough drama, Lucinda. It’s your choice.”
The little kingdom of Maxim prospered from the legendary tales written by the court poet, William Writer. Visitors came from near and far to see a land of breathtaking beauty and meet the just King Richard and virtuous Queen Isabella.
Almost everyone in the kingdom lived happily ever after. Although Lucinda appeared pleasant and accommodating, Isabella sensed her sadness. Thinking her mother-in-law continued to grieve the loss of her beloved, she asked her husband how she might help. The king, with a wise smile, told her that the Queen Mother needed not just a sprinkling of kindness, but an outpouring of compassion. Thus the dutiful daughter-in-law spent years showering the older woman with goodness, blissfully unaware that each day she dampened any spark of happiness for Lucinda. When it rains, it pours.
Bestselling and award-winning author Aubrey Wynne resides in the Midwest with her husband, dogs, horses, mule, and barn cats. She is an elementary teacher by trade, champion of children and animals by conscience, and author by night. Obsessions include history, travel, trail riding and all things Christmas.
About the Author:
S. K. Gregory is an author, editor and blogger. She currently resides in Northern Ireland.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”