Once upon a time--the Queen began, knowing that all the best stories start that way--there was a knight, the younger son of a lord, who accomplished many a brave deed as he journeyed through many a distant land.
After one such adventure, the knight married a lady of wit and good birth, though no fortune, who traveled the roads at his side. In time, she bore him a daughter, Lunete, who was her very likeness, with eyes and hair as dark as a moonless night.
The knight felt only pride at his daughter’s birth, and he resolved to return to his native land to introduce his wife and child to his family. Alas, fever was ravaging the country--a fever that had already slain the knight’s father and elder brother, and shortly after their return, the knight’s beloved wife, though by some miracle, his daughter was spared.
Now heir to his family’s small holding, the knight took up his duties as lord. Two years after his wife’s death, he married again. His new bride brought wealth, lands, and a prosperous manor of her own to the marriage. A year later, she too bore him a daughter, Lysette, who was as golden as a sunbeam.
Despite their differences in appearance and circumstance, the lord’s two daughters were as close as sisters could be. Their father loved them equally and rejoiced in their bond, which deepened further after the death of Lysette’s mother five years later.
And so the sisters grew into lovely and accomplished young women. As the greater heiress and, some contended, the greater beauty, Lysette was perhaps rather spoiled and indulged, not least by Lunete. Indeed, no sooner would Lysette set her heart upon something but she must have it at once, and nothing could gainsay her.
One autumn day, when Lysette was sixteen and Lunete just nineteen, they heard report of a magnificent white stag with silver antlers roaming the forest bordering their lands. At once Lysette desired nothing more than to take a hunting party and ride in pursuit of it. But her father, having heard disturbing things about that forest and the mysterious stag, warned his daughters against such a venture.
Lunete took his warning to heart, but the willful Lysette was determined to have her way. The next morning, after her father rode out to oversee his domain, she stole out with a small hunting party and set off for the forest. Lunete followed her sister and entreated her to return to the manor, but Lysette only laughed at her cautions. “I go where I please, sister, she declared, spurring her horse onward. “Follow me, or ride home alone as you choose.”
Unwilling to desert her sister, Lunete followed the hunting party deep into the heart of the forest. They rode for what seemed like hours, and the forest shadows grew so thick that all would have sworn it was the dead of night instead of midday.
At last, they came to a clearing, and there stood the stag, so blindingly white he seemed lit from within, his antlers gleaming as brightly as a silver crown. He sprang away the moment he scented them, and, led by Lysette, the hunting party gave eager chase.
Lunete soon fell behind the rest as her horse, already wearied by riding after Lysette, began to flag. To her dismay, the hunting party outstripped her until even the nearest rider was barely visible through the forest gloom. Trying to urge her mount onward, she did not see the owl fly out of the darkness until a moment too late. Her startled horse reared, and Lunete fell from the saddle and lay stunned upon the ground.
When she came to her senses, she found she was lying not upon forest bracken and tree roots, but within a grassy hollow, soft as velvet and starred here and there with tiny flowers. Wide expanses of greensward stretched away from her on all sides, until they met the surrounding boxwood hedges. Before her stood a weathered stone fountain, ornamented with nymphs and fauns, and water rippled from the overturned jug of a kneeling stone maiden to splash into the basin below.
Lunete was convinced she must be dreaming. But the sight and sound of running water awoke her thirst, so she climbed to her feet and made her way to the fountain. A silver flagon stood on the rim of the basin. After a moment’s hesitation, she filled it to the brim and sipped cautiously. Never had water tasted sweeter, and she took a deeper draught, feeling much the better for it.
But surely one never ate or drank in dreams, she thought, and wondered again just where she was and how she had come there. She could see no gaps or openings in any of the hedges, which all stood higher than her head. Her father’s warnings about the strange things happening near the borderlands rose in her mind, but she told herself to be calm, for no ill had befallen her as yet.
Just then, a woman’s voice, as cool and musical as the fountain, addressed her. “May I help you, child?”
Turning, Lunete saw, in the corner of the garden, a dark-haired lady seated at the entrance of a green and gold pavilion--neither of which she could recall seeing before. Even as she stared, the lady rose and came towards her. She was older than she appeared--her hair was silver-streaked--but she moved as nimbly as a young girl, the hem of her pale robe, girdled with a chatelaine, just brushing the grass. Her eyes were the grey-green of willow leaves, their gaze clear and direct.
Remembering her manners, Lunete lowered her eyes and dropped a quick curtsy. “If you please, madam, could you tell me where I am?”
The woman smiled. “You are in my realm, child--and not before time. I have wanted to speak with you for many years.”
Lunete was greatly astonished by her words. “With me?”
“Indeed. I am distant kin to your mother, who was most dear to me. You favor her in many ways.” The woman paused. “The blood of enchantresses runs in your veins, as it did in hers.”
Lunete could scarce believe what she was hearing, for never had she possessed the slightest inkling that such a thing might be. She ventured to say as much to the lady, who replied, “The gift comes latest to those with the greatest power to wield it. Your mother chose to turn aside from her birthright, and live a wholly mortal life, with your father. But now the moment has come foryou to choose, and I have watched over you in expectation of this moment.”
“But how can I choose, when I know so little of my heritage?” Lunete asked. “The life I have is the only one I know.”
“And a good life it is,” the lady replied. “But not the only one, as I will soon show you. Come with me.”
Beckoning Lunete to follow her, she led the way to a pair of doors, paneled in light and dark woods, set in a high hedge. Lunete was almost certain they had not been there before, but now knowing herself to be in an enchanted realm, she held her tongue and prepared to listen attentively.
“There is but one way out of my domain,” the lady continued, “and that is through one of these two doors.”
She opened the right-hand door, then stepped back to give Lunete an unimpeded view. “No future is set in stone, child. But if you choose to forget what we have spoken of and return home, unchanged, this is the most likely shape of your life. Look well, and think long.”
For a moment, Lunete saw only swirling mists, which suddenly cleared away to show her father’s hall. A fire blazed on the hearth, and she herself sat beside it, a hunting hound dozing at her feet. Her father sat opposite, a chessboard between them, while Lysette strummed a lute nearby.
More images followed, of herself carrying Lysette’s bridal train as her sister married a great lord, then standing before the altar as she too was wed, though with slightly less pomp, to a grandly dressed man whose face was in shadow. She saw herself as mistress of a thriving manor not unlike her father’s, and bright-faced children--some hers, some Lysette’s--running about the grounds. As the years passed, she saw those children grow and flourish, then her father, now grey and stooped, leaning on her arm and gazing at her with trusting eyes, then Lysette, much older, in widows’ weeds, weeping on her shoulder for comfort. And lastly, for herself, a peaceful end, surrounded by loved ones, as she lay against her pillows and awaited the final sleep.
A good life, as plain and simple as new bread, and a certain one, with no risks or hidden dangers. Lunete was half-tempted to walk through the door, straight into that serene, untroubled future. What more, after all, could any woman of her station expect or want?
Instead, she stepped back with a sigh, and looked at the lady. “Please, show me what lies behind the other door.
“As you wish. But you may not like everything you see,” the lady warned, as she unlocked the second door.
The white mists that greeted Lunete”s sight seemed thicker this time, and cleared more slowly, but even then, she saw little, initially. Everything she’d beheld through the first door had been so sharp and distinct she’d felt as if she could actually touch it. Behind this one, the images continually blurred and shifted, like a mass of clouds blown by a strong wind. Here and there, she could see a picture taking shape that seemed clearer than others.
Finally, one vision sprang into focus and she saw herself mounted on a fine horse, riding out to study under the tutelage of a master enchanter, as her father and Lysette waved and wished her Godspeed. Then, in a heartbeat, the vision altered and she was back in that familiar courtyard, as a terrible battle raged. She called down lightning to blast the black-robed wizard who’d come to destroy her family. All around them, fires blazed and towers toppled as they stood warring with each other. Golden flames engulfed her enemy but even as he died, he sent an arrow of white-hot fire winging toward her breast and she saw herself falling . . .
Mists swept over the scene of carnage, lifting at last to reveal a Great Hall ablaze with lights and a tall fair man, resplendent in ermine robes and a jeweled circlet, seated on a throne. She herself, clad in crimson, stood at his right hand as his chief wizard and advisor whose wise counsel was indispensable. The next instant, she stood in her shift, struggling against the ropes binding her to a stake as jealous courtiers poisoned her king’s mind against her and flames licked at her bare feet . . .
Mercifully, the vision changed yet again and she lay in a flowery meadow beside a handsome young man, as they spoke of magic, love, and all they might accomplish together. Then, on a winter’s night, she lay crumpled on a cold flagstone floor, stripped of her sorcery and secrets by her false love . . .
Before Lunete’s eyes, a multitude of futures unfolded before her. Exhilarating victories, disastrous defeats, confidences that lifted the heart, and betrayals that ravaged the soul. At times, she caught her breath in wonder over what she saw, at others, it was all she could do not to slam the door shut, lest the terrors she beheld there come bursting forth.
She looked away at last, and stood in silence for a long moment, thinking. Finally, she turned back to the lady. “Whatever my choice should be, madam, would you tell me more about my mother, someday?” she asked.
The lady smiled. “It would be my deepest pleasure, child.”
Lunete thanked her, took a deep breath, and walked through the door of her choice.
The Queen paused, glancing at her audience, and then folded her hands as though finished with a lengthy task. After a moment of stunned silence, a trio of protests rang out.
“You can’t stop there!”
Suppressing a smile, the Queen gazed at her three indignant daughters. “Well, my dears, which door do you think she chose?”
They considered her question, their faces creased in thought, then black-haired Amelie, her youngest, declared stoutly, “She went through the second door, of course. Who wouldn’t want to be a powerful enchantress?”
Constance, the eldest, shook her head so vigorously that her golden plaits danced. “I wouldn’t! Look at all the things that could go wrong. I’d hate to end up destroying my family, or being burned at the stake!”
“So you believe she chose the first door,” the Queen observed.
“She would if she had any sense,” Constance asserted. “She’d have a good life for certain, then. The lady even told her so.”
“A dull life, without any magic,” Amelie grumbled.
“One doesn’t need magic to be happy,” Constance pointed out, with an older sister’s superiority. “Or to change things for the better. She’d have her own household, a rich husband and healthy children--isn’t that what most women hope for?”
“Choosing the second door makes a better story,” Amelie argued. “Think how boring it would be if all the heroes stayed home and never had adventures or went anywhere!”
Sophie, the middle princess, spoke up for the first time. “Well, I don’t think she went through either door!”
“No? What did she do instead?” the Queen asked with great seriousness.
Sophie’s amber eyes--her father’s eyes--kindled with enthusiasm. “Lunete took out her hunting-knife and immediately began to carve away at the hedge,” she began, her voice taking on the storytelling cadences of her mother’s. “The twigs and branches fell away at once beneath the touch of her blade, and soon an open arch stood between the two doors. A clearing lay beyond, and there stood the white stag with the sun shining on its antlers. Lunete ran up to it, jumped upon its back, and rode away!”
Her sisters stared at her as though she’d grown another head.
“And where did she go?” the Queen inquired, smiling.
Sophie bit her lip. “I--don’t know yet,” she confessed, after a moment.
“Well, then, tomorrow I shall give you paper, pen, and ink, and you may finish the story,” the Queen announced. “I have a great interest in reading it. And yours as well,” she added to her other daughters. “Indeed, I am most eager to read all three stories. But now that my tale is told, it is time for you to sleep.”
Her daughters sighed, almost in unison, but acquiesced, lying back against their pillows. The Queen gave each of them a kiss, then slipped out of the nursery. Even through the closed door, she could hear them arguing in whispers about how the story should have ended. In complete amity, of course--for all their differences, her daughters were true sisters and companions. She had never known such a thing herself, and two stone statues that stood before the castle bore sad witness to that fact.
Shaking her head indulgently, she made for her own chamber, and let herself in.
As it was summer, no fire burned upon the hearth, but the candles were lit, their beeswax fragrance mingling with the scent of roses that drifted in from the open casement.
Standing before her mirror, the Queen began to let down her hair for the night. She paused as a familiar form appeared in the glass behind her.
“I felt you, lurking,” she said. “Why did you not come in?”
His voice was a velvet rumble, rich and warm. “If I had, they would have asked me for a story too, and never gone to sleep.”
“True,” the Queen acknowledged with a smile, as she turned to face him.
He came further into the room. Despite all these years in his present form, he still walked so softly she had to strain her ears to hear his footsteps, whether they fell upon flagstones or carpets. And the amber eyes he’d passed along to Sophie saw as keenly in the dark as they did in daylight. “A fine tale you spun for them, my love. I imagine they are talking of it still.”
“And will until they fall asleep, no doubt,” she agreed.
“Did you mean to leave off there, just when your heroine made her choice?”
“I considered a more decisive end,” the Queen confessed. “But then I decided to give them more food for thought. Amelie chose the second door.”
“That does not surprise me. She has ever been our adventurous one. And Constance chose the first.” It was not a question.
“Our practical one--she prefers to deal in certainties.” The Queen picked up her hairbrush, only to have her husband appropriate it and draw it through her hair in a languorous stroke that made her sigh with pleasure. “But did you hear Sophie’s idea for an ending?”
Amusement threaded through his voice. “To cut a third door in the hedge--that shows ingenuity. She must get that from you.”
“Perhaps. Or it may be entirely her own.” The Queen gazed unseeingly into the mirror, her thoughts far away. “Not everyone is perceptive enough to know there may be other choices than the ones set before us.”
“Sophia means 'wisdom' just as Belle means 'beauty.' I am blessed beyond measure to have both in my life.” He touched his lips to her nape, a fleeting caress. “But that tale--I wondered, if you were thinking of the time you had to choose . . .”
The Queen closed her eyes, remembering a rose and a promise. The safety and security of her father’s house, and the secrets and hidden hazards of an enchanted castle. Her father’s easy, comfortable affection, and an unlikely love powerful enough to overcome the strongest of spells.
“Had you chosen differently, you could have had a calm and certain future.”
“And the price of that would have been your life,” she countered, opening her eyes and turning to face him again. “I was not willing to pay such a price.” She reached up to stroke his hair, the sable locks that had once reached to his shoulders, luxuriant as a lion’s mane. “I chose the door of enchantment long ago. And I have never regretted it.”
His eyes glowed, all brilliant, tawny fire. “Never, my Beauty?”
She twined her arms about his neck. “Never, dearest Beast.”
And they lived happily ever after . . . all the best stories end that way.