It begins with an ending.
It begins when a girl as pretty as a fairy princess and a hero who might've been a villain in different story said farewell to friends and relatives and stepped through a magic mirror.
And they lived happily ever after.
Well, good for them. This story isn't about them.
It's about what happened after.
The newly-named Anthony the Valiant wiped away a tear and went in search of the newly-crowned King Wendell Winston Walter White. "I'll miss them," he said. "I mean, I'll miss Virginia. But I suppose they'll be happy." He frowned. "At least I hope so. If I find out that Wolf does anything to. . ." He regarded the young man before him and sighed ruefully. "Too bad you weren't the one she ended up with, Prince. I would've really enjoyed having royalty in my family." He clapped the king on the back.
Wendell stiffened, and tried not to resent being called by his doggie name. "I'm sure you would," he sniffed, then softened his tone. "Your Virginia's a nice girl, but not really my type."
"What is your type?" Tony asked absently, watching two beautiful ladies-in-waiting saunter provocatively across the Great Hall.
"I've no earthly idea," Wendell snapped. "May we change the subject?"
The conversation displeased the young king, though he couldn't have said why. As he ascended the stair towards his private quarters, his major-domo Lord Rupert fluttered to him and bowed obsequiously.
"Your Majesty! I've been looking everywhere for you!" Rupert exulted, his voice even plummier than usual. "Queen Riding Hood III is about to take her leave, and requests an audience." He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.
"I'm busy," Wendell said, though he wasn't really. He was in no mood to have that woman fawn over him. "Tell her to go away."
"Your Majesty!" Rupert said, aghast. "Please allow me to remind you that she rules the Fifth Kingdom. And she is unmarried, and not without certain, ah, obvious charms. May I also respectfully remind Your Majesty that securing the succession is an important duty, and--"
"No," Wendell said, struck with horror. "You may not. Besides, she has a pointy chin."
"Oh. . .well, of course," Rupert agreed readily. "Oh, I nearly forgot. Queen Cinderella also requests an audience. I'm certain Your Majesty will agree that that audience is most important."
"Yes, quite," Wendell said, rolling his eyes. "I'll see to her."
Queen Cinderella was in her drawing room, surrounded by luggage. "Ah, Wendy, my dear boy. I just wanted a word with you before I go." She patted a tufted hassock at her feet.
"Yes, Queen Cinderella." He folded his six-foot frame onto the rather short seat.
"Now, now, Wendy, I'm certainly old enough to be your. . .mother's younger sister. You must call me 'Auntie.'"
"Yes, Auntie Cinderella." Hah. She might look forty, but she was two hundred if she was a day.
"Now then, Wendell, now you are King, I have some very important advice for you: find a girl, settle down, have babies." She stared at his expression. "Oh, come now. Don't look so pole-axed. It's not as if you're still a child. You're twenty-one. I trust the birds and bees have been explained to you."
"Well, certainly," he said, but he could feel himself blush. It didn't help that sitting on this ridiculous perch made him feel like a particularly ungainly child, what with his knees sticking up nearly to his ears.
Behind him there was muffled chuckling. He turned, outraged, to see Cinderella's desperately hideous attendants covering their mouths. "Don't mind them, dear," Cinderella said. "They're just jealous. They know someone as handsome as you would never choose to marry anyone as ugly as they are."
"No," he said icily, "I certainly would not."
"Have you seen the Elf-queen's daughter? Petal Toe. Lovely girl. Quite ethereal."
"Not tall enough," Wendell replied shortly.
"The Naked Emperor's niece, then. She's a beauty."
"No sense of style."
"Princess Lily Pad?"
"A bit of a wet blanket."
"Lady Fiona the Faerie?"
"I. . .see," Cinderella said, narrowing her eyes. "Picky. Doesn't pay to be too picky, Wendell. After all, you've been burying bones and sniffing people's nether regions for weeks. That hardly reflects well on your pedigree."
"That was hardly my fault," Wendell huffed. "And now I must leave. I wish you a good journey, Queen Cinderella." He bowed and fled.
The castle felt empty after all the fuss of the last few days. Still, there did seem to be an inordinate number of guests still in attendance. Wendell wandered the corridors aimlessly, ducking into niches whenever a female approached, because otherwise they'd stare adoringly at him and curtsey low enough to show their cleavage to good advantage. He sought refuge in the library, where he flung himself from chair to chair, feeling terribly restless. "You'd think after all I've been through," he complained, "I'd be happy just to rest."
But he wasn't. He tried reading, but his mind wandered. He went to the conservatory and fiddled with the violin, picked at the lute, harried the harpsichord. One of the ladies in waiting to Queen Leaf Fall drifted in and hovered nearby, casting Meaningful Glances his way. He backed out of the room and ran to the parlor, where he was relieved to find only elderly Lord Pepperbottom in attendance. He tried playing chess with the pompous Pepperbottom, but to his infernal annoyance the councilor had come prepared with a list of four dozen noble ladies Wendell might consider making his Queen. There was the succession to consider, Pepperbottom reminded him. One didn't want to leave the kingdom vulnerable to another Evil Queen, did one?
Wendell angrily swept the chess pieces to the floor. He climbed to the very top of his castle, to the highest tower, where he hid for the rest of the day. Perched on the balcony, he was able to watch unobserved as the last of his two hundred guests finally took their leave. Nearly every female, it seemed, turned to look as she departed, a wistful expression on her face.
Wendell considered them all. Some were short, some were tall, several plump, a few rather slender. This one had hair dark as a raven's wing. That one had hair the color of sunlight. This one, he remembered, was clever, and that one sweet. Most of them were quite pretty.
He cared for none of them.
When darkness fell, he descended to his own room and crept into bed. "These girls are all dreadfully silly. Love itself is a silly thing, rather." He yawned and settled against the gossamer sheets. "I'm too young for it, anyway."
"That's ridiculous," said a voice.
Wendell's eyes flew open. "Who's there? Show yourself or I shall call a guard!"
"It's only me." The voice drew nearer. "Your grandmother."
"My--" Wendell sat up against the headboard and pulled his feet in close. Light flared in the room, illuminating a not-quite-substantial figure. "Good heavens--Snow White!"
"Yes, dear Wendell." Snow White, glowing slightly, sat on the bed. She was a large woman, but the bed did not sag under her weight. In fact, it did not dip at all.
"What are you doing here? Is it quite proper? After all, you're dead!"
"For many years, Wendell. Now then. You have a problem, my dear."
"I have a problem? Well, yes, I do. I'm conversing with my dead grandmother, which can't make me quite right in the head. Unless this is a dream. Is this a dream?"
"No, dear. Now, listen to me. Your trouble, grandson," Snow White said, a bit sharply, "Is that you do not know how to love." She sighed. "Or whom. I blame your parents."
"Oh for--! Listen-- I don't want to love anyone," he protested. "It's so tiring. And one acts like an idiot. Look at that Wolf; he was practically salivating over Virginia. Revolting."
"You just say that because you've never been in love. Sometimes a little saliva is useful." She smiled, but grew more translucent. "Wendell. I haven't much time. Heed me. All I ask is that you listen to your heart. I don't want you to end up old and dead inside, rattling around this castle, wishing for what never was."
"I'll never be that way. I have many interests. Hunting, for one."
"That's a good idea," Snow White said. "Go hunting."
"I shall! I shall hunt a hart."
She smiled. "See that you do exactly that, Wendell."
And then she vanished.
In the morning, Wendell decided it had been a dream.
Nonetheless, hunting sounded appealing. Certainly it would be something fun to do, a great deal more fun than dealing with matters of state, or dodging the issue of marriage. And so he dressed in leather and suede, put on his gloves and his boots and stalked into the Council Chambers, throwing the doors open so hard they clanged against the armor and made his Councilors jump. "I wish to go hunting," he said imperiously. "Fetch Viscount Lansky."
The members of his council flashed guilty eyes at each other. "Um, I'm terribly sorry, Your Majesty," Chancellor Griswold said in a very small voice, glancing desperately at his fellow councilors. "We cannot."
"You jolly well will! Gregor Lansky's the best hunter of the lot of you, and he's always good for a lark. Fetch him immediately."
"I fear we cannot, Your Majesty," protested Baron Dumay.
Wendell glared at them all. What good was being king if you couldn't have your way? "And why not?"
Lord Rupert cleared his throat dramatically. "We believe he is. . .dead."
"His horse came back alone. With blood on his saddle." A look of deep sadness crossed Chancellor Griswold's face. "I thought you had been told."
"Well, I hadn't!" Wendell shouted. "I've been a bloody dog for weeks, haven't I, so how was I supposed to know? When did it happen? How? Where?"
"We're not certain," Lord Pepperbottom intoned. "He went out in search of you, in the direction of the Disenchanted Forest, to your hunting lodge. That was the last we saw of him. It's been over two weeks."
"He was very concerned, Your Majesty. In fact, he was most adamant that you were in peril." Baron Dumay paused and dropped his eyes. "I'm afraid we didn't quite believe him."
"Hmph. Silly of you, that. He always had the most sense of the lot of you," Wendell snarled. "All you ever worry about is the kingdom, or the bloody succession! He was the only one of you that ever cared a toss about me, Wendell. He was always looking out for me. He taught me to shoot. He was my chum, my very best chum, and--"
He stopped, because his voice had become quite strained, almost cracking, and he felt the prickle of tears behind his eyes. Absurd, really. Must be all that proclaiming he had to do at the banquet. Must just be tired. He cleared his throat. "Did no one mount a rescue party?"
"Well, ah. . .we were busy worrying about matters of state," said Lord Pepperbottom.
"And about the war with the Troll King," put in Baron Dumay.
"And about the seating arrangements for the coronation," added Lord Rupert.
Wendell shot Rupert a withering look. "That's no excuse! Bring me my horse. I'll go in search for him, even if I have to go alone!"
"Good heavens, no, Your Majesty! There are still the matters of state, the matter of securing you a wife--" The Chancellor was nearly apoplectic with dismay.
"Oh, bother the state, and bother wives!" And with that King Wendell turned on his heel and strode from the room directly to the stables, where, before the shocked eyes of the stable lads, he mounted his horse and galloped off down the lane, without so much as a single footman as entourage.
His horse was the swiftest in the shire, in addition to being the whitest and the largest, and it pounded tirelessly through the countryside, bringing them in record time to the Disenchanted Forest. Thoughts of his last passage through the woods roiled through his brain, but Wendell merely gritted his teeth and spurred the horse onward, though he wasn't certain where he was going, or what he'd find when he got there. All he knew was that he must find the Viscount. He did not pause to wonder why.
Less than a league from the hunting lodge, his horse suddenly shied and threw him, and Wendell catapulted to the ground. He lay there, panting, watching impotently as his horse galloped away, until it disappeared into the depths of the forest.
He took several deep breaths while the shock subsided. "Perhaps I should've brought along some help," he chastised himself. He wondered why he'd felt the need to rush off this way. He concentrated very hard and tried to think of the reason. But he couldn't put into words what the feeling was, the feeling that had made him take such a rash action.
After a while he recovered enough to consider rising and going in search of his horse. He rolled to his side -- and nearly fell into a rose bush. It was an unusual place to find a rose bush, by the side of a shady forest trail, and this bush was an unusual one, indeed. The blooms were breathtaking, almost painfully beautiful. The roses were white as eiderdown, but each was sprinkled with red, as if drops of blood had been spilled upon them.
Wendell had never seen its like. He reached over to pull one down, and breathed in its heady perfume.
With that intake of breath, with the first whiff of the rose's fragrance, a sudden despair fell upon him like a heavy shroud. And in that instant, he knew.
"Oh, my dear Viscount!" he cried. "You are dead, and this is where you fell!"
How terrible! How pointless! How dreadful! All those thoughts assailed him. But beneath the words was another layer -- deeper feelings, much deeper and more terrible, feelings he couldn't yet put a name to, but which wrenched him in the deepest parts of himself.
Devastated, he threw himself back onto the ground, with its thick, soft covering, one hand still clutching the rose, the other grabbing at ferns. He felt a wave of hated for the ferns, the living ferns, and the living moss, for all the growing things that were still alive, while Viscount Gregor Lansky, his friend, his dearest friend, lay in an unmarked grave.
Wendell began to cry.
His muffled whimpers became heart-wrenching sobs. He filled the silent forest with the sound of his despair. And the forest moaned, too, along with him.
Eventually, completely exhausted, his tears subsiding, King Wendell lay his weary head upon the earth and fell asleep.
As he slept, he dreamed the rosebush grew and encircled him, and that its thorns pierced his heart. He dreamt that he did not die, though he wished to. He was filled with a pain far deeper than the prick of thorns. He cried and moaned in his sleep.
Dusk was falling when he awoke. Something had startled him awake, something like a touch upon his shoulder, or a soft word spoken urgently in his ear. Wendell rolled onto his back, and looked up into a face.
A familiar face. A very familiar one. And one that looked terribly worried.
"Your Highness! Your Highness! Can you hear me?"
"It's you," Wendell breathed. "How--"
"Are you all right, Your Highness?" The man above him gazed on him with unguarded affection and concern.
"Yes, I am, but you, you, I thought you were--" Wendell sat bolt upright. "Lansky! Gregor! How is it you are here?"
"I found your horse, sir," the Viscount said. "It ran to the hunting lodge, and led me to you."
"No, that's not what I mean," Wendell said, completely perplexed. "I thought you were, that is, I knew you were dead. I could feel it. But here you are! What happened? Why weren't you at the coronation?"
The Viscount bowed his head. "Forgive me for not attending, Your Majesty, but I'm afraid I could not. The Huntsman felled me with one of his arrows."
"But. . ." Wendell struggled to understand. "My dear friend, I am overjoyed to see you well, but I was under the impression--the very strong impression, that every arrow shot from the Huntsman's bow is instantly fatal."
"Oh, that's quite true," the Viscount assured him. "I died. In fact, this spot is where it happened." He frowned slightly. "Curious; I don't remember that bush being here."
"It grew where you fell," Wendell explained. "The forest is rather overly romantic that way. Or so I've been told."
"Was it very painful? Dying, I mean?"
"Well, it wasn't pleasant." The Viscount rubbed idly at his chest. "Actually, I was more surprised than anything. I remember feeling the force of the blow, and tumbling from my horse, but I never quite realized what was happening. And then. . .I died."
"My dear fellow!" Wendell cried, quite overcome. "You--you sacrificed yourself for me. You wanted to save the kingdom. I can't imagine what it's like to be so brave."
"Not so, Your Majesty," the Viscount said, blushing to the roots of his blond hair. "I assure you, I wasn't thinking of the kingdom at all. I was worried about you, Wend-- I mean, Your Majesty. How was the coronation, by the way?"
"Um, somewhat irregular," Wendell said, but his mind was reeling. "May I ask, then, how it comes you're here to tell the tale? I mean, if you were actually dead. . ."
"I'm at a loss to explain it." The Viscount shook his head. "As I lay there, smelling the richness of the earth, feeling pine needles and ferns beneath me, with my blood seeping down my side onto the ground, I was filled with despair, despair that I had failed you, and that we should never hunt together again. I'd been so worried, you see. It seemed to me that I fell asleep, though my eyes still saw the forest roof and the sliver of sky beyond it. Then the light began to fade."
He shifted his position and scratched his head. "I'm not certain what actually happened then. But I heard a voice, a lovely, kind voice, one I'd never heard before. But yet I knew, though I don't know how--" He looked away from the king, a flush again coloring his skin. "Forgive me, Your Majesty, but I somehow knew it was the late Queen, Snow White, who spoke to me. Which of course can't be true, as she's been dead these many years."
"Don't be so sure of that," Wendell murmured. "What did she say?"
"Well, that was the mysterious part. She said, 'I understand how you feel. Wait. Fear not.'"
"That's it? Just 'I understand how you feel? Wait,' and--"
"'--Fear not.' Yes, that's all."
"I'm not sure what it meant. After that, I felt vines grew over me, and then it was if I were being drawn along the earth. Yet I wasn't afraid, not at all. And then. . .well, I awoke, just this morning, to find myself in your hunting lodge." He rubbed his chest again. "Almost as good as new. I thought someone must have nursed me back to health, but there was no one about."
"Magic," Wendell sighed.
"Yes. Magic, indeed."
"But where were you, in between?"
"I've no idea," the Viscount admitted. "Waiting, I suppose."
"Well," said the Viscount, "For you, I imagine." He looked up, smiling shyly. "And you came after me."
Wendell returned the smile. "So I did."
"Was that magic, too, do you think?"
"No," said Wendell, suddenly understanding a few things. "More than that."
There was a clatter of hooves from behind them, and they turned as one to see Chancellor Griswold and the rest of the Councilors galloping down the path, flanked by an entire troop of guards.
"Your Majesty!" Griswold called. "Thank goodness! We've come to rescue you! Never fear!"
"I wasn't worried," Wendell said, getting to his feet. He felt the Viscount's hand on his shoulder, steadying him.
"And, goodness gracious! Lansky!" Lord Pepperbottom exclaimed. "We'd given up hope."
"I hadn't," said Wendell.
"Your Majesty." Baron Dumay radiated disapproval. "Whatever possessed you to ride off alone? Something could have happened!"
"Something did," said Wendell.
"Indeed, Your Majesty! Whatever would we have done without you?" wailed Lord Rupert.
"Oh, I imagine you would have thought of something," said Wendell.
"Please don't jest, Your Majesty," chided Griswold. "After all, you are our king, and we need you for the succession."
"That's unfortunate," said Wendell, "Seeing as I'm abdicating." He turned to wink at the Viscount. Who winked back.
"Abdicating?" Griswold gasped. Beside him, Lord Rupert nearly fell from his horse in shock.
"Abdicating," Wendell said, placing his hand firmly over Lansky's, "For the man I love." He gestured down the path. "We'll live here. At the Hunting Lodge." He turned to the Viscount. "That is, if you approve, Gregor."
"Certainly, Wendell," said the Viscount.
And that's what they did.
There was hubbub at court, of course, but not about the ex-king and his viscount. Well, not much, anyway. What hubbub there was mostly concerned the kingdom and the succession.
But as for the succession -- what of it? Babies are born all the time. There's always someone to sit on a throne. And so there was in this instance. And if the baby who inherited the throne had a tail and was the child of a human woman and a wolf, well, no one ever cared very much except her grandfather, Anthony the Valiant, who was proud as a grandpa should be. Besides, he got to be Regent, which was a pretty happy ending for a janitor.
Wendell, as it turned out, was perfectly happy not being king. Supremely, giddily happy, in fact, since in truth he was less suited to ruling than, say, your average golden retriever. No, he was quite satisfied living to a rather old age in the lodge with his lover, able to hunt whenever they felt like it, or to play chess, or to make love in front of the grand fireplace. Which they did with great regularity.
So as it turned out, everyone did live happily ever after.
. . .once upon a time.