Once upon a time, there was a kingdom which was ruled by a king. The king married the fairest maiden in the land, and as the king was happy, so was the kingdom. It rose with his joys and fell with his disappointments. There was talk of a curse, or perhaps a warning, when he was first born. Rumors that his mother had tried to smother him as an infant in his crib. The curse was that for all his beauty and charm and skill, he would always be in want; would always want for the most beautiful things. That it would eat at him, this desire.
But surely that was just talk.
When she came to the palace, the king had a wife. It's important to remember that. That when she came to the palace, the king was already wed.
There was a vague notion he'd been wed twice before, but no one ever spoke of the former brides of the king. No one spoke their names, or could recall their images. And if their names were not remembered, they could not be remembered at all. And if they were not remembered, it was as though they had never existed.
But the king had a wife, and she was lovely. Her skin was as creamy as fresh milk, and her brown eyes were large and heavily lashed, her dark hair smooth and long. She had elegant fingers and a soft voice, and they said she never yelled, and danced as though her feet never touched the ground. She was a woodcutter's daughter before she caught the eyes of the king and became his queen.
And so when the baron's daughter came to court, she did so as a favor to her brother. He wrote that the king would like to meet her, after hearing stories of how accomplished she was. How she could speak Fey and Elvin and Nymph, how her embroidery rivaled the spider's skills. How she sang and put the birds themselves to shame.
Court she found to be a world of delight. Her dresses were replaced with silks and velvets and furs, embossed with jewels and pearls.
The king requested dances with her, and his wife sat on her throne as the snow fell with her infant daughter in her ams and watched the baron's daughter dance with her husband, and saw the baron's son smile as though all his fortunes were coming to fruition.
"Come with me," the queen said to the baron's daughter one evening as winter seemed ready to consider giving sway to spring. She wrapped her cold hand around the baron's daughter's warm one, and drew her into her suites, behind a tapestry into a small antechamber.
"She told me that the first queen was a witch's daughter," the queen said in her quiet voice. "And gave her this mirror so that she would know."
"Know what?" the baron's daughter asked. "What did she wish to know?"
"When she would die, and who would be next," the queen replied with a sad smile. She wrapped her cold hands around the baron's daughter's shoulders, standing behind her, and said, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?"
The mirror swirled, and the baron's daughter was puzzled, at first, for it seemed only to show her reflection. And yet, as she looked, she realized she could not see the queen, whom she could feel pressed behind her.
"You are the fairest of them all," the queen whispered. "And soon you will be queen."
"No—I am not here for—"
"Shh, hush," the queen dismissed, and then turned to the mirror again. "Mirror, mirror, I implore—show me queens who came before."
The mirror shifted again, and there they were.
"He has had a Summer Bride," the queen said. "An Autumn Bride, and I am his Winter Bride. You will be his Spring Bride, and perhaps it will be enough."
The Summer Bride had hair the color of the sun and sparkling blue eyes, rosy cheeks and tanned skin. The Autumn Bride had brown hair with reddish skin, deep eyes and a calm grace.
"What if I do not want to be the next bride?" the baron's daughter asked.
"There is no choice," the Winter Bride replied. "He will have the fairest of them all. And that is you. All I ask of you is that you care for my daughter, and raise her as your own—love her and keep watch over her."
"I promise you."
"And, for myself," the Winter Bride whispered, and the Spring Bride turned and took her cheeks in her hands.
"Yes, and for yourself?" the Spring Bride prompted.
"For myself, I ask that you do not forget me. That you do not forget us," the Winter Bride whispered, tears sliding down her cheeks.
"I swear it," the Spring Bride promised.
As the winter days faded, the queen was rarely seen. They said that she had taken ill, and that the Baron's daughter, who had become a dear friend of hers, tended to her.
As the first blossoms appeared on the cherry trees, the news came through the land that the the queen had died of an illness that had taken hold of her.
The king, struck by his grief, married the baron's daughter, who had been so kind to his queen and who loved the little princess as her own.
The people were glad, and as spring shifted to the gaiety of summer, and summer to the frenzy of autumn, and autumn to the quiet of winter people forgot that there had ever been another queen, and only remarked that it was curious that the queen's daughter did not resemble her at all: that the fairies must have come to the Christening.
Those things happened.
The princess grew up and was given her head in all things.
They said that her parents spoiled her, that her mother saw to her schooling and that she was better read than the princes in all the neighboring kingdoms.
She rode her horses too fast and learned spells from the visiting sorceresses. The queen laughed and kissed the king and archery lessons continued, and she danced beautifully, and wrote most excellently. Her sums were perfect.
She was a princess the people adored and loved as dearly as though she were their own. She grew from a lovely round-cheeked child into a graceful young girl, her jet black hair long against her back and her skin white despite hours spent outside, and her lips red and her deep brown eyes sparkled with laughter.
She was, it was agreed, beautiful.
But as she grew older, her mother grew quieter. No longer so gay a hostess, or carefree a mother.
"She is fairest in the land," the queen told her mirror.
The other brides looked back at her, and said, "Something must be done."
"Deform her," the Summer Bride suggested. "A simple riding accident will render her none so lovely, and it will be very sad but she's such a dear girl she will have no trouble finding a husband."
"Exile her," the Autumn Bride disagreed. "Send her away, feign her death—once she is beyond his borders he will not know of her."
The Winter Bride remained silent.
"Tell me what I should do," the Spring Bride implored, falling to her knees in front of the mirror. "Tell me what to do to save her."
"Send her to my father," the Winter Bride said. "He live in the snowy mountains, and you cannot get there unless you know the way."
"That is still within the kingdom," the Autumn Bride disagreed. "He will take another form and seduce her. You cannot keep her from him."
"Send her to the witch and keep her in the tower," the Summer Bride said.
"No, she has a daughter already," the Winter Bride disagreed.
"My love?" the king's voice echoed, and all of his Brides stilled and turned towards the tapestry.
The Summer Bride reached her hands out, and his footsteps went away.
"Send her here," the Autumn Bride said finally. "Send her to us."
"You are dead," the Spring Bride disagreed, pushing her red hair over her shoulders. "I will not have her dead."
"You must save her," the Winter Bride whispered, sitting. "We are trapped here until he is dead, and we have no peace, but he will not have our daughter. He cannot have her."
The Summer Bride folded her arms around the Winter Bride's shoulders, stroking her hair soothingly, and the Autumn Bride gazed at the Spring Bride steadily.
"I will exile her," the Spring Bride decided finally. "I will send her away."
The queen called a huntress to her. She grew up in the village of the Winter Bride, and she was a wild child who loved the princess as dearly as any of them.
"Take her into the forest," the queen instructed. "Let her hunt deer. And then bring me back her heart."
The queen knew that the huntress would not do it. She would spill the whole plot to the princess, who would concoct a plan, and the heart she brought back would be that of a boar.
But the queen would feign ignorance, and she would speak of the tragic hunting accident and the king would hold his weeping wife's shoulders, and the princess would be saved, because the Spring Bride would still be fairest in the land.
The huntress bowed low, and the next day the queen stood on the high walk and watched them ride out, and her heart clenched knowing that this would be the last time she sees her daughter. "Be safe, my love," she whispered.
The huntress returned with the bloody heart of a pig, and the queen looked at her and said, "You may either flee, or surrender to the guards, but you will speak of this to no one."
The huntress opened her mouth, her brown face twisted angrily, but the words did not come out, for the Autumn Bride had snatched the words from her throat as the leaves had fallen in the forest.
The huntress turned on her booted heel and strode from the palace.
The queen sat in her rooms, and then began to weep. And because she was very beautiful, the blooming colors of her face ran together like a watercolor, and when the king came in to find his bride so distraught, he gathered her into his arms.
When he had the story from her, of the terrible accident, he sent men into the woods to recover the body, but they found only bloody ground and well-fed wolves, and if he had been less attentive to his queen, in her grief he was solicitous and the image of a perfect husband.
"We will have another child," he promised her. "And you will forget."
And the queen looked up into his eyes and said, "Yes, husband. As you wish."
And as the leaves dropped from the trees and autumn began its descent into winter the queen grew round with child, and the little princess faded from mind.
The queen gave birth to the Summer Prince on the hottest day of the year. He had red golden hair and his father's eyes, and the fairies came to bless him, but the queen sent them away sharply, conscious of the stories of the curse of his father. She learned all she could from the Summer Bride's mother, from the Summer Bride and the visiting sorceresses.
From her mirror she sought out the girls who might one day be fairest and ensured that they never were with the help of the other Brides.
"She is with dwarves in the mountains to the south," the Winter Bride said a month before the prince's birth. "I have found her."
"In the Mountains of Tomorrow or in the Mountains of Infinite Riches?" the Spring Bride asked.
"In the Mountains of Infinite Riches," the Winter Bride replied, and they all shared a moment of anguish for the princess was still within the kingdom's borders.
"Perhaps the dwarves will keep her safe," the Summer Bride suggested doubtfully.
"What match will they be? They are miners, hardly accustomed to daylight, and she will tire of the mountains as swiftly as a wild bird tires of a cage," the Winter Bride dismissed.
"What more can I do?" the Spring Bride asked. "What more is there to do to keep her safe?"
"Take these," the Summer Bride said, and through the mirror came a basket of beautiful ribbons. "Take them to her, and when they are tight 'round her neck she will seem dead, but won't be."
"And then they will bury her," the Spring Bride pointed out.
"Take her across the border to the Mountains of Tomorrow and lay her in a casket of glass," the Winter Bride said. "I remember it from wandering the mountains as a girl. Perhaps a sage knew of this day."
"And how will I go to her?" the Spring Bride asked. "I am with child, and she will know me."
"Drink this," the Summer Bride said, and gave her a vial of green liquid. "It will make you unrecognizable and compel her to trust you."
The Spring Bride looked at the basket and at the vial, and then at the mirror where the other Brides stood.
"The realm of the dead affords those who cannot enter its realm assistance," the Summer Bride said quietly. "And mothers are not to be thwarted for love of their daughters."
And so the Spring Bride told her husband that she wished to visit her father, who was ailing, and once there she took the potion and the ribbons, and found herself in the Mountains of Infinite Riches.
The cottage was not hard to find, and the princess came out, beautiful and dear. "What are you selling, so high in the mountains?" she asked.
"I sell ribbons, for my husband died in the mines and I have no income," the queen replied, and the princess's face softened. The queen wanted to slap her for being so silly, for believing, but it was to save her, and so she continued, "Would you like one? Only three pennies, my dear."
"Let me try one," the princess demurred, and plucked the one of blood red.
"Let me help," the queen said, and fastened it around her neck. The ribbon constricted, and the princess's eyes grew wide, and then frightened, and then angry, but she had no air for angry words, and fell to the ground.
But the queen panicked at seeing her so dead, and did not take her across the border, but instead fled back to her father's house and buried him instead.
"I am sorry that your father is dead, my love," the king said, and took her into his arms and kissed her.
"She's alive," the Winter Bride said as soon as she came in.
"I couldn't. She looked so dead, and I—"
"And now we must wait until Autumn," the Autumn Bride said.
When the leaves changed and lit the forests on fire the Autumn Bride handed the Spring Bride a vial of amber liquid and a comb made of ivory, and the queen went into the mountains. The hut is now a house, and the princess was skinning a rabbit in the front yard.
The queen gave the comb in her hand a dubious look, but the potion worked its magic and the princess untied her hair from its bindings, and the queen slid the teeth of the comb through the jet black locks. The princess fell into her lap, eyes staring blankly up into the sky.
"What have you done?" the huntress demanded, and the queen stared at her. "Step away at once! Witch!"
The queen stood and the princess fell to the ground, the comb tangled in her hair. The queen fled, but when she turned the huntress was taking the comb from the princess's hair, and the princess woke again, fairest in the land, and the queen shed bitter tears.
Winter broke harshly over the kingdom, and the prince fell ill. The nannies hid him from the king, who raged as heavily as the storm for little provocation.
The queen saw his eyes rove hungrily; it had been a year since the princess was hid from him, and he yearned for her.
"I will take a trip, my love," he told her as they rested in their bed.
"Where to, husband?"
"I have not looked at the miner's progress in the Mountains of Infinite Wealth in a decade."
"In this weather?"
"I have quite made up my mind." His voice was terrible, and longing.
Her blood ran cold.
"Give it to me," she told the Winter Bride as dawn broke cold and the surveying party prepared to ride to the mountains. "Whatever it is, give it to me at once."
The Winter Bride held out her hand, and pressed into the Spring Bride's grasp an apple and a vial of clear liquid. "Do not fail," she said. "You swore to me."
"I will not," the Spring Bride promised.
"You shall not pass," the huntress said.
The queen looked at the huntress, and sighed, feeling the potion slip away.
"Stepmother!" the princess cried, and folded her into her embrace.
"Your father comes. Eat of this apple," the queen said.
"Do not, for it is poison," the huntress argued.
The princess looked from one to the other, and she was very clever, and put her hand on the huntress's leather-clad arm. "That is the point." She took a bite of the apple and fell, lifeless into the huntress's arms.
"There is a coffin in the Mountains of Tomorrow, made of glass," the queen told the huntress, who now cradled the princess against her chest. "Take her there, and she will be safe."
"For how long?" the huntress asked.
"Until the king is dead."
The king came back and the winter subsided; the terrible hunger was gone from his eyes, and the Spring Bride remained the queen. There were taless throughout the lands of the maiden who slept in the coffin made of glass who was mourned by seven dwarves who kept vigil and a hunter, whom it was rumored to was a prince in disguise, who had vowed to wake her once his quest was complete.
The Summer Prince grew into a sturdy boy who was the delight of his mother and the kingdom.
The Spring Bride maintained her status as fairest in the land, and then, one day she said, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?
And the image of the princess looked back out at her, smiling. "It's all right, Stepmother," the image said, and the Spring Bride stepped back, surprised. "We've come to save the kingdom."
The snow swirled in the courtyard as the queen ran down the steps to see the king moving as a beast towards the princess. The huntress held her bow taught.
"She is mine, and you will give her to me," the king bellowed, and the court drew back in horror that the father should lust for the daughter.
He lunged, and the arrow sang true, and there was blood on the snow and the Snow Princess stepped towards the queen and said, "Is this my brother, Stepmother?"
"Is this your true love, Stepdaughter?"
The huntress smiled, and said, hips at a jaunty angle, "I'd like her to be the queen of my kingdom."
"You broke the curse," the queen replied. "You have my blessing."
And so the princess with skin fair as snow, hair black as night and lips red as blood rode away to the kingdom across the Mountains of Tomorrow with the brave huntress, who was all along a princess in disguise. Together they ruled the kingdom justly and with great wisdom, and were much loved by their people.
The Spring Bride stayed in her kingdom and raised the Summer Prince, who was a good and kind leader of his people, and the kingdom rose on his shoulders and was never consumed by his lusts, though it delighted in his many adventures which turned the fire-touched hair of his mother a pure white before its time.
And in a small antechamber, behind a tapestry in the very back of the queen's quarters they say there is still a mirror, though it is empty, and reflects nothing. For the Summer Bride, the Autumn Bride, and the Winter Bride have departed this world, though there are those (fanciful, but plenty) who say they guard the kingdom even to this day, waiting for their sister to join them.
And they say when she does, when the Four Brides are united, the kingdom will no longer rise and fall on the shoulders of its kings, and be free itself.