Once upon a time, when magic still lingered in the air, when unicorns graced the stony hills of Italy, when dragons hid in the welsh marshlands, when mermaids dragged sailors into the icy waters before Sweden and Norway, the English king lay dying in his castle of stone and roses, and so he called for his only son. He told him to preserve their house’s legacy, and made him swear to take a wife and sire an heir to keep their line from ending with him. The prince promised his dying father, and within a week’s time, he was engaged to be married.
His first wife was a Spanish princess with hair as fiery as her temper, and as red as the blood she spilled when she went to war, and he gifted her sapphires the size and colour of her eyes. She conceived soon enough, and before their first wedding anniversary she gave birth to twins, two strong princesses. The court celebrated, as did the queen, for the birth of not one, but two healthy children was a blessing for the young couple, but the king was disappointed with his queen, for he wanted a son to bear his name.
His ministers talked about the prospects the little princesses offered, the marriages and alliances they would make, but the king’s head was filled with music and the blossoms of youth, and the desire to have a male heir, and so, instead of thanking the Virgin and all saints for his children’s and wife’s wellbeing, he asked them for a boy.
They heard his prayers, but they did not answer them, and so the only one to listen to them was his father’s ghost, who grew angry at his son’s ungratefulness. The birth of the princesses had been easy and without complications, and the queen’s heart was filled with joy and love, but soon enough it turned black and cold, poisoned by a dark cloud hanging over the palace day and night, and while her children thrived and prospered, their mother became weaker and weaker, and by the time the first leaves fell, her heart stopped beating. The king mourned her throughout fall and winter, but his desire for an heir was stronger than his grieve, and when one year faded into the next, he took another wife.
This lady was a mystery, with hair as dark and shimmering as ravens’ feathers and with eyes like the night sky, black and blue and pierced with star light. Her head was in the clouds, and she dreamed and sang and played more than anything else. She became pregnant almost immediately, and while her body swelled with his child, she filled the king’s head with ideas of a new world, reading and singing to him of love and freedom and absolute power, until he broke away from Rome and its sinful ways.
The king was sure he now was about to have a son, and so when his queen gave him two girls, two more princesses, he grew irritated and impatient, for he had now four young daughters but no son still. Despite this, the queen was happy with her little daughters, and rode to their house often, six times in six months, but when she rode to them a seventh time, her horse slipped on ice and she fell and broke her pretty little neck. Since the king had tired of his second wife, he did not even mourn her, but proposed to another maiden at court the day after the accident.
This time he chose a girl that seemed fertile enough, with eyes as big and round and green as apples, and a braided crown of wheat-coloured hair upon her head. She was maidenly and loved the Virgin more than her own life, and she tried to bring her husband back into the arms of the church. She loved her little step-daughters as well, and hoped to give them brothers, but despite her robust looks, her body was frail, and when she conceived at last, she had trouble carrying her children to term and bringing them into the world.
Her little daughters, for she, too, gave the king twin girls, were as healthy and strong as their sisters, but the queen’s health was failing, and the king started to worry for her, and wondered if he was cursed. His first two wives had given him daughters and died, and he feared that The Lord would call his most beloved wife to him as well. His fear proved true when the queen fell sick in the early days of spring, and by the time the first apple blossoms bloomed, the fever consummated her, and she faded away under his physicians’ fingers. The king mourned his wife, but he still had no heir, and so he started searching for a new queen.
Finding a fourth wife was harder, for royalty all around Europe knew of his wives’ bad luck, and how they tended to die before their second wedding anniversary, and so no king and no queen wanted to give him one of their daughters. In the end, a German duke, who did not believe in curses or bad luck, offered him his two sisters, and the king choose the eldest. The German princess was beautiful, but shy, always hiding behind her hair, which was like a veil of woven gold, her doe eyes as soft as her heart.
The king did not like her at first, for she was different and cold, but when she warmed up to him and to the English culture, he grew to love her, if not like a lover than as a friend, and when her womb quickened with his child, he started to worry again. The queen was healthy and precautions were taken, to ensure her safety and wellbeing, and when her time came, the king was sure he was to become the father of a boy at last, for seven was a blessed number and this was his seventh child, and so he was shocked when the physicians told him of the birth of his new daughters, for he had fathered twin girls again. He became desperate, and the queen became sick, and she died before her daughters learned to walk.
The king lost all hope after her death, and instead of searching for a woman he could have an heir with, he married a girl. She was blood young, with a river of auburn waves flowing down her back and swaying with every move and every step, cheeks as rosy as the flowers she wove into her hair and the blossoms that marked her way, and her eyes were so dark they almost reminded him of another woman he had loved a lifetime ago. She brought laughter and fresh air into his palaces, and she organised feasts and balls.
She played with his daughters and spoiled them like none other had before, and he hoped she would not get pregnant and leave him, like her predecessors had, but when they celebrated their wedding anniversary, she told him of her good hopes, joyful and naïve as she was. He called all physicians and midwives in his kingdom to court, to watch over his little wife, and when her pains began, he feared for her life. Indeed, she gave him two daughters, as pretty and strong as their older sisters, and despite his fears the king allowed himself to hope when he saw his rose recover from the birth and leave the birthing bed, as healthy and well as ever. His joy, however, was short-lived, for she died within a year, stabbed by a jealous courtier.
The king was desperate, for all his wives had died and left him with no less than ten daughters, and, remembering the promise he gave his father on his deathbed, a sacred promise, the grieving king took yet another wife, this time a widow twice over, who had proved to be barren, for he hoped her womb would stay empty, as it had before, and free him of this curse, for he was cursed, he knew now.
The lady did not want him, but she was dutiful above everything else, and so she wed him, hoping to survive this marriage. She seemed cool and calculated, with skin as pale as milk and eyes like ice, but her heart was warm and her mind sharp like a diamond, and she knew quite well that she was to die some way or the other should she ever conceive a royal child, and so when her blood stopped and her belly grew she made her peace with The Lord. She gave birth to twin girls, healthy and robust, and she cried when she saw them, for she knew she was damned. She cried and prayed and bled out her life in her royal marriage bed.
Her death left the king with twelve young daughters, none older than ten, and, accepting his fate, he vowed to never marry again. He did try to have a bastard son to legitimise him and have him succeed one day, but none of his mistresses got with child, and he lost all hope of ever fathering a son and heir.
One of his daughters would have to reign after him, and he wanted to secure a good match for the older ones, but no one wanted to have a cursed wife. Had the emperor himself once asked for the eldest princess’ hand in marriage, and kings and princes and dukes fought over the right to propose to his daughters, he now had to beg lesser lords for their younger sons and nephews, and not even one of them wanted to be the cursed king’s son-in-law. The king became desperate, for the years had been cruel, and he, once the most handsome and athletic man of his kingdom, had grown fat and ill. His end was near, and he had no one to succeed him, and no one to carry on his house’s legacy.
Realising that his eldest daughter would have to rule in her own right, and without a man by her side to guide her and to place a child in her belly to continue their bloodline, he decided to call the princesses to court, to teach them all he knew about ruling a kingdom, to ready them for the battles to come, for there would be blood and violence and war once a girl sat on the throne of England.
His daughters had all of their mothers’ virtues and talents combined, for they taught each other and shared everything they possessed with their sisters. They were beautiful and bright, kind and loyal, fierce and full of promises, and yet they seemed melancholic and tired as soon as they arrived at court. The king started to worry, fearing they would follow their mothers into their early graves, and had them watched day and night, until a lady-in-waiting showed him the princesses’ shoes. The soles were as thin as a dragonfly’s wing, and the king knew what his daughters had been doing all those nights when they were supposed to be resting.
He forbade dancing, hoping to keep them from their exercise and force them to rest and concentrate on their tasks, but it didn’t work. He grumbled and ranted and yelled, yet his daughters refused to tell him were they went to for dancing. In the end, he decided to spy on them, and follow them wherever they went, to put an end to this, be it by coins or by violence.
And when he looked into their shared bedroom, he could not believe his eyes, for they were standing in a circle, heels pressed together and toes touching their neighbours’, and a stream of golden light started glowing in the middle of their ring. It grew bigger, and then the princesses, one by one, passed this portal as if it was a hole in the ground, climbing through it and holding their sisters’ hands. The last one disappeared, but the portal was still there, and so the king decided to follow them, and jumped through it.
He landed in a tunnel, and when he followed it to its end, he came to an underground lake the colour of blood and roses, and in the middle was a castle made of bones, and in this castle, his daughters were dancing with their dead mothers. They were as beautiful as they had been in life, even with their feet chained to the floor, and they looked at him with fire in their eyes. You killed us, they whispered, you always wanted more. We gave you daughters, healthy daughters, as perfect as they could be, but you wanted a son. – This is not true, he tried to defeat himself, you were supposed to give me an heir, but you cursed me instead. At this, the queens and princesses laughed and laughed, louder and louder still.
Their laughter became shriller and shriller, and when he turned around, he faced his father, long dead, longer forgotten. You had daughters, but you wanted more, and you killed your queens for it, he said, sadness draining his voice. What a disappointment you are. The chains on his wives’ feet released them, and came to him like vipers crawling over the floor, and his screams drowned when they tied him to the floor. The queens, now free of the curse, lead their daughters out of the cave and back to the palace, and they decided to form a counsel and reign together until the end of time.