Happy Mirror After
Charlotte threw open the tower window. A chill wind whistled through and she shivered. She wrapped her thick cloak tight, thankful for the expensive wool dress and thick stockings beneath.
She peered out the window, inducing mild vertigo. Dare she do it? The ground must be a hundred feet down. Her betrothed’s wrinkled old face floated into mind, and she curled her lips. It had been so kind of Cinderella to arrange for her to marry a wealthy lord — who wouldn’t want to marry a sycophantic fool in his seventieth year? Dear Mama kept telling her to focus on the fact that he was a wealthy old sycophant, but coins don’t keep you warm at night. She hoisted herself onto the windowsill and swung one leg over, fear forgotten.
Charlotte grasped the thick leaves bordering the window and slowly lowered herself out. The centuries-old ivy would hold — she’d seen the errand boy use it enough times. Just don’t look down. She focused on lowering her feet onto firm vines and slowly started to climb down the castle wall.
To distract herself, she tried to pinpoint the moment it all turned sour. Yes, she’d been a bit mean to Cinderella. But housework never hurt anyone. If anything, it taught Cinders that beauty and charm don’t always get you what you want. As the youngest, Cinders wasn’t entitled to go to that wretched ball anyway. Everyone knew it wasn’t a good idea to have the younger sisters out in company before the elder were married. Lucia was lucky Charlotte hadn’t kicked up a fuss about her going, too. Cinderella just took it all the wrong way.
And now, Cinders was marrying the prince, solely because she had pretty feet. It was all very well for those in this life who were beautiful from head to toe. They had it easy.
For one nasty moment, Charlotte’s foot dangled in midair. Sweat slicked her palms and she gasped. A gust of wind whipped around — but her foot got hold of a branch. Shuddering, she pressed against the wall and squinted down. Halfway. You can do it. She took a deep breath and continued the descent.
Cinderella hadn’t had to hear those whispers all her life. Ugly. Homely. Plain. Even her own mother said Charlotte had a stately Roman nose — and let’s face it, that just meant big. Couldn’t Cinders let Charlotte enjoy the little time she’d get in the spotlight without being compared to her youngest, most beautiful, sister? Obviously not.
Her next glance revealed the ground only a few feet below. Relieved, she navigated the final branches to land safely on the ground. Running away was extreme, even she admitted that. No other opportunity had presented itself, though. Cinderella refused an audience with her. Her mother wanted the nuptials desperately. Even Lucia had deserted her — probably because her choice of husband was significantly less repulsive.
The tower she’d climbed down lay at the rear of the castle. It would be a simple task to run lightly across the lawns and disappear into the thick surrounding forest. A servant had been posted outside Charlotte’s door to monitor her moves, but no one thought she’d escape out the window.
She reached the edge of the forest, holding her skirts above her ankles to ease her passage through the long grass. In the moonless night, the castle simply appeared as a black shadow against a black sky, tiny lights flickering in windows. Cold tendrils clutched her heart as she viewed the height she’d climbed. If she’d slipped, she’d be lying dead at the base now.
Charlotte smothered a derisive laugh. It was stupid to be afraid now she’d escaped. She turned and walked into the forest. Travel was hard in the dark, and she hadn’t been able to obtain any kind of light. After an hour of fighting through undergrowth, nearly smacking herself on an overhead branch, and tripping on roots, she gave up. She crawled into the middle of some heavy ferns and wrapped herself up in her cloak. The cold and damp seeped through, but with the relief of her escape, even the fitful doze she fell into was more fulfilling than her recent nights’ sleep.
Tossing and turning, every little noise half-woke her. Thankfully, these woods weren’t known to have worse predators than foxes and badgers so, discomfort aside, she had no reason to fear.
She opened her eyes to a grey dawn. She crawled out of the undergrowth and brushed herself off. Now to put her next plan into action.
She fished out some dry bread from her pocket and nibbled on it while waiting for the sun to rise. The idea of escape had hit her when she’d been wandering the castle a couple of days ago. In efforts to avoid her mother and her suitor, she’d taken to exploring. That particular afternoon, she’d climbed up one of the towers and come across a map room. The unusual pictures had fascinated her. She’d only seen small maps in books before, but these were large enough to hang on the walls.
One caught Charlotte’s eye when she recognised their town. It was a large map of the castle, town and surrounding area. She found their old home, then the castle, and traced the outline of the town with her finger. On one side of the town, roads led out to the coast, many miles away. The castle lay on the other edge of town, bordered by the forest in which she now sat.
A small hamlet on the other side of the forest, close to the country border, caught her eye. Small hamlets as a whole, weren’t terribly interesting. This particular hamlet, however, was rumoured to have a notorious inhabitant.
A few years ago, in the neighbouring country, an unbalanced Queen had been banished for trying to kill her stepdaughter. Charlotte’s country had given her asylum, with the requirement that she stayed living in humble conditions and didn’t cause any trouble. And as far as Charlotte knew, that had been the case.
This ex-Queen’s cottage was Charlotte’s destination. Not the wisest decision on the surface, but Charlotte had few friends and relatives, and even fewer who were likely to be sympathetic to her predicament. However, the Queen had one thing in her favour. She’d tried to kill her stepdaughter, Snow White, because she was too beautiful. Frankly, Charlotte sympathised. Okay, so the Queen had taken it too far, but Charlotte could see how that urge would easily arise. Didn’t she daydream about offing Cinderella? She probably wouldn’t go through with it, but the temptation was there. In a different situation, with more resources, it was easy to see how the mishap occurred.
Charlotte finished her bread and looked up at the sun’s position. If her calculations were right, she had a hard three-hour walk through the forest, followed by an hour’s trek to the hamlet. Perfectly doable in a day. Although that much walking wasn’t really her forte.
She had no choice now, though. Her departure would soon be noted, and she needed to be far away before they realised in which direction she’d headed.
The next few hours were the hardest of Charlotte’s pampered life. Plain looks aside, it hadn’t stopped most of her days revolving around pleasure rather than work. She pushed through branches, followed animal paths to dead ends, and got leaves and twigs caught in her hair. Only the physical activity kept her warm in the dank forest.
Still, she made progress and by continually checking the sun’s position, made it out of the forest by midday. After a short rest, she headed for the hamlet.
By the time she reached the tiny village, she was tired, her stomach rumbled, and she desperately needed a drink. The village consisted of a few stone cottages around a central pump and water fountain. She helped herself to a few much needed gulps of water while considering her next action. There was no sign of life.
However, she didn’t want to advertise her presence to anyone and she had no idea which cottage the ex-Queen lived in. She supposed she’d better peer through a few windows, unobtrusively, and see if she could spot her.
Charlotte headed for the nearest cottage. All the curtains were closed, so that was no good. She mentally noted it in case she had to go back and then tried the next one. An elderly couple lay dozing on chairs in the living room. She tiptoed over to the third cottage and heard a man’s voice before moving on.
At the fourth cottage, luck was on her side. A voice came through the wide open window, and she crept around the side of the cottage to get a better look. Carefully, she peeped over the windowsill.
The ex-Queen stood in the middle of the room, facing away from Charlotte, identifiable from her distinctive foreign-style robe and regal bearing. On the wall opposite the Queen stood what appeared to be a large mirror, with — what was that? Some kind of face appeared to be etched into the glass.
The Queen seemed to be talking to the mirror. Was she reciting a poem?
“Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”
“Are we still doing this?”
Charlotte stifled a gasp as the mirror spoke, the etching of lips moving to the sound.
“Yes! Get on with it. Who’s the fairest of them all?”
“You aren’t going to like it.”
Charlotte could almost imagine a disapproving wagging finger from the tone.
The Queen put her hands on her hips. “I don’t care. I have to know. Do I have to say it again?”
The mirror sighed. “The fairest of them all is sweet Cinderella in yonder castle.”
“No!” The word burst out of Charlotte before she could help herself. Red spots floated in front of her eyes.
The Queen jumped back and spun to face the window, hand on her heart.
Charlotte scrabbled and jumped, catching hold of the sill. She threw herself into the room, not feeling a nasty graze on her leg, although her woollen tights ripped and blood oozed through.
In blind rage, Charlotte grabbed the nearest heavy object — a glass jug — and threw it hard at the mirror with a scream. “I will not be second best to my wretched sister any more!”
The jug hit the mirror full on and both shattered in shards of glass. Charlotte and the Queen both flinched.
The Queen gave a screech and leapt at Charlotte. She clutched Charlotte’s long hair in her fingers and pulled, yanking strands out at the roots. “You stupid girl! How dare you smash my magic mirror! Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
Charlotte turned on the Queen, slapping at her arms. She pushed hard, but the Queen’s fingers were tangled in her hair.
Together, they spun round, Charlotte trying to extract herself and the Queen intent on injuring Charlotte. Eventually, Charlotte’s superior strength won out, and she shoved the woman backwards. The Queen fell to the floor and Charlotte straddled her and sat on her stomach, grabbing her wrists.
“Get off me, you oaf!” Strands of Charlotte’s thick black hair still wrapped around the Queen’s fingers. “Are you a royal assassin? I’ve done no wrong. I’m following the terms of the agreement.”
Charlotte’s rage had dissipated somewhat. She relaxed her grip. “Will you let me explain if I get off you? I’m sorry about the mirror.”
The Queen glared for a moment, but then nodded, chest heaving.
Charlotte stood up and caught her breath, rearranging her hair and her robe. Her feet crunched on glass.
The ex-Queen likewise stood up. “You’d better have a good explanation.” She peered closer at Charlotte and something seemed to soften in her face. “Why, you’re just a child.”
“I’m not a child,” Charlotte said stiffly. “Children don’t get married to boring old men against their will.”
The Queen raised her eyebrows. “Shall I get us something to drink, and you can tell me what happened?”
Charlotte nodded, suddenly realising she was bone-tired. She brushed a few slivers of glass off a nearby seat and sat down. The graze in her leg suddenly flared with pain, and she winced and picked a splinter out of it.
A few minutes later the Queen returned, with a welcome tray of tea, and some bread and butter. “You look starved. Don’t think I do this for every stranger who breaks in.”
After a few sips of tea and a bite of bread, Charlotte felt up to explaining herself. The whole story came out. The Queen listened and nodded, right to the end.
“You poor child.” She put her hand to her breast. “I can see how hard it’s been for you. I know what it’s like to have someone undeserving holding the limelight simply because of their beauty. Whatever happened to skills? Intelligence. Cunning. Even good workmanship. But no, if you’re pretty to look at, you get to marry the handsome prince and live happily ever after.”
“I really am sorry about the mirror. I’ll clean the mess up.”
“We can do it together. And I’ll help fix your hair.”
Charlotte and the ex-Queen smiled at each other, and a moment of genuine warmth flowed between them.
The Queen leaned forward. “How do you feel about a journey? There’s a country far south of here that has a failing king. I understand he’s in ill health, can’t control the country, and his people hate him. You and me, we’re destined to be in charge, and we’ve been thwarted by beautiful idiots. Let’s go somewhere where we’ll be appreciated for our talents.”
Charlotte grinned. “That sounds like just the opportunity I’ve been waiting for.”
She raised her teacup and the ex-Queen leant forward, clinking her own against it. “To a beautiful future.”