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The Queen's Mirror
Debra Doyle & James D. Macdonald
When I was very young, my mother the queen had a mirror that hung on the wall in her private chamber. A velvet curtain fell across the glass's gilded frame, but in those days no hand ever drew it aside -- save mine, one day when I was curious and, I thought, alone.
My own reflection looked back at me: a girl-child in rich clothing, with the same dark eyes and fair skin that made my mother's beauty famous throughout the kingdom. Behind me, a casement window opened to show the palace gardens and the deep woods of the royal hunting preserve beyond. I saw movement among the reflected shrubbery and turned to find Gregor, the chief of the queen's huntsmen, standing outside in the garden.
I let the curtain drop back across the mirror.
"What are you doing here?" I asked, with all the dignity I could muster. I was always a little afraid of Gregor, who had been in the royal service since the time of my grandmother, the Old Queen -- though he must have been a young man in those days, when my mother herself was only a child.
Even now, though silver had frosted the jet-black of his hair and his pointed beard, he bowed with the grace of an ambassador at one of my mother's receptions. "I do the queen's will, Your Highness. And her will is that no one shall enter her chamber while she is away."
He stretched out a hand and I went to him, stepping over the low sill of the window and out onto the lawn. My mother was a kind enough woman, when the cares of state let her remember that she had a daughter at all, but no one in the kingdom would let her commands go by unheeded.
"I will be queen one day," I said when I was safely out of the window and walking with Gregor toward the palace nursery. "Why should I not go where I will? Is it the mirror?"
I thought I saw Gregor's lips smile slightly above his black-and-silver beard. "You're a clever child, Highness."
I smiled at my lucky guess and dared to ask another question. "Why does a curtain hang across my mother's mirror?"
"That was the Old Queen's looking-glass," said Gregor. "It was the Old Queen herself who put the curtain there."
Curiosity stirred in me. All my life I had heard tales of the Old Queen, who had ruled palace and kingdom alike with a strong hand, but of all the servants and courtiers in the palace, no one remained from those days save Gregor alone.
"Was she ugly, then?" I asked. "Was that why she hid the mirror?"
"Ugly?" Gregor laughed aloud. "Child, your grandmother had beauty that would make a strong man weep."
We had come by now to the door of the nursery, and I knew that I should go inside, where my nursemaids and my tutors waited. Instead, I sat down on the stone steps, and looked upward at Gregor.
"If she was beautiful," I said, "then why would she not look in the glass?"
"She had no need," said Gregor. "She had ladies-in-waiting enough to dress her hair and deck her out with gold and jewels; she could see her beauty reflected a hundred times over in the eyes of the kings and princes who came to her court."
He smiled again, as if he saw them once more in his own memory, those proud and mighty rulers who came bearing tribute and begging favor. I kept myself as quiet and still as the stone I sat on, until his smile faded and he went on...
"For twenty years and more," he said, "from the time I first came to serve her until the day when her daughter, your mother, put on long skirts and left the nursery for the first time, I never heard of your grandmother looking in that mirror, nor any other. But when the kings and princes turned their eyes from the Old Queen to her daughter, your grandmother's temper changed. She grew silent and brooding; her governance of the kingdom became harsher and more unbending. Where formerly her subjects had praised her mercy, now they feared her justice, and in other countries the people who spoke of her called her the Iron Queen.
"Only then," Gregor went on, "did she begin to look in mirrors as if she sought an answer there: the tall mirrors in the palace hallways, the oval mirrors above the palace fireplaces, and always, morning and night, the mirror on the wall of the royal chamber. And at last there came a day when she called me to her.
"She waited alone in her chamber, with her back to the mirror and what it might show her -- though to my eyes her beauty was still a fearful thing. 'Gregor,' she said, 'the looking-glass tells me I am growing old and ugly.'
"I could only laugh, though more powerful men than I had of late feared to offend the Iron Queen. 'Older, perhaps,' I said; 'we are none of us so young as we once were. But nothing on earth could make you ugly.'
"The answer pleased her, and she smiled. 'Gregor,' she said. 'I believe that you love me well -- and I can think of no subject, highborn or low, in whom I can put more faith.'
"'Only command me,' I said, 'and Your Majesty will see how you are still loved.'
"'Very well,' she said. 'You are the Queen's Huntsman; by custom and law you have the power of life and death over whatever the forest holds. I want you to take my daughter into the woods and kill her there.'"
Gregor paused and did not speak again for some time. At last I could no longer keep silent, though I knew that to speak might bring an end to the huntsman's mood and I might never hear this tale again. "But you didn't kill her, did you?" I said. "If you had killed my mother, where would I be now? "
Gregor did not reply or even seem to hear me. It appeared as if he had forgotten me entirely; he gazed outward for a little while more at the dark border of the woods beyond the palace, and then he went on.
"The task was not what I had expected," he said, "and I liked it not at all -- but I had not lied to the Queen when I said that I loved her well. I chose my finest knife, the one with the polished stag-horn grip, and sharpened it to a keen edge for the work I had to do. When the afternoon was almost over I went to the princess, your mother.
"The princess had known me from her babyhood and trusted me; when I asked her to come with me she agreed without question. We went together into the woods near the palace -- she laughing at the chance to leave court life behind and play once again at being a child; and I looking about me as we walked for a place to carry out the Queen's command.
"But my heart was heavy, and no place I saw could please me: one was too close to the palace, and might be observed from the upper windows; another was too bright and cheerful for such a dark deed; and still another was too gloomy and forbidding to be a girl's last memory. Before I quite realized what I had done, the hours had drawn on until dusk, and we had come by unintended paths to the place I knew in my heart we had been seeking all along.
"It was a part of the forest I had passed through now and again but where I had never cared to stay: a clearing in the dark woods, where a low green hill rose up a little way above the surrounding earth. The air was always dim and quiet there, no matter how bright the day or how noisy the forest elsewhere -- and now it came to me that here, in the peaceful green shadows, would be a fitting place for the Iron Queen's daughter to sleep her final sleep.
"I took her up onto the top of the mound. She still had no fear -- she thought she would look there for the mushrooms that sometimes grow in forest clearings. I stood behind her, and drew out the blade that I had taken such pains to sharpen."
This time, Gregor stopped speaking for so long that I thought he would leave the story unfinished, and I saw something in his eyes that might have been unshed tears. I sat silent upon the stone steps of the palace, not daring to open my mouth lest he decide not to continue. When at last he spoke again his voice was lower and more uncertain, as though he were picking his way through a tangle of confusing memories.
"I raised the knife," he said, "and I let it fall. But even as I struck, the side of the mound opened, and pale women were all around. They pressed close about me, they pulled my hand away, they drew the princess out of my grip and took her to them.
"I could not see their faces, and their voices were like pine trees sighing in the wind.
"'Give her to us,' they said. 'The Queen sent her to the forest. Therefore let her bide in the forest, and we will keep her safe until her own time comes.'
"Slowly, slowly, they pulled the princess out of my arms and took her back with them into that dark place under the earth, and the sighing of their voices died.
"I left the clearing, and with my knife I killed one of the fat rabbits that live in the forest's grassy banks. The blood of the rabbit stained the blade and my hands. When the Queen saw me return thus alone, she was pleased and did not look in the mirror for a long time afterward. If the kings and princes who came to her court wondered what had become of her daughter, none of them ever spoke the thought aloud.
"But time passes for all living things, for Queens as well as for huntsmen, and there came a time when the Iron Queen grew old in truth. One day she summoned me to her chamber again. This time she stood facing the mirror, and her eyes showed that she had seen everything it had to tell.
"With her own hands she drew the black curtain across the glass and turned to face me. 'Gregor,' she said, 'I have loved you well, and you have been the most faithful of my subjects. Now the time has come when you must do me one last service.'
"'I am Your Majesty's to command,' I said, though I disliked this speaking of last things.
"The Iron Queen smiled. 'Then, Gregor, I would ask you this: today at sunset, take me with you into the forest and show me the place where you once dealt with my daughter as I commanded.'
"Her words fell like a heavy weight on my soul -- but she was the Queen, and I could not refuse. We left the palace at sunset, she and I, dressed as if for a hunting-party such as she had enjoyed in the days when we both were young. Again I carried with me the knife with the stag-horn handle, and the Queen smiled to see it, saying, 'I always knew, Gregor, that you could read my heart -- and I trust that your blade has not lost its keenness with the passing years."
"I would have wept then, if I could, but my throat tightened and I could make no sound. Nor did she speak to me again, and we came at last in silence to the grassy mound at the heart of the forest, just as the last of the daylight faded and left the clearing to the gathering dusk.
"She turned to me and unwound the scarf from her neck, leaving bare the white skin that kings and princes had liked to compare to ivory or to the new-fallen snow. "'Most faithful of all my subjects...' she said, and then no more thereafter.
"My hand was steady in its last service ... and when the deed was done, the side of the mound opened, and the women came to take her away.
"I could see their faces now, even in the darkness -- faces white as ivory or drifted snow, with hair black as the night and lips redder than the blood of any forest beast. 'Give her to us,' they said, in those voices that sighed like the wind in the pine branches. 'She has no more need of you, huntsman, and the kingdom has no more need of her. Let her go.'
"I let her go -- and what they did with her I never saw. With her leaving, the burden on my soul grew too heavy to bear, and I threw myself face downward on the top of the mound and wept until the morning."
My mother's Chief Huntsman fell silent then for a long time. From where I sat on the cold steps at his feet, I could see that he was weeping once again at the memory, and he made no move to brush away the streaks of moisture that traced their way down his weather-darkened cheeks. At last he went on.
"When dawn came, I saw that the ones who lived in the underground had kept their word from long ago. Your mother was standing above me, her youthful beauty fresh and unchanged from the day I had taken her into the forest at the Iron Queen's command. I knelt before her, and she looked down at me with so much of her mother in her eyes that I trembled to behold her.
"'Huntsman,' she said, 'rise up and cease your grieving. The Old Queen is dead, and I rule the kingdom now. We must return to the palace and do there what is needful.'
"I was still the Queen's Huntsman, and sworn to do as Her Majesty bade me. The Young Queen came to her throne before the sun reached its zenith, and she took the kingdom into her hand.
"I feared at first that she would punish me for what I had done at the Old Queen's bidding, but she never spoke of those things or even seemed to remember them. At last I came to understand that the memories had been taken away -- not only the memories of that day, but all of her childhood with them; so that I, who had shown her the first spring flowers in the meadows and the secret caches where the squirrels hid their nuts in autumn, meant no more to her than any other faithful servant. But if those who live in the underground had taken away much from her while she was in their care, they had also taught her well. She ruled then as she rules now, with all the strength and wisdom of her mother before her."
That was the story as Gregor the Chief Huntsman told it, many years past, when I was very young. I thought it strange and sorrowful, but after the manner of childhood I soon forgot it, and likewise I thought no more of the curtained mirror in my mother's chambers.
But time goes by, whether we think of it or not. Gregor is many years dead, and my grandmother the Iron Queen is quite forgotten. My hair has grown long now that once was kept childishly short, and a lady-in-waiting dresses it high on my head each night for dinner at my mother's table, where the ambassadors of foreign kings and princes look at me with curious, speculative eyes.
In the Queen's chamber the mirror hangs uncovered. My mother looks into it morning and evening, while at night I dream of voices that sigh like the wind in the pines, and of pale faces watching from the darkness under the trees.
Copyright © 1993 by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald