Welcome to the Sibling Writery’s first monthly serial! Once Upon a Time is Cate’s running account of the adventures of the royal heiress Esther, her friends Marcus and Stella, the young King Alexander, Esther’s noble “Grandfather,” and the entire Kingdom of Tryfort and its neighbors. Read and enjoy!
by Cate McDermott
In a land far, far away (that is, far away if you live in Alabama or Thailand; it was very close to Germany), there was once a lovely little castle. It was not one of your proud, aloof castles that stood apart and looked haughtily down upon you; but rather a small one, hung about with vines and climbing roses, snuggled down cosily in its own little glen among the trees and greenswards, as if it were quite one of them. It belonged.
Inside, the cosy feeling prevailed all the more. It seemed to have been laid out just so that everyone who came within its walls would feel that they fit in with their surroundings. The stonework and oak paneling were worn and stained with age, but the stained-glass windows and black-and-white diamond tiles on the floor were polished so brightly that they brought an appearance of sunshiny newness to the rooms on even the cloudiest days. The rustic wood furniture was simply made; but the beautifully embroidered cushions upon them would have satisfied the most fastidious demands for opulent elegance. Silence and peace reigned in the book-lined libraries, but merry chatter claimed the kitchen and gardens for their own. There was something there to please everyone.
It was a nice castle. Esther had always thought so, and she thought so now again, as she tripped lightly down the staircase, on her way to Grandfather’s study. The messenger James had come to her chamber door a few minutes before, as she was leaning out of the eastern window, trying to catch a glimpse of the far-off sea through the tossing branches of the old oak tree. Grandfather insisted that there was a patch of blue water visible if one looked through the fork in the center of the oak from just the right angle, but Esther had never been able to see it. Somehow the other trees always got in the way. She could only see the sea if she looked through the window in the tower room at the very top of the castle, which of course was above all of the trees. But anyway, James had told her that Grandfather wanted to see her right away in his study, so Esther was on her way there now.
Esther hurried down the hall, her soft slippers making a shushing sound and her ringed fingers clutching her black skirts tightly to hold them up above the floor. I’ll explain the reason why she was dressed in mourning later. Right now, there are more pressing matters at hand.
Esther rapped lightly on the double-paneled study door, and entered without waiting for an answer. “You wanted to see me, Grandfather?” she inquired alertly, smoothing down her skirt with one hand and adjusting her snood gracefully with the other.
The handsome, finely-dressed gentleman, standing by the fireplace and gazing into the flames, started slightly and turned around. He had a pleasant, hearty face, and appeared to be as strongly-built and alert as many men half his age. Only a few wrinkles and the white color of his hair betrayed the fact that he was old enough to have grandchildren.
“Ah, there you are, Esther; I did not hear you come in, my dearest grandchild!” he exclaimed in a very affectionate tone of voice, which however also sounded slightly flustered. “Just as dear as if you were really—oh, my dear, you know what a sad blunderer I am,” he broke off, apologetically. “I have something very important to tell you, but dear me, I don’t in the least know where to begin!”
“Well, then, suppose you begin at the beginning, Grandfather,” Esther replied in a sprightly manner. “And if it’s going to be a long story, shouldn’t we both sit down?” She settled down onto the nearest sofa, spreading her skirts out neatly around her.
“Oh, yes, but the difficulty is, it’s impossible to begin at the beginning unless you already know the ending, or at least something near to it,” her grandfather groaned, sinking down into a leather-cushioned armchair opposite to her. “And I don’t know how to lead up to it; it’s such a startling thing, really.”
“Honestly, Grandfather, you don’t need to worry about breaking things gently to me; don’t you think I can handle hearing the straight facts? Just fling it out; and then let me catch-as-catch-can,” Esther proposed, leaning forward a bit, her eyes sparkling with excitement. This promised to be interesting.
In spite of her reassurances, Grandfather sat twiddling his thumbs for a solid minute and a half before finally breaking out, as though the words were wrenched from him, “Well, I suppose you are right, my dear—My dear, did you ever wonder why you are so much older than all of your brothers and sisters?”
Esther nodded, her big brown eyes widening until they were so large that they resembled dinner plates on the ivory tablecloth of her flat and narrow face. She was five years older than her next-oldest sister, Eliza. But how could this possibly have any serious significance . . . she couldn’t even imagine where Grandfather was going with this.
“Well, my dear,” Grandfather started again, his tone now verging on complete desperation, “the reason for the gap in age, quite simply, is that they are all the children of your mother’s second husband, my son, while you are the daughter of her first, the Honorable Prince Germain of Tryfort.”
Esther gasped and fell limply against the sofa back, all her assurance regarding her ability to coolly receive unexpected news gone out of her. Her eyes flew to a set of portraits on the wall, one of which portrayed a young man who looked very much like Grandfather, except for his coal-black hair and completely unlined face; and the other of which bore the likeness of a very beautiful young blonde lady, Esther’s mother. Both of them had died within the past year, which was why Esther was still in mourning.
Esther knew she did not resemble the gentleman’s picture at all, but she had never bothered to think about it very much before. Her gaze lingered sadly on the kind face of the portrait, as she recollected his past fatherly care towards her.
“He could not have loved you any better if you had been his own child, my dear,” her grandfather said, interpreting her look. “He never wanted you to know that you were not, but circumstances have made it necessary . . . perhaps I should go on and tell you the whole story?” he raised a solicitous eyebrow, regarding her compassionately.
Esther drew a deep breath and turned her attention back to him, with a last lingering glance at the portraits. “Yes, Grandfather,” she said.
“Well, my dear,” Grandfather began again, settling himself more easily in his armchair, now that the Rubicon had been crossed and the difficult subject fully broached, “your mother was the daughter of a baron in a far-off country, you know—or was he only a baronet? Oh, yes, he was only a baronet at the time, that’s right, that’s right,” he nodded encouragingly to himself and continued on. “Well, so he was a baronet, and held an officer’s commission in his country’s army, which was allied with the nation of Tryfort at the time,” he went on conversationally, “fighting against another kingdom. Is that all quite clear so far?”
“Yes, yes, please do go on,” Esther urged, clasping her hands together nervously.
“Well, so where was I? Oh, yes,” and Grandfather settled himself again and once more commenced: “the Honorable Prince Germain, the younger son of the King of Tryfort, was wounded in battle, while serving in the same regiment with your real—er, other—grandfather, your mother’s father,” he explained painstakingly. “And so the baron—I mean, baronet—carried him off to his castle to recover, where he met your mother. Naturally, of course, he wanted to marry her.
“But—” and here Grandfather lowered his voice and glanced around, as though he were about to communicate a painful secret he did not wish to become generally known—“the rest of the Tryfort royal family looked down upon such a match as being, well, er, somehow unworthy of a prince. Part of the difficulty was that the eldest son and heir to the crown of Tryfort, Prince Rothbart, and his wife Tressine, had no children; and accordingly, the line of succession would go through Prince Germain. But as your grandfather the baron—he was made a baron at that time, in recognition of his loyal service in saving Prince Germain’s life in the battle—I did tell you about that, didn’t I? I wasn’t certain it was quite clear . . . well, anyway, he had saved the prince’s life, and so the royal family couldn’t very well refuse to let his daughter marry into the family, especially since Prince Germain loved her.”
“It would have seemed rather rude and ungrateful, I suppose,” Esther said primly, sitting up very straight, with an unusually bright color in her cheeks and an almost angry sparkle in her eyes.
Grandfather glanced at her, nodded shortly, and continued somewhat gruffly. The matter seemed to ruffle his finer feelings, too. “But nonetheless, they were never very kind to your mother; and after the King of Tryfort died, about a year later, and Prince Rothbart and the Lady Tressine ascended the throne as king and queen, matters only grew worse. They were the haughtiest of the lot, and simply couldn’t forget, or let your mother forget, that she had been born beneath their status. Eventually, Prince Germain and your mother moved into a very small cottage on the edge of the palace grounds, just to be as far away from them as possible, and that is where you were born, my dear.” Grandfather paused for breath. Esther fixed her gaze steadily on his face and waited tensely. “You were only a year old when your father died. And then, with what I must say was a startling lack of delicacy, King Rothbart and Queen Tressine didn’t waste any time in taking matters into their own hands. They wanted to ensure that you were brought up in accordance with their own standards, and so they took you away from your mother and put you into the care of specially chosen nurses and guardians.”
“Oh, dear me!” Esther gasped in horror at the thought of it. “How dreadful! What did Mother do?”
“Well, she couldn’t do anything about it at first. But she refused to leave the palace so long as you were kept there, and kept on insisting that you be returned to her, as was her right; and they didn’t dare to overrule her too oppressively and risk offending her father, as they still needed his military support—his castle was in a very strategic border location, you know.”
“Yes, yes; so what happened?” Esther urged.
“After nearly a year of struggling to regain custody of you, your mother finally succeeded in striking a bargain with King Rothbart and Queen Tressine. If they would return you to her, she promised not only to leave the country and never return again, but also to renounce your claim to the throne.” Grandfather paused impressively, his eyes keenly searching his granddaughter’s face, but Esther did not appear to be in the least moved by this disclosure. “You were the next in line, of course, now that your father was dead; but your mother agreed, on your behalf, to formally relinquish all your rights and titles in the Kingdom of Tryfort forever.
“This, of course, settled everything nicely so far as the King Rothbart and Queen Tressine were concerned: your right of succession passed to the youngest brother, Prince Brunfeld; and the next year Queen Tressine finally gave birth to a son, so the royal line seemed to be fairly established. Your mother intended to return to her childhood home, but King Rothbart and Queen Tressine had taken over the kingdom where she had been born, in order to prevent you and your mother from being allowed to dwell there. Your mother still had some of her dowry in her possession—mainly in the form of jewels, that King Rothbart and Queen Tressine hadn’t been able to get their hands on—and she managed to provide for you both thereby until she was able to obtain a position as a governess at an out-of-the-way ducal castle in our own lovely nation of Livwel. From there, she became a lady-in-waiting at the Royal Court. My son was finishing his education there, as a courtier; and he fell in love with your mother, married her, and brought both of you home to me, where you have lived ever since, as you know. It was your mother’s wish that you be kept in entire ignorance as to your royal heritage and the rights of which you had been so unjustly robbed; and so my son adopted you as his own eldest daughter and accordingly left you the rights of mistress here at Meriway, after that dreadful carriage accident last autumn . . .” for a moment Grandfather was too overcome with emotion to go on. But, making a determined effort, he cleared his throat and spoke very calmly and clearly. “Following their wishes, I had determined never to tell you who your real father was, or anything else about your past connections, but circumstances have now made it necessary.” He paused and looked out the window.
“But why, Grandfather? Why should you have to tell me now?” Esther inquired anxiously. “I don’t mind knowing; I’ve been raised better than to care about losing a title or anything else so worldly—but why did you have to tell me, especially since Mother and Father didn’t want you to?”
Grandfather waited a long moment before finally turning to face Esther again. “Because, Esther, my dear,” he said slowly, emphasizing each word very distinctly. “Orders have just come from the court of Tryfort, that you are to return there and take up your right of succession to the throne again.”
“Why, Grandfather?” Esther gasped. “But I can’t—Mother gave it up for me!”
“She did; but according to the laws of Tryfort—which are different from our laws—just because someone has given up their right to claim the throne, it does not follow that the present King and Queen must likewise give up their right to claim your kinship and reinstate you as their heir if they choose to do so.” Grandfather shook his head, gazing compassionately at Esther’s horrified face. “Here in Livwel, it could not happen that way. But as you are a born citizen of Tryfort, you are unfortunately bound to act according to their laws and not ours in this circumstance.”
“But what on earth do they want to give me the throne back for, anyway?” Esther demanded, hotly. “I thought that they thought I wasn’t good enough for them.”
“I don’t believe they do; but you are all that is left of the royal house of Tryfort, now. Their son died of pneumonia three winters ago; and just last year Prince Brunfeld was killed in battle. The King and Queen, who are now too old to have any more children, spent months hunting for any other relation, however distant, who might take up the throne rather than you; but there were none left living. It seems that most of the other branches of the Royal Family had been executed for suspected treason early in King Rothbart’s reign.”
“In other words, to prevent them from making any rightful claim to the throne!” Esther exclaimed indignantly. “Oh, Grandfather, I am afraid to go to these terrible people!”
“I don’t blame you, dear. I’ve known of this for over two months now, and I have tried every legal way to free you of your obligation. I’ve even spoken to the King about it—that’s what I was really doing in the capital last month; meeting my old fishing friends was only a pretext, although we did have a jolly good reunion feast—but he can do nothing against the laws of Tryfort.”
“Of course not,” Esther said quietly. “But why do I have to go back there? Why can’t I live here until the crown passes to me?”
“They want a chance to mould you to their ways of governance and court affairs before you start reigning, naturally,” Grandfather replied wryly.
“Oh!” Esther tossed her head back, stung to the quick. “I won’t go! I’ll—I’ll just abdicate, that’s what I’ll do. I will! It would serve them just right!” She nodded to herself in great satisfaction.
“Well, you could do that, but unfortunately, not until after you actually possess the crown. So long as you’re just the next in line, you have to do what King Rothbart and Queen Tressine want. You can’t give up the throne until after your reasons for not wanting it are gone. But don’t worry too much about it, dear,” Grandfather continued, tenderly. “They won’t dare to harm you, for then they’d have no one in the family to carry on the royal line, and there’s nothing that such proud and powerful rulers dread so much as that.”
“I suppose not,” Esther said with a sigh. “But, oh, I don’t want to leave home!” She gazed sadly around the pleasant library, and then through the window at the lovely garden. How many happy hours she had spent there! And there—was that a glimpse of blue she had seen, just for a moment, behind the shifting saplings? “Is there any seacoast in Tryfort?” Somehow this trifling detail seemed of momentous importance to her future happiness.
“Yes; but it’s not anywhere near the royal castle, I fear,” Grandfather replied.
“Oh, dear,” Esther sighed again. Why couldn’t even one small detail of this situation have been pleasant? “Will we at least be able to come back for an occasional visit, even if we have to live in Tryfort officially?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Grandfather began uncomfortably. “That’s entirely up to King Rothbart and Queen Tressine—and another thing, my dear,” he added hesitatingly: “the rest of us will not be going with you.”
“What!” Esther sprang to her feet, clenching her hands tightly. “Grandfather! You surely are not going to let me go through this trial entirely unprotected and alone? Please come with me,” she begged, throwing herself on her knees by Grandfather’s chair, holding onto its arm with both hands and looking appealingly up into his face.
Grandfather raised her gently and seated her on his knee, just as if she were still a little girl. Esther threw her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder. He patted her back encouragingly. “There, there, my dear, do you think I wouldn’t come with you if I possibly could? I’m not allowed to come; your aunt and uncle do not want any of your lowly relatives in their way . . .”
“Yes, and that’s just what worries me,” interrupted Esther, raising her head and speaking with quickening anxiety. “How will I ever be able to stand against them without you there to advise me? I depend so completely on your wisdom, Grandfather, all the more since Mother and Father died.” Esther still could not think of her mother’s second husband in any other way than as her own father. She looked dismally around the room, and then back up into her grandfather’s face, thinking of the many times she had remarked to Eliza, ever since the mistresship of Meriway had fallen upon her young shoulders, that she simply “didn’t know how I would ever do it all without Grandfather! I truly don’t think I could, little sister.” And now to be separated from this trusted guardian, when faced with an even heavier burden, seemed almost unbearable to Esther. She clung to him more closely than ever. “Whatever can I do, all alone against a full court of people who will be entirely opposed to what I believe to be right and the way in which I have been brought up?” she demanded, almost tearfully. “I’ll be completely at their mercy!”
“No, you won’t,” Grandfather responded decisively. “They’ve overlooked the most important guard that you have against them.”
“Why, what, Grandfather?” Esther forgot to cry in her curiosity.
“Yourself, of course. You are very young, I admit, to have to take on the full responsibility for your own actions, but everybody has to do so at some point or other, so it might just as well be now for you. That’s what builds character, you know, doing the right thing against opposition. If we never had any opposition, we’d never have any character! I’m not worried about you: just use your sound common sense and remember how you have been brought up, and I know we can all depend upon you to be a credit to us, no matter what anyone else does or tries to make you do. Have courage and see this through—hang in there, as they say; keep a stiff upper lip and all the rest of it, you know—and in no time you’ll be Queen of Tryfort and can exchange ambassadorial visits of state with your humble friends in Livwel,” he concluded, with a cheery air.
“I shan’t be Queen of Tryfort!” Esther pouted indignantly. “I said I’d abdicate, and I will just as soon as I can. I don’t want their old kingdoms!”
“Well, well, don’t be too hasty about it, dear,” Grandfather cautioned, tapping her lightly on the cheek. “Kingdoms don’t come to one every day; they’re not blessings or obligations to be renounced so lightly. Weigh it well during your time there; think of all the good that you could do as the queen of an entire realm. You’ve remarked to me so often, since you’ve been mistress of Meriway, that the best part of your position is being able to look after so many people and arrange so many matters, both small and great, for everyone’s best benefit. And a queen has so many more people to look after!”
“Yes, it’s far too great of a responsibility,” Esther groaned.
“Well, you may feel differently once you’re grown up. Our abilities keep pace with our growth, you know. I’m not saying you necessarily should keep the crown of Tryfort once it comes to you; I’m just saying: think it over. Wait until you see it. Perhaps you’ll want to fix it up a bit from what it’s come to under the present king and queen. And remember, if your father had lived, and he and your mother had been in line to the throne, you wouldn’t have had any objections to succeeding to it yourself in time, now would you?” Grandfather raised an inquiring eyebrow, sending a keen, twinkling glance down at his granddaughter.
“No, I suppose not,” Esther acknowledged reluctantly. “Well, I’ll have plenty of time to make up my mind about it,” she said with a weary sigh. “But if I do take the crown, I’ll transfer my rights here at Meriway to Eliza; that would be only fair. But I could never love anywhere else so much!” Esther threw her arms out wide, as if she would like to give the whole castle a hug.
Grandfather smiled, well pleased by his granddaughter’s love for the home that meant so much to him. But his smile vanished quickly, as he thought of the circumstances that were to take her away from that home. He spoke quietly.
“Well, we can settle all that later. Now, let’s get back to business. You won’t have to leave for a couple of months, my dear: it will take at least that long to prepare you a wardrobe that will fit your uncle and aunt’s expectations for you, and there’s a good deal more paperwork to be gone through yet. I’ll take care of all the official details; you just enjoy yourself with the rest of us as much as you can during the time we still have left. Shall we start now, by playing a game?” Grandfather proposed. “Now that you know everything, and this unpleasant matter’s all settled, I say we don’t think about it any more for the time being.” He put Esther off of his knee and headed for a cupboard in the wall. “We’ll make the most of these next couple months: a never-ending celebration for you! And you can always write to us, my dear, remember,” he added, glancing back over his shoulder from where he was fumbling around with the boards, trying to remember which one contained the secret spring, which, when pressed, would open the cabinet.
“I daresay the King and Queen will stop all my letters; that’s what always happens in the stories,” Esther predicted gloomily, drawing up the game-table and positioning a chair on either side. “But we’ll just have to make the best of it, I suppose. At worst, we can always fall back on secret couriers and midnight visits, and all those romantic stratagems.” Esther suddenly dimpled at the thought of what excitement might be in store. Even the worst trial can have its adventurous side.
“That’s the right spirit!” Grandfather approved. “We’ll outwit those haughty tyrants yet! Chess or dominoes, my dear?” he inquired, a box in either hand.
“Chess,” Esther replied, significantly. “I’d better start preparing myself to checkmate kings and queens!”
To Be Continued
Look for the next installment of Once Upon a Time by Cate McDermott in October!