Once Upon a Time is now on its fifth installment–or sixth, if you are counting the special Christmas episode!
The Woman Who Remembered The Mother
By Cate McDermott
Princess Esther peered cautiously around the trunk of a thick, leafless old oak tree, and then hastily ducked back behind its cover, and consulted the piece of much-worn parchment she held in her hand.
“This should be it; it looks exactly like the safe house Marcus described,” she murmured to herself, taking another peek over her shoulder. “But all the farm cottages around here look so similar; I don’t want to take any chances. Maybe I should go on a bit . . . then if I don’t run into another that looks more like the place here on the map, I can come back. I’ll leave myself trail markings—only I don’t have a knife to make blazes,” she grumbled, feeling in the pockets of her gown, and dropping the map as she did so. The wind caught it and blew it to a little distance from the tree. “Oh, dear!”
Esther dashed out from behind the tree to grasp the map and hastily scrambled back under cover again, clutching the precious sheet to her chest and breathing hard.
For those readers so far unacquainted with this series, I take the opportunity, while Esther is getting her breath back, to inform you of the circumstances that had led to the rightful princess and heiress to the Kingdom of Tryfort being placed in such incongruous surroundings.
Esther had not been born a crown princess. Her father had been the younger brother of the King and Queen of Tryfort, and her mother merely a baron’s (or was he only a baronet?) daughter. Upon her father’s death, Esther and her mother had been sent packing as undesirable family connections by the cruel, cold-hearted King Rothbart and Queen Tressine. Esther had been brought up as a simple country lady in the lovely country of Livwel, after her mother had married again and brought Esther to live with her new husband and father-in-law (whom Esther simply called “Grandfather”) on their estate of Meriway. After her mother’s and stepfather’s death, Grandfather had received news that, as King Rothbart and Queen Tressine’s only son and only remaining brother had both died, Esther was now the sole remaining heir to the throne of Tryfort, and King Rothbart and Queen Tressine accordingly demanded that she be sent to be trained in their ways of governing at their court. Having no legal way out of the situation, Grandfather and Esther had been forced to agree.
While on her journey to the palace, in the Royal Carriage that had been sent for her, Esther had been kidnapped by a band of revolutionary bandits, a gang of dispossessed noblemen who had no desire to see the present regime continue and were determined to prevent the successor from arriving at court. Esther’s sterling principles and own experience of wrongs at the hands of King Rothbart and Queen Tressine had inspired the sympathy of the outlaws, and the chief’s son, Marcus, had assisted her in escaping from the band altogether. It was unlikely that they would pursue her, as much as they had hoped that Esther would take their part; however, Esther was taking no chances. It was her duty to reach the court of Tryfort without fail, and she was determined that nothing should stand in her way of getting there as quickly as possible. Furthermore, she didn’t know the people of this country; and her experience with the outlaws had led her to believe that, as a relative of the King and Queen, she might not receive a very warm welcome everywhere. Indeed, Marcus had warned her not to reveal her identity to anyone until she reached the court. Of course, this posed a different set of problems: whereas the heiress to the throne might be assured of protection against molestation from all but rebels when travelling alone through the country, an ordinary girl was vulnerable to all kinds of possible dangers—particularly being kidnapped and forced to work as a servant girl for no pay by an unscrupulous farming couple, who could defend their actions as “having taken the poor orphan in, with no references!”
No, she had to be certain this was the safe house before she went up to it. Esther took another cautious peek around the trunk, wishing she had thought to ask Marcus to describe what the people she was supposed to meet looked like, and not just their houses. There was a grizzled older man out chopping wood right in the front yard, not ten yards away from Esther, but with his back to her. Picking up a load of wood, he turned and headed back towards the house. Esther shrank closer against the tree. The chopper dumped his load in the woodbox next to the front door, returned to the woodpile, split several more logs, and once again picked them up and carried them to the woodbox. This process was repeated several times, while Esther, cowering against the tree trunk in fear lest he should notice her before she had decided what to say to him, felt herself growing dizzy with the monotonous fascination of watching the same thing over and over and over again.
“’Ere, now, wot’s all this?” Esther jumped and uttered a gasping scream that made no sound at all, as these words were pronounced behind her. Feeling rather faint, she grasped one of the tree branches and took several deep breaths to calm herself for what seemed like an eternity, before she slowly turned around to face her accoster, still clutching her precious map to her heart.
“’Ere, now, wot’s all this?” repeated the grizzled hired man before her—clearly a hired man and not the farm owner himself, Esther knew, due to his profoundly irritated manner that yet somehow failed to be intimidating. He was leaning on some kind of farm implement, gazing at Esther with marked astonishment, which display of emotion, however, he seemed to feel was beneath his dignity and therefore attempted to cover with a blustering appearance of annoyance. Such disruptions to the ordinary pattern of an honest, middle-aged hired hand’s life could not be treated with anything less than the strongest of disapproval. “Wot be ye wantin’ here, me lass?”
The familiar address reassured Esther, reminding her that she could not possibly be recognized; her appearance and identity as the Crown Princess of Tryfort was as yet entirely unknown to the average peasant of the country. They would believe any reasonable story—including an anonymous truth.
“I’m from Livwel,” Esther responded clearly and directly. “I’m lost.”
“Ye must be,” the hired hand agreed, scratching his head. “Livwel? Don’t know as I ever heerd on it. Further away than the West Lortles region, is it? My brother has a farm there, but I didn’t hear him mention this there ‘Liv-wel’ when I visited him last.”
Esther hid a smile. “Yes, it’s farther away; it’s a different country.”
“A different country!” The man stared at her. “Then-then—how did ye get here, me lass?”
“In a carriage, with my family, most of the way,” Esther was still sticking to the basic truth. “Then I was kidnapped by outlaws and taken captive. I am trying to reach my family again. But as I don’t know where they are right now—” Esther didn’t know, in fact, whether Grandfather had heard of her capture and returned to the country to search for her. One of the outlaws had been sent to him with word, and reassurance that no harm was meant to her person, but that outlaw had not returned to the band while Esther had been among them, and Esther did not know whether he had reached Grandfather at all, and whether Grandfather would have believed his story if he had. “I think I should go to the court to try and establish a footing for looking into the matter?” Esther raised this last point somewhat tentatively, glancing up into the hired hand’s face from under a protective fringe of lowered lashes.
A dark scowl had crossed the man’s face at the mention of the hated sovereigns, but he immediately suppressed it, and regarded Esther with an expression that was compassionate, though still rather grim. “I don’t know that ye’d get much help from those there, me lass.”
“But that’s where everyone would be most likely to look for me, among courtiers, since my family is of noble class—I grew up on a country estate,” Esther explained, still feeling her way cautiously.
The hired hand’s eyebrows went up observably at this piece of information, and there was a marked increase in formality in his tone when he spoke again, his gruff voice much softened: “Well, then, me lass—er, m’lady—p’raps my master would be the better to speak to, than me. He’s just over there,” he gestured with his chin towards the wood-chopping personage, who had apparently finished his chore and was evidently looking around for his helper, standing with his elbow resting on the handle of his axe, and sweeping the farm-yard with a severe and forbidding gaze. Esther would not have liked to approach him alone, but she followed the hired man meekly out from behind the tree as he trotted briskly back to his employer, evidently glad to turn his problem over to somebody else of higher authority.
“Rufus, where have ye been?” the farmer demanded, rather hotly. “I told ye that ye were to fetch it early on—don’t ye never remember what orders ye’ve been given unless it please ye, and I . . .” he broke off abruptly upon seeing Esther. “Why, what have ye got there,” he asked, staring at her until his eyes nearly fell out of their sockets. Esther, feeling completely exposed and foolish, and not at all up to repeating her story again, shrank back and looked nervously at the hired hand. What would he have to say about her?
“It’s a lost maiden, me boss,” his subordinate explained glibly. “Captured from her noble family by outlaws, so she says.” He indicated Esther’s finely made—if by now a bit travel-worn and draggled—gown with a gesture of dumb corroboration. Esther felt more hopeful. Certainly runaway serving-maids didn’t wear purple satin, even if the sleeves were torn! And she had remembered something else now, and hastily put her hand into her pocket to fetch it.
For the farmer did not seem quite as ready to be convinced of Esther’s truthfulness as his man had. He looked at her sharply. “Outlaws, ye say? None around here that I know of. What outlaws might they be?”
“Well, perhaps you might not call them outlaws here.” Esther tugged the handful of the badges of the outlaw band, that Marcus had given her for identification, out of her pocket. She held them out to the farm owner. “Do you recognize these?” she asked simply, and held her breath as she waited for the answer.
The farmer slowly stepped forward, took one of the badges from her, and surveyed it closely for a moment, before giving it to his hired hand, who inspected it as well and handed it back to his master, with a curt nod. They both looked at Esther, thoughtfully but without any fresh antagonism. “So,” the farm owner said slowly, “how did you get these?”
“From the band that captured me. They want me to go to the court. Will you help me—is yours the place on the map here?” Esther turned it to show them.
That settled it for the two men. They had recognized the badges as belonging to the rebellion force of the old nobility, which they steadily supported against the present regime, and they saw that the houses marked on the map were all part of the “secret underground” of all such supporters among the peasants and smaller landholders in the local area and on the way to the court. No one who was not protected by the rebels’ authority would have access to this highly sensitive information, unless the band had been defeated and the information forcibly seized, and the idea of Esther having accomplished such a feat alone was manifestly preposterous. She could not be working on behalf of King Rothbart and Queen Tressine’s spies, either, for they would simply have sent out a band of guards to round all “traitors” up, without bothering with subterfuge. No, she must truly be connected with the outlaw band. Now why the rebels would have captured a maiden, and why they would now be wanting to send her to the court, they neither knew nor cared to ask. These nobles, even when dispossessed, would have their “queer ways,” to be regarded with indulgently respectful tolerance by the more practical middle-and-lower-classes; but obedience to their wishes was a paramount duty.
“Come on inside then, maiden,” the farmer invited, escorting Esther to the front door of the low-eaved farmhouse. “Here, Martha!” he bawled in through the open door. “Will ye come here a moment, an ye please?”
“What is it, my good man?” a pleasant-faced woman, attractive in a motherly way, appeared in the doorway with a puzzled frown, a broom in one hand and a potholder in the other. “Sure and ye aren’t expectin’ dinner already? I told ye, about an hour past the noon, and it’ll be later still if ye’re always calling me out to stand gawking at the latest fallin’ leaves and what-not—why, who’s this, my man?” she demanded in surprise, dropping her broom in her astonishment as she first noticed Esther.
“If ye’d ever stop goin’ on so, I’d have told ye already, old woman,” the farmer retorted good-naturedly. “‘Tis a lost maiden, of noble descent, she says. Here.” He gave the badge to his wife. “Take her in and get her something to eat, will ye? I reckon she could use it, and if there’s more of her story to tell, ye’re a better one to hear it than me,” and with a kindly glance at Esther, he made his way back to his work in the yard, shouting at Rufus to “not stand around all day, ye lazy feller! What, do I pay ye to stand gawkin’?”
“Menfolk!” said the farm wife tolerantly, as she drew Esther inside and shut the door behind them. “Come and sit down, my child. Why, how wet this is!” she exclaimed, as she took Esther’s bedraggled cloak and hung it up by the fire. “I’ll fetch you something to eat straightaway—how many days have you been travelling alone?” She directed a compassionate glance towards Esther, who had dropped gratefully onto a stool on the hearth, realizing for the first time how very weary her legs were.
“Oh, only since yesterday afternoon, but I haven’t stopped all night,” Esther replied, gazing into the flames dancing before her. “But I was travelling a long time with the band before that,” she added, looking up once more into the housewife’s face.
That good woman was just opening her mouth to make some sort of sympathetic reply, when a strange expression came over her face, and she bent a long, searching glance upon Esther, before abruptly turning away and busying herself with something on the table. She mixed up a quick batter in a large bowl, and then went and began dropping spoonfuls of it onto an iron griddle set over the coals. And all the while she kept darting quick, sideways glances at Esther, tilting her head on one side, as if she were trying to remember something. Esther, feeling uncomfortable under this scrutiny, huddled down on her stool and tried to make herself as small as possible. She frankly wished that she could disappear entirely.
Once the farmer’s wife had a dozen little cakes sizzling on the griddle, she went back over to the table, sliced off a piece of cheese from a round sitting there, and came back over to the fire to dish up a bowl of stew from the kettle hanging down above the flames. She put both the bowl and the cheese on an earthenware plate, which she handed to Esther, and then stood beside her regarding her silently. Esther tried to smile gratefully and eat the meal, but each mouthful stuck in her throat as her alarm grew. What was this woman thinking about her? She glanced up hesitantly, and their eyes met. The woman smiled suddenly, although there was still a clear look of puzzlement in her eyes, and sat down next to Esther and touched her arm reassuringly.
“Forgive me for studying you so, child; I see I have disturbed you. ‘Tis no need; ye remind me of someone I once knew, ‘tis all.”
“Who?” Esther asked in a hoarse whisper, with a certain premonition tugging at her heart.
“Ah, I wish I knew. She stopped here for shelter, years and years ago, just as you did today. Never said where she had come from, or where she meant to go, but that grateful she was—a fine lady, no doubt of it. A little older than you, a young widow with a child—” she broke off as Esther gasped involuntarily. Could it have been her mother, when she had fled Tryfort with her?
“I pray you, tell me more,” she entreated, as the farmwife seemed to hesitate before going on. “What about me made you think of her?”
“Your eyes, exactly the same colour and expression—I remember them clearly, for the lady was blonde, and her brown eyes were very striking in her pale face, poor soul. But you carry yourself like her as well, though the resemblance in looks goes no further—it might have been your mother, don’t you know? The child was dark, like you, and had its mother’s eyes.” The woman looked cunningly at Esther, to see how she took this revelation.
But Esther wasn’t about to be caught that way, not until she had more information. “How many years ago was this?” she asked quickly.
“Well, let me see now—more than twelve winters, that I know, for it was the year before the great snow—ah, my scones!” The housewife rushed to turn them safely on the griddle, before she returned to Esther’s side and resumed her story.
To Be Continued