Happily Ever Awhile

By Ruth Nestvold

Everyone knows the story of the filthy girl who married the prince by not bleeding into a glass slipper, but not as many know what happened to her after the happy ending. Ellie was happy for a long time, make no mistake about that. She didn't have to do dirty chores anymore, after all, and the palace and the grounds were lovely, the white turrets and the blue tile roofs reaching and reflecting the sky, the colorful banners flying from the turrets flapping merrily in every strong wind. She tended her garden with her own hands, loving to see beautiful things grow at her bidding.

Soon she bore the prince a daughter and then a son, Tabitha and Tobias, and the four of them lived a calm, happy life together. When the king died, they were sad about it for a time, but his time had come, and life and death were occurring in the balance they should, just as the seasons did, as the flowers came and went.

But then the kingdom to the south marched against them, wanting more than the change of the seasons and the contentment it brings. The young king her husband had to go to war, leaving her alone in the beautiful palace for months at a time. Ellie still had her garden and her children, but it was all so empty without deep male laughter, without smiles and looks and the fine things the dark held.

And so she planted flowers and waited. And watched flowers bloom and waited. And pruned roses and waited. And watched flowers wilt and waited.

Finally, in late autumn, when the leaves on the trees were turning from green to all the shades of fire and earth, the young king's army, smaller now than when it set out, returned from the south. Ellie flew down the palace stairs and across the courtyard, past the blacksmith at his forge and the groom sweeping out the stables, out of the palace and through her garden, past the wilting roses and blooming purple asters, to arrive at the gate of the palace wall breathless, just as the guards were opening the gates.

The young king was at the front of his tired troops, and Ellie could see the effort it was costing him to keep his back straight and appear strong for the men he was leading. But when he saw her, his eyes lit up, and he leaned down and swooped her up, setting her in front of him on his mount.

The soldiers behind them cheered, and Ellie couldn't remember ever having been so happy in her life. He kissed her, and she turned her face towards his neck to snuggle there. That was when she saw it, the distinct marking on his neck—not a wound, not a bruise.

It was a perfect, round love bite.

She hid her face in his shoulder, fighting back tears, glad of the cold chain mail against her cheek. Her handsome prince, her young king, was back from the wars, alive, happy to see her, his left arm clasped tightly around her waist—it was no time to feel heartbreak. But she did, oh, she did.

Ellie kept her heartbreak to herself. Her husband had only just returned from a war not yet won, and she didn't want to burden him with accusations that would seem silly to him. She had heard other women confronting their men before, and the arguments were always the same: it was only a maid, peasant, camp follower; it meant nothing; men have needs and it has nothing to do with you.

Ellie didn't want to hear it.

As the leaves fell from the trees and the first snow covered the ground with purity, life went its way and Ellie's heart healed over—most of it, that is, even the part that felt like crying at odd moments almost every day. The fine things the dark held helped, her husband's unceasing attentiveness now that he was home again, the brightness of his smile when his eyes lit on her. What was a camp follower to a queen? Nothing, and more than nothing. The happily-ever-after didn't shine quite as brightly anymore, not even when the young king took their little boy up on his shoulders before the fire of an evening. It wasn't that she hadn't forgiven him; she could hardly do otherwise, as much as she loved him, and it wasn't in her nature to be vengeful. She had forgiven her stepsisters, after all, when they stood there in front of her with bloody feet, their toes cut off to steal her prince from her.

But her life was not as perfect as she had thought, the prince she'd married not the man she had thought.

She was not as beautiful as she had thought.

And then in the spring, the enemy was back on their southern border, and the young king had to ride off to war again. At their parting, Ellie cried all the tears she had been holding back during the winter. Her husband wiped them away tenderly and kissed her red nose. "I will return to you as soon as I can, my love."

She nodded and stepped back, and he swung up on his silver-gray battle horse to ride out of the gates of the palace.

The minstrel approached the walls of the palace on a fine sunny day when spring was giving way to summer and the first roses were just beginning to bloom. He was glad of the warm sun; his phantom limb ached him less when the dampness left the air. Perhaps he should go south, but there was war there, and he did not want to see that again—a battle was what had taken his leg below the knee.

The gates were thrown open for him, as they were in most places these days, everyone grateful for the entertainment and distraction a bard could provide. And with his peg leg, he was more welcome than most—no one would accuse him of shirking his duty.

He walked through the grounds behind a servant, admiring the white stone of the palace walls, the blue of the turret roofs a shade deeper than the sky, the deep green of the lawns, and the flowers—flowers everywhere, every color imaginable, lilies of deep red and brilliant white, bright orange begonias, purple rhododendrons, and blue hydrangeas. And roses of every conceivable hue, from salmon, to yellow, to lilac, to bronze, to blends of deep pink and ivory. The joy here was so great, it almost hurt his eyes to look at it.

And then he saw her, the way she knelt in the dirt and brought beauty out of the ground, saw the children playing beside her, one light and one dark, saw the history of laughter in the lines around her eyes and the hint of sadness in the curve of her lips.

"Let me play for you," he said.

She sat back on her heels, looking at him with a question in her eyes, and drew the gloves from her hands to slap them against her thighs. "You are a minstrel?"

"Aye, my queen."

She chuckled then, a deep, throaty sound, and in that instant he was lost. He had become one of those he had sworn never to be, a troubadour in love with the lady of the castle.

Ellie sat on the smooth stones of the walkway, Tabitha and Tobias curled on either side of her, while she listened to the bard sing of heartwood forests, the scent of rain on wet leaves, the power of storms, winds rising and ripping, and love to last a lifetime.

Yes, love.

That was what minstrels were supposed to sing of, was it not? She had heard many a bard sing this way (though not quite this way, not with this intensity or this look in his eyes), had enjoyed their voices with the sun warm on her shoulders (though not with this warmth between her thighs at the mere touch of his words), had often found pleasure in a tale in a song (though never in one she was so sure was for her and for her alone).

When the minstrel finally stopped, Ellie noticed that there were tears on her eyelashes and hunger in her heart. The children were dozing next to her, even seven-year-old Tabitha, and the shadows were growing long.

She blinked the tears away, hoping he hadn't seen them. "Very fine, thank you. Would you care to dine with us tonight? I'm sure a room can also be found for you—so many of our men are gone now."

He nodded and rose, surprisingly graceful on only one and a half legs. Ellie shook the children awake gently, and together they ambled through the grounds in the waning light towards the gleaming white walls of the palace.

The minstrel stayed, singing new songs every day, songs of battle and betrayal, songs of love and loss and beauty. His words did strange things to her. Suddenly she wanted more than the change of the seasons and the contentment it brought, more than a handsome prince-turned-king whom she must share with camp followers.

But she wanted that too. It wasn't perfect, but it was her life, the life she had chosen, the life she loved.

And then there was news from the south: the enemy had finally been defeated. The young king would soon be home.

Ellie didn't know what to do. All the minstrel ever did was sing for her, but it felt as if it was more, as if her betrayal had been greater than that of sleeping with a camp follower—such a small thing, after all. The minstrel's voice filled her days, brought light to the smallest tasks, and flitted through her dreams at night.

She was pruning the rose bushes one day with Tabitha and Tobias playing beside her; a hot, high summer day, and the minstrel sang for her as he often did, his words touching her skin like a pleasant breeze, skimming across the back of her neck, bare today because she had piled her hair on the top of her head to keep the strands from sticking there with sweat. The fingers of song stroked her like a lover, and she shivered, feeling his voice down to the arch of her foot.

She closed her eyes tightly for a moment and laid the pruning shears next to her on the walkway. "Tabitha, Tobias, you need to get back to your Latin lessons. Now run along."

"But Mom!" Tobias whined, making the simple word "mom" sound like it had three syllables.

"Latin is a waste of time," Tabitha stated with authority.

Ellie rose, pulling off her gloves and shaking out her skirts. "No it's not, young lady. Now off with you, find Master Rudolfus."

Tabitha gave a small "hmph," but she took her little brother's hand and ran with him through the roses and gladiolas in the direction of the palace. Ellie watched until they were ushered through a side door by one of the servants and disappeared from view.

Then she turned to the minstrel. He had stopped playing and sat quietly, his hands still on the lute.

She came and sat down next to him on the bench, something she had never done before. "I'm going to have to send you away now too," she murmured.

He nodded. "I thought as much." His fingers began to play lightly over the strings, a soft melody that tugged at her heart, pulling the crack a little wider. "Let me play for you."

Ellie didn't bother to respond, because he already was, and her throat was too clogged with tears for her to say anything anyway.

His voice joined in with the harmony of the strings, lifting above the roses and the gladiolas and the lilies, singing to her of walking in sunlight on warm stone with a child on each hand, of bringing color from brown dirt, of promises that were made to be broken. Her heart broke a little bit more, and the light he sang into her life seeped through the crack and into her soul.

The minstrel left the next day, on a horse she had given him for his service. Ellie didn't watch him leave. She knew he would sit his horse well, knew that with a fine mount beneath him, the peg leg would hardly be noticeable. She didn't want to see it, to have the final certainty that he was gone.

By the end of the week, she was waiting at the gates of the palace walls for a young king riding in at the front of his tired troops. He kept his back straight with an effort, but when he saw her, his eyes lit up again, as they had before, as they always would. He laughed out loud and swooped her up in front of him to the music of the cheers of the men behind him. Ellie knew she had been happier in her life, but this was good too, very good; it was the life she had chosen.

In time, other minstrels came to the palace, bringing news, bringing songs, bringing new songs from a one-legged minstrel who was fast becoming the greatest poet in the land. The crack in Ellie's broken heart widened a little every time she heard a new song by him, but then she turned and kissed her husband and took the baby on her lap—the baby with the name of a minstrel turned poet.

Once upon a time, Ruth Nestvold was an assistant professor of English in the picturesque town of Freiburg in Germany, on the edge of the Black Forest. Then one day (helped along by the dearth of academic positions), she decided to follow her dream of becoming a writer with a bit more determination. The university career gave way to a small software localization business, and theoretical articles to tales of princesses and dragons and outer space. She lives with her fantasy and her family and her books in a house with a turret and has sold stories to numerous markets, including Asimov's, Realms of Fantasy, and the anthology Fantastic Companions. Her novella "Looking Through Lace" made the short list for the Tiptree award in 2003 and was nominated for the Sturgeon award. Is it a happy ending? I think so.