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Once upon a time there was a princess of the kingdom of Rubichia who was very pretty, as princesses are wont to be. Although she was only a small princess still, her name was Her Most Regal and Exalted Highness Seraphina Georgiana Camelia Amethyst Rose. However, she was known affectionately by Rubichians as Princess Kate. Nobody knows why, but there is a rumour it had something to do with a visitation by a good fairy when the princess was only an infant.

In addition to being pretty, Princess Kate was an all-around nice sort of girl at eight years old. She was always friendly, cheerful most of the time, and mischievous only occasionally, but in very original and creative ways. Kate loved music, and already her father thought her very gifted on the glockenspiel. She also doted on animals, and was very gentle with them, although she had not yet gone so far as to kiss a toad.

Kate often explored the forest that bordered the castle grounds on her own, leaving her tiny crown behind. Her parents, being very easy-going, didn’t mind, as long as she stayed on the paths and didn’t go too far—Rubichia was a very safe, child-friendly kingdom, with no dangerous predators like dragons. Rather, the Forest of Faeries was full of friendly little squirrels and bunny rabbits that frolicked playfully in the sun as the birds sang, and the most dangerous creature was a snail, who left a slippery path behind him. Sometimes Kate even met good fairies and played hopscotch with them. On one particular day, Princess Kate skipped down a path of velvety moss, waving to her animal friends as she went. She was very happy because she had a picnic basket full of her favourite sort of food, and was planning to go to her favourite clearing and eat it there. But today something unexpected was awaiting her.

Earlier that day a particularly evil witch (who had a very large wart on her hooked nose) had been flying over Rubichia on her old knobbly broomstick. She was already very grumpy because the knobbles on her broomstick were giving her blisters (and the wart on her nose was stinging like poison ivy) but her temper rapidly got even worse when her broom gave a long, shuddering sigh, and died. The witch in question was left clutching her stick, hurtling towards the bushy green trees of the Forest of Faeries, moving much too fast to think of a spell to save herself.

Princess Kate came upon the wicked witch Yagmar just as the old woman woke up with a pulsing bottom and a ripped cloak. “Oh goodness! Are you feeling quite well, ma’am?” cried Kate immediately. (She was a very well brought-up young lady.)

Yagmar only let loose a volley of words in response that I’m afraid I can’t repeat here. Happily, Kate had not been exposed to those words before, and despite being a little stunned, she hadn’t any idea what they meant.

“Can I help you, ma’am?” she tried again.

“Who are you?” barked Yagmar, glaring at the little girl.

“I’m Kate,” said Kate.

“Kate who? Where do you live?”

“I’m just Kate, princesses never have surnames,” said Kate cheerfully. “I live at the castle over the way.” She pointed. “I have five first names!” she added anxiously, thinking Yagmar might disapprove of a surname-less princess.

“A princess…” said Yagmar slowly, getting up carefully off the forest floor and scowling. “Well, well, well…”

I am sorry to say it, but Yagmar was not a nice, cuddly kind of old woman, the type who gives you chocolates and calls you dearie. In fact, she disliked Kate on sight, because Kate was so pretty and young, and even more when she found out that Kate was a princess. Already she was wondering how she could trick Kate and use the young princess to her advantage.

“Well, my pretty,” said Yagmar, suddenly changing her tone and pasting a ghastly yellow smile over her face, “I’m afraid I’ve had an … an accident. I’m getting old, you see, and I was simply wandering through the forest and admiring the pretty flowers and the frolicking bunny rabbits” (Yagmar despised animals) “when I looked up at a bird in a tree that was singing so sweetly” (Yagmar hated music) “and tripped over a root and managed to knock myself out for a while.”

“Oh, you poor old woman!” cried Princess Kate, her heart melting. Anybody who liked pansies and birdsong must be trustworthy.

“You’re a good girl,” Yagmar said, her voice sounding feebler and feebler as she spoke. “You wouldn’t share a picnic with an old woman, would you?”

“Of course,” said Kate, patting Yagmar’s shoulder. “You sit right down. Would you like some meat pie?”

“Oh, yes dear,” said Yagmar, accepting the offering as she creaked down to the ground, wincing in every joint. “I’m afraid I haven’t got much to share, your Highness. Only a humble bottle of lemonade.” And she innocently produced a dusty green bottle from her robes.

At this point, Kate should have become suspicious. Although her parents were easy-going, they had tried to instil a proper degree of caution into their daughter. Never accept food from strangers, they had said, unless we say you can. No ‘special’ lollies, no curious drinks, nothing, Kate. But it never entered Kate’s mind on this occasion to suspect anything. “Ooh, lemonade!” she cried. “That’s my favourite! How perfect. Do pour some into these glasses while I cut the currant cake.”

Luckily for Kate, just as she raised the pretty ruby-encrusted glass to her lips and as Yagmar watched breathlessly, the head gardener appeared through the bushes, panting. “Your Highness!” he cried, and Kate turned around, lowering her glass.

“Oh, hello, Thomas! I have just made a new friend!”

Unluckily for Yagmar, Thomas saw right through her at once. He had seen a witch once when he was a boy, and Yagmar had the same bright green, mesmerizing eyes, the same mottled white skin, and the same long grey hair. She was also wearing a black coat and a witch’s hat, which may have helped. “Be off with you!” he shouted. “Off! Get away from the princess!”

“Why, Thomas!” said Kate, astonished, as Yagmar started muttering something about no respect for the elderly these days.

“Don’t you touch her!” shouted Thomas. “Go on! Back off! Your Highness, come here!”

And so it was that Princess Kate was rescued from Yagmar’s magic. The bewildered princess was rushed back to the castle, where she was read a very stern lecture about recognising witches and not eating the food of strangers from her parents, from Thomas, from her old nurse, from all the servants, and from anyone else she chanced to meet. Meanwhile, Yagmar scoured the forest for a piece of wood suitable for a new broomstick, muttering to herself angrily—, now with a new grudge on her mind and a new determination.


Alison Stedman is a senior fiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.

© 2005, Alison Stedman

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