The last mortal kingdom before the unmeasured sweep of Faerieland begins has at best held an uneasy truce with its unpredictable neighbor. There is nothing to show a boundary, at least on the mortal side of it; and if any ordinary human creature ever saw a faerie—or at any rate recognized one—it was never mentioned; but the existence of the boundary and of faeries beyond it is never in doubt either.
So begins “The Stolen Princess,” the first story of this collection, about the meeting between the human princess Linadel and the faerie prince Donathor. “The Princess and the Frog” concerns Rana and her unexpected alliance with a small, green, flipper-footed denizen of a pond in the palace gardens. “The Hunting of the Hind” tells of a princess who has bewitched her beloved brother, hoping to beg some magic of cure, for her brother is dying, and the last tale is a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses in which an old soldier discovers, with a little help from a lavender-eyed witch, the surprising truth about where the princesses dance their shoes to tatters every night.
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About the Author
Robin McKinley has won various awards and citations for her writing, including the Newbery Medal for The Hero and the Crown, a Newbery Honor for The Blue Sword, and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature for Sunshine. Her other books include the New York Times bestseller Spindle’s End; two novel-length retellings of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, Beauty and Rose Daughter; Deerskin, another novel-length fairy-tale retelling, of Charles Perrault’s Donkeyskin; and a retelling of the Robin Hood legend, The Outlaws of Sherwood. She lives with her husband, the English writer Peter Dickinson; three dogs (two hellhounds and one hell terror); an 1897 Steinway upright; and far too many rosebushes.
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The Door in the Hedge
And Other Stories
By Robin McKinley
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1981 Robin McKinley
All rights reserved.
THE FAERIES had never been much noted for stealing members of the royal family of that last kingdom, perhaps because that family was more noted for its political acumen and a rather ponderous awareness of its own importance than for lightness of foot and spirit or beauty of face and form. But the current Queen's own sister, her twin sister, on the eve of their seventeenth birthday, had been stolen; and the Queen herself had never quite gotten over it. Or so everyone else thought: the Queen tried not to think of it at all.
The twins had been their royal parents' only children, and they were as beautiful as dawn, as spring, as your favorite poem and your first love: as beautiful as the rest of their family—aunts, uncles, cousins, and cousins-several-times-removed—were kind and stuffy and inclined to stoutness. The twins were kind, too, probably as kind as they were beautiful, which could not have been said of their worthy but plump parents.
Alora was the eldest by about half an hour, and so it was understood that she would eventually be Queen; but this cast no shadow between her and Ellian her sister, as you knew at once when you saw them together. And they were always together. Alora was fair and Ellian dark; it was easy to tell them apart with your eyes open. But with your eyes shut, it was impossible: they both had the same husky, slightly breathless voice, and they thought so much alike that you could expect the same comment from either of them. The people loved them; loved them so much that no one felt the desire to indulge in a preference for one sister over the other.
Not that they were stupidly interchangeable. They understood that the sympathy between them was so great that it left them quite free: and so Alora played the flute, and Ellian the harp; Ellian preferred horseback riding and Alora bathing in the lake, where she could outswim many of the fish, while Ellian paddled and floated and got her hair in her eyes and laughed. Alora could sing and Ellian could not. And each wore clothes that suited her individual coloring best; they made no mistakes here. But while they each rode a white mare on state occasions, Ellian's had fire in its eye and a curl to its lip, while Alora had to wear spurs to keep hers from falling asleep.
They slept in the same room, their tall canopied princesses' beds each pushed under a tall mullioned window. The room was large enough for both of them and their ladies-in-waiting and their royal robes not to get too severely in one another's way when they were dressing for a high court dinner, but not so large that they could not whisper to each other when they should have been asleep, and not lose the whispers into the high carved ceiling and the deep rugs and curtains. And so it was that when Alora opened her eyes on her seventeenth birthday and saw the sun shining as though he were convinced that this was the finest day he had ever seen and he must make the most of it, she looked across the room to her sister's bed and found it empty. She knew at once what had happened, although neither of them had ever thought of it before. If Ellian had gone out early, she would have awakened her sister first, in case she would like to accompany her—as Alora would have. They always accompanied each other. The little blue flowers called faeries'-eyes scattered across the coverlet were not more dreadful to her now than the fact of the empty bed itself.
A few minutes later when they found her, Alora was curled up on her sister's bed, weeping silently and hopelessly into her sister's pillow. When they lifted her up, they were surprised by a faint mysterious smell from the bruised flowers she had lain upon. The ladies bundled the coverlet up, flowers and all, and took it away, and burnt it.
The Queen and the ladies-in-waiting cried and wailed till the whole palace was infected, and the people who were gathered in the palace courtyard ready to cheer the opening festivities of the Princesses' birthday groaned aloud when they heard the news, given by the King himself with tears running down his face; and many wept as bitterly as Alora herself as they went their sorry ways homeward.
But while everyone else was sorry, they also at last shook themselves out of it and went on with their lives. Alora did not. She felt that she had only half a life left, and that a pale and quiet one. Her worried parents decided that perhaps the best thing to do for her was to marry her off quickly and let her begin housekeeping; it might also remind her of her responsibilities. She would be Queen someday, and her current listlessness would not do at all in a monarch. Her betrothed was willing—it was no state marriage of convenience for him: he had been desperately in love with her for three years, since she had first smiled at him, and was even unhappier than her parents that she smiled no more—and she was, well, she was fond of him and supposed she didn't mind. He was a cousin, but so many times removed that while he was indisputably kind, he was neither stout nor pompous; and in her weaker moments she thought he was quite handsome; and in her official moments she thought he would make a good king. They were married on her eighteenth birthday—it helped to cover up what had happened just a year ago—and he had just turned thirty.
She did pick up a bit after she was married. She never became exactly lively again, but then she was also getting older. Her smiles came more easily, and to her own surprise, she fell in love with her earnest young husband. He had known full well when his marriage proposal had been officially offered and officially accepted that Alora thought of him vaguely as a nice man and she did have to marry someone suitable. He also realized without false modesty that as available royalty went, he was a bargain. Not only did he not wear a corset nor have a red nose, he did have a sense of humor.
So, after he married her, he set out not really to woo her, which he thought would be cheating when affairs of state had almost forced them to get married in the first place, but to be as unflaggingly nice to her as he thought he could get away with. Their delight in each other after they became the sort of lovers that minstrels make ballads about (although it was certainly unpoetic of them to be married to each other) was so apparent that it spilled over into their dealings with their people; and the court became a more joyful place than it had been for many a long royal generation. And minstrels did make ballads about them, even though they were married to each other.
It was the tradition in this country that when the King and Queen reached a certain age—nobody knew precisely when that age was, but the country was lucky in its monarchs as it was lucky in so much else, and somehow they always had enough sense to know when they had reached it—they retired, and the next King and Queen took over. The older ones always went off to live somewhere as far away and as obscure as possible so they would not be tempted to meddle; and the new pair could settle in and start off without the grief of their parents' death hanging over them—or the feeling, on the other hand, that the parents were just in the next room, grumbling about the muddle those youngsters were making.
But usually the old King and Queen did not step down until the young ones had a child or two, and it half-raised and at least potentially capable of looking after itself to some extent. But Alora bore no children. And at last her parents shrugged and said that they had waited long enough. The Queen dreamed every night about that little cottage in the woods, with the brook beside it, and a flower garden that she could keep with her own hands—sometimes she dreamed of it two or three times in a night. Children weren't strictly necessary, even for monarchs; there was always somebody available to pass a crown to. And so at last came a day full of boxes and wagons and shouts, and last-minute directions on ruling ("Don't forget that the Duke of Murn expects to be served fresh aradel at every dinner he's invited to: I don't care what season it is, he will make your life miserable with hunting stories if you don't"). It all ended eventually with "Well, don't worry, you won't make too big a mess of it; we have faith in you; and come and visit us sometimes when the garden is blooming—and, well, goodbye."
While the people lined the roads and cheered, the new Queen Alora and King Gilvan stood silently on their balcony, the Royal Balcony of Public Appearances and Addresses, and watched the wagons roll away.
When the wagons were quite out of sight, and only a dusty blur on the horizon remained, hanging over the road they took and greying the trees that lined it, the pair on their balcony turned and went down into the palace, into their private rooms.
Gilvan was the first to break the silence; he sighed and said: "I wish my parents would take it upon themselves to retire. There're more than enough rising generations to take over for them—in fact you'd think the pressure from below would rise up and sweep them away ... but dukes and duchesses never seem to feel the compulsion to be reasonable that kings and queens do." Gilvan had felt rather than seen the unhappy look Alora had given him when he spoke of rising generations, and he knew what she was thinking before she opened her mouth. "Don't worry about it," he said simply. "You needn't."
"I alone have half a dozen brothers and sisters, and they're all married and all have half a dozen children apiece. As your father said—"
"He didn't exactly say it," said Alora hastily.
"No; his range of hems is wide and most expressive. But the crown won't go begging; that's all." Gilvan paused and looked thoughtful. "There's rather a glut on the market in royal offspring in our day, really. We don't have to add to it. In fact, it may be wiser that we don't. There isn't all that much for all of us to do. There are too many local festivals and celebrations of this and that already, and even more dukes and earls to do the presiding."
Alora almost laughed. "Yes, but as King and Queen we really ought to have an heir. Of our own."
Gilvan shrugged. "Noisy little beasts, children—or at any rate our family's are all tiresomely loud—we can do without them. There are too many that have to visit us already. And if you mean that direct-line stuff, well, the crown has done more dancing around over the last several hundred years than a cat on a hot stove. A small leap to a nephew—is it Antin that's the oldest? We aren't due for Queen What's-her-name, are we?"
"No, Antin, fortunately. Lirrah is the next oldest."
"And hasn't a brain in her pretty head." Gilvan looked relieved. "I thought it was Antin—as long as he doesn't break his neck out hunting someday. Anyway, a small leap to a nephew won't discomfit it any. And you know I don't mind."
Alora looked at him and nodded: he was only speaking the truth. He didn't mind; but she did not know how much that decision had cost him, and she couldn't help wondering. And she did mind, somehow; and she rather thought that their people, even if only wistfully, did too. Antin was a nice boy (and let nothing happen to him! One could only hope Lirrah's parents could find someone with sense enough for two to marry her), but ... she didn't mean to think of Ellian, but still she often did; and she knew the rumor that was whispered about her, Queen Alora: that she bore her husband and her kingdom no children because she had never quite recovered from the loss of her sister years ago. She wasn't sure that this wasn't correct.
But then, shortly after she became Queen, and after a dozen quiet years of marriage, Alora began to have dizzy spells in the mornings when she first stepped out of bed. She didn't like being sick, so she ignored them, assuming that if they didn't get any attention they would go away; and every day they did, but most mornings they came back. Then other things happened, and she knew for sure: but she was afraid to tell anyone, because perhaps it still wasn't true, maybe she read the signs wrong because she wanted so much that it be true. And then one day Gilvan went looking for his wife and couldn't find her anywhere that he thought she should be; and at last when he was beginning to feel a little worried, he ran her to earth in their big bedroom. The bed itself was a monster, up three velvet-carpeted steps to a dais almost as large as the dais that held the royal table in the banqueting hall. The four carved bedposts stood eight feet above the mattress, broad as masts, and were almost black in color, yielding only a very little brown warmth if the sun shone full upon them; the bed-curtains were as elaborate as a hundred of the finest needlewomen could make them, working all day for six months before the royal wedding, a dozen years ago.
Alora looked very small, sitting at the great bed's foot, her arms around one of the posts, her face pressed against the curtains. She sat very still, as if she were afraid she might overflow if she moved; but with joy or sorrow he could not tell.
"What is it?" he said, and realized his heart was thumping much louder than it ought to be.
She opened her eyes and saw him, and a smile overflowed her quietness. She let go the bedpost and held out her arms to him. "Our heir," she said. "Six months more, I think, if I have been keeping proper count. I've been afraid to tell you before, but it's true, after all these years...."
Gilvan, who had never cared before, discovered suddenly and shatteringly that he was about to care very much indeed.
Alora had been keeping proper count; five months and twenty-seven days later she gave birth to a daughter, while Gilvan paced up and down a long stone corridor somewhere in the palace—later, he was never quite sure where it was—and thought about all sorts of things, not a one of which he could remember afterward. They named her Linadel, and her christening party was the most magnificent occasion anyone could remember. The young sprigs and dandies of the court—even the best-regulated court has a few of them who are above having a good time—had a good time; the great-grandmothers who spent all their time complaining how much handsomer and finer and generally superior things had been when they were young unbent enough to smile and admit that this was really a rather nice party, now they came to think of it. And the old King and Queen dusted themselves off, and left their precious flower garden long enough to return to the capital, and meet their new granddaughter, and borrow some fancy dress, and go to the party; and they even thought their granddaughter was worth it.
Linadel herself was rosy and smiling throughout, and didn't seem to mind being kept awake so long and passed from one set of strange arms to another, and breathed on by all sorts (all the better sorts, at least) of strange people. She continued to smile and to make small gurgles and squeaks, and to look fresh and contented. It was her parents who wore out first and called an end to the festivities.
Linadel grew up, as princesses are expected to do, more beautiful every day; and with charms of mind and manner that kept pace. She didn't speak at all till she was three years old, and then on her third birthday she astonished everyone by saying, quite distinctly, as she sat surrounded by gifts and fancy sweets, and godmothers and godfathers (she had almost two dozen of them), and specially favored subjects and servants, "This is a very nice party. Thank you very much." Everyone thought this was a very auspicious beginning; and they were right. Linadel never lisped her r's or took refuge in smiling and looking as pretty as a picture (which she could have done easily) when she tackled a comment too large for her. On her fourth birthday she presented everyone with what amounted to a small speech. "And a better one than some I've heard her granddaddy give," said a godfather out of the corner of his mouth to a godmother, who giggled.
She never looked back, whatever she did. In any other kingdom her parents and friends—and everyone was her friend—would have said that the faeries had blessed her. Here, they said only, "Isn't she wonderful, isn't she beautiful, isn't it splendid that she's ours?"
Excerpted from The Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley. Copyright © 1981 Robin McKinley. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsTHE STOLEN PRINCESS,
THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG,
THE HUNTING OF THE HIND,
THE TWELVE DANCING PRINCESSES,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,
What People are Saying About This
Robin McKinley knows her geography of fantasy, the nuances of the language, the atmosphere of magic. . . (The Washington Post)