The Queen’s Butterflies
By Alana Joli Abbott
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a queen who was known throughout the lands for her love of butterflies. Her palace housed a very fine menagerie, but the crown jewel was the butterfly garden. She loved her butterflies so that she could not bear to see them leave in the winter, and her butterfly garden was enclosed by walls of glass, so she could admire their jewel-bright wings even when snows turned the world around them white.
Now in this land, there was also a witch who lived deep in the woods. The witch was well known for her potions, and desperate travelers would brave the depths of the dark forest in order to consult with her on remedies for their illnesses. She, too, had a brilliant garden that she harvested upon the seasons, tending to the herbs and flowers in the summer and caring for her holly and mistletoe in the winter.
One winter, the queen’s butterflies were ailing, so she sent for the witch, who left the woods and traveled to the palace. But once there, she and the queen argued, and a terrible winter storm howled over the land. When the storm departed, the witch was gone, and all seemed well.
That spring, the weather stayed cold, the snow did not melt, and the monsters came.
First, it was only a small beast, the size of a housecat, but with wings black as night and teeth long as knives. Next, a creatures with a thousand legs the size of an ox crawled along the road, its gaping maw swallowing up carts carrying the last of the winter grains. Another with wings blue as the sky and grasping claws as sharp as a sickle plagued merchants at the palace gates. But the worst was that the queen’s butterfly garden, with its glass walls, was no longer filled with beautiful butterflies, but twisted, awful creatures in a kaleidoscope of fangs, claws, and scaled wings. The queen announced that whoever could stop the witch from transforming the kingdom’s butterflies into monsters would be granted half the kingdom in reward. Many foreign princes and second sons and daughters seeking their fortunes attempted to fight the monsters and find the witch, but the monsters sent them running, the dangers of the lasting winter defeated them in the woods, and the witch could no longer be found at her home in the woods.
In a small village that bordered the woods, there lived a woodcutter and his daughter. The woodcutter was known in the village as a brave man, unafraid of the forest’s dangers. He would travel deep into the woods, sometimes for days at a time, to bring back the best timber, and though some other villages suffered in the winter from lack of fuel, this village was always well stocked. When the monsters came, travelers began to whisper that the woodcutter was an ally of the witch, and that was how he could always provide for his family and his village. The woodcutter grew afraid, not for himself, but for his daughter.
“I am going on a long journey,” he told her. “There is enough wood here until I return, and if you attend to the chores of the widow down the road, she will give you eggs from her chickens and apples and cheese from her cellar. You will not go hungry.”
“But what of the monsters?” the girl asked her father. “How will you be safe?”
At this the woodcutter smiled. “I have no fear of butterflies,” he told her. “Remember what I have taught you, be kind, and all will be well.” And then he left on his journey, leaving the girl behind.
The girl was known as Clever Helen, because she was always asking questions, and because she never accepted simple answers such as “We have always done it this way.” Although Clever Helen believed that her father was brave, she thought it was less because he was unafraid of the woods and more because he had learned how to understand the forest’s ways. She had traveled with him sometimes, and she noticed that he never chose the easiest trees to harvest, instead selecting the trees that competed with each other for water and sun, culling one so that the other could grow stronger, and better provide for the forest creatures. She had seen him speak with the forest animals around him, as though they could understand, and she knew that if he found a bush full of berries, he would only harvest enough for himself and Clever Helen to eat, leaving the rest for the bears and bees. She suspected that he might well be friends with the witch of the woods, but she knew he would never wish harm to the villagers and travelers. So Clever Helen began to think about the problem of the monsters, and she became determined that she would speak to the witch herself. Perhaps she could talk some sense into the witch, and win herself half a kingdom—though she wasn’t sure what she might do with it once the queen rewarded her. More than that treasure, she was curious why the witch would make monsters in the first place, and she became determined to find out.
Clever Helen began to gather her supplies. She would need bread and food, and so each night she saved aside some of the apples and eggs she was given for her chores. She traded those and some of her wood to the baker, who gave her bread and hard tack, but she kept the cheese for herself. She already had good, sturdy traveling clothes, but early spring in the woods could be very cold, so she traded more of her wood for a fine pair of leather mittens lined with rabbit fur and a long coat with many pockets. Clever Helen packed a bag with flint and steel, her food, and a long blanket she could use to create a shelter, and she set off into the woods, following one of her father’s trails, to find her answers.
She had not gone very far into the woods before she encountered a fox stuck in a trap. Its white fur blended into the snow, and she might not have seen it but for the dark red blood that marred its leg. Clever Helen approached carefully, so that she might not startle the creature into biting her.
“Have no fear, girl,” said the fox. “If you will only help me out of this trap, I will not bite you.”
Clever Helen approached the fox more confidently and looked at the trap. “Well, Fox, if you will not bite me, then I will help you out of this trap.” She leaned down so that she could see how it had snapped shut and determined that she could use her traveling knife to lever open the trap’s jaws, then a stick to create a larger space, until the fox had room to escape. Slowly, she eased the trap open, creating a larger and larger space, but carefully, so that it would not again snap shut on either her own hands or the poor fox’s leg. Finally, the fox slid its leg out and bounced away, only to falter in the snow.
“You can’t expect to travel without a bit of mending,” she said, and she took a length of bandages from her supplies—because she was well prepared for her journey and knew she might need them—and wrapped the fox’s wound.
The fox looked at the wraps dubiously. “I will not be able to hunt like this,” he said.
“Then you shall have to travel with me until you’ve healed,” Clever Helen said, offering the fox a hunk of her cheese. She knew she would have to be careful: she had packed only for one person’s journey, but surely the fox would not eat so much that either of them would starve.
“Have you seen any monsters?” she asked the fox.
“The only monsters in this part of the woods are no trouble to me,” the fox said, snapping its sharp teeth in a grin.
That night, they camped in the woods; Clever Helen collected kindling and built a small fire to keep them warm and made a tent from her blanket. She and the fox huddled together in her long, warm coat, and the fox’s fur helped to keep her even warmer than the fire.
The next day, the pair continued the woodcutter’s trail, deeper into the woods. As they stopped for a meager lunch near an ice-covered pond, Clever Helen giving the fox more of her cheese and eating an apple herself, the girl noticed a swan lying still next to the icy water. Again, Clever Helen approached carefully, not wanting to startle the large bird, but it was so weak it only blinked as she neared. Then Clever Helen noticed that the bird’s feet were coated in ice, and that it could not move.
“Water,” the bird croaked, and Clever Helen gave it some water from a canteen she kept inside her coat. Then she gave the swan some bread so that it might regain its strength while she puzzled over how to free the swan’s feet.
“How did you get your feet stuck in the pond, you silly swan?” asked the fox while Clever Helen built a small fire.
The swan glared at the fox. “If you must know,” he said, his voice recovered from food and water, “there was a sudden storm. I was swimming quite contentedly when ice froze the water. I only barely made it back to shore before I was caught.”
As the swan explained, Clever Helen heated some pond rocks in the flames. She used her traveling knife to flick the hot rocks from the fire, then cradled them in her fine mittens and placed them on the ice around the swan’s feet. It took some time, and Clever Helen had to be very careful that the new spring grasses poking through the snow did not catch fire, but soon, the ice around the swan melted, and the bird was free. He stumbled away from the lake, and Clever Helen quickly calculated whether she could feed the bird for their travels as well.
“You will have to come with us until you’ve healed,” she told the swan, and the bird quickly agreed. “Have you seen any monsters?”
“None that I fear,” said the swan. “My beak is quick and my wings are powerful.”
“Not so strong as my teeth,” said the fox. The swan and the fox began bickering like old friends, and as they traveled, their silly arguments made the road a little less lonely.
That night, they reached a campsite the woodcutter had used many times, for there were several paths that led from it farther into the woods. Clever Helen put up her tent, built a fire, and cuddled with both the fox and the swan beneath her long coat. The swan’s feet were still like ice, but his feathers were warm, and again Clever Helen was warmer than she would have been from the fire alone.
The next morning, Clever Helen found that a sleepy snake had crawled into her pocket. “You have warm pocketsssss,” the snake hissed. “May I sssstay?”
Clever Helen thought of her food with worry, but when she looked at the snow around them, she remembered her father’s advice. “Of course,” she told the snake. “Perhaps tomorrow, spring will arrive.”
“Then there will be more monssssstersssss,” the snake said, but before Clever Helen could ask what it meant, the snake had fallen back asleep.
Another day of travel passed, and another night. The friends kept good cheer and kept each other warm, though the sleepy snake only poked her head out of Clever Helen’s pocket to share in the food and drink.
The next day, they met the wolves. The woods opened into a clearing, where it split. On each of the branches sat a large white wolf.
“We are the witch’s wolves,” they spoke in unison. “You may ask one of us one question in order to choose your path. But beware, one of us always lies and one of us always speaks the truth.”
Clever Helen began to ponder the riddle when the fox interrupted, “That is clearly false. If one of you always lies and one of you always speaks the truth you couldn’t possibly deliver the riddle—or anything else—in unison.”
“We are not bound by the delivery of the riddle,” one wolf said cautiously. “It would be impossible to solve if we could not speak it.”
“That is clearly true,” said the fox, turning and grinning wickedly at Clever Helen.
Clever Helen approached the wolf who had answered the fox. “If I want to see the witch, which path would the other wolf say I should take?”
“His own,” said the first wolf.
And so Clever Helen chose the path of the wolf who the fox had determined was truthful, and the companions journeyed back into the woods. Before long, they came to a decrepit shack, its yard strewn with bones.
The snake wrapped itself around Clever Helen’s wrist and squeezed. She nodded and bravely stepped into the yard. As she walked, she noticed that the bones seemed less bone-like and more like oddly shaped sticks. The shack, which had seemed so poorly taken care of, was really more of a cottage, and what had appeared to be disrepair was really the way that dried herbs hung in the windows and along the roof.
Clever Helen knocked on the door. It creaked open and Clever Helen peered inside, where she saw an old woman stirring a cauldron. The girl breathed deeply and smelled potatoes and venison rather than the odd, acrid scent of magic.
“Hello, Grandmother,” Clever Helen said politely, addressing the woman with a respectful familiarity her father would have approved. “Have we arrived in time for some of your delicious stew?”
The witch laughed and invited them inside. The fox, the swan, Clever Helen, and the snake sat around the witch’s table, and the old woman gave them bread and stew that warmed them to their toes.
“You’ve come a long way to see me,” the witch said once the meal was finished. “Why have you come?”
“I’d like to request that you turn the monsters back to butterflies,” Clever Helen said. “The people are afraid, and the roads are dangerous.”
“I could,” the witch said, “but I won’t. Better for the spell to be undone by the one who made it.”
The snake slithered out of Clever Helen’s pocket and curled itself around a small silver mirror near the witch’s hearth.
“What about the winter?” Clever Helen asked, thinking quickly. If the witch had not cast the spell…
“Spring will come in its time,” the witch assured her. “But as the butterflies return, there will be more monsters.” She looked out her window. “Yes, I think it’s better that winter stay a bit longer.”
And Clever Helen noticed that as the witch spoke, her breath frosted the window, and a light snow fell on the witch’s yard.
Clever Helen tried one last question. “Will you come with me to speak to the queen?”
“Oh, the queen and I have said quite enough to each other,” the witch said. “But you may take the mirror your friend has found. I suspect it will help you.”
When Clever Helen and the animals left the witch’s cottage, they found themselves in the woods just outside of Clever Helen’s village.
“What will you do now?” asked the swan.
“Go and speak to the queen,” said Clever Helen, the snaked curled comfortingly around her wrist, her hand squeezing the handle of the mirror in the pocket of her long coat.
It took less time to reach the palace than it had to reach the witch, and if people were curious about a girl traveling with a fox, a swan, and a snake, they asked no questions. Clever Helen waited her turn to address the queen, and after a long while, she was brought into the queen’s throne room, where she knelt before the ruler.
“What news do you bring, child?” the queen asked, and her voice was like ice, sharp and brittle.
“I have seen the witch,” Clever Helen said calmly. “She is holding back the spring to keep the butterflies beyond our kingdom until the monsters can be defeated.”
The queen’s laugh shattered the air in the room, and it held no humor. “Yet she cannot be bothered to remove the monsters from our land?” the ruler demanded.
Clever Helen looked up at the queen, drawing the mirror from her pocket. “No, your majesty,” the girl said. “She said you must send them away yourself.”
The queen moved to strike Clever Helen, but the swan spread its wings between the ruler and the girl, and Clever Helen raised the mirror so the queen could not help but look into it. There, the queen saw the truth: it was her fear that had created the monsters. The sickness her butterflies had suffered was despair that they would never be free, but the queen, so afraid she would lose them forever, would not let them go. In the mirror, she saw the fear and hopelessness create a spell that changed the monster in her heart to monsters that plagued her kingdom. A tear melted down her face, and when the swan saw that she reached for Clever Helen in kindness, he backed away.
“I am sorry, my child,” said the queen. “I could not see.”
“Love them, your majesty,” said Clever Helen.
The queen took Clever Helen and her companions to the butterfly garden, where the ruler threw open the doors, despite her guards’ attempts to prevent her. Out of the doors of the glass house flew not monsters, but butterflies, dozens upon dozens of jewel-bright wings streaming up into the warm sun. The day turned almost balmy as Clever Helen stood with the queen, watching until the last of the butterflies and gone.
Clever Helen did not accept the queen’s offer of half her kingdom, but the queen would not allow her to go away with nothing, so Clever Helen accepted a fine silver cup, and promised she would return now and again to help the queen solve problems. When Clever Helen arrived home, her father was there to open the door and invite her in.