Once upon a time there was a king, named Henry, and his queen, named Helen, who ruled a beautiful kingdom full of sun and rain and flowers and trees and farms and towns and people who were happy just with living their lives and loving their families. King Henry and Queen Helen loved each other very much, and even though they were very busy taking care of their kingdom they were just thinking it was about time to have children and be happy with a family of their own when some bad news reached them.
It seemed that an evil witch had just taken control of the neighboring kingdom. She had killed its king and made its queen disappear and made all the people of the kingdom into her slaves. Worse, she wanted to take control of the whole world. It was only a matter of time before she attacked King Henry and Queen Helen’s kingdom. The messenger who brought them this bad news was a young man who had short brown hair and large blue eyes and a very crooked nose. He told them all about the evil witch and how she had the power to change what anyone looked like. She could make herself young or old, tall or short, beautiful or ugly. And she could do the same to anyone she touched. Often she would make her soldiers look like women or young children so that those fighting against them did not like to hurt them. That was how she came to power.
Queen Helen had been looking at this messenger for a long time, looking past that crooked nose and into those large blue eyes.
“Can she even make a woman look like a man?”
“Could she make someone with flowing golden hair have short brown hair instead?”
“Yes.” The messenger looked at the floor. He seemed about to cry.
“Gwendolyn? Is that you?” Queen Helen asked.
The boy really did cry, but he nodded his head.
Queen Helen had recognized the eyes of her old friend, Queen Gwendolyn of the neighboring kingdom.
When Queen Gwendolyn, now disguised as a young boy, stopped crying, she told how the witch had broken into the castle and changed her, how many soldiers had come before the witch could change the king also like she had planned, how the queen had run away when she saw herself in the mirror, and how her husband the king had been so upset at her disappearance that he had ridden into battle himself and been killed. “It’s all my fault,” she sobbed. “I should have stayed close. But I was afraid no one would know me looking like this, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted them to.”
Queen Helen hugged her friend and told her not to blame herself and thanked her for bringing this news to them so that they could be prepared for the witch’s attacks.
They didn’t have long to prepare.
The very next day, the witch and her soldiers attacked the kingdom. King Henry rode out with his army and they fought for many long days. It was very hard. Ad Queen Gwendolyn had warned them, the witch would change the appearance of her soldiers. Sometimes they would look just like an innocent young woman…right up until they attacked you. Sometimes they would look just like you, so that you had to fight yourself. Sometimes they would look very like someone you knew from home, so that you felt as though you were killing a friend. But King Henry urged his men to be strong. He told them what Queen Helen had seen in her friends eyes and urged them to look into their enemies’ eyes to see the truth. This helped. No matter how much a soldier might look like a friend, he always had the eyes of an enemy. Many of King Henry’s soldiers began wearing special helmets with small eye holes that helped them look only at the enemies’ eyes and not the rest of their appearance. It looked like King Henry was about to win the war. The witch’s soldiers were retreating back over the mountains and into the neighboring kingdom.
But the witch had one more plan.
While King Henry was at war, the witch sent several of her best men, disguised as palace servants, to kidnap Queen Helen. They brought her to the witch’s tent, high in the mountains between the two kingdoms. The witch laughed as she put her hand on Queen Helen’s beautiful head. “With you gone, the king will have no will to stand against me any more.” Then she changed Queen Helen so that she was unrecognizable and sent her to another tent to be kept under guard until the war was over. Ten guards stood outside the tent on all sides. Inside, Queen Helen sat and thought and maybe cried a little but mostly thought about what to do. When she was done thinking she knew two things. First, that she had to get back to King Henry no matter how far away he was or what she looked like now. Second, that the way she looked was actually going to help her get free.
When King Henry heard that Queen Helen was missing, he was heartbroken. He went to his own tent on the edge of the battlefield and sat down and thought and maybe cried a little but mostly thought about what to do. When he was done thinking he knew two things. First, that he needed to find Queen Helen no matter where she was or what she looked like now. Second, that the only way to find Queen Helen was to first win this war.
The first thing that Queen Helen did was rip her dress. It looked ridiculous on her now anyway. Then she went to the door of the tent and asked the guards if they could please get her a needle and thread to fix her dress. They felt sorry for her, so they did. Then Queen Helen worked away day and night inside the tent, sewing and sewing and sewing. When she was done, she had all new clothes to wear, clothes that looked just like the ones the women wore who brought her food. She put them on and waited. First thing in the morning, the old guards went off to eat, and new guards took their place. Just when they were changing, an old woman came to bring the queen her food. She slipped it inside without even looking and hurried away. Quick as a wink, Queen Helen dumped the food out and walked out of the tent, carrying the empty dishes. The new guards nodded at her, thinking that she was one of the kitchen workers. Queen Helen calmly walked through the camp to the kitchen tent. She got some food. She left the dirty dishes. Then when no one was looking, she just walked away into the woods and started making her way home.
Meanwhile, King Henry had gathered together his whole army. He told them about Queen Helen disappearing and their only chance of rescuing her was to win this battle. Then they attacked the witch’s soldiers more fiercely than they ever had. It was a long battle. It lasted without stopping for three whole days. At the end, King Henry and his men were exhausted, but they found themselves right in the witch’s camp in the mountains. The few of her men who were left were all running away through the woods. The witch herself was nowhere to be seen, but that was not surprising. No one even knew what she really looked like.
King Henry didn’t worry himself about the witch, though. Without even stopping to sleep, he rode all the way home to the castle to begin looking for Queen Helen. And so it was, that while Queen Helen was slowly walking toward home, a journey that would take months without a horse to ride, King Henry was searching his kingdom. Starting with the castle, he walked up and down every hall, opened every door, turned up every street, knocked at every house. Pausing only to eat and sleep when he absolutely had to, he looked into the eyes of every person he met, looking for the one pair of eyes he would recognize in an instant.
This went on for several weeks. Finally, even the King’s friends were starting to tell him he should give up. Queen Helen could be dead. She could look like anyone. How would he ever know. But he would not stop. He looked into face after face. He studied the eyes of small children and old men. He talked to fat innkeepers and slender young women. Blue eyes, brown eyes, hazel eyes, green eyes, eyes that twinkled, eyes that filled with tears to see his sad face, but none were the eyes he loved.
Finally, one day, in a village far from the castle, he came out of a house and saw an old woman coming up the lane. She was walking with a stick and looking at the ground and was bent over as if exhausted. Hurrying over to her, the King gave her his arm and led her to a nearby bench to rest.
“Thank you, young man,” she said and looked up into his eyes.
The King gasped. “Helen!”
Her beautiful eyes filled with tears. Without even answering, she buried her face in his shoulder.
“Come,” said King Henry. “We will get you home.”
Queen Helen just smiled up at him through her tears. “I am home,” she said.
But just in case you were wondering….
The queen lived as an old woman for a year and a day. She and King Henry were very happy to be together and to have their kingdom safe again, but sometime they felt a little sad that they would never have a family of their own. Then one day, all of a sudden, Queen Helen woke up and was herself, young and beautiful. All over the kingdom, people who had been changed turned suddenly back to the way they were before. And so they knew that the witch must be dead. They never found out how she died, but I have since been told that it is a very good story all on its own.