"Well. . . where would you like me to start?"

"The beginning usually works best."

"The old 'once upon a time' spiel, then?"

"Not if you don't want to. What's your earliest memory?"

My earliest memory . . . it would have to be when I was about three. Rose and I were still small then, but our mother had taken us for a walk in the woods. She was starting to get ill then, and it was one of the last times she accompanied us before she had to stay in the cottage while we took our walks. We were too young to understand what it really meant, so we just loved the freedom we had . . . the animals in the woods would never harm us. Nothing like Disney portrayed, they were still wild and would shy away if we got too close, but they realized we were young, and not predators, so they didn't just run off right away. We may have just been fortunate and not run across any predators, or any in the area had already been sated by the abundant wildlife. At any rate, we spent our time in the woods happily and without fear.

Those days were happy; it was just the three of us living peacefully in the cabin, with the occasional visitor. Usually at those times, they would stay in the back of the room with our mother, speaking in low voices.

When we were about eight, our father finally arrived and explained things. He was a king, and before we were born a prophecy was made by a fairy who was well-respected, that one of us would be in grave danger should we remain in the castle. Our mother had spirited us to the cottage, raising us in isolation. Our father explained that he felt the time of risk had passed, and it was time we went to the castle to be raised as the proper princesses we were. I loved the idea and couldn't wait to go, but my sister said she'd rather stay in the cottage in the woods. Arrangements were made, and after tearful goodbyes, my sister and I parted ways. It wasn't until after we got to the castle that it was finally explained; the doctors keeping an eye on my mother had informed him that the queen was fading, and would not be long for the world. She died within an hour of my departure. It wasn't until much later that I found she had vowed that neither of her children would leave the woods, so long as she had breath in her body, for she doubted the curse would end as soon as my father did.

I explored the castle on my own, mostly free to go as I pleased, though of course some rooms were off-limits. I missed my sister, and the sterile castle was a stark contrast to the warmth of the forest. My exploring lasted only a week or two before my lessons began. Tutors were brought in to train me to be a proper princess. Reading, writing, and etiquette were the basics I started with. My father was always off attending to the kingdom, and the little free time I had was usually spent on the castle grounds, in the royal garden.

A few years passed as such, and my father remarried. I was still young, and couldn't tell at the time what she was truly like. My stepmother was beautiful, though generally cold and aloof, she would spend hours in her room, gazing into her mirror. Other children whose parents remarry in such a way tend to say they felt the usurper stole their remaining parent from them, taking away the time they used to spend together. I never felt this, as my father still spent the same sliver of time with me as he always did, and I still didn't comprehend the further implications of it.

One day, about a month after she had moved to the castle, I was in the garden as usual, sitting under a large and ancient apple tree that had likely grown there since the castle had been built. The branches were heavy with ripe red apples, but even the lowest was still to high for me to reach. My stepmother stepped beside me, startling me as I hadn't heard her approach. She reached up and picked a particularly delicious-looking apple, then neatly sliced it in half with a knife she had on her. She passed half to me and took a bite from the other half herself. I smiled and ate contentedly, enjoying the crisp taste.

This became a sort of ritual for us, one time that we would share. It was a large castle and we all had things to attend to, so these moments were few and far between, but they were still there. I would sometimes catch her looking at me oddly, but I never thought anything of it.

My lessons progressed, and I was the very model of a proper princess. I'd make appearances in court functions and all the ceremony involved. My life was by no means easy, but I was hardly the servant in rags the stories tell of. I was always taught, above all, that one day when I was old enough, my prince would come on a white horse, we'd go off and be married and live happily ever after. This was drilled into me over and over, and I soon grew to believe it.

Sporadic visits with Rose were always joyful events, reminding each other that we were best friends forever, no matter where we lived.

Seasons passed, and the story everyone's familiar with set off. I was excited that I had gotten a rare treat of being able to walk in the woods proper, not simply the castle grounds. The huntsman accompanying me wasn't anything to cause my suspicion, as I had grown accustomed to guards watching over me for my protection in the castle. When the attack came, I thought he had gone mad and ran. If he repented at the last moment, I was unaware, as I turned and went off as fast as I could at the first flash of the knife. I ran for hours through unfamiliar territory, not knowing the way back to the castle. Finally coming across the small cottage by a stream, I finally allowed myself to collapse from exhaustion, hoping against hope that whoever lived there would grant me shelter or passage.

Suffice to say, I do not look back at that time fondly. I was little more than a slave, washing windows that had likely never been touched, constantly having a new load of laundry and dishes to do, and wishing I knew the way back home.

When she first arrived, dressed as a beggar-woman, I knew it was her. I wasn't blind. I hoped that she had come to rescue me. When she pulled out the apple, most likely from the familiar tree we knew, I smiled. And when she passed me my half of it, I bit into it eagerly, thinking this a peace offering telling me that all would be well. As I collapsed to the floor, she cackled and gloated of her triumph, and her betrayal finally became clear. It pained me almost as greatly as the poison draining the strength from my limbs, and after that, I recall nothing.

I woke some time later being kissed by Prince Charming, his white horse nearby. A prince, a white horse, rescuing me from a horrible situation, and proper princesses certainly don't kiss men they don't intend to marry . . . I assumed I was in love, and went with him gladly. The pomp and ceremony of the wedding being planned around me gave me little time to get to know my husband-to-be. Caught up in the excitement and making of my magnificent gown, I gave little thought to it, thinking I had plenty of time to know him properly once we were wed.

The ceremony was lovely, as expected, with the entire kingdom arriving to celebrate our union. The event he had planned secretly for after the ceremony, however, certainly put a damper on things. My stepmother was brought out in rags and chains, cursing his name. I was unprepared for the horror that unfolded as iron shoes, heated red-hot, were fixed to her feet and she was made to dance in front of everyone until dead. I could do nothing but look on in mute horror; for all her crimes against me, I would not wish this upon her.

The next few months passed largely without incident as I stepped into my new role as queen. Even though things went as they should and the kingdom was well, I was ill of heart. I thought back to my carefree childhood, of my sister and best friend who could always make things better. I sent for Rose as soon as I could, and things seemed to be happy for us for the first while.

The double betrayal hurt me to the core.

I never truly loved him; I realize that now. And Rose . . . she had her reasons. I see it in retrospect, but there was no comfort then. I divorced him immediately, as frankly a relationship has little hope after something like that.

We'd been married less than a year.

I went back to the castle I grew up in, my father having since been killed in battle; the last time we spoke was before the wedding, he had congratulated me for finding someone as wonderful as Prince Charming. As the eldest offspring(even by minutes) of the former king, and with a father prudent enough to keep deviously plotting advisors on assignments in far-off kingdoms, I took the throne without quarrel. I ruled for some time, doing reasonably well, though there were gossipmongers even then who doubted my ability.

I maintained the throne for many years, reading the reports and thinking it prudent not to fight in far-off battles that were not our concern, as many did.

As things happen, the Adversary finally approached our lands. The first scouts came through the woodlands to the west, where my sister had returned after the incident. She fled on the first horse she found to get to me, warn me of the impending army. I ordered my people to evacuate and do their best to get as far away as they could before loading my sister and myself in a carriage and heading off, old quarrels ignored in light of the circumstances.

It became impractical after the first week to travel as such, and we moved to horseback for the next leg of our journey. After two months of travel, with the imposing armies close behind, we finally heard a reason for hope; a portal to a mundane world, a land the Adversary's forces would never dare to venture. Finally proceeding on foot through the rough mountain terrain of the area it was said to be located, we thought we might be getting close. Every rumor we carefully listened to, taking the chance that it would save us.

After months of travel, a troop of the Adversary's soldiers finally captured us, keeping us in chains with the other prisoners, and marched us through a mountain pass . . .