Tale #50: The Stolen Child (a tale told in tales)

The First Tale: The Lonely Prince

There lived a prince alone in his castle. A war had killed his father the king, and he had no-one who loved him enough to help him stop his grief from becoming fury.

And so in retaliation, the prince ordered his enemy’s lands be destroyed, their castles razed, their fields burnt and salted, their king’s treasures stolen, his wives butchered, his daughter kidnapped, all so the king of that land was left with nothing but grief. And once that king himself died there was nothing left at all, for all trace of his people’s civilisation had been burnt to ash in the prince’s retribution, and all memory of their culture was lost in their graves.

Only the king’s daughter survived. The prince locked the stolen child in his deepest dungeon and left her there until he could forgive her father enough to let her go. Yet in time, it was not forgiveness he found in his heart but forgetfulness. And he turned his thoughts to other things, and left her in the dark alone.

The prince grew up, and on his 21st birthday he was made king. He chose for himself a bride, and she became his queen. He loved her with all his heart, with all the love he would have given his father had he known him more, and his mother too, had he known her at all.

When his queen died giving birth to their son, he was heartbroken. When, in the subsequent days, his son, too, died, he was distraught, and now his grief was so great he locked himself in his castle and would not come out. All alone he grew old, in silence and in solitude.

His kingdom was ruled in his absence by his old advisors. Without the king’s word, they could not authorise war, and instead were forced to maintain peace and good relations with all the countries they knew. So while the king grew old in solitude and sadness, his kingdom flourished, and the people proclaimed him as the greatest monarch in their history.

And in their prosperity they forgot his war, forgot not only his crimes, but the crimes of their country.

The Second Tale: The Girl Who Learned

The king kept the child in a cage and kept the cage covered with a heavy ashen blanket, and he locked it up in a windowless room deep beneath the castle and left it there forever.

Years later, when the king had forgotten all about his captive, and left the administration of his kingdom to the hands of others, the room and its contents were discovered by a clerk busy documenting the treasures and riches of the realm.

From there gossip and rumour spread far enough and quick enough that people would, if they had the societal standing, or at least the funds to compensate for their lack of it, make a request to the king’s treasurers to be allowed to see the child.

It must be said, however, that such requests grew less frequent with every passing year. Captives, no matter how exotic, no matter how rare, all lose their allure after awhile, no matter the extravagance of their tricks. Especially when they resolutely refuse to perform for their guests.

***

The child in the cage had been found in the forest, they said, left behind by the fair folk there at the passing of the midsummer sun.

Or, they said, the child had been a gift from the gods.

The child was a traveller, the child was a spy, a thief, a lie. The child was a warning. A warrior. A weapon.

The child was an offering. The child was a beast.

But the child in the cage was none of these things.

The child was a child.

And the story everyone had forgotten was that she had been stolen from her family in a land far away, in a war long forgotten, and brought back here as a prize for a king, a symbol of his victory, a reminder of his revenge.

But the king was afraid of her, or perhaps, ashamed, and so he locked her away and hoped to forget her and the war she reminded him of.

And for many years forget her he did. Until it was too late. Until she would never let him forget her again.

***

Alone in the dark she held no form except her own.

But in the light of others…

***

Occasionally, the covering on her cage would be lifted and, in the flickering light of the lamps in their hands, the disembodied faces of noblemen would peer in and catch a glimpse of a loved one, a lost one, a lusted after one.

And then she would recoil away from the light and become lost in shadow once more.

“She’s a shy one, alright,” the gaoler would say, by way of explanation.

It was not shyness, of course, but fear. A fear that matched their own.

After a while, the paying guests would demand another view, and the gaoler would rattle the cage with his cane, but these attempts would never coax her back to the light. Then the group would leave, muttering frustration and annoyance as they left, make claims that this was just a ruse, a cynical attempt to part them of their coin. And in their anger they would forget the faces they had seen, explain them away as a trick of the light, a trick of the mind.

She would be left alone in the dark once more.

***

No prison, no matter the precautions, can ever truly be secure. A worm, perhaps, will be brought in on muddy boots. A moth, occasionally, will follow the lamp in but fail to follow it out. Wigs carry fleas. Food, maggots.

And all of these creatures with minds of their own.

***

The worm crawled across the floor and under the edges of the blanket and through the bars of the cage and it looked at the stolen child and said, “I’m lost.”

And the girl said, “So am I.”

Then the worm said, “I don’t want to die. Not in here.”

And the girl said to him, “Nor do I.”

The girl didn’t know she was a worm now. The worm didn’t know that she was not.

***

The worm died and the girl learned sorrow.

***

From the flea she learned how to find the warmth of others. From the moth she learned how to follow the light. And from herself, in the days and months after her new friends’ deaths, she learned she was lonely.

***

The maggot crawled out of the rotten bread and looked at her.

“I’m hungry,” the maggot said.

“So am I,” said the stolen child, and together they began to feed. And, as they hollowed out the loaf, together they grew fat.

When the bread was gone, they lay down together, bloated and content. And thus sated, they grew old together and prepared for death.

Instead of dying, the maggot changed. And the girl learn that she had been changing all her life.

***

Her friend the fly died in the end, of course. Everything dies. Transformation only postpones the inevitable.

Even death, itself, is a transformation. Of course.

***

In the lonely dark again she slowly lost her form. But now she had a self.

And in the darkness she wept.

And in the darkness she planned.

And in the darkness she waited as long as it was necessary to wait.

***

And finally, one day, her chance came.

***

The blanket was lifted from the cage and the lamp held up close to the bars. The faces peered in, and for a second each saw a face peer back. A face each of them recognised, but when they later conferred none could agree on the exact identity of who it was they had seen.

The face in the cage withdrew, recoiled from the light and returned to the shadows. But not now in fear, for she had learned, day by day, a purpose.

The usual attempts to coax her back into the light failed, as they always did. Interest waned, as it always did. The blanket was lowered, the room vacated, the door locked and the stairs ascended.

If any felt a flea on their skin, they thought nothing of it. If anyone noticed a fly land upon their sleeves, they shooed it away without a second thought. If, in the flickering shadows, it seemed that the same person stood to their left as to their right, well, that must simply have been a trick of the light, or a trick of the mind. And they thought nothing more of it.

And if, as they made their way down the dark corridors away from the stolen child’s cell, there was one more moth fluttering around the flame of the gaoler’s lamp, well, who can say that they’ve ever counted moths, paid any attention to their numbers whatsoever.

As they made their way out through the secret doors into the courtyards of the king’s keep, not one of them saw a worm slip free from the grooves of one of the gaoler’s boots and bury itself in the fresh and fertile earth of the king’s gardens.

***

A teacher came into the garden with a small group of children. The teacher sat beneath a tree, and while the children picked apples from the branches just above their heads, she took a book from her bag and began to read her class a story.

The stolen child sat with them and ate an apple of her own and listened to the teacher read, and that was where she learned about stories and the powers they possessed.

She imagined her life as a story. Thought about how it had it had begun, and where, perhaps, it should end.

***

In the streets she learned about the people of the kingdom.

In the court she learned about the king.

In the library she learned about the history of kingdom. She learned about its wars, and where, perhaps, she came from.

***

From the peacocks in the king’s garden she learned the arts of allurement.

From the spiders in the bushes she learned the potency of traps.

***

At one end of the garden there was a small graveyard. The peacocks did not go there, but the ravens did, and the rooks and the crows. And so, each day, did the king.

***

From the crows she learned right from wrong.

From the rooks she learned about justice.

And from the ravens, she learned about revenge.

The Third Tale: The King In The Graveyard

There lived a king alone in his graveyard. He wandered between the graves of all those he had loved, and wept as he did so, for he loved them still. And he cared not at all for anybody that still lived, and had not so much as a smile for them.

As a king, his grief was allowed to blossom and bloom and grow endlessly huge inside him, for there was nobody within his kingdom of sufficient standing to comfort or console him, and no-one brave or kind enough to help him. So he lived on, locked away within his graveyard and within himself until he was so old and so joyless he had forgotten any other way of being.

Not even the crows kept him company, for they would hop from the gravestones when he came near and take cover in the trees and upon the tops of the walls.

One day, he caught a glimpse of a woman walking in his graveyard. He tried to approach her, but when he did she would disappear from view behind a tomb, or turn from the path and step behind a tree. Whenever he reached where it seemed she should be, he found nothing there but startled crows.

But there, ahead! Another glimpse of her. And on and on, this game of hide and seek, of glimpse and follow, deeper and deeper into his private domain.

Eventually, he tired of the hunt and ordered his guards to search the graveyard and capture the intruder. But no trace of her could be found.

This happened many times, and soon people began to wonder if the king’s grief had finally turned to madness. Not even the lonely king was so oblivious that he could fail to see the pity in his courtiers’ eyes, and so he kept quiet about the woman he still saw, day after day, in the labyrinth of his graveyard.

Now he would not call the guards when he tired of the hunt, but redouble his efforts, running from gravestone to gravestone, from tomb to tomb, hoping to get close enough to her so that he could see her face, reach out and hold her hand, speak out and ask her name.

But always as he approached she would flit away, disappear into nothing, and he would be all alone once more in his barren garden of crows and thorns.

Only in his dreams would he catch her. When she turned to face him it was his wife’s face that she wore, his wife’s smile that played across her dark red lips. And his wife’s voice that said…

But before she spoke he would wake from his reverie, lost somewhere unknown in the dense tangles of his graveyard, more alone now than ever before.

The Fourth Tale: The Woman Who Was Whatever She Wanted

A king found a woman sleeping among the flowers in his private garden. She looked just like his beloved wife, who had died many years before. And so the king let her sleep, and he watched her while she did.

When she awoke, many hours later, the king was still watching, and he said to her, “Who are you, who is sleeping in my garden?”

And she said, “I am who I want to be.”

The king said then, “Why are you here, in my private garden?”

“I am where I need to be,” she said.

Finally the king said, “And why are dressed as you are, as if for a wedding?”

And she said, “I am dressed for what I plan to happen.”

And that very night they were married.

The Fifth Tale: The Queen Who Taught

It was only in their bridal chambers that the queen was finally alone with the king. No guards watching from the shadows, no advisors taking notes of the king’s absentminded thoughts. No servants helping him get dressed, or bringing him his food. No guards waiting nervously to open a door for him as he approached, or close it once he had passed.

She thought back to the years of her captivity, and wondered at the differences in their solitudes.

“You look so much like her,” the king said, thinking of his old wife.

Then the king motioned to their bed, and said to his new wife, “I have much to teach you.”

And she said, “I have much to learn.”

***

She asked him about his family. She asked him about himself. She asked him about his country.

And finally, she asked him about hers.

***

“There are tales people tell,” she said. “Of a captive in the castle, from a long-dead kingdom by the sea.”

He looked at her in confusion. At first her words meant nothing to him. But slowly memories rose up within him.

Memories of a country he had never seen, of strange artefacts brought to him as gifts, and stranger people come to plead with him for mercy. Memories of the fury of a boy he no longer recognised as himself.

But of the stolen child he had no memories at all. If there had been a captive in the castle, he said, she had long been forgotten.

“It was all so long ago,” he said. “I was but a child.”

“So was I,” she said. And she taught him all she knew.

***

She coiled herself around his heart like the snakes had taught her, winding herself so tightly round his chest that the king could not call out to his guards for help. Every time he tried she tightened her grip, and soon he fell unconscious in her embrace.

She became an eagle as huge as any legend. In her talons she held him, and through the castle window she flew, away, away, into the sky. Up and up they flew, until the castle below was little bigger than a single letter in the great vast text of the land below.

The king awoke and she showed him the extent of his lands, and for a day and a night she flew, over farms and forests and pastures, over towns and markets and cities, and all the while the king begged for her to free him, but she would not. “You brought me to your kingdom,” she said. “So I shall take you to mine.”

Finally, as the next day’s sun rose above a great desert, she said, “This is where the kingdoms of my childhood stood.”

She dropped him down into the sand. She became a camel, and dragged the king behind her, and for a night and a day they walked and saw no sign of life among the dunes.

They came to a cliff by the edge of the sea, and she threw the king over the side and then dived down behind him, an eagle for a second, then a falcon, a gull, a gannet, and she hit the water before the king. And as the water touched her wings she became a fish, an eel, a shark, a dolphin.

Then she was a whale, bigger than any that had ever lived and as big as any that ever would. She opened her mouth and swallowed the king whole.

In the years that followed, in an ocean bigger than all the kingdoms of man combined, she taught him what it was like to live in a cage.

The Final Tale: The Women In The Woods, The Swallows In The Sky

The old kingdoms and the old tales have faded from the world. And the magic, too, many say. But there are still wild places in the world, if you know where to look. And in them more than we can ever know.

One day you’ll be out walking. You’ll catch a glimpse of a woman walking in the woods, nd by her side her daughter, too.

When they see you approach, they will turn and walk unhurriedly away. And as you follow, they’ll take a turn from the path, step behind a tree, and though you hurry to catch up, by the time you’ve moved to look they’ll have disappeared from view.

You’ll see two rabbits running away across the field, tails bobbing in the twilight. Or two swallows taking to the sky, flying away on oh so delicate wings. Or you’ll see two otters swimming down the river, under the bridge and away. Away from sight and away from you and away from the world they need no part of.

You’ll never the these women again. Yet you’ll never forget.

And, O, the tales they could tell.

__________

Notes

1. Written between July 2016 and August 2018

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Tale #32: The Grief Stricken King

There lived a king who was being driven mad with grief.

He ripped out his heart, but the pain did not stop. He pulled out his lungs, yet still he screamed. He scratched out his eyes, but the tears still flowed.

It was only when he put a bullet in his brain that he at last found peace.

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Notes:

1. Written September 2016

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Tale #31: The castle was a prison in a sea of untouched snow

There lived a King and his daughter, alone in a castle in a land of endless snow.

“If you go outside you will die,” said the King.

“If I stay in here I will hardly have lived,” said his daughter, as she unbuttoned the door and stepped outside into a world she had never been allowed to know.

The King followed her to the door and pleaded with her not to go, and when she did not heed his cries he snapped an icicle from the eaves and hurled it straight into her heart.

“Go, then! Go!”

He wept. He went back inside. He sat on his throne.

She wept. She walked on. She walked away.

The snow before her whiter even than the sky. Her footsteps behind redder always than the last.

__________

Notes:

1. Written September 2016
2. This was the wintryest story I could find
3. The title was inspired by/derived from “There’s A River In The Valley Made Of Melting Snow, by A Silver Mt Zion

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Tale #30: The King’s Daughter And The King’s Son

There lived a King, and with his first wife he had a son. This son grew up to be a huge and monstrous beast. Everyone who saw him shuddered in horror at the look of him and cowered and hid in fear until he was gone. The King feared and hated him, too, and so he locked in him a maze and never let him out.

The longer his son remained locked away, the more exaggerated the claims of his ferocity and deformity grew,. And the further the rumours spread.

On lived the King, and with his second wife he had a daughter. This daughter grew up to be a kind and beautiful angel. Everyone who saw her quivered in delight at the look of her and called out proclamations of their love until she was gone. The King loved and coveted her, too, and so he locked her in his castle and never let her out.

The longer his daughter remained locked away, the more exaggerated the claims of her beauty and kindness grew. And the further the rumours spread.

One day, the King announced that whoever entered the labyrinth and slew his son would win his daughter’s hand in marriage and make of her their queen. For if none could slay his son, he would have weakened the kingdoms he considered his rivals. And if one could slay his son, his daughter would strengthen the ties between his kingdom and those that would be its friend.

Ten princes sailed forth from all the lands of the earth, and they came to the King’s island and accepted his challenge. For everyone had heard how fearsome the beast of the labyrinth was, and so they wished to show their courage. And everyone had heard how beautiful the angel of the castle was, and so they wished to win her love.

The first prince entered the maze. In the dark he felt his way, along passages of untold length for a time of unknown duration, and eventually he found his way to the centre, where beneath a burning brazier lay the King’s son. The prince stood over him and raised his sword, and the beast held up his hands in friendship and said, “Please, I mean you no harm.” But his voice was weak from all those years alone, and the prince swung down his sword and sliced a finger clean from the beast’s hand.

The King’s son howled in pain, and in his fear and desperation to get away he leapt to his feet and charged at the prince. He knocked him to the ground and under his heavy feet trampled the man dead.

Ten times this happened, and all ten fingers the King’s son lost, and all ten princes the King’s son killed. And ten times he cried at what he had done, for he wished to hurt no-one. And ten times he cried at what had been done to him, for he wished too for no-one to hurt him.

When none of the princes returned from the labyrinth, the King made plans for a great party to be hosted in the city. He announced that no-one had been able to do as he asked, for their Kingdoms were not as great as his own.

And he told his people that tomorrow he would enter the labyrinth. He would kill his son. He would take his daughter as his wife and make of her his Queen.

The King had his dressmakers create the most beautiful wedding gown for his daughter, and he dressed her in it, and said to her, “You are indeed more beautiful than any angel.” And he took her down to the entrance of the labyrinth and made her wait there for his return.

She had cried all week, while the princes had tried to kill her brother, and she had cried all night, when her father told of his new plans. And she had cried all day, when her father had dressed her in this dress and paraded her before his subjects as his Queen-to-be.

But now she vowed she would cry no more.

She unpicked a thread from her dress and tied it to the gate and made her way into the labyrinth. In the dark she felt her way, along passages of untold length for a time of unknown duration, and eventually, just as the last of her wedding dress unravelled, she found her way to the centre, where beneath the dying embers in the brazier lay her brother.

In the darkness he could not see who approached. He was too weak now to speak, and, his broken hands held up in front of him in fear, he waited in silence for the killing blow to come. His sister leaned down low, and took his poor hands in hers. And she kissed him on the cheek and whispered in his ear, “Oh, my brother, oh my poor brother, everything will be okay.”

To see him there before her, despite her vow, she could not stop herself crying. And at her kindness he wept too, and their tears fell down together and washed the blood from his body and he was made whole again.

With the last coal from the brazier, they set alight the thread of her dress, and they followed the flickering flame all the way to the entrance and the bright light of day.

The King’s daughter and the King’s son fled the castle of their father, and they fled his kingdom too and sailed out together across the sea. And all the while in the labyrinth the King was lost in the twists and torments of his own making, and he was never seen again.

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Notes:

1. Written in May 2016
2. First published in the kindle anthology Waiting for a Kiss: A Princess Fairy Tale Anthology, in April 2017
3. The second story in a row I had published where the title was a mangled version of a band’s name (in this case, of King’s Daughters And Sons)
4. Also this is a re-telling of the story of ariadne, theseus and the minotaur, obviously. It was inspired by a print of ariadne playing cat’s cradle with the minotaur that I have on one of the shelves in my room, by Minkee, which is the first thing I see most mornings

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Tale #25: The King And The Light

There once was a King who had ruled his kingdom for many years, and there remained no-one who dared to question him. Such was his power that there were none upon the earth who he considered his equal, and so one day he called down a star from the night sky and bade her walk with him. It was there, in his vast garden, that he asked her to be his wife.

“Where would I live?” she asked.

“In my castle,” the King replied.

The star laughed, and said she could not, for she was used to the vastness of space, and walls were not to her liking.

“Well then, if not in my castle how about in the fields of my kingdom?” he said, and he showed her the extent of his fields and the vastness of his domain. “All this is mine, and within it you can go where you please, for you would be Queen and none but me would dare stop you.”

But still she refused.

“Even your kingdom has borders. And borders themselves are walls,” she said. “Walls of another kind, yes, but they constrain all the same.”

“Then, if not my wife, my prisoner you will be,” the King said, and he called for his guards to capture her.

To this the star replied, “Wife, servant, prisoner, slave – what difference would it make what you call me? Without choice, the imprisonment is just the same.”

The King’s guards led her to the deepest and darkest part of the castle’s vast filthy dungeons, and there, in the smallest cell, they locked her inside. “Perhaps when this cell has dimmed the fire in your heart you will see the error of your ways,” the King said to the star.

To which the star said to the King, “It is not only me this cell holds in place, for you as well are bound by it.” But the King would not listen, and he left her there, glowing to no-one in the dark.

After a week, the King returned and asked once more for her hand in marriage. The star looked just as bright as before, if not brighter, and still she refused. “If a week is not enough to change your mind, then so be it,” said the King.

“And to you I say the same,” said the star. But the King would not listen.

After a month, the King returned for a second time, and asked her again to marry him. The star’s radiance was brighter than ever and she refused once more. “If a month is not enough to change your mind, then so be it,” said the King.

“And to you again I say the same,” said the star. But the King would not listen.

After a year, the King returned for a final time. “I have asked you three times to marry me, and three times you have refused. If you refuse me a fourth time, I shall abandon you here and you shall know nothing more but imprisonment for the rest of your days.”

By now the star was so bright the King had to shield his eyes against her majesty. “I have spent a year in this cage, hoping each day that you would come to understand that these walls have imprisoned you just as much as me. But you have understood nothing.”

The star reached out and took the King by the hand. “Look, I shall show you,” she said. And with that her brightness flared and the King’s castle was burned to the ground, and the people within were set free.

And then she shone more brilliantly than ever before, and every wall and building in the country was reduced to ash, although the people within were left unharmed.

And then her brightness exploded outwards once more and the walls and the borders of all the Earth were destroyed and everyone across the world was set free. And in the comfort of her light there was much rejoicing and a shared sense of kinship between all which would never fade.

The people of the world did give her praise, but they did not make a God of her, nor even a Queen, for her light had shown them that those that rule are another wall imposed upon the world, and the Gods themselves yet another.

To the King she said, “To you, and only you, shall I show a truly wall-less world, out beyond the binds of gravity.” And she bore him up into the immensity of space, and took him to the deepest and darkest part of her infinitely vast domain, and she set him down there in the darkness, where the only light was her own, for the rest of the stars were too far away to cast their light upon him.

“Now, my King, you are free.”

And she left him there in the dark, in the cold, far out beyond the walls of the world.

__________

Notes:

1. This was written in May, 2014
2. But was first published in November, 2016, in the anthology Liberty Tales, published by Arachne Press
3. You can see this story being performed by the actor Cliff Chapman at a Liberty Tales launch event here.
4. The illustration is by Holly English, the final of four illustrations she drew for these fairy tales.
5. The original title of this was The King And The Angel Of Light, but the angel bit got removed during the publication process.
6. I was really obsessed with the song not here/not now by the angels of light at the time I think

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