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 #27: The Three Sorrowful Sisters

In a tiny hut high in the mountains lived an old woman, black of hair yet old of face, and with her lived three daughters. And she raised them as her own.

These sisters loved each other very much, which was just as well, for they had no-one else. They were forbidden from leaving the house, for, as their mother told them every night before she put them to bed, there was a beast outside that roamed the peaks and which fed on the flesh of women.

And so the sisters sat together by the window every day and looked out over the hills below and the lands beyond and told each other stories about what the world outside was like, and the people who lived there, and the strange and wondrous lives they lived.

On the day of the eldest sister’s 18th birthday, there came a knock at the door, and their mother opened it up and in stepped a man, tall and handsome, or so their mother said, with hair as black as his suit and skin as white as his teeth. He told the sisters he was a Lord, and that he was looking for a wife. And as the sisters were the most beautiful women in the lands, one of them would have to do.

The eldest sister said it should be her, for it was her birthday, and indeed had she not always dreamed of this day, told variants of it to her siblings as she gazed out through the windows, waiting, patiently, for a prince to arrive and sweep her away to happiness and to love, whatever it was that happiness could be. Whatever it was love might entail.

And so she stepped outside with the man, and he took her into his carriage and closed the door behind her and together they went to his castle high up in the mountains, higher even than the hut in which she had lived all her life, so high not even the birds flew above, so high the clouds passed below.

She was allowed to roam freely around the castle, but was forbidden from leaving, for her husband told her that in the mountains there lived a beast which fed on the flesh of women, and it roamed where it pleased and could not be caught, and as such it was not safe for her beyond the castle’s walls.

And so she sat on her own by the windows of the castle, a different window each day, and always alone, for her husband was rarely there, and when he was he kept himself to his private rooms and his secret chambers, preparing, he said, but for what he never explained. From the windows she could see nothing but rock and clouds below and the pale sky forever unchanging above. So she told herself stories about the house that she had left, and her sisters that lived there, and the stories they were telling each other, stories which were always, somehow, about her and the life she now lived.

In time she came to be pregnant and for a while this brought her happiness, yet as the day approached she grew sadder again and sadder still. For what would life be like for a child in this empty castle, this mausoleum above the clouds. Her husband she saw so rarely she began to think he had been a dream, or a ghost.

She gave birth alone, and through the night she lay there in her bed, blood-soaked and bloodstained and as cold as wet rags, her tiny daughter screaming in her arms. In the shadows in the corners of her room from time to time she caught glimpses of her husband’s face, but when she turned to look, turned to speak, turned to show to him his newborn child, each time these apparitions turned out to be the moon at the window, or reflections of herself in the dressing table mirror, pale portraits upon the wall, memories, echoes, hopes, fears.

When she woke in the morning she was alone. Utterly, hopelessly alone. She walked the halls of the castle, ran along the corridors, screaming and shouting out her daughter’s name into the emptiness, the dusty stillness. The name only she knew, that only she would ever know. There was no reply.

In her despair she opened the front gate and started out down the mountain path. There were many paths but they were all the same.

The beast came up ahead of her and knocked her down and ate first her heart and second her flesh and lastly whatever was left until there was nothing of her but bones. And the beast piled them up and made its domain ever higher.

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In a tiny hut high in the mountains lived an old woman, black of hair yet old of face, her eyes the colour of ice, and with her lived two daughters. And she raised them as her own.

They were forbidden from leaving the house, for outside, their mother said, roamed a beast that preyed upon women, that ate them up until they were gone.

And so they sat in their room, and held each other quietly, and whispered stories of their older sister to each other, and dreamt, each night, that she was safe.

On the day of the middle sister’s 18th birthday there came a man to the door. He knocked on the door and stepped inside and said he was a Lord who had recently been widowed, and that now that his mourning was over he would have himself a wife. And the second sister said let it be her, so that it would not have to be any other. For she loved her younger sister with all her heart, and hoped this would protect her from whatever fate had befallen their elder sibling.

And so the middle sister climbed into the Lord’s carriage and went with him to his castle in the clouds. He said to her that she was forbidden to leave the castle, for there was a beast that fed on the flesh of women who were foolish enough to roam the hillsides. And she believed him, for where else could her sister be.

In time, she gave birth, just like her sister had. And she too, just like her sister, stepped outside the castle’s walls the next morning in search of her newly-stolen daughter.

And she too was eaten, from the heart out, piece by piece, mouthful by carefully chewed mouthful, by the beast.

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In a tiny hut high in the mountains lived an old woman, black of hair yet old of face, her eyes the colour of ice and her heart as hard as stone, and with her lived a daughter. And she raised her as her own.

The girl was forbidden from leaving the house. Forbidden too, from talking about her sisters. But she remembered them each night, listened to their stories in her dreams, and each morning she woke with tears in her eyes.

She told no stories herself. And she told them to no-one.

On the day of her 18th birthday there came a man to the house and he took her away and did to her what it was his intention to do.

And at the end, like all the others, she fled the castle in search of her child, and came face to face with the beast on the path. And there was no way past.

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In a tiny hut high in the mountains lived an old woman, black of hair yet old of face, her eyes the colour of ice, her heart as hard of stone, and her lips as red as a late summer rose. A man came to the door, and brought with him three little girls, sisters in their way. She thanked him for his work and took the children crying from his arms.

And she raised them as her own.

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Notes:

1. Written on June 29th, 2016
2. The title is a sort-of reference to The Three Incestuous Sisters, by Audrey Niffenegger, which I liked a lot when I read it
3. Although this story has nothing to do with that story at all, beyond having a similar title, and containing some sisters

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Tale #26: The Seven Sisters

In a place far from here, in a house so close to the sea you could hear the roaring and the crashing of it louder than thunder and longer than life, there lived a lonely woman. And she had lived there alone for many years, and for longer than she liked.

One night there was a knocking at the door, and there stood waiting outside seven sisters, all of them identical except for the colour of their hair. One sister had black hair, and one had white; one’s hair was silver and one’s gold; one had hair as brown as a mouse and one had hair as ginger as a fox. And the last sister had hair as red as blood, and lips as dark as night.

And it was this sister who asked if they may come in, for it was cold outside, she said, and wet, and the wind was howling through the trees like wolves at hunt.

The woman who lived in the house said yes, and invited the sisters into her house, and one by one she took them through to her kitchen and seated them at her table. She asked them if they would like some food for supper, and a drink for warmth, and a chat, if they wished, for friendship and for joy. And the sisters were so hungry they ate all she had, and they were so cold they drank all she had. But they ate in silence.

After they had licked clean their plates and drunk their bottles of wine dry, the sisters were overcome with tiredness, and the red-haired sister asked the woman if, perhaps, they could stay the night, for it had been a long time since they had slept, and it was getting rather late.

The woman said yes, come with me, and I’ll show you to your rooms. And they went to the first room, which had been her grandparents’ room. The white haired sister and the grey haired sister undressed themselves, climbed into bed, and held each other in their arms. They kissed each other goodnight, and fell straight to sleep. “They look just like my grandparents”, thought the woman, and wiped a tear from her eye. But they were not her grandparents, and she locked the door behind her.

And they went to the second room, which had been her parents’ room. The black haired sister and the gold haired sister undressed themselves and climbed into bed and held each other in their arms and kissed each other goodnight and fell straight to sleep. “They look just like my parents,” thought the woman, and she wiped a tear from her eye. But they were not her parents, and she locked the door behind her.

And they went to the third room, which had been her daughters’ room. The brown haired sister and the ginger haired sister undressed themselves, climbed into bed, held each other in their arms, kissed each other goodnight, and fell straight to sleep. “They look just like my daughters,” thought the woman. And she wiped a tear from her eye. But they were not her daughters, and she locked the door behind her.

Finally, they went to the fourth room, which was her own room, and the red haired sister undressed them both and they climbed into bed together. The woman thought, “You look just like my wife.” And she wiped the tears from the red-haired woman’s eyes and kissed her deep dark lips goodnight.

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Notes:

1. Written in May 2016

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Tale #23: Old tales are made new in the telling

I first heard this story from my aunt, when I was about fourteen or so.

We were making jam in the garden out of old plums, my aunt, my sister and me, all of us stood around the kitchen table we’d dragged out there for the afternoon, our hands stained yellow and brown, the knives slippery in our fists.

“When I was little,” she said, as if it had actually happened to her, as if it was actually true, “when I was little, not much older than you two, we lived in Mundon still, your mum and me, at your grandparents’ old house, that you probably don’t remember,” she said to my sister, “and that you definitely won’t,” she said to me, “in the months between your grandparents dying and us all having to leave. But I worked here in Maldon.

“I had to walk through the woods to get to work,” she said.

“There aren’t any woods,” I said, “not near here.”

“There were then,” she said. “They were here, here and all the way down the road, before the towns began to sprawl towards each other, and everything was thinned out a bit and made plain.

“I walked through the woods because it was quicker than the road, and it was nicer, too. And safer, I thought, away from the trucks on the road that threatened to knock you into the bushes, leaving you caught there in the branches like an old carrier bag tattered into wisps in the wind.

“What’s that? Yes, of course we had carrier bags then.”

(The way I’m telling it, and the way I remember it, was that it was me making these interjections, but it was almost certainly my sister, for she always understood that stories are a collaborative thing, dialogues rather than monologues, while I was content just to listen, to learn.)

“The path was always overgrown, in the summer, in the spring,” my aunt almost sung. “We hung a sickle on a hook by the stile at the edge of the woods, and you’d take it with you when you walked your way along the way, and you would hack away at the brambles and the branches that got in your way, and you’d leave it at the other end of the path when you’d gone all the way through, so that someone else could use it when they went back the other way.

“I don’t know if I was the only one who walked the path or the only one that had the good grace to keep the path, but the sickle was always there waiting for me, in the morning, in the evening, in the lateness of the night if I’d been out. But I was a big girl even then. Especially then,” she laughed. “All that lifting at the warehouse did wonderful things for your arms. I wielded that sickle like a bloody scythe.

“A stream ran through the woods, winding back and forth across the path so that I had to cross three bridges. And on my way home one day I met the devil on every one.

“At the first bridge he looked at me and said, ‘Let me have a kiss, and only then will I let you pass.’ And so I gave the devil a kiss and I crossed the river and continued on my way.

“At the second one he was there again. ‘Let me…’ Well,” my aunt laughed, “‘Let us,’ he said, ‘let’s fuck, and then and only then will I let you continue on your way.’ So I stood against the tree and let the devil have his way. And a very good way it was, I’ll have you know. A very good way indeed,” my aunt laughed.

And my sister blushed and so I expect did I.

“At the third bridge,” my aunt said, “there he stood again. He waited until I was near and then he said ‘We’ve kissed, you and I, and we’ve loved, so now all that’s left is for us to marry.’ ‘And then you’ll let me continue on my way?’ I asked. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Of course.’

“And I know I was young, and I know I was stupid, but really, I thought. Really. What did he take me for? So I told the devil to give me his hand, and he held it out for me to hold.

“I swung that sickle down so hard it went clean through his palm and pinned him to the bridge.”

My aunt held up a plum between her fingers and sliced it apart with her knife. She picked the stone out with the tip of her blade, then threw the halved plum into the pot.

“And,” she said, “I went on my way.”

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Notes:

1. Written in July, 2014

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Tale #6: The Farmer’s Daughters

A farmer and his wife had a daughter, and they both loved her with all of their heart. They called her Red Rose, and they lavished her with love. Two years later they had another daughter, but this time the farmer’s wife died giving birth to her. The farmer called this daughter Black Death, and cursed her with his every breath.

The two sisters grew up reflecting the uneven treatment they received from their father. Red Rose, who was given nothing but praise, was fair of face, with long red hair and a confident and friendly nature. Black Death, however, was scolded and beaten daily and treated with naught but contempt and malevolence, and she grew up to be awkward and fearful and shy, with lank black hair and a sickly pallor to her skin.

One day, just after Black Death had turned 16, the farmer travelled to the city on business, and he took with him the farm’s full compliment of cows to sell at the market. He considered his daughters finally old enough to safely leave on their own, and anyway he was glad to be away from Black Death for a while. She still raised in him a furious hatred and despair that he could not control and which had not dimmed over the years but had instead grown stronger with every passing day.

Without the constant attacks from her father, Black Death, who called herself Raven, gradually became less withdrawn. Red Rose, who was usually forbidden by her father from helping her sister, shared with Raven the daily chores around the house and her work in the fields. Raven, who was forbidden by her father from playing with her sister, joined Red Rose in her games in the garden, and in the evening they swam together in the river that ran near their house.

By the end of the fifth day, Raven had begun to laugh and smile, and she said to her sister, “I wish this week could last forever. It has been to me as if a dream. But alas by Sunday our father will be home, and he shall wake us the next morning and all this shall be gone. It will be as if nothing has changed nor ever did. A dream fading away like all the others come the break of day.”

Rose, who loved her sister, said, “Let us run away together, far away, and never mention our father again.”

But Raven said, “He would never let us go. You due to love, and me due to hate. And when he came eventually to find us he would forgive you, and blame everything on me, and my punishment would be even more severe than that under which I suffer now.” And so they did not go.

On Sunday, the sisters were working in the fields when they heard a screaming by the river. They rushed there to discover a woman had been knocked into the water by her two cows, and was now being drowned beneath them as they clambered into the water to drink.

Raven, whose arms were strong from years of toil and could pull as strongly as an ox, grabbed the cords around the cows’ necks and hauled them up the river bank and back into the fields. Rose, who spent many of her days swimming in the river and was as agile as a fish, dived into the water and pulled the lady to safety.

“You have saved my life,” the woman said to the sisters. “Tell me anything you want, and I shall repay you as best I can.”

Red Rose said, “I have received nothing but kindness and riches my whole life, regardless of what I have deserved. Yet none have brought me happiness, for the only thing I want is for my sister to know joy, and be free of her life of torment.”

And Raven said, “My sister suggested we should run away together, for it is our father who torments me and has prevented me from ever knowing joy. But if we leave he will search us out until we are found, so he can punish me and reclaim my sister. For in love and in hate he considers us his own.

“But this week our father has been away, and today it is that he returns. So all I ask is that you come with us to meet our father, and tell him the kindness we have done you, in the hope that it will help convince him to let us leave. Then your debt to us will be repaid.

“For if he does agree to let us go and to leave us be, for as long as we live, both me and my sister can know true joy.”

And the woman said, “It will be done,” and she went with them to the road through the woods, and there they waited for the farmer’s return. When the old woman saw him approaching, she told the sisters to hide in the undergrowth with the two cows, and to remain quiet until all had been agreed.

“I will give him a chance to show his kindness,” she said to herself, and then to him she said, “Sir, your daughters saved me this afternoon from drowning, and I owe to them my life. In repayment for their deeds I wish to take them with me to my castle, where they can live like queens, for I will treat them with a kindness and generosity unknown in this part of the world. They shall want for nothing, and be happier than any who have come before or since.”

“No,” said the farmer. “I will not let you take them from me. They are my daughters and mine alone to keep.”

The woman said, “If their happiness is not enough, I offer you all my money and the great vast expanse of my lands, for I rule a great world. You shall be a king there without equal, and your daughters and I can stay here and toil as farmers upon the land.”

“My older daughter, whom I love, is all I have left to remind me of my wife, and as such is more precious to me than even the greatest treasure. Every time I look upon her face I see the beauty of her mother, and briefly I am happy again. No money nor power in the world would be enough to let me give her up,” said the farmer. “As for my other daughter, whom I detest, glad would I to be rid of her. But what she took from me can never be returned. To honour the memory of my wife, whose life she stole, her punishment must go on. And not for anything can I set justice aside and let her go free.”

“Then I shall return to you your daughters,” she said. “And you can go on your way.”

The old woman brought forth from the undergrowth her two cows. “Here is Red Rose,” she said, pointing to the cow with red-brown fur. “Here is Black Death,” said she, pointing to a cow of black and white. “Take them with you, and forever be gone from my sight.”

At this she rose up, and took on the appearance of a great witch, and in horror the farmer took the cows, believing them to be his daughters transformed by a great and terrible power, and he hurried away with them to his home and did not look back. Then the old woman took Red Rose and Raven to her realm, which was as vast as she had said, and vaster still, and there she treated them as if they were her daughters, and as if they were her friends.

“Oh Red Rose, look at what has been done to you,” said the farmer when he got home, and sadly stroked the red cow’s back. “Oh Black Death, look what you have done to her,” he said, and struck the black and white cow harshly with his hand.

The cows, although docile in temperament, were old and strong, and also stubborn and immovable, and they remained unmoved by both his kindness and his spite. In this way he lived out his days, his love and his hate stripped of power, and eventually he died. And on that morning the cows walked out beyond his fields and disappeared into the mists at the river’s edge.

As for the sisters, it is said they were never parted for as long as they lived, and nor were they ever unhappy again, in this or any other of their lives.

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Notes:

1. The first draft of this was written between June and November 2012, but this version is from May 2015

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