Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Fairy Tale

Once there was a kingdom which wasn’t a kingdom at all but a queendom as it was ruled by a wise and temperate queen and a bold and capricious princess. This queen, though a favorite of her subjects and rivals alike, had slowly seen her grand realm dwindle. The princess, as was the custom, was away training in another kingdom. Slowly alliances broke down, farmers moved to greener pastures, more and more was in the queen’s hands to manage. After a time, feeling quite alone, the queen grew weary of all the work of running things and had lapsed into a great sleep. Many more of the nobles left the court. The queendom sank slowly into an inert state of decay.

When the princess returned and saw the state of things she blustered into action. She woke the queen who groggily told her to leave her be. But the princess would have none of it. “This place you built matters,” she told the queen. “It is unique in the world and we cannot simply let it die.” Thus she roused the queen.

For a whole season they toiled. They spoke with all the nobles and commoners alike that they could reach and tried to win back their support. They toiled in the fallow castle fields. They helped farmers with their flocks. They scrubbed the castle stones and made much-needed repairs. Some days it seemed that all they could do was keep the castle from falling down around their ears. At the end of it they did not seem like royalty at all. They sat on the old throne dais with their hair tied up and sleeves rolled to the elbows exposing hands that were hardened and cracked from the work. They were tired. The princess understood what had sent the queen into her sleep.

One day the princess was out conversing with a new baroness with whom she was hoping to start rebuilding the court. They sat by a babbling brook enmeshed in their plans when there came a dashing young man on a strong steed. He dismounted, saluted the ladies and asked what brought them to such a fine place on such a lovely spring day. They told him a little about their plans and of what a fine queendom this realm had been. He drew closer, enthralled by their tales and at last he gasped. “This is precisely the kind of realm I have been looking to serve. I am a knight and have many talents in the tasks you speak of. My trusty steed and I are pledged to your service."

As any young women would be when pledged service by a handsome knight, the princess and the baroness were surprised and delighted. The princess dashed back to the castle to tell the queen the good news. They would no longer be alone in their labors. There was a knight who had come to their rescue. The queen, who was wiser, questioned the princess. “How do you know this knight can do what he says? Words are meaningless. It’s deeds we need.” The princess couldn’t answer her. She simply hoped they could trust the knight who seemed so good and trustworthy. The queen, who was tired, at last agreed.

An agreement was reached that the knight would be gifted a portion of the riches he promised to bring to the queendom and thus would he make his living, perhaps even become a landed noble. He swaggered about the throne room boasting of how quickly the royal coffers would swell and that very soon this queendom would surpass even its own former glory. However he would need a few things to make this happen: the true sword of the queendom – that which the greatest defender of the realm was meant to carry - and the royal shield which proclaimed his status as a knight of the queen. Warily, the queen handed these over and said “use them in good health and do us good service, sir knight.”

Thus it was that the ladies began handing tasks over to the knight. They still toiled with the commoners and around the castle but they trusted the building of profitable alliances to the knight. And for a time all was well. The knight charmed all he met and it seemed more people were coming back to court and the wheels of government, though rusty, were beginning to turn again.

Then one day the princess discovered something strange. She was out helping a commoner with a problem ewe when she saw the knight hand the reins of his fine steed over to a stocky, well-appointed man who gestured angrily at the knight and led the horse away.

“What’s that?” She asked the commoner while the ewe struggled between them.

“Ah,” the woman replied, “that horse ain’t his. Fine animal like that? Scamp like him? He rents it on occasion from that fancy breeder. I hear tell the breeder won’t rent to him anymore as he feels he shouldn’t have to pay. Told the breeder he should be honored to have his horse ridden by a member of court. Can you imagine the arrogance? Like the fool calling himself king.” The princess cursed herself for not recognizing the breeder right off and swore even deeper for having bought the knight’s ruse.

Later, she observed unnoticed as the knight persuaded a noble back to the court. “I have toiled long and hard to write this charter so that you nobles would find happiness and peace in the queen’s court once again.” The princess watched as the knight handed the man a lofty document on fine vellum written in a flowing hand - her hand. It was a charter that she herself had written the season before but abandoned in her exhaustion. The princess withdrew and tiptoed away incredulous. How much of her own work was the knight passing off as his promised efforts?

The next day when the knight was out “riding his mighty steed,” or so he’d claimed the princess stole into his chamber. He’d been given one of the finest rooms overlooking the mountains that edged the realm. It was far greater than a knight had any right to occupy but the queen and the princess had been a little charmed and, truth be told, desperate for his proffered help. Now the princess wrinkled her nose in disgust at that desperation that had drove them to trust him. In his chamber she found more of her own work which infuriated her.

She dashed to the treasury he’d promised to fill with his great skill. There she discovered that heavy lock box he’d more than once boasted was growing fat with his efforts for the queendom lay empty. The princess picked it up and shook it to be sure. Not so much as a farthing rattled inside. “He’s no knight at all but a knave and a scoundrel!” she cried.

The princess raced to the queen with her discovery. “I told you we were wrong to put our trust in him,” the queen admonished her. “But you were so charmed.” It was true and the princess bowed her head in shame. She had brought this on the queendom. Finally the queen admitted “I was a little charmed too. But mostly tired.”

And so the princess fumed and watched for a chance to rid the queendom of the false knight. Aside from not really owning a horse, and not keeping his word he hadn’t committed a crime per se. At least not one she could prove. She tried to tell several of the new court nobles that work the knight had passed off as his own was really hers but she soon realized that only made her look peevish and jealous.

The princess was determined to right her wrong and flush him from court like the excrement he was. But the queen sighed. “I don’t see how. The people trust him. I believe we’re stuck with him until he chooses to go.”

Shortly after that, at a gathering of the new royal council the knight stood and pointed at the queen and the princess. “They promised payment for my services but they’ve not kept their word. Instead they’ve filled their own purses from my labors and I starve amidst these rich halls.” The council gasped and shook their heads.

“But you’ve done nothing you promised! You’ve brought us no wealth!” The princess rose to her feet and would have throttled the knight there and then but the queen restrained her. Unlike many kingdoms in the land, the queen would not brook killing in her queendom though it would have been a merited punishment in this case. The council looked around them. The castle was rougher than it once had been but it bits of wealth and progress were beginning to show. Certainly that was down to the knight’s efforts was it not?

Now the queen and princess were worse off than they’d been before the knight had come into their lives. His promises went unkept, his work undone so the ladies still had all those tasks to complete. And now they also had the mistrust of the council and the new court they hoped to build. The queen agreed with the princess. The knight was in need of a flush. But how?

It was clear to the queen and the princess that telling the truth about him would only turn people against them. So instead they thrust him into the eminence of the restored court. And they sat back. Slowly the nobles came to them. At first one, then steadily more. Each one expressed concern at the knight’s trustworthiness. The queen and princess would smile and nod in agreement.

At last when the queen and the princess knew that the tide of the court had turned in their favor, they put on a grand gala. It was proclaimed to be in the knight’s honor and they duly gave him pride of place at the table. “Dear sir knight,” cooed the queen, “you’re so strong and this is such a friendly affair, surely you don’t have need of your sword here.”

“Right you are, milady,” he smiled and handed the royal sword back to her.

“Dear sir knight,” the princess smiled, “there are many new young men in the queendom who would be knights at court like you. If you were to proceed to another more elevated, more free position they would not be too shy to step forward and you would be the nobler for it.”

The knight bowed deeply and handed her his royal shield of knighthood. “Milady, I shall be ennobled thus.”

The gala proceeded apace and there was much merrymaking. Having stashed the sword and shield behind their thrones, the queen and princess called upon the knight to speak of his grand accomplishments so that they might be duly celebrated and a funny thing happened. He spoke first of a new alliance he had forged with a neighboring king. As he did, a stout noble blustered forward and said she had been speaking with the king in question and it had been her efforts that brought the alliance. Flustered, the knight continued. Each deed he claimed to have done a noble would step forward and challenge him until at last it was plain to all that he had not been the author even one of his promised or boasted achievements.

At last the princess stood and held a loft the strong-box. She opened it and tipped it over for all to see. No great clash of coin dropped but a lone moth flew out. “And this,” she proclaimed “is how much he enriched us.”

“You have proven to us precisely how trustworthy and grand you are,” the queen intoned, “and we shall ennoble you accordingly. Thus we proclaim you king…of your own vanity and set you free from this court to go claim your birthright.”

The knight flushed first red then purple as the nobles clapped. The angry knight stepped toward the great sword and the princess rose to meet him with a growl. He then turned like the coward he was and fled the castle as the laughter and cheering of the queendom echoed behind him.

“And now my good people, we must heartily apologize to you for having inflicted such a scoundrel upon you and our fine queendom,” the princess said. The queen nodded. “We have learned a most important lesson. First we promise never to trust out of need and let that need blind us to a person’s true nature. And second, we never again will send a knave to do a queen’s work.” The nobles cheered. “It will be a hard season ahead of us,” the queen promised, “but together we will make this the most glorious queendom the land has known.” And with that the gala continued with much joy.

The next morning the princess looked out of a certain fine room at a bright dawn with the sun just peeking its rosy fingers over the mountains. There were fields below ready for plowing and sheep in the meadows ready for shearing. It was the best view she’d ever seen from the castle.

As the years passed and the queendom once again flourished, stories would occasionally filter back to the castle about a charlatan claiming to be a knight who attempted to charm peasants out of their profits. The queen and the princess were never sure it was him. But one day when a tale came to them about just such a man who’d ended up a jester in the court of a foppish eastern king they smiled. They knew the knight had at last found his true place in the royal order of things.


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