Sunday, 31 May 2009

Another fairy story! Fit the last

The Princess returned to her room to find Melissa sweeping the floor with a long handled besom. “Welcome back, my sweet. I had not expected you so soon. Come, sit on the bed while I finish my sweeping. Does all go well with you today?”

The Princess vainly tried to smile but the effort was too great. “No, Melissa, today has been an ill day,” she said. “My father and I are estranged, perhaps forever. I have tried to find it in my heart to forgive him but I cannot. My mother will not let me. I must leave today; I cannot stay, not here. It is all too painful.”

The maid laid down her besom and wrapped her arm around the Princess’ shoulder. “You must, as we all, do what you think is best,” she said. “But one so young should not be bereft of both parents. Can you not find some forgiveness in your heart for our King? He has an onerous task and he has need of your support and your love.”

The Princess started to weep. “I have tried, really I have tried. It will not come,” she sobbed. “It will not come! No, I must be away; perhaps elsewhere I will find contentment. Peace. Perhaps in time……?” She paused. “No, I think not. I am sorry that our time together has been so brief, Melissa. I so see my grandmother behind your eyes and I would have liked to see more of her. I have missed her wise counsel these past days. But, alas, I shall be gone in little more than hours.” She sobbed again, her body shaking. She placed her arms around the maid and, through her tears, said: “Come for a visit when you are able. If you wish me to pass word to the overseer, I will. I am after all still a Princess and I have some rank here. A sojourn in our little village would suit you well, I think. I will leave directions so that you may find my humble dwelling.”

“It is doubtless a long way away and my frail, old body will stand the rigours of travel much less than yours, my lady,” the maid replied, a glimmer of a smile across her lips. “And alone? In these times? No, it will be pleasure enough to dream, I think.” Melissa wiped the Princess’ tears from her cheeks with her forefinger. “Come, my sweet. If you are to be away ahorseback, such finery as you wear now will be ill suited. Wash, change, while I finish my cleaning, though of little use is it now.”

The Princess washed and changed into the garb she had arrived in while Melissa finished her final sweepings. When the Princess was satisfied with her attire she walked across to Melissa and wrapped her arms around her so tightly that Melissa gasped. “I shall miss you, Melissa,” the Princess said. “And I you, little one.” They both laughed. “Must we always repeat ourselves?” the Princess asked. “It would seem so,” Melissa softly replied, as the tears fell slowly down her cheeks.

Taking her leave of Melissa, the Princess strode purposefully towards the stables near the gatetower. The walk was not short but eventually she found Bull and Toad waiting in the farrier’s yard, the two roans laden with their saddle sacks and her grey, as before, between.

“Bull and I have been remarking,“ Toad said as the Princess approached. “We led them out and that’s the position they took up. Seems like even our mounts are on guard duty!” The Princess laughed. “So Bull, do you know of an inn we might reach by nightfall?”

“Do bears defecate in the woods? Beggin’ your pardon, my lady,” Bull replied.

The return journey was as uneventful as the outward and as they arrived at the outpost, the Captain was surprised to see the Princess so soon after her departure. “Nothing went ill, I hope, Princess?” he asked as the Princess dismounted. “Nothing that your two gallant guardians could have prevented,” she replied. “Captain, your elves have done sterling service and had little more reward then a sore rump from days in the saddle,” she said. “I wish to propose something to you.” She smiled.

“We can discuss this in my quarters. Bull! Toad! Dismissed!” the Captain said.

As the Princess sipped the small glass of wine the Captain had provided, she said: “Captain, I would like Bull and Toad to escort me for the rest of the way to my cot. When I am safely home, I will return them to you. You will then send them with a carriage and this letter to the overseer of maids at the castle. They will stay at the castle, free of all duties, until the appointed day contained in the letter, two sevendays hence. They will then escort the carriage, its occupant and themselves to my cottage. There you will give them a further sevenday to make themselves acquainted with the local flora and fauna. They will then be returned to you. Is this acceptable?”

“I think that I might be able to accommodate your suggestion, Princess,” the Captain replied. “Some more wine?”

After another small glass of wine, the Princess made her farewells to the Captain and left on the short journey to the village.

As the trio meandered along the winding paths towards Natalia’s village, the Princess turned to Toad and said: “Toad, when we reach the village, I must return this horse to its rightful owner. May I ride your roan for the trip from village to cot? It is not far.”

“Gladly,” Toad replied. “My mount would not forgive me if I did not allow him the privilege; gelding though he is!” He laughed.

“Do not tarry on the return journey, Toad,” the Princess said. “The Captain, and I, have another errand for you.” She smiled.

The ostler was astonished to see the Princess in the company of so fierce a duo of warriors as they stood in front of the stable. Figo’s grey was tethered to a post, and the Princess was mounted on a roan, Toad’s horse. “Your weskit! I have not forgotten! Bring me the skins on the morrow, ” she cried and he knew that there was no need for concern for her safety, however fearsome her companions may have looked. The trio turned, Toad striding by the Princess’ new mount, and they continued down the lane that led to the seamstress’ cottage.

At last, Natalia’s cottage came into view. The Princess smiled. Pausing at the gate, the Princess dismounted. “Toad! Bull! You were well met indeed! Take good care and, please, no foolish, suicidal squabbles over poor and innocent maidens; our people have need of you! Fare Well!”

“And we, you, my lady! Fare Well!” the pair replied.

The Princess walked the short path to the door under the gaze of her erstwhile guardians and, pushing it open, declared: “Well, I’m back!”


Thanks, acknowledgements but no royalties to:

Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention and Fotheringay for ‘Fotheringay’
‘Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves’ for Bull
Jean Anouilh and ‘Antigone’ for the climax
J R R Tolkien for the last words
The Elfin Princess for the story. I hope you find a better resolution.

Any other indebtedness is shameless plagiarism and I await the solicitors’ letters with eager anticipation!

Ever tried to sue a penguin?

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Another fairy story! Fit the ninth

As she stood trembling, whether from cold or fear or anger she knew not, a small side door opened in the antechamber and the King, extending his arm, beckoned to her. As she crossed the room, she could see his smile. “Come, daughter,” he called. “It has been too long since thou graced these halls and my heart rejoices to see thee now, well and hale!” As the Princess walked through the door, her father swept her up in his arms and kissed her on the cheek. “Come, sit with me child." He waved his hand across a small table to one side. "Wine? An oaten cake? Some fruit? What is it that thy father can do for thee?”

The Princess sat in a plush, crimson, high backed chair opposite her father, the small table to the side. “Well met, father,” she said. “The Chamberlain did not mention the reason for this meeting with you?”

“Does there have to be a reason for a daughter to want to see her father or a father to see his daughter?" he asked. "Regrettably, our time today will be brief, I have Council session in one half hour and this is all I can spare but speak to me child, is that not why we are here?” He smiled.

“It is not for me to talk to you but, rather, for you to talk to me; that is why I am here,” the Princess said. “Why have you paid so little respect to my mother’s memory? Why do you dishonour her so? What is this news of a child? Why do I hear this from some flunky of a herald handing out silver pennies from ‘a King in his joy’? Why do I not hear this from my father’s own lips? She is barely cold and it is as though she never existed in your eyes. How could you?” The last words were screamed at the King as though the Princess thought that she could bowl him from his chair merely by the force of her voice.

The King looked at the Princess and there was sadness in his face.

“Daughter,” he said softly. “A King must have a Queen. How else is he to rule wisely and with compassion if he does not have the benefit of the other half? The half he must, perforce, be missing? Male and female. Both are needed if one is to rule wisely.”

“I do not care what you think you need to rule wisely! Could you not have waited? Could you not at least have paid a little more respect? She was your Queen! The mother of your five grown children! Ah, but of course, the King now has his new joy! I say it again; how could you?” She hawked and spat it onto the highly polished wooden floor. “That is how much respect I deem you pay my mother!”

The King rose from his chair. “That was ill chosen, child, “ he said, his voice now firmer, more authoritative. There was a steely look to his eyes, and a set to his jaw, as he approached the Princess’ chair, towering over her seated frame. “Listen to me! Just for once, willst thou listen to me?” The Princess glared at the broad chest in front of her. “No!” she shouted, punching his chest with her small fists. The King grabbed her wrists with one hand and raised the forefinger of the other. Waving it in front of her nose he said: “No, this time you will listen, you wilful child! I am not your grandmother and I am not your mother; I am the King and your father; I will not tolerate this insolence!”

He paused, breathing hard, and then continued: “I did not choose to be King. I was chosen by our people to lead them. Do you think any elf would choose to be a King? To have the responsibility to provide for our people? To protect them? To feed them? Support those who cannot support themselves? Lead them? Would you? Do you, can you, will you, even begin to understand the weight that this burden places on your father's shoulders? The pain? Day in, day out, for an eternity! To do what must be done, and to do it aright, a King needs a Queen!”

“Then don’t do it. Give it up,” the Princess said softly.

“Child!” the King shouted. “Have you lost what few wits you were born with! You have spent too long in the company of peasants! Kingship cannot be given up! By common consent, the most capable individual is chosen to lead. Would you have us be led by a lesser elf? One less respected by his peers? Would you have me deny my duty? Deny the decision of our people? Who would you have with their arms in the barrel of shit that is government? Up to their shoulders! Find me another, more worthy! I, child, do not have the luxury to idle my days sewing lilies onto children’s dresses. I have responsibilities! I have my people to protect!” The King released her hands and returned to his chair, red-faced, and sat down with a sigh.

“Listen to me, child. I did not tell you this news for this very reason. I did not take the decision I have taken lightly nor without thought. I knew that this might cause you pain but your siblings have taken this turn of events with equanimity, why can you too not do this simple thing? Is it so terribly hard to be pleased that your father has once again found a little happiness, a little contentment and will have all too invaluable help as he tries to lead his people. These are difficult times, child; do you have no compassion?”

The Princess closed her eyes and said, almost in a whisper, “It would appear that you have none for my mother.”

“Enough!” the King roared as he once more rose to his feet. “I loved your mother, more than you, a self-centred, arrogant child will ever know; but she is gone! You were there, these twelve months past, when we laid her to rest in the glade with her forebears. The world turns and we must turn with it. I grow tired of your foolishness. Enough! I expect my daughters to grow up, to join the real world of elves and not some fanciful concoction dreamt by a child who would not know responsibility if it leapt out and bit her!”

The King, bristling with anger, paced back and forth in front of the Princess who sat, her head bowed, staring at the floor. Finally he said: “Aye, responsibility. You have none, child, and I will not be lectured on my love or absence of it, nor my respect or lack of it, by a child who has baulked her whole life at any responsibility whatsoever. Where is your spouse? Your children? Your home? Your duty? You have none! You doss with a pauper, a seamstress, and fritter your life away! When you learn the lessons that life will teach us; when you learn that with life comes duty; when you learn what all must learn, that choices must be made and they are never easy; when you make your way in the world in a manner befitting a Princess; when you finally shoulder the burdens of the living in a way befitting your station, then you can lecture me, child! Not before!”

The King stood in front of her, his hands folded behind his back, his head held high, and he waited.

Finally, after a long pause, during which the silence became almost tangible, the Princess rose and said quietly: “I have shouldered the greatest burden of the living, undying elf. Death! Twice over! Of those most loved! Do not preach to me of the way in which I should live my life. If you have the right to choose how you live your life and to judge me for mine, then I have that same right. I will live as I choose and none may pass judgement! For the way you have acted, father, for the way you have treated my mother’s memory, no forgiveness from me is possible. Although I wish it were not so, we are, I think, forever estranged.”

The Princess curtsied and made her way across the room. As she placed her hand on the doorlock ring, she turned and said in a low, trembling voice, “Farewell, father. To a world made anew.” Her father remained passive, silent. Turning back, she opened the door and walked briskly out into the antechamber and to the hallway beyond. She stopped at the entrance and took a deep breath. “Come Bull, Toad, my trusty protectors," she said. "We needs make ready to depart. I will see you at the stables at the end of the fourth watch.” Leaving them to follow her, she started to make her way back to her room.

“Oh well, no ale and wenching for us tonight, Toad,” Bull whispered, lest the Princess should hear.

To be continued........

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Another fairy story! Fit the eighth

“I am going to find the Chamberlain. I suppose I will have to put up with one, or both, of you dogging my heels wherever I go; to catch me if I stumble, carry me across potholes or shield me from a shooting star with your own bodies. Come!” The Princess laughed and strode off in the direction of the Chamberlain’s suite. Rising easily to his feet and scabbarding his sword, Toad followed a yard or so behind her.

After a minute or so, she slowed her pace so that she was level with the soldier. “Toad,” she said, turning her face towards him, “the Captain, Bull and now the Master of Horse consider you of outstanding prowess in sword and spear and I must, I think, assume that they are knowledgeable in such things, being soldiers themselves. I am curious though. If your prowess be so great, why do you have so many scars? And your ear? Surely only the inept or clumsy would acquire such things?

“Ah, my lady, ‘tis my standing, I fear,” Toad replied. “Once one has acquired a reputation for sword play, the cowardly incursors fear to fight as an elf should, elf to elf. So you have to battle a brace at a time. When you win that fight, it becomes three, then four and so on. Fifteen is the most; when Bull and I were on patrol and some score or more set upon us. It is hard not to buy a scratch or two in such circumstances.” The Princess gasped in awe. “Fifteen!” she exclaimed.

Toad went on: ”I lost half my ear that day to a disarmed brigand who set at me from behind and, having no steel, used his teeth. I have to say it did cause me some pain but I returned it five, ten fold.” Toad smiled at the memory. “He squeeled like a stuck boar as I first removed one leg, then the other, then a forearm, then the other. I allowed him to live some minutes longer while I dispatched his remaining five companions. Then I removed his head; for which I hope he was duly grateful. It was more than he would have done for me and more than he deserved!”

“Was that not too cruel, Toad?” the Princess asked.

“Aye, perhaps. But they pillage and rape and maim and torture the defenceless just for the pleasure of it. And worse have I seen! Sometimes in the heat of battle it is hard to control the anger when you have seen what these, no, not even animals, have done to our people. No, sometimes I wish I were not a soldier but it is what I do best, so......” Toad left the rest of the sentence unfinished. After a lengthy pause, he continued: “Try not to think ill of me, Princess. Needs must in these troubled times.”

“I do not think ill of you, Toad,” she said. “I am glad that you are here to protect me. Bull too. I think that perhaps if I had seen what you have seen, I would act no different.” She traced a long jagged scar on his cheek with the tip of her forefinger and whispered: “Be at peace, Toad, none deserve it more!”

After ten minutes, she arrived at the door to the suite of rooms that made up both the Chamberlain’s offices and his living quarters. She knocked on the open door and went inside. The Chamberlain was sitting at a monumental oaken desk examining a parchment scroll. As the Princess entered, he looked up from the scrolls on the desk and smiled. “Well met, Princess,” he said. “Too long have we been denied your beauty within these walls. I take it you wish to see the King.” The Princess nodded.

The Chamberlain sighed and leaned back in the large leather chair which seemed to be a part of his form and whose great wings seemed to envelop him, like some martial eagle. “I fear this is an ill time for an audience, my lady. Matters of State weigh heavy on the King’s shoulders at this time. The incursors from the Far Reaches make ever bolder and there is prospect of a grain failure in the Southlands. I fear he will have little time for idle chit-chat, even with his daughter.”

The Princess hammered her fist on the desk. “I did not spend two days in the saddle to come here for an idle conversation about the weather. I have come so that he may explain his actions to me. Why he has shown such crass disrespect for my mother’s memory. You will tell him this. You can also tell him that I will camp outside his bedchamber until he does see me!”

The Chamberlain leaned forward again and placed his palms on the desk. “You are clearly a little overwrought, Princess,” he said softly. “I will pass your message on as soon as I may, but please, I beseech you, do not press your suit too hard. These have been trying times, from which you, to the north, have been largely protected. The King has performed wonders in protecting us as much as he has but at a high price. Do not mar such joy as he has been able to garner for himself these past months. It will serve no purpose except to sadden him further.”

The Princess glowered. “I think I am best placed to decide how strong to press. It is my mother we speak of! She was your Queen! Just give him the message and tell him I await his summons!” She turned and left the room, slamming the door shut behind her.

“Nicely done, my lady,” whispered Toad, smiling, as he once more fell in behind her.

The summons, when it came, was much quicker than the Princess had anticipated. She was just finishing her noonday meal when a page knocked at her door and said that the king would see her now. She gathered her shawl from the bed and followed the page down the passageway, Toad and Bull in tow behind her. “Moral support, my lady,” Bull said. “We’re not too sure what this is all about but I could fill buckets with the anxiety you are sweating right now so………” The Princess turned her head. “Thank you, Bull, and you too Toad. Did I not tell the Captain that he had chosen wisely? You are a credit to him and to your fellows! I welcome your support!”

It took more than a quarter of an hour before the page finally showed the Princess into the antechamber before the throne room. Toad and Bull took up station either side of the entrance in the massive hallway outside the antechamber.

To be continued......

Another fairy story! Fit the seventh

The journey to the castle was uneventful. Whether fear of the two escorts or plain good fortune were responsible, they arrived at the castle gate unmolested, with swords and spears still sheathed. As they approached the open gate, the huge iron portcullis just visible beneath the tower, the sun was slowly sinking in the west, casting fuschia shadows across the walls of the King’s citadel. At their approach, two armed guards walked from the shadows of the gatetower and, spears crossed, loudly proclaimed in one voice, “Name yourselves and state your purpose!” Bull rose in his stirrups, “I am Bull, my companion is Toad and between us, the Princess, daughter of the King! She seeks an audience with her father. Stand aside or I shall run you through, King’s Equerries or no!”

The guards exchanged glances before one said, “She looks little like a princess to our eyes. Some peasant girl would be closer to the truth. Or perhaps some slattern you have picked up along the journey, I hazard, apt for a quick roll! Be on your way, unless you wish to feel this steel in your gizzard.” The guard pointed his spear at Bull’s chest.

“You will regret saying that!” Bull spat and drew his sword at the same moment as Toad levelled his own spear at the guard’s chest. “Oh come,” said the Princess. “I did not come all this way to bandy threats with a fool with an overweening sense of duty! Call for the Master of Horse, he will set you aright!”

The guards looked at each other again. One turned and strode back into the castle. The remaining guard hefted his spear and said, “Very well. Perhaps you are the Princess, these long years gone. The Master will decide.”

Some minutes later the huge frame of the Master of Horse strode through the dark shadows of the gatetower. “Princess!” he bellowed. “Well met, indeed!” Looking at the guards he said, “You may stand aside. This is indeed the Princess and, if I am not mistaken, is this not Toad? Well met, Toad! Tales of your prowess precede you!” Toad bowed his head. Glaring at the guards, the Master continued. “Well is it that you did not cross swords with this one! I’d have arrived to find no guard but a brace of fine, spitted capons! His companion, I’d wager, is as much to be feared. I doubt the Toad of rumour would choose anyone less worthy than himself as fellow guardian of a Princess!”

The Master of Horse took hold of the grey’s bridle and walked back towards the gate, drawing the Princess’ horse behind him. “Come,” he said. “I will take you to the Keep and we will find quarters for your guardians. I will also send word to the King that you are here. He will, I am sure, wish to see you soonest. You have been sorely missed, Princess. It is a joy to see you again!”

“And you, Master,” she replied.

The Princess was soon settled in her room. Bull and Toad were quartered across the passageway from her. As she lay quietly on the bed, there was a brief tap on the door. “Come!” she cried. An elderly maid entered, carrying a tray. She laid the tray on a small table by the large window which looked to the west and with practised hands began to set the table for a guest, according to custom. As the maid laid the table, the Princess detected the scents of cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, tumeric spiralling in the steam from the bowls being laid on the table.

When the maid was done, she stood at the side of the table, her hands folded in front of her. “Your meal is ready, my lady,” she said quietly.

“Melissa?” The Princess sat bolt upright on the bed. “Melissa? Is that you? Really you?”

“Welcome home!” the maid replied. “Did I not say that we would meet again? It is a joy to be proven right! Welcome home, my sweet. Glad I am that I accepted the Queen’s invitation to return here after your Gran’mama’s sad death. But come, eat! You are still but skin and bone and you need your food. How else will you survive ‘til the morrow? Come, eat!”

“Only if you will share, Melissa. Go! Fetch a bowl, bring wine, and we will feast! “

The meal was, however, brief. The Princess found herself overcome with tiredness as she mopped the last of the spice-laden sauce from her bowl and yawned uncontrollably. “I am sorry, Melissa,” she said as soon as she regained control of her bones. “My manners are appalling tonight but it has been a long day in the saddle and I hope that you are in a mood to forgive such unseemly behaviour.”

The maid smiled. “Of course, my sweet, you are forgiven. I shall leave you now for I must rise early tomorrow and that will be the harder after the goblet of wine tonight. Sleep well and I shall see you on the morrow. I have been assigned to you for the length of your stay here so there will be time enough for me to catch up on all of your doings these past years.” The maid rose and gathering up the bowls from the table, she left the Princess to sleep.

Although she was tired beyond measure, the Princess had a fitful sleep. She woke every hour or so through the night and only regained sleep with some difficulty each time. Her mind was a writhing nest of vipers as she fought to keep her thoughts clear and peaceful. All she could think of was how she and the memory of her mother had been betrayed.

She rose just after dawn and was surprised to see that Melissa had already left hot water, soap, towels and some clean clothes together with a plain but ample breakfast. She washed, dressed and sat down to eat. She found herself surprisingly not at all hungry and so taking a few mouthfuls of springwater from the small jug on the table, she crossed the room and went out into the passageway. She was astonished to see Toad sitting on the floor, his back against the wall, his sword across his knees, his eyes keenly alert.

“Toad! What on earth are you doing here? You have not been here all night, have you?” the Princess said. “One of us, my lady,” Toad replied. "Bull sleeps now." The Princess was clearly confused. “Toad, this is my father’s castle. What possible danger can I be in when I am under the protection of the walls, the gatetower and the entire Household Guard?” she asked.

“None whatsoever, my lady. But you see, you haven’t been told that you will have your tackle fed back to you if any harm befalls our good Princess. Neither I nor, and more especially, Bull wish to take even the slightest chance that we will be dining out on our own meat and two veg ere long.” Toad smiled.

To be continued........

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Another fairy story! Fit the sixth

The Captain led her across a small exercise ground to a long, low hut outside of which sat a small group playing dice. “Toad, Bull, present yourselves. Now!” he cried as they approached the hut. Two elves immediately sprang to their feet, turned to face the direction of the incoming bellow and stood shock straight as their commander closed the gap between them. “Toad, Bull, I have work for you. This is the Princess, daughter of the King, and she returns home. You will ride with her and protect her and woe betide if you do not. Pray that you die in the attempt for I will surely make you wish for the rest of your miserable lives that you had! Princess, Toad and Bull, your, some say gallant, protectors. Those are of course not their real names, but they have had them so long that most here have forgotten their birth names. Toad? ‘Tis easy to see why. Bull? I pray you never find out!”

The Princess took in the two soldiers before her. It was easy to see why Toad had acquired such a use name. His face was marked with a myriad of scars, indentations, two mildly suppurating abscesses and half of his left ear was missing, the remaining edge ragged, as though bitten through. “Do not ask after his scars, my lady,” the Captain said, “for he will regale you with a tale longer than the creation saga for each and every one, those that you can see, those that you cannot and those that you should not see. If you wish for sleepless nights in the days ahead, ask! But I do not counsel it!” Toad wore a broad grin and was obviously used to such joshing from his Captain. Bull, however, was more difficult to fathom. He had no horns, no hump to his back not even a ring through his nose. “No doubt all will become clear in time,” the Princess thought to herself.

Toad stepped forward and with a wide, sweeping bow said, “We will serve you well, my lady, to the best of our strength and to the limit of our courage and endurance, none of which I shamelessly say are small. It will be a pleasure and an honour to acquire further blemishes to my already marred features in the service of such beauty.” The Princess blushed a deep crimson. “I thank you, Sirs, for your service,” she quietly replied, her head slightly bowed. “Serve me well and the King shall hear of it, and you also, Captain. I will have no fear on the road with these gallant elves to protect me. I believe you have chosen well!”

“Come then, my lady,” the Captain said, “we will dine while these two rapscallions prepare for the journey. Toad, Bull, be at the main gate at 2 past the fourth watch and be prepared!” He paused as though thinking and then said, almost as an afterthought, “You will stay with the Princess during her sojourn and will return with her if she returns. If she chooses to stay, you will return as soon as she dismisses you.” Taking the Princess’ arm, he turned and walked away. After ten or twelve paces, the Captain turned his head back sharply to the two soldiers and said, “Please, Bull, no more accidents. Keep it in your tunic.” Bull and Toad both smiled and breathed in unison, almost soundlessly, “As if!”

As they sat on the opposite sides of a small table in the Captain’s quarters, a dish of mutton stew with rosemary and garlic before them, the Princess asked, “Captain, what must Bull keep in his tunic? Perhaps I can help in that respect, if I know what I must look out for.”

The Captain laughed. “My lady, that which Bull must keep hidden is so attracted to beauty that I fear he will have to exercise all of his discipline on the journey to the castle.” He smiled. “But have no fear, my lady, Bull knows the difference between right and wrong, more than most, he will not falter.”

The Princess creased her brow and said, “I am confused. You speak as though this were a living thing. Perhaps a pet? Surely such a thing should not be kept in a tunic. Surely all living things have a right to sunlight and freedom? Why should Bull’s pet be deprived so? Is that not needless cruelty?”

The Captain smiled again. “A living thing? Aye, too true does it live! I had hoped that I could avoid this but I see that I must be frank. You have seen bulls in the field, with their harem, Princess?” The Princess nodded. “And you have perhaps seen the excited bull’s pizzel as his harem gathers around him?” The Princess flushed. “That is how Bull acquired his use name,” the Captain continued. “It would be no more than a curiosity if he were not so apt to father children which he cannot, will not, support. I doubt that Bull would consider a noble to be fair game but perhaps you might advise the lower ranks of castle staff, or their overseers, of the dangers of meeting Bull in the stable to view, in his own words, ‘this glorious wonder’.”

The Princess flushed once more but smiled. “I understand you, my good Captain. Warnings shall go before me as rose petals before a Queen! Have no fear!”

It was a little after the second hour of the watch when the Princess and the Captain arrived at the main gate. Bull and Toad were astride two roan horses heavily laden with saddle sacks across their broad rumps; the Princess’ horse between them. Toad rose in his stirrups and bowing said, “Greetings, Princess, my good Captain! We are, as you see, here at the appointed hour. We live to serve!” The Princess laughed. “Well met, Toad! Bull!”

The Princess walked briskly to her horse. The Captain heaved her into the saddle. “Remember, you two, if one hair of her head is harmed, you will be dining on your own tackle ere long. Guard her well!” The two elves nodded and wheeling their horses in the direction of the gate, bade the Princess to follow.

As they passed through the shadow of the gate tower, Bull turned to the Princess and asked, “Do you have haste, my lady? Although we are heavily laden, we still can make good time, if you have need.”

“No,” the Princess replied. “I have no need to hasten towards this meet. There is time enough to prepare myself for what must be done. We will amble and take in this sun for a while.” Bull smiled. “Well said, my lady. There is an inn some ways ahead which we will make by nightfall at this pace. We can rest there tonight and still make the castle gate by the morrow’s eve.”

To be continued.......

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Another fairy story! Fit the fifth

As they were making ready to leave, a court herald galloped into the square and blowing his horn, shouted: “Hear ye, hear ye all! I come with tidings from the King! The Queen is with child and the King does mark the midsummer day and the sevenday thereafter as days of rejoicing! One silver penny per head will be distributed to this and every village and each will receive his gift from the King in his joy. Those of you who have multiplied as you should will surely be rich! Hear ye, hear ye all!” At once, he dismounted and, taking a large hammer and some nails from his saddle pouch, nailed a parchment proclamation to the door of the village hall. Turning, he shouted: “Rejoice! There is joy once more in the Halls of the King!”

The Princess collapsed onto a bench, confused, dazed, dumbfounded. “The Queen is dead,” she thought. “The dead bear no children. How can this be so?” She looked at Natalia, tears welling in the corners of her eyes, those same eyes glazed over as though she had been coshed and left by the roadside. “Come, child,” Natalia said. “We must hurry. This is ill news! I do not wish to be longer on the road than needs be. Mulled wine aplenty I fear we shall need upon our return. Speak not now, we must hurry! Come!” They each grabbed a handle and slowly, as though every step was a step to bear the last burden they would ever bear, they made their way from the square.

It was more than an hour later when they finally arrived, exhausted and silent, before the cot door. “Come, we will unload here. ‘Tis but a short walk to the scullery,” Natalia said. And so began the long, slow, ponderous task of moving the contents of the cart to the scullery and thence to the larder. Another hour had passed before Natalia was satisfied that all had been stored in accordance with her wishes and they sat, by the worktable, glasses of mulled wine pressed firmly between their fingertips.

“I must go to him,” she said quietly. “He cannot dishonour my mother so. To so treat her memory thus…………No, he must, he will, pay for this!”

“Be careful, child,” Natalia said. “And be warned! It is an ill path that you start. To reach the end you will have anguish, pain, sorrow and, perhaps, hate! So much hate! And hate does consume all before it, like the Juggernaut. Be wary of hate, child, be wary of sullying your beauty with it. Hate is apt to cast a strange shadow across the face and mar the features. I have before seen such anger turn, beware!”

“I hear you,” the Princess replied. “I will take heed of your words. I think it is hard to hate and I have had little practice. No, I think it will always be too hard to hate.” The Princess raised her glass and drained the dregs. Slowly she rose and nodding politely to Natalia she climbed the stairs to bed, to sleep.

She rose earlier than usual the following morning and, after a brief silent wash, she donned sensible trou’s and a stout shirt. Gently pressing her lips against the still sleeping Natalia’s forehead, she whispered: “Farewell, my dear Natalia, pray for me in the long days to come and hope for me also. Hope I have little enough of, yours must do service for us both.” She trod lightly to the door and, gently unlatching it, she turned her head once more towards the sleeping seamstress. “Farewell,” she mouthed and closed the door behind her as she stepped onto the small landing.

Figo, the young ostler at the inn, was surprised to find the Princess at the stable door when he arrived at dawn to start his labour for the day. Initially very reluctant to part with his white-maned, grey gelding, he finally relented when the Princess eventually agreed that she would make him a weskit of soft moleskin. “Provided that you supply the skins!” She laughed.

Figo hauled the saddle from the beam and laid it across the deep crimson cloth on the horse’s back. Kneeing the horse in the ribs, he tightened the girth strap. The Princess cuffed him on the back of the head. “You should not needlessly hurt other creatures, it is cruel” she cried. “I should kick you in the chest and see how well you might like it!” The ostler smiled. “For thine own good, m’lady. How else will I get him to breathe out? Ask? Politely? Never secure a saddle on a horse that might have a lungful of air. He breathes out and your saddle will be under him not above and thou, m’lady, will be on the ground!” In a blur he attached the bridle and bit and laid the reins across the saddle horn. “Come, I will help thee mount” Cupping his hands, he bade her put her bended knee in them and with a sweep of his arms lifted her high and onto the horse. “Thank you, Figo,” she said. “My promise I will not forget. Have the skins ready for my return.”

She arrived at one of her father’s outposts just before noon and there she persuaded the Captain to provide her with an escort to the castle. Two armed soldiers. “They are my best men,” he had told her. “And, as my best men, they deserve a reward that I cannot provide here. So they will remain with you as long as you are at court and will return with you when you return. If you have no need of them hanging at your heels while you are in the castle, release them, I beg, for a little drinking, a little carousing, a little wenching; they will thank you and, more importantly, me for it. Come, I will introduce you and give them the good news at the same time.”

To be continued.......

Monday, 25 May 2009

Another fairy story! Fit the fourth

Two, perhaps three, years later, after no new orders had arrived from the castle for some time, the Princess became anxious. As she stirred the stew simmering in the large casserole one evening, she said to no-one in particular, although Natalia was behind her, “How fares my mother, I wonder? No news is good news, they say, but perhaps I should send a message? I have not seen her for an age and this long silence disquietens me.”

“Have no fear, child,” Natalia said. “’Tis oft that affairs of State occupy the powerful and we, the lesser, must await their pleasure. And no, I do not judge! ‘Tis simply how the world is.”

Their conversation was interrupted by a loud, insistent hammering on the door of the cottage. Natalia was about to speak her usual refrain, though in truth the dogs now even less moved from their fireside spots, when a young page burst through the door and into the living area. “The Princess!” he cried. “Where is the Princess? I bring news and naught of it is good! I must speak with the Princess! Where is she?”

“I am here,” the Princess replied gently from the scullery doorway, “What consumes you? You are eager, I must say!”

“Your mother lies a-dying. She calls for you! You must come! You must follow me, though we will be too late. Please! Follow! We have fresh horses. Can you ride? There was no time! A carriage would be too slow! Please, Princess, follow!”

“Go, child. Your mother calls you,” the seamstress said quietly, an aching counterpoint to the agitated youth before them. “Go! If you do not go now…..” Natalia’s voice trailed into nothingness. The Princess ran after the page and, stepping from the door of the cottage into the darkness, saw six horses, pawing the ground, and four horsemen. “Come, Princess!” said the Master of Horse. “We must not tarry, ‘tis no idle adventure here, as when we last met! Tonight we ride, and ride hard, and long! Haste is all!” The Master of Horse dismounted and with one mighty hand on her crooked knee hefted the Princess into the saddle. “Come, we ride!”

They rode long through the night, and hard, hope ever against hope, but they were, as was foretold, too late.

The Princess was once more bereft. Of light, of love, of peace and naught could be found in the days that followed that would ease the pain of the fist that squeezed the aching place where once her heart had been.

One week after her ride, she watched, through tear-blurred vision, as they followed Faerie custom and returned the body to the ground; that it might provide nutrients to the plants of the forest and thus help to sustain future generations of their folk. As an old proverb has it: “I am all my ancestors and yours too, even though each occupies only a small space inside of me.”

After all was over, she formally took leave of her father and returned to her life as a lowly seamstress.

As the summer days crept gradually into autumn and the leaves became brittle and ochre hued, the hole where her heart had been slowly filled anew. Although a fist did grip oft-times this rebuilt sense of contentment, the pain was bearable and laughter was sometimes heard ringing through the windows of the tiny cottage as she cooked or cleaned or stitched tiny flowers on the hems of dresses.

The months passed by and autumn turned to winter, and winter to spring, until finally the world turned once more into summer. The flowers blossomed under her tender care in the garden and herbs grew more verdant and fragrant than she could ever recall, even in the garden of her grandmother. It was as though Mother Earth took her sadness and in some primeval, mysterious way fashioned it into something that the plants could feast upon.

“My child,” said Natalia one morning as they sipped herb tea among the blossoms, “you are truly gifted! Never has this garden been so joyous, to the eye, to the nose, not even in the days of my lost husband. Why, even the buzzing of the bees seems louder and somehow more wondrous than before. Perhaps I err in teaching you to sew. “

“No, mistress Natalia,” the Princess said. “I enjoy making this beauty for you, as you do for me, for others, when you sew but it is no path to make one’s own way in the world. Little monetary reward would I see for the effort, however enjoyable. No, ‘tis better to sew and earn a crust than to idle one’s days crafting such transient beauty. No-one would wish for such a fleeting pleasure unless little or no payment were required.”

“Come, child, let us then pay our village a visit. We are short of flour, dried meat and those spices that come from across the ocean. Bring the cart to the porch. ‘Tis a fine day for a walk. Sewing will wait on our pleasure for once!”

The Princess brought the small hand cart round to the entrance to the cottage and, each to a handle, they briskly walked into the lane that led to the village square and what merchants the village possessed. Twenty or thirty minutes later, they rounded a sharp curve in the lane and entered the bustling heart of the village. Stalls of varying sizes were scattered across the main square, some permanent, some merely temporary, flanked by open shop fronts piled high with produce from the outlying farms and beyond. People were pressed in all around the stalls and shop fronts as they sought to buy or barter for the goods they needed.

“Come, child, Mistress Olva will be our first. She would never dare sell witchetty flour, to me, nor anyone, I deem. We will be assured of the best quality too, I think. Do I not clothe her daughters? In their finest?”

The next hour was taken up in haggling for the best prices at various stalls and shop fronts as the small hand cart was slowly filled with provender for the coming months. The Princess was amazed at how far below their stated price the stallholders were willing to fall but whether by the pleadings of a poor seamstress’ poverty, promises of priority on dress-work already under way or simply the offer of a bribe in the form of a small child’s undergarment or smock, Natalia was able to secure prices undreamt of by the villagers or farmers.

Later, as they sat before the inn, sipping mulled wine and eating a nectar cake filled with honey and cinnamon, Natalia sought to enlighten the Princess on the ways of the market. “Never pay what they ask,” she said. “Only a damn fool of a sheep farmer with his wits in his rump, or worse, would pay that. They mark up by one or two, sometimes as much as three times what they need to take to turn a profit and the more I pay the poorer I become and the richer they! ‘Tis a game, no more. Why even old Ramly, the spice merchant, knows he was diddled!” She smiled. “Do not look so shocked, child. The smock I will make will be the finest in the village, and he knows it, but it will cost less to make than the amount he docked from my bill! Come, there will be time to be satisfied with my efforts later. Now we must head home if we are to make the door by dusk. ‘Twill be a harder journey back than it was to get here. This cart is heavy!”

To be continued.....

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Another fairy story! Fit the third

While Natalia busied herself in her small scullery, decanting wine and water from large pitchers into the warming pan, raiding small bags of spices and gently stirring the intermingled liquids, the Princess looked closely at the hem of the dress. The gold tracery made delicate lilies, each stitch exact and precise. The child for whom this dress was being made was clearly a child of some import. Natalia did “not do shoddy work” as she herself would say but this was truly exquisite, a work of art. Natalia returned some minutes later, two goblets of steaming wine redolent with the scent of cloves, cinnamon, bergamot and ginger root, on a tray with oaten cakes, each topped with strawberry preserve, for which Natalia was almost as renowned as for her seamstressing. “I have no cream, alas, you will needs make do with preserve alone. Would that I could afford a cow!” She sighed. Clearing a space on the workbench, she gently laid down the tray. She too gently laid herself down and placing the goblet before the Princess bade her speak. “Come child, out with it! What ails thee? Hah! You think I presume too much? A lowly seamstress does thee and thou a Princess? In mine own home, I will do as I please! Come, tell me thy woe!”

The Princess told her what she had heard and how she could never go back to what had once been so joyous. In between fits of sobbing, she told of the pain gnawing like a canker at her heart. “A cuckoo,” she cried. “Parasite!” She spat. “No more than a pair of hands to change the soiled towelling and rinse her clean!” How had she been so deceived? So misled? Cheated? All the while, the seamstress just looked, her piercing azure eyes, flicking from eyes to hands to heaving breasts as if slowly but surely, with her eyes, leeching the pain from the Princess, and leaving her whole. “Drink,” she said. “It will get cool, and mulled wine is, like love, of no good when cold!” She placed the goblet in the Princess’ hand and lifted it to her lips.

“May I stay here?” the Princess asked. “I can cook and clean and perhaps you can teach me to sew? I will not be a burden, I promise you. I will dig and I will learn how to grow, to tend herbs and roots. I will ask my mother to send a cow, or at least silver pennies to buy one at market. And we will have cream! Please, Natalia, let me stay?” The seamstress smiled, smiled as though a smile could heal all of the woes of the world, and laughed. “Of course stay thou may’st, child. Where else would thou go’st? This is but a rude and simple cot, we will perforce need to share the one room above but I will ask the gaffer along the lane to make a bed for thee; he will do so for such a dress as I will make for his gran’daughter. Spare palliasses I have and coverlets and sheets a plenty. Come child, drink! And we will try to make merry amidst this sadness, for I too have lost that which was most dear to me and stitching only lightens the pain, it does not release me from it!”

Many times that night was the Princess’ goblet replenished, until finally, as she teetered on the edge of her bench, swaying gently from side to side, the seamstress began to sing, a voice of pure, unblemished, liquid crystal:

"How often she has gazed from castle windows o'er,
And watched the daylight passing within her captive wall,
With no-one to heed her call.

The evening hour is fading within the dwindling sun,
And in a lonely moment those embers will be gone
And the last of all the young birds flown.

Her days of precious freedom, forfeited long before,
To live such fruitless years behind a guarded door,
But those days will last no more.

Tomorrow at this hour she will be far away,
Much farther than these islands,
Or the lonely Fotheringay."

Natalia sighed. “I am sorry, child. Sometimes, the pain over-rides all else and song is all that will soothe. Tho’, perhaps, there is hope even here. I miss him, terribly, but he comes, sometimes, fleetingly, a dim shadow in my mind, through the day, as I work, though he is these five years gone. Come! Our bed is wide, wide enough for two and we are but both tindersticks. Come! Until the gaffer can deliver.”

They rose late the following morning. The Princess stared from the upper window at a bleak and dreary sky. It was as if the whole world had turned to lead overnight. She was queasy, her head hammered and her legs felt weak. “I must remember to more incline to moderation in all things,” she thought. “If this is how a surfeit of wine feels so soon after the heady pleasure, I do not wish to taste more of such pleasure, the price is too high.” Lost in her thoughts, she did not hear Natalia enter the room and nearly knocked the pitcher and bowl from the seamstress’ hands as the Princess turned to gather her clothes from the small rustic chair behind her. Gathering her dress in front of her to hide her nakedness, the Princess flushed.

“Come, child. Are we not female here, both? Do we hide from each other as we would from them?” She emphasised the last word, but not with malice, merely an emphasis on difference. “Come, wash and prepare for thy day. Thou hast much to learn and I have little time to teach. Come, here is hot water, soap and some towelling to dry. Be quick, there is much to do!” Thus began a pattern that would mark out each new day for many years to come. Each morning, the Princess would learn some new, small skill; how to pinch the growing tips of the herbs to make them bushy, how to use seed potatoes to grow more potatoes, how to cut fabric in a straight line, how to sew small stitches, invisible, except on the inside. And slowly, she forgot she was a princess and, in truth, became a peasant girl, an apprentice seamstress.

The Queen became a more frequent visitor to the seamstress now. Forever was she ordering dresses, for herself, her other daughters, their friends, even for the Princess herself, although the child had little need for such finery. Her coarse clothes suited her new life and there was little opportunity to parade her beauty. Oft times her mother would stay overnight, sleeping on a simple rush palliasse on the floor and would help the Princess in small tasks during the following day. Cutting flowers for the table, helping to prepare the noonday meal, drying herbs in bunches on the ‘kitchen maid’ in the scullery. The Princess was at first horrified that her mother, a Queen, should be engaging in work more suited to a scullion, but she did at last come to understand; only by doing so could the Queen prolong her visits.

To be continued

Thanks to Sandy Denny for 'Fotheringay'

Friday, 22 May 2009

Another fairy story! Fit the second

The following day, they packed. Trunkfuls of richly embroidered dresses, of delicate undergarments, of shoes; for even a princess in exile must dress according to her station. The Dowager Marquise had been wont to receive all manner of guests and a princess should be attired as a princess should when in the prescence of nobility. She thought hard on her toys, her dolls. Should they be packed? In the end she gave in to the housekeeper’s pleadings. As a child, her childhood would remain with her a little longer.

Early the next morning, footmen and the King’s Master of Horse arrived with a grand carriage drawn by four dappled geldings. While the footmen loaded the Princess’ trunks onto the rear platform of the carriage, the Master of Horse called the Princess to one side. He knelt, and looking into the Princess’ eyes, he said: “The Queen sends her love to you, child, and protection. I will ride postillion and my footmen will ride the rear. You need have no fear or concern for the journey. As King’s men we are sworn unto death to protect the King and the King’s own.”

“Thank you,” she replied. “How fares my mother?”

“She is well and misses you terribly. She would now have you home to the castle but she defers to her mother’s last wisdom. Come, we must be about if we are to make your aunt’s by nightfall.”

The housekeeper appeared at the porch carrying a small bag. “Come, my sweet,” she called. “I have prepared some nuncheon for you in case no inn can be found on the road.” The Princess walked across and received the bag. “I shall miss you, Melissa,” she said quietly and placed her forehead on the housekeeper’s outstretched hand. “And I you, little one. Be brave and live well and long. Perhaps one day, we too shall meet again.” She turned and darted back into the house so that the child would not see her tears.

“Come, Princess,” called the Master of Horse, “we depart. ‘Tis a long road ahead and we must not tarry!” The Princess walked briskly to the carriage and, her arm supported by the Master of Horse, she climbed in. The footmen climbed onto the baseplates at the rear, the Master of Horse mounted the leading horse on the left, and another journey began.

The following years of her life were among some of the happiest. Although she sorely missed her grandmother, her cousins became like brothers, in fact became her brothers in so far as she was concerned and they would spend all of their time together, inseparable. The village children became her friends too, even though they knew she was a Princess, the daughter of the King and Queen, still she was treated no differently. She attended the same village school, ate the same simple meals, dressed in the same simple clothes and played the same simple games. As the years passed, she grew to become what later tales would attest without a shred of doubt, the fairest of the latter day elves. A bright and dazzling light shone from her eyes and her laughter was enough to shame the dourest of the villagers, of which there were many, to raise a smile.

Some years later, when she had become full grown in body, if not yet in mind, she returned home one day from her studies. Quietly slipping off her shoes on the coarse matting just inside the entrance, she heard her aunt’s voice, talking to her youngest child, a girl. “So who is daddy’s little darling?” she cooed. “Who does daddy love the best? Who is the apple of our eyes, then? Who do we love more then anything in this world? Who is so much more loved than that interloper, that cuckoo?” The princess was dumbfounded. Cuckoo? Was that all she was? A parasite in the nest? A leech? Had she been deceived all of those years? A lump started to grow in her throat and she knew that she was about to cry. Slipping her shoes back on, she ran from the house as fast as she could, towards the small wood that lay at the eastern edge of the village. As she ran she could feel the tears streaming down her cheeks. “How could she?” she thought, as all the happiness of her short life seemed in one brief moment to dissolve into dust.

Finally she reached the wood and, exhausted, lay beneath a giant oak; her head turned away from the village and the life she had known. “Gran'm'ma, where are you? Please, come to me. Help me!” She called but her grandmother did not, could not, come. She was truly alone now, perhaps for the first time. “I cannot stay here, not now. I cannot go back there, not now.” But where could she go? The Queen? No, both she and her mother were likewise bound by her grandmother’s ancient wisdom and her interdict. Natalia? Perhaps.

Natalia was a seamstress, who lived in the next village. So, retracing her steps out of the wood, the Princess rejoined the road that meandered between the two villages. Turning her back on the village that had been her home for more than 10 years, she made her way down the narrow track towards Natalia’s house and, she hoped, some kind of sanctuary. Natalia was famed in the region for the quality of her dressmaking and had, in fact, made more than one dress for the Princess herself, at the Queen’s behest no less. The Princess had found her an amiable companion during the long and tiresome fitting sessions when Natalia would gently gossip through a mouthful of pins about her village and the small comings and goings of daily life.

The sun was slowly setting when she finally came on the gate in front of Natalia’s little cottage, fingers of orange and magenta streaked the clouds as though the very west itself was aflame. She knocked on the door. A voice like ringing crystal came through the open window. “If you be friend, enter! If you be foe, ‘ware my hounds lest you lose more than the seat of your trou’s!” The Princess smiled. “Hounds indeed!” she thought. “More like rats, those dogs! I doubt they could reach even my seat let alone a brigand’s!” The Princess pushed the ever unlatched door and went inside. Natalia was crouched over her bench stitching tiny, gold fleurs-de-lys around the hem of a child’s dress. The seamstress looked up and swept the Princess with her eyes. “What ails thee, child, for I see it in thy face. Great pain, I see, behind those eyes. Come, sit! I shall prepare mulled wine and oatcakes, if they be not too hard. Come, sit! I shall return shortly. You may admire my handiwork, while you wait. I think it will impress.”

To be continued

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Another fairy story! Fit the first

Once upon a time in a land far beyond the boundaries of the widest ocean lived a young Princess. Fair of face, slender of form, the fairest of her race in the long days of their slow decline it was said; but wilful, oh so wilful.

As a small child she would often leave the castle at daybreak, without telling her parents, the King and the Queen, or the servants. She was to be found hours later, and after desperate searching by the entire household, in front of some peasant hut watching an old crone grinding corn with a rude pestle and mortar or outside the blacksmith’s, peering intently at the rows of horseshoes. No matter what her parents did, no matter how much they chided, scolded, punished her, no sooner did they believe that they had cured her wanderlust than she would once again be off on another of her small adventures, accompanied by her imaginary friend, Marsupilami.

Eventually, the Dowager Marquise, her grandmother, could stand the constant worry no more, the never ending searches, the child’s contrite apologies and promises, the nightmare imaginings and she finally persuaded the King and Queen that perhaps a change of air, away from the stifling atmosphere of the castle and the court, would rein in her overarching desire for new adventures.

“For surely, if she remains here, some misadventure will eventually befall her; some mishap, fatal or nay,” she said to the King and Queen one day. “A child so young cannot wander aimlessly in the world unaccompanied. Even here it is perilous; wolves, bears, even thieves and cut-throats from the Far Reaches quarter our land. I will retire to the country. I grow tired now of this gloomy castle and its sycophantic court and I will take her with me, as my charge; to watch over her and see that she comes to no harm. Rest assured, my children, that she will also be loved, as though she were of my own flesh, not once removed.”

The Princess though deeply saddened at being parted from her family, her sisters, her brothers, more especially her mother, the Queen, was also elated to be embarking on such a new adventure; so much bigger, grander, more fraught with possibilities than she had ever imagined. She willingly accompanied her grandmother to a small mansion, some distance from the capital and court and there she lived and played and never wandered far from the grounds of her home. Mischievous she was, it is true, are not all children so? Her wanderlust had, however, been silenced. In this perhaps her Grandmother played the larger part, accepting the lesser of the two sins of childhood, mischief, as necessary to quieten the wilfulness.

After a few short, most happy years, the Dowager Marquise grew ill, rare among the fair race, and, one day, as she lay slowly dying in her bed, her breathing, short, pain filled gasps, she had the Princess summoned to her bedchamber. As the Princess knelt on the soft, down-filled cover, she noticed that her grandmother’s eyes, previously two black, limpid pools in a dark forest, pools she too had inherited, had become grey, clouded, as though a fog was slowly descending. The Dowager Marquise gently took the child’s hand and said softly: “Do not cry, child, for there will be time enough for weeping when I am gone. Today I wish to see your eyes shine, not in grief but in joy; I wish to see you smile. I wish to prepare myself for that which we, except in battle, have never before suffered however long we lived. Death! Alas, this is the fading time of our people, our twilight years. What once we were, we are no more, we diminish and the reckoning must now be paid. I go to wherever it is we go when we are no longer of this earth. To the Halls of Waiting, perhaps, to join our kind to attend on this world’s end and the remaking of another.”

Although the Princess gallantly tried to smile, the tears were slowly falling in small rivulets down her cheeks and her nose dripped gentle drops of rain on her lips. “I have always tried to do what was best for you, my child,” the old woman said. “To this end I have made arrangements for you. You will not return to your parents, the King and Queen, at this time. Your aunt has agreed that you shall live with her when I am gone. She is a kindly soul and she has children of her own, a little younger than you ‘tis true, but they will make admirable playmates and you will not be lonely. And you will be loved, as I have loved you. Think of this as simply another adventure, just as this was. Be happy, child. We will meet again though the wait will seem long, and far longer for me, but meet we will."

Some hours later the Dowager Marquise died in her sleep. When the Princess was told, the child locked herself, distraught, in her room and remained there the whole day. The sound of her sobbing could be heard from far away, as though she wept for the loss of the whole world. No coaxing, cajoling or persuasion would make her leave her room. Finally, as the housekeeper was preparing supper, the Princess appeared in the parlour doorway, her eyes swollen with so many tears. “I leave for my aunt’s on the morrow after next,” she said clearly and without emotion. “Will you help me to pack my things?” The housekeeper smiled. “Of course, my sweet, but there is time enough for packing. Come! Eat!” She ushered the Princess to the table and laid cheese, butter, hams, beans and bread before her as the Princess settled herself on the small wooden chair. “Eat, child!” the housekeeper said. “You have eaten nothing today and you are already only skin and bone. Eat, I say!”

The Princess ate. She broke off small pieces of bread, spread them with butter and delicately placed them in her mouth, one by one, as though saving them, storing them for a long hard winter, as a squirrel. As she slowly chewed, the Princess gazed out of the window, at the candles burning on shelves, at her plate. The housekeeper laid her head in her hands and gently whispered to her palms: “’Tis no age to learn that we, the undying, do indeed die. I fear for her and what this knowledge may bring. Would that our God in his mercy had spared the child but she knows now; we have become mortal. Our lives will now shrink to nothing and we will become little more than strange looking humans, elves no more! It will be hard, I think, to die but if die we must, then will hope for a world made new sustain us?”

To be continued............

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Swine 'flu - The Facts!

There seems to be lots in the news about this recently. Yet another microbe evolves to cross the species barrier. What I don't understand is why it's called swine 'flu. When was the last time you heard someone use the word 'swine' except as a term of abuse for another human, usually a man, usually being unfaithful? Right! About 1850! So why call it swine 'flu, it's pig 'flu! Why must these people, scientific college kids, use words that half the speaking population may never have heard. Avian 'flu anybody? No doubt if it was from sheep they'd call it ovine 'flu. Look at BSE. Innocuous, no? Well it's short for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, what on earth does that mean? (Cow brains turning into sponges, but that's beside the point.) C'mon guys, don't rely on the journalists to get your message across, get there before them! I'm sure you all thought of mad cow disease before BSE and I bet all the doctors talk about pig 'flu over lunch, so.............

There's been a lot of 72 point headlines trying to whip up hysteria and a lot of uninformed comment on Twitter and blogs around the globe so I thought I would add some definitive facts to the mix to try to calm you all down. Once you lot get whipped up into an hysterical frenzy, there's no knowing what you'll do. Wipe out every animal on the planet, just in case, probably. Oh sorry, you're already doing that. Well, something else just as drastic! So, heed my soothing words. Relax.

Fact 1

You cannot get swine 'flu from unprotected sex with a pig.

There is actually a caveat to this. It has to be 'normal' sex with a pig, ie 'natural' for the pig. If once you start injecting a little 'spice' into your porcine lovemaking then the risks are much higher. Forget anything resembling fellatio, even in the '69' position, although cunnilingus alone (which to be blunt most females prefer anyway) is of no danger. Any pig attempting to 'deep throat' you is likely to spray swine 'flu all over your pubic hair. Mutual cunnilingus however, if the pig is of a Sapphic nature, is less dangerous and even less so if used with 'barrier' methods of protection. The missionary position is dangerous since there is a tendency for 'French kissing' as passions mount and the pig quite normally is not one to take kindly to being wrestled onto her back and may fight back. The reverse cowgirl is however perfectly acceptable.

Fact 2

You cannot get swine flu from a toilet seat (public or private)

To some extent this does depend on how much leeway you give your pig in terms of its access to your home. All of the pig-keeping manuals I have consulted recommend that you do not let your pig have access to the following areas: bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, lounge/living room. If you keep to these rules you will be safe. However, if your pig has been allowed to use 'the bathroom' and has learnt to raise the lid and/or seat with its snout to have a pee, then you should invest in anti-bacterial wipes and use one on the seat before seating yourself for number ones (women) or number twos (both). Men with unusally large flaccid penises should probably stand on a box or crate before pointing 'Percy' at the porcelain to avoid the possibility that the microbe will jump from the seat. Men of average dimensions need have no fear unless they are below 5' 2" in height, in which case a box is also recommended.

Fact 3

You cannot get swine 'flu from the Tube/Metro/Subway

Now strictly speaking this isn't true. However there are so many more nasty microbes lurking underground in these transport systems that the liklihood of you contracting swine 'flu before you get Lhasa Fever, Legionnaire's disease, Ebola or the dreaded Marburg virus are actually quite small. Cover your head with a plastic bag and secure it around your neck with a scarf or your tie and you should be ok. However if a pig does manage to make it across the automated barriers and onto the train, I would strongly suggest you alight immediately and certainly alight no later than the next station to minimise the risk.

Fact 4

You cannot get swine 'flu from your dog.

If your dog is of the intact variety (not bitches) then you need to examine his behaviour carefully to ensure that you are in no danger. Does he slobber more than usual when you have leg of pork or pork chilli? Does he play more with dogs with curly tails than with straight ones? Does he roll in mud a lot but never jumps into the lake to wash it off? Does he lie on the lounge floor and grunt? Or snort? If you spot any of these tell-tale signs, it could mean your dog is suffering from unnatural tendencies and you should keep him on a tight leash at all times to avoid any possibility of inter species 'couplings'.

Fact 5

You cannot get swine 'flu from Twitter

Oh alright, that's an outright lie. You can get anything from Twitter including pre-senile dementia, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, variant Creuzfeld Jakob Disease, manic depression, paranoia and a whole host of other psychiatric disorders, names for which haven't even been agreed in the psychiatric community. What do you call someone who is obsessed with telling everyone in the world they're sitting down to eat in Taco Bell? Who in their right mind would even admit to ever eating there?

So I hope that I have, from my fount of knowledge of the natural sciences, convinced you that while people will die from this disease, it is likely to be less than die from self imposed diseases:

smoking = lung cancer = death
bad diet = obesity = heart attack = death
driving too fast = collision = multiple death
drinking alcohol and then driving too fast = see above
having unprotected sex with an unknown partner = HIV = death....... or at the very least a nasty discharge or a scab on the end of your willy!

And finally, a sweet reminder of your childhood, the tao of Pooh. Apologies to A A Milne.