A fairy tale.
Once upon a time there was a Kingdom ruled by an ageing King. This kingdom was famous throughout the world for its stories, because that is what the people who lived there liked to do best - tell stories to each other. And every year the King would hold a competition to see who the best storyteller in the land was. And every year, the winner’s story would be told throughout the kingdom for weeks afterwards.
The King, however, was not happy, because he was old, and he had no children who could rule the Kingdom when he died. He thought long and hard about it and decided that this year, the person who won the story telling contest would be his successor.
So the announcements were posted all over the Kingdom and people gathered from far and wide to take part in the contest. That year, the finest stories ever were told, and the judges were amazed, amused, intrigued and astounded. All the stories were so good that they simply couldn’t decide which one should win.
Just as the contest was about to end, a cloaked woman entered the gathering. “I wish to tell a story,” she said. The judges replied “But surely you cannot tell a story better than those we have heard already?”. The woman just smiled, although it was difficult to tell in the shadows cast by her hood, and said “Nonetheless, I would like to try.” The judges agreed.
“Once upon a time,” began the woman, “there was a Kingdom ruled by an ageing King. This kingdom was famous throughout the world for its stories …” and she told the story of the story contest, and people were amazed, for as she described each contestant’s story, she improved on it, making it more and more real, until finally she came to her own tale.
“The last to speak was a mysterious cloaked stranger, and although the judges did not believe it possible, her tale surpassed each and every one of the previous tales, and so the judges were all in agreement that she should be declared the King’s heir. But the woman was a powerful witch, and when she came to rule the Kingdom, all those present that day rued the choice, for she was a cruel ruler, and worked her people long and hard, so they had no time to tell stories. Instead they worked the fields and mines day and night until the Kingdom was a prosperous empire. They went to war to conquer new territory, and many died in battle. And although the Kingdom became a mighty force within the world, only the Queen was happy, for she hated all living things, and with a mighty spell made it so the people were cold and hungry.” With that, she removed her hood and bowed to the King, and everyone could see that she was young and extremely beautiful.
Everyone within the room shivered, and they all realised that fear was what had been missing from all the other stories, and that the woman’s story was the only complete one. The King, who was also the chief judge, looked pale and worried. Then he laughed. “A fine tale indeed! How fortunate that it is only a tale.” And he pronounced the woman, whose name was Cylithia, to be his heir.
But the King should have remembered that that there is truth in every tale. For no sooner had Cylithia moved into the Palace than he began to feel ill. Very quickly he took to his bed, and died a couple of days later. With the entire country in mourning, Cylithia was declared Queen and gradually all of the things she had told of in her story came to pass. Queen Cylithia’s kingdom became the largest, richest, and most miserable in all the world.
Many brave Knights tried to challenge her rule. All of them were bold and heroic, but somehow the Queen still outsmarted them. Their bodies were hung on the walls of the castle as a warning to those who would try to defy the Queen. And hundreds of years passed, but the Queen never got older, or less beautiful. For as she had told the judges on the day of the contest, she was an old and powerful witch.
In a small village on the very edge of the Kingdom lived a woodcarver and his wife. This carver was very talented, and important nobles would come from far away to buy one of his carvings. The carver had three children - Anna, who was the eldest, and was very strong, David, who was in the middle, and was very clever, and Alice, who was the youngest. Anna would go into the forest and cut down fir trees, David would look at each tree and come up with clever ways to carve around the shape of each piece of wood, and their father would carve. Alice didn’t have anything to do, but her mother always said that she was young yet, and would grow into her talent. On the whole though, Alice didn’t mind, and by the standards of the witch’s kingdom, they were happier than most.
Until, that is, Queen Cylithia heard of the woodcarver. One day the woodcarver’s wife answered a bang on the door, and there was a regiment of the royal guard. “You family is greatly honoured,” said the captain, “for Queen Cylithia wishes your husband to come and carve in the Royal Palace.” The woodcarver came to the door and replied “Thank the Queen kindly for her offer, but I do not wish to leave my home and my family.” “You misunderstand,” replied the captain. “This was an order, not a request.”
And with those words, the guards rushed into the house and grabbed the woodcarver, dragging him away into the forest to the Queen’s palace. The mother and children were left, frightened and hungry, for without the woodcarver, they had no way to earn a living, and couldn’t afford to buy food.
Now the woodcarver’s wife was distraught, so she sat down and thought. When the sun went down, she was still thinking, and although the children tried, they couldn’t attract her attention, so lost in thought was she. When the sun came up next morning, she was still thinking, and the next night too. Finally, on the morning of the third day, she stood up and woke her children.
“The Queen is powerful because she has a magical book. Anything she writes in that book comes true, and as a result it is very difficult to defeat her. I know this because I have seen it in a vision, and I also saw that she wrote that I would die, so I could not come after my husband. But she didn’t write anything about you, because you are too young for her to notice. You must get the book, and stop the Queen.”
And with that, the wife keeled over dead from hunger and exhaustion. The children tried to wake her at first, and when they couldn’t, they cried and cried over her body. But David, who you may remember was very clever, said “We cannot help our mother now, so we must do as she asked and save our father.” So they took the last of the food and set out into the woods together.
But no sooner had they set out than Anna and David had a big argument. “I should lead,” said Anna, “because I’m the oldest and the strongest.” “No, I should lead, said David, “because I’m the cleverest.” Alice sat down on a nearby stump, and watched them shout at each other. After a while Anna and David got so angry that they stormed off into the forest in different directions, each vowing to rescue their father on their own. Alice just sat on the stump and waited, a little smile on her face.
Time passed, and Alice listened to the sounds of the forest around her. Suddenly, they were broken by an almighty scream, and David came rushing into the clearing where she sat followed by an extremely angry boar. David swiftly climbed up a tree, but the boar kept trying to knock him out of it by butting the tree trunk.
Alice sang softly to the boar, and slowly it became calm. She patted it on the back and it wandered off back into the forest. David climbed down the tree and thanked Alice for saving him. “But if you’d been with Anna, you wouldn’t have needed me. She’s not scared of the boars, and the boars know it.” replied Alice, quietly.
Then there was another scream combined with an almighty crash. Alice and David wandered off to investigate. A short way from the clearing, they found a small pit, at the bottom of which was Anna, looking very embarrassed. “Please help me out,” she said, so they both pulled her up and out of the trap. “If David had been with you,” Alice said, “you might have noticed the trap before you fell in.” So they all agreed that it was better if they stayed together, since they were all good at different things, although nobody was quite sure yet what it was that Alice was good at.
On the way to the palace, they had many adventures, so many that there isn’t time to tell them all now. They met the Talking Trees, David got drunk on Troll cider, Anna almost got married to a horse by mistake, and Alice cleaned an entire castle using only a small fish. But eventually their journey was over, and they arrived at the Queen’s Palace.
“How will we get in?” asked Anna, for the gates were heavily guarded, and there was no way that they could slip in unnoticed. “Watch”, said David, so they sat and watched the gates from a distance, even though it was very cold.
After a while, a group of small children carrying large and heavy looking baskets were herded out of the gate by a large man with a nasty looking whip. “There, let’s follow them,” said David. The children lead them across town to a large ugly building from which large quantities of steam was rising. As the children went in, one tripped and the basket he was carrying fell to the ground and burst open. Dirty sheets flew all over the street, and the child rushed to pick them up, all the time trying to avoid whip strokes from the furious overseer.
“So it’s a laundry,” said David. “I think I have an idea.” David led the children inside the building, and they hid behind the large copper kettles for cleaning the clothes. “If we …” began David, but he was interrupted by the booming voice of the overseer. “Aha!” he shouted. “Slacking off work again! There’s a whole load of baskets to get to the palace so get moving!” His hand lingered menacingly on the whip attached to his belt.
The children didn’t need telling twice, and grabbed baskets from the enormous pile by the door. Quickly they marched back to the palace, dodging whip cracks and abuse from the overseer. Alice was too weak to carry her basket and kept stumbling, but Anna helped her by holding onto both baskets at once. The overseer noticed and made her stop, but by that time they were nearly at the palace and Alice was able to make the last few steps.
Once inside, they needed to get away from the overseer. David told Alice to make a noise, and so Alice pretended to cry. The overseer came towards Alice, whip raised on high, ready to strike her, but David had slipped beneath his feet while he was concentrating on Alice, so he tripped over and came tumbling down onto the floor. Anna lifted her heavy basket and brought it down on the overseers head again and again until he was unconscious. “That wasn’t a nice thing to do,” said Alice, “but he was a bad man and I suppose he deserved it.”
“Quick,” said David. “We have to find the book. Let’s keep following corridors until we find the place that looks the nicest, because that’s surely where the Queen lives.” As they wandered through the palace, ducking into doorways to avoid being noticed, gradually the area they were in became more and more luxurious, with fine silks hanging on the walls, gold paint and jewelled statues.
Eventually they came to a door with an enormous diamond on it, and they knew that this must be the room of the queen herself. Quietly they pushed open the door and then snuck inside. The room was so beautiful I can’t even describe it to you. All I can say is that there was enough riches in that one single room to be able to buy most ordinary kingdoms. At the far side of the room on a solid gold desk there sat a plain and battered old book. The children rushed over, but before they could reach the book, Queen Cylithia rose from the chair in the corner of the room where she had been sitting, and picked it up, along with a quill from the desk.
“Children,” she laughed. “How amusing. Your deaths will be particularly entertaining.” And in the book, she wrote “The captain and some guards entered the room and grabbed the three children securely, beating ….” but then she was out of ink, and had to pause to re-ink the quill.
The ink was not even dry before the guards burst in and held the children in a tight and painful grip. David was too scared to be able to think of a plan, and the guards were holding on too tight for Anna to break free. Alice, however, knew just what to do, for as her mother had claimed, she had grown into her own talent, and magic came forth from her as she spoke the words of power she had known all of her life. The book and pen flew from Cylithia’s hands and landed at David’s feet.
That was all that Anna needed, and in the confusion she broke free from the guards holding her and started to fight ferociously. The guards holding David and Alice let go in order to fight with Anna, who was biting, scratching, kicking and screaming. Quickly David flung open the book and wrote as fast as he could “With her book in the hands of others, Queen Cylithia’s magic was destroyed, and the guards could only watch amazed as the Queen aged and died before their eyes.”
And because David had written it in the book, that was what happened. The guards ran from the room, screaming with fear. The only one left was the captain. The very same captain who had taken away their father. Anna and the captain fought like wild things, and although Anna was very strong and brave, the captain was well trained. He knocked her into a corner where she lay winded, and drawing his sword closed upon her.
David took up the pen to write in the book again, but Alice put her hand in the way. Quietly, she spoke, but her words filled the whole room. “Remember mother,” she said, and whether or not those words were a spell, Anna’s strength returned. She hurled herself at the captain, wrestled the sword from his hands, and killed him painlessly on the spot.
The three children held each other tightly as if the world were about to end. There in that room with the dead captain and the pile of dust that had once been the most powerful queen in the world they knew that their quest had come to an end. David, however, had one thing left to do. Putting the book on the desk, he wrote the final sentences of their story.
“And when the people found out what had happened, they rejoiced. But they needed a new ruler, and it seemed only right that one of the three who had defeated the evil queen would rule, but they were not sure which. Anna was brave and strong, but would find the politics of royalty very boring. David was clever enough to rule, but cleverness can only get you so far. So the people chose Alice, because she was both magical and wise beyond mere cleverness, and they all lived happily ever after.”
And they did too. Anna became Captain of the Palace Guard, David became Royal Chamberlain and advisor, and all three of them were reunited with their father, who was released from the dungeon where he had been thrown after refusing to work for the old queen. They were all sad that their mother couldn’t be there to share the happiness, but they felt somehow that she lived on, and perhaps that was true, for she would certainly have been proud of the long, happy and prosperous reign of Queen Alice.
And the book? Well, Queen Alice kept it, although it made her cry to read the terrible things that Cylithia had written in it. Alice was a wise Queen though, because she only wrote one thing in the book in all the time she ruled. And what did she write?
“And after that day, the magic of the book was exhausted. Nothing that anyone wrote in the book afterwards ever had any effect on the world.”