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The Princess and the Tower
“A prince rode out, so bold and so brave
To meet his new bride who… who…”
The only rhyme I could think of was ‘needed a shave’ which really wouldn’t do.
The forest road to Gormandia was long and tedious and thoughts of my bride-to-be, rather than spurring me on, were filling me with a draining sense of dreadful inevitability. I was attempting to amuse myself by composing the ballad that might perhaps be written about the challenging days ahead of me.
I tried again, raising my voice in song and hoping to overcome my melancholy.
“A prince did ride, something-something fair
And she… she…”
I do have some trouble with the rhyming bits. It seemed as though many things ought to rhyme with fair, but the words that entered my mind, when I thought of my betrothed were things like devoid of personality, is technically a woman and owns too many cats.
I rode slowly, hoping that a decent rhyming couplet would eventually occur to me, and also to delay the time of my arrival. My father had debts – he picked the wrong horses in races on a weekly basis and picked the wrong side in wars at least once a year. This had put me in the unenviable position of needing to marry money, and that marriage and that money came in the shape of Druscilla, duchess of Gormandia. Not that Druscilla had a discernible shape. On the few occasions when we had previously met, it was rather difficult to know where the cushioned vastness of her throne ended, and where her grace began. That was in extreme contrast to Gormandia itself which had no vastness to speak of and which one could cross from one side to the other in under a minute, given one of those fast horses my father was hopelessly unable to identify. Gormandia’s duchess married herself to a minor prince and, in return, I got daddy’s debts cleared and the opportunity to spend the rest of my days with a most unappealing wife in a duchy where you couldn’t fire an arrow without having to nip over the border to ask the neighbours if you could have it back.
I sang and choked back the tears.
“A prince rode out on a noble steed
Bracing himself for the foulest of deeds.”
I was fairly pleased with that, so I tried it a few more times, with some added fa-la-las.
“Hark, what sweet music do I hear?” came a female voice from nearby.
I saw a building up ahead, so I cantered on and gazed up at the stonework as I approached. It was a tower of the sort that is sometimes employed for alchemy or the imprisonment of dangerous felons. By that I mean that it was isolated, having its own clearing in this lonely forest, and was clearly impenetrable. There was a single door at the base of the tower, made of the sturdiest oak reinforced with solid iron straps. It was built of sheer solid stone with not a single foothold for its entire height, which was well above the tops of the trees. The only window appeared to be at the very top, and that is where I saw the fair maiden, who waved and gave me the most dazzling smile. All her own teeth, which you don’t see very often these days.
“A handsome knight! Oh, praise be!”
“Actually, I’m a prince,” I said.
“Even better,” she said, cheerily. “You are surely my salvation. I have been imprisoned in this tower by an evil witch.”
“Ooh, what a pickle!” I said.
“Her curse forbids me from leaving on my own.”
“Worse yet. I bet you’d really like to get out of there.”
“I would,” she said.
I looked up at the tower and at the sturdy door and the road wending onward to Gormandia.
“Well, I’m needed in Gormandia but I can send someone to rescue you upon my arrival.”
“Won’t you take a moment to release me from my bond?” asked the maiden. I could see that she was beautiful, with skin like snow and hair that reminded me of a rusty stirrup. In a good way. “My name is Princess Faber-Castell and the riches of my kingdom are here in the tower with me. A handsome suitor might do very well to rescue a wealthy princess, surely?”
“Ah, well. Problem is, I’m on the way to get married.”
“Oh,” she said, a little crestfallen. “Your beloved awaits.”
“I wouldn’t say beloved as such.”
“But you must love her. You did propose to her, did you not?”
I pulled a face. “I suppose I must have done at some point. I don’t know. I think it’s more something I just fell into. Easier to go along with it than make a fuss, no?”
“Well, then dear prince, if you’re not fully committed to this marriage…”
“Yes, but it would be rude to back out now.”
“But marriage shouldn’t be entered into lightly.”
“It’s very nearly a done deal.”
“But only nearly.”
“As good as.”
“Is the contract of marriage signed?”
“I just don’t want to let her down.”
“You don’t want to see your beautiful princess bride upset, I understand.”
“She’s not a princess, in truth. And beautiful?” I sucked doubtfully through my teeth. “I wouldn’t want to judge her but…”
“You are going to spend the rest of your life with her.”
“Yes. And I know that she’s a frightful bore and smells of cats and she’s about as shapely as – I mean, not like yourself. You’ve got a definite shape.”
“Um. Thank you?”
“But there is such a thing as inner beauty, I’ve been told, and they do say beauty is in the eye of the beholder and my family, we do tend to go blind as bats in old age, so, you know, there’s that to look forward to. I think.”
“Blindness and old age?”
“Yes,” I said but without much conviction. I clapped my hands and gave her my best smile. “Look, your highness. I should very much enjoy the challenge of rescuing you. I’m flattered you asked. If only I had the time to take on such a project. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, I am on a deadline and I must continue with my journey.”
“But, sir, the task of setting me free could not be simpler. The front door is open. You just need to push it. I may not step over the threshold until someone unlocks my enchanted handcuffs, but you can just pop in. You’ll see a cupboard at the bottom of the stairs. The key is in there.”
“Yes,” I said, “but everyone know that many an unwary adventurer has undertaken a task that he imagined would be simple. How many of those have fallen foul of unexpected obstacles? I daresay there are hidden pits filled with spikes? Swinging blades?”
She shook her head. “No. One of the stairs is a little wonky.”
“It’s just wonky. Honestly, you needn’t worry.”
“But, surely there are fanged guardians, ready to tear apart any who ventures inside?”
“Fanged guardians?” She shook her head. “You might encounter Groofinda, but that’s all.”
“Groofinda!” I replied, pouring all the sinister dread I could muster into those three syllables. “A dragon, yes?”
“A monstrous ogre so ugly it should never have been born!”
“The witch’s familiar!”
“No. Well, yes. Certainly belongs to the witch and can be far too familiar at times but…”
“I see,” I said, eyes staring at the imagined horror. “A shape shifter, who will transform into a sabre-toothed tiger and devour me between breaths?”
“No!” came her voice, sounding more than a little exasperated. “Wait there, just for a moment.”
She disappeared from view. I heard the sound of footsteps upon the internal staircase. There followed a pitiful yowling sound from behind the door. The sound was cut off, abruptly. The footsteps were heard once more, ascending the staircase. The princess’s head appeared once more at the window.
“Right, do you see this?” she asked, thrusting a hand forward. An elderly cat looked unhappily down at me. It was inert, as she held it by the scruff of its neck. “This is Groofinda, a cat who will do anything you want if you are able to procure the head of a trout. I do not have access to such luxuries, so I had to resort to violence. Sorry Groofinda,” she said, holding the cat up so that she could address it.
“Ah, you’re a cat person too,” I noted, disdainfully.
“Not really,” she said. “I much prefer dogs.”
“Me too!” I said. “So much more interesting. You can take them for long walks in the woods.”
“Snuffling through the undergrowth.”
“And then they can curl up with you by the fire of an evening.”
“Keeping watch over the family.”
“If I had my way, I’d have seven or eight of them,” said the princess. “Big strapping hounds.”
“Me too!” I said “Me too! It’s so refreshing to meet a woman who feels that way. Gosh, any man would be lucky to have you as his bride.”
She tossed something to the ground with her other hand. It fell about four feet away from me, making my horse shift uneasily.
“That is the key that will release my bonds.”
“Take it and walk inside. That’s all you need to do to claim my rescue.”
I nodded, and gave a knowing chuckle. “Oh, you make it sound so straightforward.”
“But it is!” she said. She was starting to sound a little bit shrill.
“I’d love to help, really I would, but I’m afraid it’s an indulgence I can ill-afford. You need to look out for someone with time on their hands, someone who can look into it properly, consider all of the angles.”
“But there are no angles!” she said.
I stroked my chin.
“A wonky stair, you say?”
“Yes, but only the one,” she replied.
“But nonetheless implying that there are other unwonky stairs.”
“It is a tower, sir. There are a number of steps.”
“Oh,” I said. “No, no. Oh my, no.” I was just exhausted thinking about it. “It’s clearly too much.”
“It’s hardly anything at all, sir!”
But my mind was made up. I wheeled my horse about in the general direction of Gormandia. I might have to face a life with the loveless and shapeless Druscilla but – dear me! Steps! – what else could I do?
“I’m certain you will find someone prepared to undertake this task, soon enough. It certainly sounds worthwhile,” I added cheerily.
I rode out of the clearing. I heard a frustrated yell, and something that sounded very much like an elderly cat retreating mournfully down the stair. I was nonetheless heartened to realise that I could add another small verse to my ballad, as long as I could get away with Groofinda rhyming with window.
I felt sure someone would be along to rescue the princess presently. She seemed a perfectly lovely young woman.
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