Art by Plato Terentev.
From the author: Just a fairy tale :)
THE PRINCESS AND THE THIEF
Once upon a time, there was a Princess in a high tower, imprisoned there to await her hero.
So many tales begin. Tales of curses and wicked fae; tales of spinning wheels, of hair of rope, and shoes of crystal. And in one such tale, we find a stern King and a steel key, neither with mercy’s warmth. Wroth with the disobedience of his daughter, the King closed high walls about her, and decreed that there, she should remain.
Until a brave Prince came to win her hand.
The Princess had wit, and courage, and not a little ire. No helpless maiden, she controlled her outrage and sought an exit from her gaol. But the tower was tall and the windows tiny, and below her, there coiled a great and hissing beast. It had a glint to its eye and a gleam to its teeth, as if it relished her thoughts of escape.
She sought a strategy, but she had no straw nor wheel to spin it, and the door was too stout to break. Slowly, her ire became frustration, and her frustration – at last – became boredom. She paced the tower’s circle, and she envied the cries of the gulls.
The King her father came to her every morning. He stroked the nose of the beast and called up to her that her husband was on his way – this day, or the next, or the day after that. There was no need to fear, he said, the lord of her future would come, would face his test, and she would be safe – always. Her Prince would be a poet, perchance, to sing the beast to slumber. He would be a great warrior, and slay it, and shatter the door with his muscled shoulders. He would come soon, the King said, and she would know him, and love him, and live happily ever after.
At last, one summer evening when gold light stretched shadows long, there came a lordly figure, riding from the west. He was slender and fine-boned, his garments rich with a wealth of deep-shaded colours. As the great coils of the monster rose to meet him, its fangs bared, he raised his lute to sing power and poetry. The might of it stilled the very wind...
But it did not soothe the beast, and the beast devoured him.
Alas for the fate of the poet, but what of the warrior brave? In the Spring he came, and from the sunrise and the east, his skin dark and his stance proud. He slew the monster – and the Princess felt a pang at its passing, for it had become almost like a friend – and he pounded his great shoulders upon the door. But the door was too strong, and he fell back.
‘Cast me down your hair’, he called, ‘and I will climb to your side.’
But the Princess’ hair was short. As the sun reached its zenith, the warrior bade her farewell, and rode to seek an easier lover.
And then, at last, in the crisp snows of mid-winter, there came a third figure, walking from the sky-lights of the north. She was lean and sharp and quiet, her boots soft, her garments all but unseen. As a sliver of moon lit the monster's rotting coils, she came and called out.
‘I am a thief and liar,’ she said. ‘But if you pay my price, I will give you the freedom you seek.’ In her hand, she bore a fine steel needle, the Princess could see its glitter.
‘What is your price?’ the Princess asked.
'Throw me the stone about your throat,’ said the thief. ‘It has facets that reflect the moonlight and I can taste its worth on the very breeze.’
'You are welcome to it,’ said the Princess. ‘You are welcome to every gold and silver chain that bind me, to every precious stone that drags me down. I will bring them to you, every one, if you will but open the door to my gaol. And if you free me, I will ride the dark roads at your side.’
‘Why would I want that, oh pampered and petulant Princess?' the thief asked. 'I am here for wealth, not love.’
‘I do not offer you my hand,’ the Princess said, and her eyes flashed bright as the stone. ‘No helpless castle maiden am I. I am skilled with blade and bow and, as a child, could best my brothers at games of combat. I am walled here only by my father’s anger.'
Framed by coils of death, by the decaying bodies of beast and poet, by bone silvered with frost and moonlight, the thief moved to the door.
But a voice in the darkness halted her.
‘What is this?' said the King. 'I come to bring festive cheer to my daughter – and what horror do I now witness? Who are you that steals here and now threatens the lock upon my most precious of treasures? You are no Prince, poet, no warrior, this gift is not for you.’
The King stood alone, unattended. He was a strong man, grey of beard but stout of build and with a stateman’s experience in the glint of his eye. Undaunted, the thief said, ‘You are cold, harsh with both your taxes and your daughter. Why would you imprison her thus?’
‘She was cursed as a babe,’ said the King. ‘She is a crafter of trouble. She denounces skirts and spinning wheels. She has shorn off her hair and refused her crystal slippers. It pleased her to wear breeches and blades about the court. I have placed her in the tower as a gift – for only a brave Prince would attempt the challenge, and it will take a brave Prince to wed and tame my daughter.’
‘Tame?’ said the thief. ‘I am both crook and sinner but this I know: to tame someone is to take them from themselves.'
‘My daughter is my greatest treasure, my most worthy asset,’ said the King. ‘Wed to a man of honour and bravery, she will, in time, be happy.'
‘I am no gift,’ the Princess said, ‘to be given away. No helpless made, felled by spinning wheel or piece of fruit. I am walled only by your selfishness.’
'And I,’ the thief said, with a smile, ‘am neither Prince, nor charming.’ And with that, she unlocked the door.
When the Princess came forth into the crisp, cold moonlight, she did not embrace the thief; the thief did not sweep her upon her charger. Instead, she held out her hand for the dangles of empty wealth and the Princess was rid gladly of their weight.
The King was wroth, but the Princess held up her hand, callused still from her work with the blade. ‘My only curse,' she said, ‘is your blind tradition. My gift to you is the knowledge that I will ride the roads, and never return.’ As she spoke, so the church bells rang clear through the crisp night, a joyous celebration. 'And that I will live, free, and happily ever after.'