This story begins just like all good fairy tales have since the dawn of time itself, before the young sun had made his first dance across the heavens and before the moon had seen her stars.
This is how the great bards and story tellers of a bygone age began their nights by the bonfire. This is how your story was passed on through the generations, from the lips of the old to the ears of the young. This is the point where you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, of tomorrow, and the forgotten realm of your imagination…
Once Upon a Time…
A very long time ago when dragons still roamed the earth, and fairies still danced over the beds of young babes while they lay sleeping there lived a king in castle, the king of a great kingdom.
Outside the walls of the kingdom there was a desert land, a barren and howling waste where a princess lived in rags, beautiful and forsaken, with a heart of fire and gold and a life of unfulfilled dreams and torn promises.
She was the ruler of her lonely little kingdom, in which her subjects were the vultures and hyenas who fed on the flesh of those that could not survive the harsh land. Her friendship was abandoned to the crows, the sleek minions who told her what she wanted to hear and never the truth. She slept on a bed of stones and she knew each stone by name, each stone that pricked her soft skin at night when she tried to sleep.
Her heart she kept outside her chest in a box she called Hope. This box had many locks and the princess had many keys, keys she had found all across the face of the wasteland. But none of them were cut to open the locks.
For most of her day the princess wandered the dry earth of her kingdom in search of keys. She upturned stones and rolled aside mighty rocks in her search, though most of the time she only found ashes and dust beneath. If she found a beetle, she ate it. On the odd occasion she found a key, and when she did she went running back to the place where she hid the box called hope only to discover her efforts had been in vain. There was not a single key that could open even one of the locks.
The princess did not remember why she was a princess, and she did not remember how she had come to be in the wasteland. She did not even remember why her heart had been taken out and put in the box. She remembered that it hurt, but not the reason for the pain.
But this story is not about that. This story is about the King in his castle. Now the King could see for miles from his castle, for miles into the paradise of his kingdom and in contrast he could also see for miles into the desolation of the lands beyond his walls.
Most interestingly he could see the princess from his castle window, and while the King had his whole beautiful kingdom to observe and be well-pleased with, he liked to watch the princess in rags.
He could watch her all day. Everything she did, every step she took and every choice she made either amused him and made him happy, or made him sad. He watched with sadness when she listened to her crows and fought with the hyenas for her food and with sorrow when she searched for keys. Other times when she lay spread-eagled in the sand with her face upturned toward the sun he smiled a little, warmed that she was warm, happy that she had found a moment of peace in the storm of her existence.
He adored her. He adored her passion for life, her will to fight, and her delight in even the smallest of things. He watched on in awe of her beauty, despite her cuts and bruises and her garment of rags. Even the scars on her chest which told a bitter tale had become part of the make-up that was her, and in his eyes she was flawless.
Flawless, and captivating.
He learned that he was in love with the princess. Her life fascinated him more than all his riches and anything in his kingdom, and he was desperate to rescue her from the abandonment of the wilderness.
Now the King was of course in control of everything within his kingdom. Everything except for his own heart. As much as the King wanted to go out and rescue the princess from the pain of her horrific existence, he could not. As much as he wanted to keep her safe and protect her from the terrible things that could happen to her in the desert, he could not.
You see, his heart was bound to his kingdom with magic in such a way that he could not even venture a breath beyond the walls, for if he did he would surely die.
So he resigned himself to watching the princess from afar, always a little heart-broken that he would never have the chance to hold her in his arms. He watched every day of her life – he saw every smile that ever touched her lips, and every tear she ever cried, but the princess lived in oblivion to all of this.
The King sent her flowers, but she did not know what they were.
He sent her love letters, but she did not know how to read.
Meanwhile the years passed, and nothing changed in the life of the princess. Nothing but her age. However, the King – with the enchantment on his heart – never grew old and never aged, and in time he began to realise that the princess was aging. She was dying.
She aged slowly, no different to you or me, but no matter what way you choose to look at it each day brought her closer to her death and each day brought the King closer to the realisation that one day she would not be there. One day she would grow old and die, and her life would be over. Like a candle finally burning out, her bright flame would cease to exist, and the King would have to go on about his life without her.
Eternity. Without her. For the man who had watched every day of the princess’ life, this was an unbearable thought. But nothing had worked; because she did not understand beauty nor love, every message and gift the King had sent her failed to get her attention and failed to make her understand.
But the story does not end here.
One day the princess, who I can say was just as beautiful as ever, was sitting on a rock enjoying the heat of the morning sun and devouring a collection of brightly coloured beetles for breakfast – she had found them under the rock – when far off in the distance, the gates of the walled kingdom opened.
To be honest the princess didn’t even notice the gates had opened, she’d never taken an interest in the walls before and today was no different.
But she noticed for sure when the King had made his way across the barren land and come into the region of the desert she knew well. She heard him coming, his footsteps falling softly in the sand.
She dumped her beetles, and wiped the juice from her mouth before she slid off the rock and hid in the shadow of it. Her chest rose and fell with the smallest of breaths as she pressed herself into the stone and the shadow and hoped the unknown creature coming her way would pass her by.
The footsteps grew nearer and nearer, and then stopped altogether. The princess waited.
There was a long and awkward silence before the King who stood on the other side of the rock decided to look and see what was going on.
“Hi there,” he said softly when he saw her hiding in the shadows.
The princess jumped violently with fright, and then growled at him. She stepped out from the rock and backed away.
He smiled and took a bold step toward her. He’d had an idea that she might react a bit strangely.
“Who are you?” she asked, crouching low like a hyena ready to strike or defend herself.
The King put his hands up in surrender, “It’s ok, calm down,”
“Why? How can I trust you?” she demanded.
The king shrugged and then smiled as he said, “I came out to find you, I left my kingdom and its safety to come to you,”
“Why?” she asked again.
It came upon him then quite suddenly; a pain stabbing into his heart followed by the tightening of his chest. “Because I wanted to rescue you, I want to protect you,” he said, though as he spoke it became harder to breathe. He reached out his hand and touched her cheek softly.
“Why? Why would you do that?” she asked, not yet pulling away.
“I love you,” he said with emotion, desperate to get his point across, as his breaths came faster and his heart began to stutter within his chest.
The princess frowned at him, “What is love?” she asked, as he took her hand in his.
And then he died. His body slumped to the dry earth as the last drop of air escaped his lungs and his heart ground to a halt.
The princess let go of his hand in fright and it dropped to the ground. A small cloud of dust billowed away from where it fell, still outstretched toward her.
She sat and stared for a long while, waiting for the king to move again. But he did not. She understood death well enough but none of this seemed to add up in her mind. She could not understand why he had died, or even more to the point, did he know he was going to die? And if he did then why had he come to find her? Why did he want to rescue her and protect her?
And … why did he love her?
The princess waited until nightfall by the lifeless body, but eventually she realised there were no answers here, and no hope to be found in waiting by death. So she stood up, brushed the dirt off her ragged clothing, turned her back and walked away.
That night the princess cried herself to sleep. She cried and cried until she drifted off at last just before sunrise,with her hand pressed to her cheek.
Hyenas, vultures, and even the crows gathered around the place where the king had died, but the princess stayed away. She wandered further and further into the wilderness. She had given up looking for keys altogether. What she searched for now was something she would never find – an outstretched arm, a smile, the warm touch of a hand on her cheek. Her desolate world had been completely turned upside down by something she did not understand.
And she was quite put out by it. She left the light altogether, and wandered into lands covered in darkness, lands where she could hide from the thoughts that tormented her, and lands where the laughter of the crows could no longer be heard. Lands where there were things to drown her sorrow, and things to make her forget her pain. But try as she did to convince herself; there was no solace to be found there, and she knew there was now a great distance between her and the box called hope.
Eventually, she learned an important lesson; that all roads we wander, no matter how far they go, or how desperate we are to get away, will always lead back to the place where our heart lies.
The world turned, and eventually she found herself kneeling on her old bed of stones, staring once more at the box called hope. The hyenas and vultures had long moved on from her lands, and the sounds of the murder of crows had faded to the back of her mind.
She scratched her nose, and pushed the matted hair out of her face, and then finally she reached out and picked up the box.
The chains and locks clinked and jingled with every step she took. Her bare feet were blistered and sore from all her walking and wandering, but the extra weight did not affect her. There was only one place left she had not been.
On her way she passed the place where the king had died, so long ago now. She paused and rested the box called hope down in the sand before she went aside to take a look.
Passage of time and the hunger of the wild had left only bleached bones and dust as a memorial to the stranger-king, but as the princess approached his resting place, something sparkled there in the sunlight, beneath the bones.
The princess pounced on the key, snatching it up out of the rib cage and into her hand, forgetting everything else but to run back to the box called hope.
Falling to her knees in the sand before the box, she hardly dared to breathe as the key slid into the lock.
And the lock opened.
The master-key, the skeleton-key, it opened every single lock that chained the box called hope.
At last the princess was left with only a lid to open. With the key still held fast in her hand she took one look behind her to the resting place of the King, and then a look forward toward the locked gates of the city in the distance, and then she looked down at the box.
She opened it, and inside there lay beating her happily ever after.
Written by JR Manawa