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Thought-Provoking Fiction

By Liliane Grace

Once upon a time there lived a Queen whose husband was often away touring his kingdom and meeting with ambassadors from neighbouring countries. Being lonely, the Queen lavished all of her love and attention on their only child, a boy. She was so besotted with him that she dismissed the Royal Nanny, not wanting to share her son with anyone.

As time passed, the little boy was no longer a baby, but he remained very short. Since the Queen would neither invite playmates into the castle, nor permit her son to go outside the castle walls, there were no other children with whom the Queen could compare her son’s height, so she did not notice that he was scarcely growing at all. Indeed, at the age of six, he was still no higher than her knee. However, her Councillors and servants took note of this fact as they had children of their own, and they worried about the young Prince.

One day, the Queen’s Chief Councillor came to her and said, “Your Majesty, I beg your forgiveness for being so bold, but surely it is now time for His Young Highness to have a governess? He is fully six years of age, and in the villages most children of his age are now attending school.”

At this suggestion, a frown came to rest upon the Queen’s brow, but she agreed that a tutor of some sort ought to be engaged for her son, and so a notice was posted in the village. Almost immediately a woman appeared on the doorstep, and as her references were good she was awarded the position. The following morning, lessons began for the young Prince, whose name was Edward.

To begin with, the governess was shocked by the tiny stature of her young pupil, but she said nothing, not wishing to offend. The boy was bright enough, although stubborn, for he had had his own way in everything up until now. To each instruction the governess gave him, he scowled and said, “NO!”. The governess was skilful at her job, and she managed to outsmart the boy by tricking him into doing most of the required lessons, but it was not satisfactory, and after a time she was tired of the effort and incessant arguing, and she handed in her notice.

The second tutor was a gruff old scholar who insisted on conducting each lesson with the Prince standing rigidly before him. He lasted only one day.

The third tutor was a wonderful storyteller who kept the young Prince entranced for hours with tales of history and fantasy, but whenever this tutor attempted to teach Edward the formal skills of reading and writing or numbers, the boy stamped his foot and walked away.

In despair, the Queen decided that she would teach her young son herself. At first, Edward was delighted. Having disposed of three instructors, he felt confident that he would never have to study anything that did not appeal to him, but when his mother began to lose patience with him and pursue him with books from morning till night, the situation quickly worsened. The young Prince took to hiding, playing tricks on the servants and then calling insults that he had overheard them using. He even turned his tongue against his mother, who began to avoid her own staff in her shame.

One day a messenger from the King galloped into the castle courtyard. Watching from his hiding place in the apple tree, the little Prince felt envious of this strapping young man whose dusty boots were evidence of his adventuring in far away places. The messenger gave orders for his horse to be watered and rubbed down, and another horse to be made ready for his return journey, and he strode away into the castle. Edward watched from his position in the tree, and when the fresh horse had been saddled and harnessed, Edward crept towards it and climbed onto its back. Still being exceedingly small, the boy was able to wrap himself in the blanket that lay rolled on the horse’s back, where he lay silently and in great excitement.

Finally the messenger returned and leapt into the saddle. He walked the horse out of the castle grounds and began to canter down the road. Now the journey began to be most uncomfortable for Edward, but he bore it quietly, so great was his delight at being out in the world. He could see nothing, the blanket scratched his face, the pounding hooves of the horse jolted and jarred him, but he clung there, smiling.

After some time, the messenger arrived at an inn where he planned to stop for the night. He slid off his horse and lifted his baggage roll off its back, and it was then that he realised the weight of his blanket. He set it on the ground and unrolled it, and great was his surprise when he found a child therein! Upon closer inspection, he realised that the child was none other than the young Prince, and the messenger was most respectfully irritated, as he must now delay his journey and return to the castle with the young stowaway.

In the meantime, the castle was in an uproar as everyone searched for the Prince, who had never remained hidden for so long. Looking for someone as small and nimble as Edward made the search long and arduous, for there were many places such a tiny boy could hide. Indeed, the castle staff was not in a hurry to find him at all, having a very low opinion of the young Prince. The Queen, who might have been distraught by his disappearance, was grim; she, too, was exhausted by his pranks. She remained alone in her rooms, waiting to hear of his discovery, her face stony.

It was nearly midnight when the messenger arrived at the castle gate. He blew his bugle and waited impatiently for the gates to be opened. He had found the Prince to be rude and ill-mannered, and was looking forward to being relieved of this burden. The castle servants were startled when Edward was delivered to them by the King’s messenger, and they hustled him quickly to his mother, who coldly ordered him to his room.

As her son was leaving her chambers, the Queen realised, with some surprise, that the boy appeared to have grown. How absurd! She dismissed this impression as a fancy.

The following day she sent for one of the King’s Councillors, to whom she admitted that something must be done. The Councillor stroked his beard and spoke slowly, not wishing to appear too eager to dispense with the Prince. He gravely advised the Queen that her son should be sent to a faraway monastery where he might be schooled in the kingly arts. In her heart, the Queen saw the wisdom of his counsel, but she still could not bring herself to send her son so far away. During the night she had searched her soul and recognized how poorly she had prepared her son for life, but she was not yet ready to part with him so completely.

However something had to be done, so she sent for one of her own Councillors, who suggested that the Queen enrol the child in the village school, where he might come to know the needs of the people he would rule when he became King. Afraid that her son would learn to behave like a peasant, the Queen rejected this advice.

Alone again, the Queen paced her rooms in despair. If the King should hear about the escapades of their son, he might well send him to the distant monastery. What should she do? At last, the Queen determined to disguise herself and go into the nearby village to seek the counsel of a Wise Woman she had heard lived there.

And thus it was that, at dawn, the Queen swathed herself in the robes of a peasant woman and hastened from the castle. Shadows still stretched across the ground, and the night dew sparkled on the grass as she hurried through the village. Before long she arrived at the dwelling of the Wise Woman, and knocked at the door.

“Who is there?” came a voice from within.

“A mother seeking your advice in the matter of her son.”

“Come in, Mother.”

The Queen entered the rough home, where she found the old woman sitting by the fire and darning stockings.

“What troubles you, Mother?” asked the Wise Woman, mending without pause. In the stillness, a log fell in the grate with a burst of orange flame and much crackling.

The Queen hesitated, and then let the hood fall away from her face. “The Prince is very unhappy and ill-mannered, but I am loath to send him far away, as I have been advised.”

“The Prince is also very short,” remarked the Wise Woman, who did not seem to be surprised by her majestic visitor. “You will find that one remedy will solve both problems.” Her blue eyes studied the Queen’s face. “You must send the child out into the world, for he is too fearful and, at the same time, angry that he is so. Three tasks are his to undertake, and for the first two you may go with him, but the last he must face alone. Indeed, even for the first, you must travel as his attendant. He must not know that it is you.”

As she heard these words the Queen’s heart leapt with joy. This was surely the answer! She thanked the Wise Woman and offered her payment, but this was refused. “You will pay me when he has grown six inches,” the old woman said. “Measure him tonight!”

The Queen headed back to the castle, keeping her face well covered by her hood, for by now the village streets were busy. As she passed through the village, her eyes followed the children running and playing in the square. Great strapping children, they appeared to be, and it suddenly struck her that her own son was decidedly small and exceedingly delicate. Watching their robust figures and hearing their shouting and laughing, the Queen felt a tumult of emotions in her heart. She hurried on home.

That night she measured her young son, whose chin just cleared her knee. She told him that on each of the next three days he would be leaving the castle on a task of some sort. A new servant would be employed in order to accompany him. “NO!” bellowed Edward, but his mother calmly dismissed him.

The following day the young Prince was woken early and dressed by the new attendant, a gentleman with soft, white hands and a muttery voice. “Hurry along, Your Highness,” he said, pushing the boy gently toward the castle gate.

The First Task

“The young Prince must sit outside the castle gate and make a record of those who enter: their name and business. (And you, Mother, in your attendant’s garb, sit with your back against the wall and watch him with your eyes closed.)”

Arriving at the castle gate, the Prince and his attendant saw there a cluster of burly men whose voices boomed and rumbled. Edward cast his eyes downwards, but the attendant pressed him forwards, presenting the gate-keeper with a letter signed by the Queen and stamped with the Royal Seal. The gate-keeper’s gaze rested in surprise upon the very small Prince. Acting on the orders inscribed in the letter, he gave the young Prince a seat and a record book and quill. The attendant found his own place on the ground, with his back to the wall, where he waited, watching and listening.

During that first day, Edward sat very quietly in his seat, observing the travellers pass between the great gates with keen interest, but ducking his head shyly when addressed by anyone. He wrote in his book in a sloppy hand, smudging the page badly, but seemed to enjoy the task, and his eyes were ever on the passers-by. Many were the people travelling in and out of the castle, merchants in fine clothes on great horses, farmers in rough raiment rattling by on laden carts, weary travellers in dusty boots and stained apparel.

As the Queen watched her son, pleasure and guilt struggled for ascendance in her heart, for was he not growing even as he sat there, his eyes and ears ravenous for the sights and sounds around him? Remembering the Wise Woman’s words, she obediently closed her own eyes and leaned back into the wall. Voices ebbed and flowed around her, some she recognized and others she did not. She rested against the sun-baked stones, the hard ground beneath her, and some measure of her care did melt away. In her mind’s eye she tended an image of her son in his new surrounds, until it faded into a pleasant dream...

At the end of the day, Edward marched back into the castle happily, and had to be detained on some imaginary pretext while his mother rapidly changed her clothes from those of his gentleman attendant into those of a queen. Thereafter his mother greeted him gladly, eager to hear about his experiences. The boy’s smile and rosy cheeks told the story in full.

The Second Task

“The Prince must meet three people and share a meal with each one. (And you, Mother, make your seat in the village square and there begin a tapestry of your life. Let him come to and from his wandering to tell you his tales.)”

On the second day a new attendant greeted the Prince. This was a woman, but such an old woman! She was stooped and hunched and spoke in a crackling whisper, and was yet a hale old woman, for she led the boy quickly from the castle into the village. Following her at a skip, Edward’s eyes feasted on the movement in the village as they passed through it.

When they reached the square, the old one sat on a log and, drawing some tapestry work from inside her robes, she bid the young Prince go forth upon his task. At once Edward shrank back in fear, but again, the attendant pressed him forwards.

To begin with, the Prince moved but a few paces away, where he stood shyly watching some children in their skipping game. A girl, seeing him there, invited him to join in, but he shook his head and hung back. Watching, the Queen bit her lip and turned her face away. Here was her fear! here and here, in bare feet and ragged clothing, playing rough games and speaking rough words. She set her jaw that she might not interfere, and there went the Prince of a sudden, joining the game, little as he was, but showing himself to be light and quick as he skipped in and out of the turning rope. And in no time one of the children had broken a crust of bread that she had hid in her pocket, and the Queen saw her son take it and eat it with relish.

Later Edward wandered away with the other children, and for some time the old woman Queen sat alone, her breath coming harsh as she pushed and pulled at her needlework, and saw and heard him not. But return he did, beaming, to tell her of the soup the child’s mother had given him to taste, and it was good, it was, hearty and good.

Then the Prince found a patch of thin grass where he sat alone with a thoughtful countenance, casting stones on the ground from time to time as he surveyed the movement around him. And as the shadows were beginning to lengthen, a merchant hurrying by tripped and let fall his bundle, and in a trice the young Prince was on his feet and helping to gather the scattered goods.

Thus did it come to be that the boy Edward was given his third meal, for the merchant bid him sup with his family out of thanks. And it was dark when the old woman Queen and the young growing Prince did return to the castle, she to continue stitching her tale by candlelight, and he to lie abed with a smile on his face.

The Third Task

“The Prince must spend a day alone in the forest bordering the castle. Who knows what this day will bring?”

On the third day the Queen bid her son farewell from her chambers, and if the boy wondered why the old woman attendant’s tapestry now lay stretched across his mother’s knees, he said nothing. The Queen’s eyes sparkled and her lips brushed his forehead only lightly, for her attention was on the work at hand. “Go well,” she said. “Take good note of what you see, for the King returns soon and he will be seeking sound report of the doings of his kingdom in his absence.”

A familiar servant led the Prince through the castle gates and out into the countryside. Edward gazed all around him with great interest as they galloped along the road, his home shrinking to a speck behind them. Such vast fields! Such long roads! So many trees and cottages! His journey back to the castle on the cantering horse after his escapade had not afforded him such a view - besides, it had been night.

To his right there stretched what, from the castle windows, had only ever been to him a dark smudge; now the King’s forest began to take form. Bushes and trees of all shapes and shades emerged from the general greenness. The attendant slowed his horse to a trot as they turned aside from the main road and entered the fringe of the forest. The clattering of the horses’ hooves on the stone road was muffled now by unpaved earth. Above them, the forest canopy closed over, ushering an instant coolness and dimness and quiet.

“I’m to wait for thee here,” said the attendant, and he showed the boy how to read the position of the sun in readiness of their departure time. And then Edward moved on, walking his horse slowly away between the trees, alone for the first time in his life.

The air that he inhaled was sharp and fresh; it smelt of growing things. His gaze flew from plant to fallen trunk and up the tall thighs of trees to where their hair scraped the sky. Few sounds escaped him, those scuttlings and twitterings and creaks and rushes of bird and creature, and then there came a tinkling song, which told him that he neared the stream, the boundary of his excursion. Here he dismounted to drink of the cold clear water and eat from his basket.

And as he sat on the bank, crumbs from the bread in his hands fell into the water below, and before long a silvery flash passed just beneath the surface and he perceived that a fish had come to eat. Then it was gone, slipping away into the depths.

Above him, a rustling caught his ear. He glanced up in time to see a bird come to rest on the slender branch of a nearby tree, causing the branch to spring for a moment, with the bird riding up and down thereon, its little head turning sharply from side to side, before lifting in flight once again.

And thus did the complete freedom of the young prince dawn on him, for no-one stood watching or guiding, teaching or curbing; he was completely alone. Each direction lay open to him with none hovering to suggest or disapprove. Why, he could ride across the stream and pass into the deeper forest on the other side if he so wished! Why, he could walk right into this stream, thought he, with shoes on or off!

Of a sudden Edward urgently wanted to step in with bare feet, so he tore off his boots and let first one foot, and then the other, slip into the cool water. Stones made an uneven surface, and he was unaccustomed. He trod carefully, trying each step before trusting it with his weight. The water licked around his ankles. He found that he was smiling broadly. Deeper and deeper. Faster and faster. Suddenly he took a great sweep at the water with his foot, and the splash he created threw water into his own eyes and mouth, causing him to gasp with surprise and then delight. He ran. Slowly, at first, and awkwardly, kicking and splashing, until he tripped and fell headlong, face first, and scrambled up spitting water and rubbing his eyes, and gasping at the cold.

Edward climbed out of the water quickly and began to stamp and wave his arms in an effort to warm up. He searched for a sunny patch and lay quickly on the grass, stretched out flat, teeth chattering. With the side of his face pressed into the ground, hands clutching tussocks, he closed his eyes. A stillness from the earth passed through him. His thoughts took on a looser shape. They drifted like cloud. Did he sleep? Perhaps. When he woke, had some knot within been unravelled? Perhaps.

Edward walked back to his horse, enjoying the crunch of the leaves and stones beneath his feet. As he thrust one boot into the stirrup and swung the other over his steed, it occurred to him that he could reach by himself.

He led the horse across the stream. Not because it was forbidden; simply because he could. Together they passed through trees and shrubs in a sanctuary-silence. So many shades of green, the beauty of great wide trunks, the -

A horseman stood in front of him, barring his way.

For a moment Edward shrank back, then he remembered. “I am the King’s son,” he declared. “Stand aside.”

The man’s eyes narrowed, and then he threw his head back and let out a great laugh. “Why, it is the scamp I found in my blanket! You are ever determined to join your father, the King, are you not?”

Staring at him defiantly, Edward, too, recognized the horseman. The man gave of his head a small bow and turning his horse, beckoned Edward to follow.

Thus did the boy Prince meet his father after much time apart, and ride back to the Castle with him, sitting upright with dignity. And thus did the Queen emerge from her chambers, face flushed with her own accomplishment, to greet her husband and son with dignity.

And thus, indeed, did the Wise Woman receive her payment, for the Prince was flourishing in all ways.

The End.

*** This story was awarded Second Prize in the 2004 Australasian Short Story Award.***