May 3, 2016

Secret Passage of the Eldest Princess, By Star O'Star


After the second princess was already a toddler and the twins newborn, but before younger princesses were even thought of, the eldest princess was shaken awake on a pitch-black night.

She, her mother, and her baby sisters were bundled into a sable unliveried carriage at midnight and driven up, up, uphill to a loftily situated castle newly won by their father, the king-conqueror. This hasty uncomfortable move was, they were told, in order that they could be kept safe, for the peoples of the land were at war, their strong papa, the king, defending them. 

This mountainous castle had been hard won the eldest princess, heard them say. It was secured among stark peaks such that three sides of that fortress did not require ramparts at all. They were ‘natural solid vertical rock’. There could be no more protected place.

What followed was a bumpy jarring ride, wherein the eldest princess kept being awakened, alternatively jostled by the rolling of the carriage over rocks in the road and by sounds of her mother speaking tersely with the guards. Finally she was lifted and carried by strong arms to a wide drafty room. A lump stuffed mattress was unrolled for her on the bedstead and she was laid there, covered over with sheets and a warm blanket as she yawned, half-asleep. She turned on her side and fell back to slumber with a sigh.

She slept soundly then and of course was not upset until morning, when she found herself alone in a large echoing unfamiliar solar, its dark wood beams slanted with sunlight from tall thin windows. Was that a bird in the rafters? She heard a coo and saw a single feather drift down to the floor near her bed.

The princess looked around in confusion, then jumped out of the warm bed in surprise, fully awake. What had happened? Standing, she shook with fear. Everything remained quiet, even the bird who was probably frightened by the princess’s racket.

After few moments she felt that her mind was orienting itself, accepting what she saw. She found she had stopped shaking. She went to look out of a window, her feet bare padding on the wooden floor. She swung the pane out into the summer air, which here in the mountains was still warm, though the breezes were cooler than at home.

She looked out the window for home. Below her was a long, low valley with a twisting river. Yes, she spotted her home castle like a small brown lump. There were borders of trees or maybe those were battle lines of foes. Somewhere her father was carrying his great sword and riding his war horse. She felt insignificant to him now – more insignificant than she felt when in his immense presence.  

The princess felt safe though. Looking at the road just below her, she realized that the solar she was in was at least several stories up from ground. Yes, high and safe.

Just then a young chambermaid bobbed in with the princess’s breakfast. Then she bid the princess ring the bell on the tray when she was done and liked to see her mother and the babies. When and if the princess, please, would care to. Also the princess might have to dress herself as the princess’ old nanny had been left behind at the old castle in the haste of the night’s flight. She would obtain for her some clothing. The princess started to reply, but the maid was off before the princess could speak.

The princess sat on the large bed and ate her breakfast alone, not feeling lonely, or at least not quite.

The walls of the solar were creamy colored and the ceiling lofty. She could see dust twirling in the air where the sunlight flung its shafts. The large bed she sat on was dwarfed in the huge room, one in which ten or more similarly sized beds could easily have been accommodated.

After finishing her meager toast and tea, she stood up on the bed in her long white nightgown, which she just then noticed was slightly soiled from the ride in the night, perhaps from smears of dirt or being rubbed against some postern as she was carried in half-asleep. She brushed the fabric off absently. Then she looked back at what had attracted her attention in the first place. Standing on her mattress she could better see and run her hand across the headboard of the bed.

The intricately carved rich brown wooden headboard was wild with scores of flowers of every type. There were big tropical flowers alongside smaller more delicate temperate ones. She ran her finger over the lovely precise carvings. Then she stopped. There, just to one side of center, was a small carving of a snowflake among the blooms of the etch-fashioned wooden garden.

The center of the carved snowflake was round and she could not help but want to press it with her dainty finger, and so she did. It receded in. Simultaneously she heard a click and the bed she was standing on swung to the side in a wide arc. Startled, she sat down suddenly on it as it moved. She waited breathlessly until the swinging movement of the bedstead stopped, then lay down on her stomach to look over the side of the bed at the region of the floor the bed had swung away from. There was no floor at all there. Under the bed was a staircase.

Her eyes went wide and she gave a small gasp. Then she laughed. Surely she had found a servants’ staircase. She would, she decided, descend to what was probably the kitchen and surprise the chef, chambermaids, and little serving boys.

Barefoot, she stepped down the wooden stairs of that hidden staircase. The stairwell was unlit by any window. As she felt her way down in the dark, she wondered if this was indeed a passage to the kitchen. She could not smell any fire-smoke or foodstuffs that usually wafted up the servants’ stairwell at home.

Flight after flight, she realized that surely she had passed below even the level of the kitchens.  Still the steps went down. After a while they changed into a cool white stone that seemed to glow ever so slightly in the dark. As she went further, too curious to stop, she found herself thinking of her father. Maybe his bravery pumped in her veins? Clear-headed, she wondered, if not to the kitchens, where were the steps leading?

At last she spied the bottom of the staircase in the gloom. The air was cold and her feet felt cold too now. The bottom of the stairs was visible and the steps ended at a carved marble balustrade and a white powder. As she stepped into it she realized it was a dusting of snow. The stairs had brought her around the corner of what appeared to be the entrance out of a cave. Before her rose a hill, deep with snow at least up to her knees and topped with snow-covered ice-trimmed birch trees. She thought to run back upstairs and definitely try to find some lined slippers.

But it was not so very cold. Maybe she could go just far enough to peep over the top of this hill, then run back up the stairs to warmth. Would not her father want to know what land his castle connected to? She thought of his deep voice and his soft beard over a hard jaw. Was she perhaps on the other side of the mountains? But the mountains were so tall and surely she had not come so far down those steps. Had not her father said there was ocean on the other side of the mounts? Maybe this was a dream, but her cold feet said no, and she picked up some snow and made a snow ball in her hands and threw it, having then to wipe her wet chilled hands on her nightgown, a thick cotton that seemed far too thin now.

There was a brushing sound from among the birches on the hill and she looked up to see a white wolf looking at her with dark eyes. After a while, when she did not run, it came down the short slope. She had frozen with dread, but the wolf approached her and nuzzled her hand like a dog. It looked into her eyes and she felt it was tame. Also, she felt approved of. Then the wolf turned and went back up the slope along its trail through the deep snow.

The wolf stopped halfway up the slope and looked back at the princess as if to say “follow me”, then continued up the hill. She set her jaw and decided to follow, as any courageous girl would do who wasn’t too cold, and who could see that the top of the hill did not seem that far. She would at least get a look over the hill before she retreated, flew back up the stairs and swung the bedstead back over its secret stairway. If she walked quickly surely her feet wouldn’t freeze.

Over the top of the hill, the snow-clad ground sloped downward and below the princess could see a lake, completely frozen over. A stiff breeze had cleared the lake of snow and was making the ice-coated trees crack. As she stood there though the wind ceased, and the trees which had been sprinkling down powdered snow, now stilled. The princess noticed the sky was actually not cloudy as she first thought, but was palest of evening blues.  Above the lake was rising a full moon. Even as she watched the moon climbed higher, a few tiny stars popped out in the darkening sky. ‘This is a strange part of the world or universe’, her old nanny, who had been left behind and was far away, might say.

The frozen lake was the same pale blue as the sky, and down there on the lake was someone ice-skating! She could make out that it was a boy. At the bottom of the hill was a tree log on its side and next to it was a fire in a circle of stones that gleamed brightly a color of flickering gold so different than the surrounding whites, grays, silvers, and those so pale blues.  She found herself drawn to the fire. The princess followed the wolf down the slope, still striding along in its made trail. She discovered laid across the log next to the fire was a cloak of white wool, thick white socks and a pair of white ice-skates. She picked them up and, yes, they were her size. 

The boy had noticed her and began to skate over. At first he had waved and made a direct path, but as he got closer he seemed to get shyer. He skated in loops and twists, showing off she thought. Finally he skated up to the frozen bank where she stood, close enough to speak to.

“I am sorry,” said the princess, “were you expecting someone?” She moved to shrug off the cloak that she had pulled over her shoulders.

“No,” said the boy. “I don’t know who I was expecting. Maybe I was just hoping. I am a prince of this land and I welcome you.”

“I am princess here,” she said with a proud pout and jutted out her chin. He laughed.

“You are most welcome princess,” he said, “because all I have is brothers of whom I am the eldest.”

“What?” she asked, then, “This is the strangest of places. Outside my bedroom it is now morning, not evening, and it is high summer at this time.”

“Oh,” he said with what seemed a slight confusion, “there are many wonders here! I would love to show them to you.” He looked hopeful, yet still shy.

“First, may we skate?” asked the princess. “I never have, though I have seen the performers do their tricks and spins. Can you teach me?”

“Most certainly,” he laughed, bowing with a joyful smile. At his bidding she slid on the socks laying on the log, then skates. He tied their laces for her and helped her secure the cloak. Then he smiled and took her hands and helped her up, leading her forward to the ice. He taught her how to ice skate as the moon lifted higher, until she tired.

“Now the wonders?” she asked.

“Another night,” he said. “Tomorrow perhaps? I am so glad to meet you, for I have had no one else calm to talk to and you are an answer to a dream. Please come again. Next time wear shoes though.”

The princess laughed and said she would. The princess smiled as she ran to the snow dusted marble stairs.

When she got back she rang for a bath and soaked her body to warmth again. She went afterwards to her mother. From her mother’s lips she heard that the war was going poorly. Then mother shooed her away, bidding the princess occupy herself as she was busy caring for babies without nursemaids. Picture-books would sent up to the princess’s solar from the castle’s intact library.

The princess descended to the silver-birched wood the next day, and though she wore a cloak and longed to skate, it rained a warm silver rain. She sat down on the bottom-most step and cried.

After a while a wolf appeared on the ridge as before. Its fur was damp and gray-looking in the rain. She heard it whimper. It was the same tame wolf. The wolf came down the slick slope. She wiped her tears on her cloak and petted the wolf’s wet fur.  

“You are brave to come back,” said a voice. It was the prince. He was wearing a sleek cloak which the rain beaded off. The rain was penetrating the princess’s own cape.

“I came…”

“I know,” he replied, “from the land of magic.”

“Magic,” she laughed, chagrined, “I don’t have magic.”

“You have what we lack here,” said the prince, “maybe it’s the magic of your sheer courage, happiness, kindness...”

She laughed with delight, for it felt true.

The wolf moved away. The prince took her hand and led her to the top of the slope that overlooked the now liquid lake, choppy and the same gray as the sky. This time though he led her through a rock-outcrop.

“The wonders?” she asked.

“At one time…” he replied with a sad tone. He looked down and sighed.

Below, on an island, was a palace in obvious disrepair. On the shore was a ransacked-looking village surrounded by bedraggled trees that nonetheless appeared to have small buds that sparkled like diamonds even in the drizzle. The fields though were empty of sprouts.

“This side of the rocks is supposed to be summer but these buds were not here until you came,” said the prince. “Many long years of hot and cold we have had. The people in the huts below will be too starving to even come out and greet you.”

The princess turned to look at him in surprise. The cliffs behind him were lovely rocky waterfalls under the spattering sky, beckoning one to climb, but she turned back to the misery below.

“I am the eldest of my brothers, heir to this kingdom. There have been floods, famine, plague. My parents are gone, dead.” He added the last with sadness, as if it was hard for him to say.

“I am sorry,” said the princess. The fear of her father dying was a real one, but not actuated.

“I told my brothers about you. I realize that we should try to rebuild. Make this place worthy of you.”

The princess held on to his hand, “Upstairs, my father is fighting too - another king’s claim, a bad king. My queen-mum and sisters and I are living in a castle that my papa captured. He is trying to win more land and there is always someone, my mother says, who has brash words against my father and he fights them.” She added then, “People are dying for it all.” She said that proudly but then cast her eyes down with realization.

“People are dying?” The prince looked stung. “From fighting for land?”

In an insightful blurting out of words, she added, “My king-papa likes to fight.” She realized the lameness of the remark. She thought of him on his war horse, looking up and away from her. Her sense that she was never quite brave or clever enough faded. How smart was he? How helpful to his people? She thought of the refugees moving outside her windows back at her home castle.

The prince continued, “Princess, my kingdom is different. I invite you here. Its people need leadership, wisdom, help...”

“No one from my family will come,” said the princess. “They won’t even listen to me.” Then she thought of the warring ways of her father and his soldiers. How could she tell of this place – have them bring rough ways here.

“We need you, princess. I need you. You bring me so much hope. I will host a dance for you, bring out the last of our stores, feast and eat with our people,” he said. “My mother used to dance with my brothers and I.”

The princess laughed at this. “I’d like that.”

“There is a new springtime in our land and dancing will cheer us. Be here and someday…” the Prince’s voice trailed off.

Idealistically, she drew herself up. She would help, plan with him. Together. As friends. As equals.

Still, a land one day hard ice and the next searing rain? She wondered, as much as she tried, would she ever be properly prepared for what would come? She determined she would adapt.

Beaming, the princess said, “Yes, and if you tell me your name, I will tell you mine.”

Image by Edward Lear.

13 comments

  1. Thank you so much for selecting my story! It is wonderful to see it online in-print and I love the picture you selected to go with it. I have also featured a link to this webpage on my webpage: www.star8a.wix.com/starostar and my Google+ page (star8a@gmail.com) and my Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/star0star.908579) - Just so proud! Thanks again!
    Star O'Star

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    1. I was glad to use it. It's great work!

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  2. ...And if you did not catch it, the story above is a pre-quel to the fairytale "The Twelve Dancing Princesses"

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  3. What beautiful imagery! I was right beside the eldest princess as she wound down that staircase. Thank you for your beautiful story.

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    1. I know! The details were amazing. That's what grabbed my attention.

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  4. I really enjoyed this. I felt like I was in the story, watching what was happening instead of just reading it. Very engaging!

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    1. Agreed. I look forward to more work from Star.

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  5. I'm ready for the dance and all that follows! I never read "The Twelve Dancing Princesses", but now I feel compelled to do just that.

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    1. You definitely should read it. This story sets it up so well.

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  6. I enjoyed this story so much!! The imagery was so beautiful, I felt like I was there.. Hoping to see a sequel! Thank you.

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  7. Beautiful story. Very well written, too!

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  8. I was asked to post a short- what is the story of the "Twelve Dancing Princesses": A king has twelve daughters (and no sons) and he cannot figure out how his daughters wear out their slippers every night, so he calls in local princes to find the answer but none can, until...(that is enough to set the stage for my prequel above to that fairy tale). You can check out my other work on my website: www.star8a.wix.com/starostar if you like.

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  9. Imagery has been mentioned and I agree. I especially liked the ice-coated trees cracking in the breeze. I enjoyed being part of the realism of the Princess's internal shifts such as when she proudly says, "People are dying for it all" and "then casts her eyes down with realization" and "My king-papa likes to fight" and again "realized the lameness of her remark."

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