Listen to this short story, narrated by C.S.E. Cooney:
The fire crackled and cast shadows on the trees. They lay on either side of it, watching the fire, but secretly also each other.
It was not the first time they had traveled together, and not the first time they had parted, but there was something about this time, this moment, that made them loathe to say farewell. They suspected that they were in love.
“This feels like a storytelling fire,” she finally said.
“It does,” he agreed. “Will you tell one?”
“If you will as well.”
“By all means.”
Once upon a time, in a kingdom nestled among mountains, there lived a princess, beloved by her people, doted on by her mother, and ignored by her father. She loved to sneak books out of the castle library into her bedchamber to read by candlelight into the depths of the night. She loved to play pranks on the castle staff that would make them smile. She loved waking up every morning because every day was made of possibility.
This princess learned all the things that princesses learn. She learned how to keep the castle and the estate, about five different languages, and sewing, and music, and the diplomacy of house and holdings. She grew up knowing she would someday marry to keep and further the legacy of her family’s rule. She had no brothers, so it was expected that she should marry a prince.
The king was a short-sighted man. He was devoid of ill-intent, but also of talent at things kings should be good at, and could not think of how to protect his little kingdom from a war brewing around it. Out of desperation, the king sold his entire kingdom to a fairy who put everyone in it into an enchanted sleep. A wall of thorns grew around the land like a nest of swords between mountain peaks. The kingdom thus would be safe and sound for at least three hundred years. The fairy promised that when the time came, an intrepid man would cut through the wall of thorns, riddle out the secret of the people’s sleep, and awaken the fiefdom by kissing the princess.
The princess was enraged by this. She had been promised a say in who she would marry someday, since that was how her mother had done it, and how her mother’s mother had done it, and her mother’s mother’s mother before them. But done was done and, weeping, the princess submitted to the bed.
“We seem to have run into so many of these incompetent kings.”
“One day, a young man came to the kingdom—”
“As these young men do.”
“Do you want me to tell this story or not?”
One day, a young man came to the kingdom. He found his way through the wall of thorns, into the secret of the kingdom’s enchantment, and to the princess’s bedchamber, where he found her sleeping.
The fairy demanded that he kiss the princess, for the fairy had chosen him to break the enchantment on the land. But he refused and, though the fairy tried to stop him, he left the castle, leaving the princess and all her subjects to their sleep.
What the young man did not know was that the princess heard him, heard his denial of the fairy, and his denial to kiss her awake. She was not awake enough to hear the details, but was so shocked that she forced herself to awaken at once. The fairy tried to stop her too.
First it tried to trick her into believing that she was still asleep. But the princess found her embroidery basket and sliced her palm open with a pair of scissors, and knew she was awake when she began to bleed.
Then it tried to bargain with her: wealth forevermore, long life, an empire. The princess refused all of these: she would not live forevermore to have wealth, she was of a healthy enough constitution that she would live long anyway, and she had no need for an empire, which is much more difficult to care for than a kingdom.
Finally it turned itself into an ogre and tried to return her to bed by force. It chased the princess through the castle, and the princess took refuge inside an armoire. The fairy returned to its small size, and entered the armoire through its tiny keyhole, whereupon the princess seized the fairy and snip-snip, cut it in two.
Unfortunately, the enchantment of the fairy did not lift, and the princess resolved to leave. She swore she would not return until she found a way to break the enchantment. In her heart of hearts, she hoped she would find the audacious young man, and fall in love.
“And that’s the end of my story.”
“That’s not really a story,” he said. “It doesn’t have a proper ending.”
“Why?” she asked. “What should its ending be?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“Well, it’s your turn to tell a story now.”
Once upon a time, there was a shining kingdom beside the sea, with walls white as the waves that splashed against it, with roofs dusky as pearls, and spires glinting like shells. There, a king ruled who had two sons.
The first son was a true prince, born of the king’s queen who came from a long line of emperors. He grew tall and handsome, with a noble brow which the sun itself kissed.
The second son was not a true prince, born of a scullery maid who died at his birth. The queen adopted him and raised them together, so the second son followed his brother everywhere, like the moon follows the sun and reflects its light.
The first son learned of governance and swordplay, as did the second. The first son learned of military campaigns on land and sea, as did the second. The first son learned the languages of the courts which the kingdom traded with, as did the second, and together they snuck to the docks and learned more colourful languages from the sailors, and other things besides.
The two brothers loved each other, but as the intrigues of courts would have it, they began to feel turned against each other. So the younger brother, with a heavy heart, left the kingdom.
“This sounds like a sad story.”
“Your story was a sad story.”
“I know, but after your criticism of my story, I thought you’d have a more cheerful one.”
“I barely even got to the ending yet.”
The younger brother wandered for many months, in rain and shine. He fought a dragon, a griffin, and a naga. He solved magic riddles, and deadly labyrinths.
Then he came to a wall of thorns, and he could see no easy way around it, surrounded on all sides by mountains. He cut his way through the thorns, and came across a kingdom of sleeping people. At the gate, in the streets, at the wells. Even nature itself seemed asleep: the fires were drowsy embers, the wind a half-hearted breeze, and the rivers did not run through the kingdom so much as crawl. His explorations brought him to a high castle, where he found the kitchen maids, the pages, the courtiers, and soldiers.
Curious, he investigated the provenance of the kingdom’s deep sleep: he found the king’s desk with its desperate correspondence to indifferent allies and encroaching enemies; he found the treasury’s accounts, showing dire financial straits; he found an arcane contract, written in the language of fairies. Finally, he came upon its sleeping princess.
“Was she beautiful?”
“The princess. Was she beautiful?”
“I don’t — why are you asking — I just — let’s say for the sake of the story that she was.”
There was a fairy there, who advised him to kiss the princess. If he did, she would awaken, and so would the kingdom, and he would marry her, and in time become king.
He thought it unseemly to kiss a woman in her sleep, who could not say no. He was, after all, a stranger to her. The fairy scoffed at this: fate had bound them, so they were no strangers.
But fate is a contract, and it was unkind to marry by contract without agreement. The fairy scoffed at this, too: royals never truly marry by choice when entire kingdoms are at stake.
Fortunate, then, that he was only a younger brother, and no true prince at that. He bid the fairy good day and left.
The fairy slammed the doors in his face, and he leapt out the windows onto the roof tiles. The fairy made the earth quake to throw him off, but he had spent too long on rocking boats to lose his balance so easily. The fairy grew trees from seed to oldgrowth in moments, but he caught the branches as they shot to the sky, and used them to jump over the wall of thorns onto the mountainside yonder.
The younger brother went on to have more such adventures at the side of many fine men and women. In time, he met an adventuress of great courage and fortitude, and he fell in love.
“That’s not much different from my story, that ending.”
“We could think of a better ending to our stories.”
She grinned, and pulled her blanket around her tightly.
They continued to stare at the fire (at each other) in silence.
A branch in the fire popped, sending a spark into the air that was carried into the night, floating over his head.
“I’m upwind from the fire,” she said finally. “Would you like to come this side?”
They were happy together.