The Self-Conscious Folktale [creative writing]
So… here it is: the previously mentioned short story. Later than I thought, as usual. And if it is later than planned, but that is usual, doesn’t that make it normal? Or is it still abnormal? And I am rambling again, as usual!
Anyway, one or two (or three) things before we start: this story is my normal style of writing. The previous story that I published on here was more like an experiment in modernism/surrealism. And I don’t even like Modernism in general! Sometimes I don’t understand myself…
The second thing is, this is an late and random entry to Mara’s Weekly Writing Challenge. Do you know how long back I started this story? When she first published the challenge. Yes, that’s right. That’s how bad I can procrastinate.
The third thing is, if you are familiar with the stories of the Old World, you will perhaps recognize some of their elements in this story. The reoccurrence of “three”, for example, and also the importance of “a year and a day”.
I’m not all that sure about this story. I’m not sure if it hangs together, and I’m not sure how much sense it makes. Ah well. Tell me what you think!
Now, to the grand reveal!
The Self-Conscious Folktale
I am Emory. My father is king of Asharnia. But I am not a prince. For most of the time I refuse to be a prince. Although sometimes it does have its advantages, I must admit. Like all the free plumes I get to put in my hat. And the perk of skipping a queue and go right to the front. But most of the time I just ignore it and refuse to be royal.
But Fate had one more cruel trick to play on me. She made it so that I have two older brothers. And we have no sisters. That means that my father is a king with just three sons. Now this is as good as laying down bait for folktales. And all folktales focus on me, as the youngest prince.
There will be a quest… And my father will send each of us in turn to complete it… Both my brothers will fail and come home in disgrace… Then it will fall to me to complete the narrative true to stereotype. Now is the time.
They say that every person has at least one day in their life that they will never forget. Well, I know what mine is. It was the day that my tutor was giving me a lesson in folklore and happened to touch on the topic of… let’s say… three. The three witches, the three stars, the three heroes, the three princesses, the three rings, the three riddles, the three wishes… the three princes… And I remember immediately asking my tutor whether these things still happened, because my brothers and I made up three princes, and I was thinking that I was the youngest of the three, therefore it all fell to me… My tutor simply laughed and told me that no, these things only happened in the age of legends but that that was long past. I needn’t worry.
A large part of my existence was indeed then spent not worrying about folktales and the Power of Three anymore. I spent more time worrying about how to appear princely, and how I did not really like my position of birth. However, recently my mystical position in the family again entered my consciousness. This was because an old crone happened to turn up at my father’s gates and demand to see the king. As is custom and practise in these situations, my father granted her an audience. And she told him a fantastical tale: about a girl living in a high tower a thousand miles away, of how the crevices of the stones were infested with dragons of all shapes and sizes to about knee-height. The old crone told my father how she had once been a great lady in this kingdom a thousand miles away, but the journey to our palace had worn away everything she had. She had been travelling for a year and a day to reach the kingdom with three princes, for it had been prophesied that only one of these three princes would be able to break into the tower and save the girl and return her to her father. This girl was, of course, also a princess and her father was a very wealthy and powerful king.
Now, I was not intended to hear all these things that the old crone spoke about. But I knew my way about the inner politics of the palace – that is, I knew my way about the secret passages very well. And I also knew where all the spy-holes into the throne room were and I could therefore easily eavesdrop on the conversation. My blood ran cold several times during the course of that afternoon. The first time was when I heard the tale of the prophesy about the three princes, because I was remembering the tales that my tutor told me and I was acutely aware of my status as the youngest prince – the one fated to succeed where his brothers had failed. The second time was when I realized that my father was agreeing to the “quest”. He considered it his traditional duty to agree to this. And the third time was when I realised that the quest would likely first claim the lives of my brothers, before it could lead to my success. How could my father agree to this?! He knew full well where it was leading! But it was Fate leading his hand there, not his own thought. It was the inexorable and irresistible drag of the fairy-tale that would not allow him to make any other choice.
At least I would have grace for a few years. It would take a year and a day to travel towards this distant kingdom, therefore that would already be more than two years for each of my older brothers to at least travel there, not reckoning in time spent there, and time spent returning, if they were lucky. I was only eighteen years old at the time when the crone brought the fairy-tale to us.
Well, in the end I had more than 4 years before my turn came. And both my brothers survived their quest, though they returned rather battered and with bruised egos. Both had taken a year and a day on the going trip and a year and a day on the return trip. Then they had also spent some weeks at this tower. Therefore, by the time my Fate had come I was twenty-three years old. I have to admit that during this time I wondered about the girl locked in the distant tower. Was she aging as well? Did she get impatient, waiting for her saviour to come? Did she know that both these men who had already been there were doomed to fail simply because they were not the third and youngest prince? Sometimes I wondered whether my brothers knew they were doomed to fail due to their birth, or whether maybe they believed they could change Fate and, for the first time in history, win out against the weight of fairy-tale. But if I thought this, I would inevitably begin to wonder whether I was really fated to succeed, or if maybe I was imagining things about the folktales being weaved around our families. Then I wondered if this was really the predictable Power of Three working, or if it all was just coincidence.
I was certainly not excited about my turn. Me? Definitely not! No, I seriously. Not a day of my life has gone by since finding out about the quest that I have not resented being born the third and youngest prince of a country. But as I sit here now at the top of the highest tower in my father’s palace, looking at the stars, it has also come to my mind that I should thank my fate spinning up there with the stars that all large dragons have died centuries ago. Otherwise there could have been only one way that this encroaching tale could have ended: me and a huge dragon. Maybe I would have had to slay it, or perhaps I would have found it necessary to sneak past it to its treasure hoard. No wait, worst of all: I would have had to fly it! What would my vertigo have had to say about that?! No, the little ones you could deal with, but not with more than, say, three at once. They were quite vicious.
Shortly after my second brother returned dejectedly from his quest, it was my turn to embrace Fate. I have to be truthful, but I have to admit that I would rather have had something a little more material to embrace. Ah well, we cannot have everything in life, I suppose. The day before I was due to leave, my father called me into the throne room. When I entered, my father was standing in front of the window, looking out towards the mountains. He heard me and turned around. Then I saw what he was holding in his hands. It was a sword – a beautifully engraved sword, topped off by an engraved crown inlaid with gold on its hilt. My father spun it in his hands, making a few swipes at invisible enemies before grasping it by the blade and holding it out to me. I took it gingerly, feeling the balance and the weight of the sword. I had, of course, had sword-fighting instruction under one of my many tutors and it may have been the one part of my education that I actually enjoyed, but I had never felt a sword like that. It was so sharp, so smooth and it radiated a feeling of power.
“This is a sword with a history,” my father said. “It was mine. And your grandfather’s. It is the swords of the kings of this country. I hope that it may now save a princess – that would be something to add to its pedigree, eh?”
“I suppose,” I said. “Thank you, Father. I will look after it.”
“Do you have everything you need?”
“Yes, father. I guess so.”
“Well then. Here’s one thing more.” He felt inside his pockets and drew out a small drawstring bag. For a moment he weighed it in his palm. Then he handed it to me. “It’s three wishing stones, son. I hope they will be useful to you.”
“Thank you, father.”
“This is it then.”
“Yes. The farewell for quite a while, probably.”
He shook my hand. “I hope you make the kingdom proud, son. Good luck.”
“Thank you, father.”
And with that I took my leave. I left early the next morning. I was just me, my horse, the sword and the direction. At least I could not miss that. A wide road ran all the way from Asharnia to this kingdom far away.
For a year and a day I travelled. The scenery around me slowly changed, but not much else did. For most of this time I tried not to think. I tried not to think about the dragon infesting the tower. I tried not to think of how I would go about any rescue attempts. I tried not to think about the princess, most of all. I tried not to think what she would be like, what her personality would be like. But this was hardest of all. I could not seem to stop trying to picture her in my mind.
On the first day of the new year, I came within sight of the tower. For a few days past I had been travelling in inhabited country again, but I had not seen much life about. The tower was however living up to its name and towering high above the rest of the scenery, outlined against the horizon. I reined my horse in and slowed down to a walk as we neared the tower. It was looking suspiciously devoid of life. But then I got close enough to see the stones. There were dragons everywhere! Most were no bigger than the regular lizards that you would find back home in Asharnia, sunbathing on rocks. They squirmed and crawled over the stones, and into the crevices. However, there were also some larger dragons that climbed over all the little ones, sometimes stepping on top of them. These circled around and around the tower, almost like guards on patrol. My heart went cold at the sight of all those dragons. I had been expecting a lot of dragons. But I had not been expecting an infestation on this scale – where they sat on top of each other in the mortar and crawled over each other.
I stepped back and looked at the window at the very top of the tower. I could not see anyone in there, but that did not mean much.
“Ahoy!” I shouted.
There was some movement up there. Then a face leaned out of the window. A very pretty face surrounded by a mess of frizzy blond hair.
I waved and shouted “Hello!”
She waved back. “Are you the third of the three princes?” she shouted back.
“Yes! How did you know?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“Well, yes, I suppose it is! Do you want to come down from there?”
“Isn’t that obvious too?”
“Sorry! Silly question! You wouldn’t know how to come down from there, would you?”
“Don’t you think I would have, long ago, if I had?”
“Sorry! Another silly question!”
“You are full of silly questions, Mister Prince!”
“Yes, yes, I know. Well, could you maybe tell me what my brothers did when they came here?”
“They both jumped in and started slaying dragons until they became overpowered and had to back off.”
“Well then. I will have to think of something a little more intellectual.”
I led my horse away from the tower and sat down on a smallish rock. I stared unseeing at the ground as I tried to think how I could get rid of the dragons. I thought of distractions, of explosions, and of being invisible. Oh, and of returning back home. But none of these ideas helped at all with a really good idea. Then my fingers touched the three wishing stones still in my pocket. As I fingered them absentmindedly, an idea slowly began to form. Hmm… creating a distraction…
As it was getting dark, I set up camp for the night, and then went to sleep.
The following morning, I was all set to make a start on my plan. I would use one of my wishing stones to create a large, inviting, animal carcass about a mile from the tower. Then all the dragons would flock there at the invitation of the meat. And that would leave the tower unprotected. But before I started using the wishing stones, I decided to first check how hostile this infestation of dragons really was. Maybe it was all just a lie. Maybe they would just let me walk in the door. I guess I was hoping to get this over and done with, without going to a lot of trouble. So I went and circled the tower until I could see the front door underneath all the writhing bodies. So far, none of the dragons were batting an eye at me. I carefully stepped forward and put my hand in between the dragons onto the doorknob. The closest little dragon lifted up its head to glare balefully at me. As I turned the doorknob, more of the dragons in the vicinity turned to look at me and bared their teeth, growling at me. One or two of them started to move closer, and the closest one bunched their muscles to spring. When I did not remove my hand from the doorknob, one of them sprung onto my wrist and dug in its claws. Needless to say, I hurriedly let go of the knob, sprang back, shaking my hand frantically in an attempt to dislodge the little dragon. I started running – just running to get away, still hopping and twirling to get rid of the dragon. Then, after I had gone a little way, I heard laughter from up in the tower. I turned to look up and saw it was the princess, leaning out of her window and laughing at my predicament. This made me freeze. She seemed so joyful about my failure. At that moment, I finally manage to dislodge the dragon and tossed it away, stalking off in the other direction.
The wounds on my wrist were not nearly as important to me as my hurt feelings. Now was the time to do something and fast. I had to get that condescending princess out of that tower as fast as possible and away at the speed of light. I continued marching, kicking at the tufts of grass. Then I drew the bag with the wishing stones out of my pocket and poured them out of my palm. I knew, of course, how to use wishing stones, but I had never actually used them before. What you did was stand with the stone held in your right palm, then you turned round clockwise 3 three times, and then 3 times widdershins. Then you threw the stone over your left shoulder and made your wish. When I had walked far enough from the tower, I performed this ritual. And said, “I wish for some food source that will be attractive to the dragons from yon tower.” Afterwards, I put myself some distance away rather speedily. And waited. And waited.
Finally I risked a look to see whether the dragons were coming. But no. Far away, I could still see the tower – the tower which was still covered in a writing mass of bodies. They did not seem to have any ideas to inspect the heap of rotting meat behind me. They still clung to the tower. I took the other two stones out of my pocket and deliberated. Had my wish been specific enough? Probably not. I had not wished that the dragons would find the food more enticing than that tower. As I looked at the tower, I could see the princess at her window again. No way! I would not fail!
I dumped the second wishing stone into my palm and repeated the ritual, this time saying “I wish that the dragons would be highly attracted to that meat, come to feed on it, and stay there for a long time.”
Scarcely had I said that or I could see a cloud rising from the distant tower. I could hear the snap of thousands of wings. And then the dragons were at the meat. It was not a pretty sight and not something that I will venture to describe. I started running back towards the tower for I was not sure how long the decoy would keep the dragons occupied. I wrenched open the front door and ran up the spiral stairs two at a time. Before I knew it, I was in the princess’s room. She was backed up against the window, staring at me.
“How did you manage that?” she stammered.
“Come, we have no time,” I snapped brusquely. I was not feeling very friendly towards her.
In retrospect, I wish that I had been less hasty, and had spent more time just looking at her. She was just the kind of beautiful woman that you would like to lock up in a tower so that you always just stay to appreciate her. But at that time, all of her charm just went past me.
“But then I will have to pack a few things!” She was still stammering. “I mean, I mean, I wasn’t ready for this!”
“Then just come!”
She scurried around, grabbing here, leaving there. Then she was at my side. “You wanted to get out, my lady?” I made an attempt to be gallant.
“Yes, I want to get out. I want to go with you to your kingdom.”
“Alright, but I warn you: I am no prince.”
“No prince?” she gasped.
“Oh, my blood is princely, but I do not wish for the lifestyle of a prince.”
“Oh.” She looked at me doubtfully.
Once again, I moved fast. I helped her down the spiral stairs as fast as possible and over the tufts of grass to where my horse was tethered.
“You can ride on the horse,” I said, helping her up. “I will walk.”
She slid onto the horse’s back in her blue dress, almost lying flat against the creature’s neck, and worked her hands into its mane. “It feels so good to be out of that tower,” she whispered. “You have no idea how good it is to feel a living creature again. You just have no idea.” She rallied a little. “But are you going to walk all the way back to your kingdom?”
“No,” I said. “I have another idea.” This idea had come to me when I took her down the tower. “I think this is why my father gave me the wishing stones. And I still have one left.”
Then, keeping one hand on the horse’s bridle, and performing the – by now – familiar ritual, I wished to go home.
Well. There you have it. My story, of how Fate took me on a quest, and how I cheated my way through it by using wishing stones, where my brothers attempted it with brute force and egos. I am still Emory. My father is still king of Asharnia. I still refuse to be a prince, except for the plumes allowance. I never even unsheathed my sword. I think that should go down in the record books – it’s an achievement for a quest of this nature, I should say.
Oh? You are asking what happened when I got home with my princess? Well, firstly, she wasn’t my princess. And, secondly, in answer to the question, well, we surprised everyone with our early return. And everybody was happy at my success and at making her acquaintance. Her name was Jessica, by the way.
And then? Well, she and I – Well, we decided to call it a truce. And she went home on a trip to see her family again. And I went on with my life – trying to both avoid being a prince and also to avoid real work. And I gave my historical sword back, and my father hung it up in the throne room where it still hangs, gathering history.
Yes? And next? Between Jessica and me—well, we’ll have to see what develops there…
There you have it then! I think the story kind of ran away with me. Over three-and-a-half thousand words, and 7 pages – What can I say? It is not really the kind of scope that I planned!