Fairytale - The Prince who was really a Princess
From the Dense Words Blog archive
In the winter of 2014/2015 I read several of Andrew Lang's fairy books, including one I had never read before.
Overdosing like that has an effect, of course, and I wrote the short story that I'm reproducing below. I suspect there's also a little influence from the surprisingly challenging and satisfying casual game "Long Live the Queen."
Given the themes, the 'gender neutral' stick figure from one of my infographics seemed like a good illustration!
There was an old King, who had a young queen who bore him only daughters. Such was the custom of the time, that should a King wish his daughters to marry, he must part with some of his land, giving it as a gift to whatever Prince might win his daughter's heart. For it was also the unlucky custom of the time that a Princess could only marry a Prince, and Princes, who were raised to rule, would only seek the hand of a Princess whose father could offer them some sizeable territory.
Luckily, the old King had lived a long life, he had been married more than twice, and made a number of conquests, but after the marriage of his twelfth daughter, he began to imagine the borders of his kingdom closing in, and to fear that if he ever did have a son, it would be a sorry small kingdom indeed that he would inherit. So he resolved to have no further children.
A few more years passed, and the King began to feel his great age, and to fear that he had not done his duty to his Kingdom in not providing it with a son to rule it. His wife was still young and beautiful, but if he died, she would be at the mercy of the surrounding Kingdoms which abounded with dukes and princelings, many of whom would pursue her to marry her for her Kingdom, and many others who would simply take it with an army.
He resolved to try one final time to have a son. He told himself that if it was a daughter, he would choose the Prince to marry her, announcing it to all the world, so that he would at least be able to name his heir. And if a son, so much the better. However, he failed to tell this to his wife.
When the child was born, it was, as all the others had been, a girl. Beautiful, strong and bonny, but a source only of grief to her mother who so loved the old King that she swore the midwife to secrecy, and had it announced that she had at last borne a son.
There was much feasting and rejoicing.
The young prince, who was really a princess, grew up healthy and strong on a diet of good meat and fresh air. Every weekday he, who was really a she, learned his letters, studied statecraft and warcraft in the mornings, and horsemanship and swordsmanship in the afternoon, manners, charm and cheer in the evenings; on Saturdays he, who was really a she, rode with the hunt or did falconing, and on Sundays gave alms to the poor, and studied piety.
The King provided the finest teachers, trainers and tutors in the land. And if any of them discovered the Prince's secret, none of them revealed it.
Now it so happened that the King's eldest daughter had married a bad Prince named Hasba. He had recently become King of his own Kingdom, and had begun to turn his greedy eyes to the Kingdoms around him. Greedy King Hasba had already enlarged his kindom several times over, through clever politics, through extortion, and through war, until it almost completely surrounded the Old King's lands.
The Old King died when the Prince, who was really a princess, was fourteen years old. Handsome and strong, but not yet in his majority. Before there was a chance to crown him, however, Greedy King Hasba invaded with a great army.
The only person who was ready was the Queen, for she had been warned in a letter from her eldest daughter, who although almost as greedy as her husband, had felt a few mild pangs of guilt when she learned of his plans.
Very early one morning, the Queen came to the Prince's chamber, bade him rouse and clothe himself; the Queen took a small purse of gold, and the Prince, who was really a princess, took a small gold ring. With the sound and clamour of war approaching, they stole away on swift horses, into the great forest that bordered the Kingdom.
They didn't have time to bring much more than their clothes with them, and soon they were lost, cold and hungry.It began to grow dark, but just as they were beginning to lose hope, they came upon a large house in a clearing.
"This will surely be the den of some Bandits," said the Queen, but the Prince, who was really a princess, insisted that they must find warmth and shelter, and risk what they must within.
To their surprise, the house seemed to be recently deserted, for though there was a fire in the hearth and food and drink on the table, with torches and candles lit about the place, they could find no sign of any people.
They resolved to eat their fill, and should someone come, they would give them a little from their small purse of gold.
Finding a small bedroom, they slept well, although the Prince had to rise twice in the night to feed the fire. In the morning there was still no sign of the house's owners, but the day had dawned bright and clear, so the Prince went outside to prepare the horses.
The horses were nowhere to be seen. Outside the house was a small clearing, completely and tightly enclosed by the forest, with no sign of road or path or trackway.
There was some magic or mischief afoot, but the Prince did not want to alarm the Queen. Returning to the cottage he told her that she should take some breakfast, while he scouted the path, to find a proper route through the forest.
The Prince, who was really a Princess, hadn't ventured far into the forest when he heard an unruly commotion behind him, and at once hurried back to the house. On the lawn was a group of a hundred fat black ponies, and from within there came the noise of revelry and carousing.
The Prince crept to a window and saw to his horror that the house was indeed occupied by bandits, who on discovering the Queen had apparently pressed her to all sorts of indignities, and the Prince watched as she hurried from place to place, serving the Bandits their dinner, and suffering their harsh words and rough hands.
Though strong, and well taught and well practised, the Prince knew well that he had not the strength or skill to confront a hundred bandits, so resolved to seek help where he might find it.
The Prince hurried off through the forest, careless of wild beasts or pursuit, since haste could be the only deliverance of his unfortunate mother.
At length, he came to another clearing. All around the clearing were stalls and stands, as if for a village market, and gay flags and bunting hung from the trees. But all was not gay and cheerful, for among the flags and pennants were also the corpses of crows and butchered rats. The strangest of the spectacle was that although the stalls seemed to have been set up only that morning, there was no sign of any sellers.
As the Prince, who was really a Princess, crept into the centre of the clearing, a strange music started up, and he spied a movement from one of the stalls. The stall itself was bedecked with many wonders. Boxes of jewels and gems overflowed; fine silks were draped across beautiful tapestries and lace as fine as frost. Gowns and dresses from far corners of the world, boots and shoes of surpassing workmanship and a bridle of dragonskin. In the centre sparkled a remarkable breastplate that shone with the light of a thousand suns, and across it lay a sword so sharp that the very air seemed to be cut into blue light around it.
From behind the stall came a strange dancing figure, draped in a hooded robe of midnight black. The figure danced and turned in the strange music, until finally stopping before the Prince, and revealing her face.
She seemed to be a woman of great age, but her age did not seem to have affected the agility and strength of her body, nor the beauty of her voice when she spoke, with an elegant calm.
"Young Prince, what gift do you bring me, that I may aid you in your quest?"
The Prince, who was really a Princess, understood at once that this was an ensorcelled clearing, and the woman a hag or witch, and that he might find some aid, but as likely there would be some trap or terrible bargain to be struck.
"I have nothing of value but my little gold ring and my secret," said the Prince, "And neither are of much value since I no longer have a kingdom to be Prince of. But I must find a means to rescue my mother from the clutches of cruel bandits, and I will repay any aid by whatever means is demanded."
"A pretty speech young Prince," said the hag, "And I have much that may help you." She led him to her stall, and showed him the many objects of great magic.
"Here is the gown of Loltha. Any man who wears it is transformed into beautiful woman, and it is beyond the means of any divination to see through the disguise. Here is the bridle of the Dragon King, which when the magic words 'Awake my steed' are spoken will summon the Dragon Horse, that can be ridden to the ends of the World and back untiring. Here are the shoes of Queen Abtath, that will make any woman the greatest dancer in all the world, and here are the boots of Ironsmith Wild that give the strength to carry any load. This is the sword and breastplate of the Angel of Silver. It is said that the sword will cut anything and the breastplate protects from all harm…" and so she went on, until the Prince was dizzy with all the great magics and how any one of the least of them would be enough to help him to defeat the bandits."
Now my young Prince," the hag continued, "my price is very small. I will not ask your small ring or your small secret, since you have nothing else. Give me but what I ask, and in return I will give you the magical gift that will most aid you in your quest."
"Ask what you will," the Prince, who was really a Princess, replied with all the manner and charm that he had been taught, "and if it is in my power to give, I will give it."
Of course, the hag was up to no good. She herself possessed a powerful charm. She made the same promises to anyone who passed her way, and as soon as she used the charm, they were in her power, and she would take all that they had, and send them naked into the forest to be devoured by the wild beasts.
"All you need do is give me one kiss upon my lips, to show that in spite of my great age, you, a young man, will show that my beauty is still great."
This did not seem too high a price to the Prince, even though it seemed a little vain. He assented and kissed her.
The hag's charm was that any man who kissed her fell at once under her spell, and she did not hesitate to boast and crow.
"And now," the hag shouted, "as all men, you are in my power, and will give me all that you have, and go naked into the forest, there to be killed and devoured by wild beasts."
But the Prince was not a man, but a Princess, and the hag's charm had no power over him. All at once he snatched up the glittering sword, and struck off the hag's head with a single blow.
The hag's body transformed into a pile of a thousand frogs, that hopped off in all directions, leaving nothing but her midnight black robes and her strange charm. The Prince felt that the charm was probably wicked, and struck it with the sword, shattering it to dust.
The Prince at once fell to looking over the various objects of great magic on the hag's stall. He put on the breastplate of the Angel of Silver and buckled on the sword. He pulled on the boots of Ironsmith Wild, and took up the Dragon King's bridle, saying at once the magic words.
Fortunately, the Dragon Horse, fiery eyed and ill-tempered though it was, had magical saddle bags. Most of the hag's magical hoard was unidentified and unlabelled, so the Prince, who was really a princess, took only what the hag had already described, and added to this a few small items that did have labels, such as a Bottle of Everpure water and a Key of All Locks, and other sundries of improbable usefulness, that the Prince supposed he would probably be able to sell for a King's ransom and hence buy himself a King's Kingdom.
The Prince sprang easily into the saddle, and bade the horse gallop with all speed to the bandit's house.
His arrival in the clearing on a tall black dragonskinned horse with fiery eyes did not go unnoticed. The Bandits, who were well fed and a little the worse for drink, climbed onto their fat black ponies and charged at the Prince, all at once.
The Dragon Horse was deft and agile, and dodged here and there, so that the Bandit's arrows flew wide and hallebards fell through empty air. As the Dragon Horse dodged about beneath him, the Prince, who was really a Princess, swung stabbed and chopped with the Sword of the Angel of Silver that was so sharp that it cut the air into blue and green fire around it. Soon, ninety-nine bandits lay dead.
The Prince jumped out of the saddle, and ran into the house.
The Chief Bandit sat, careless of all danger, in a large chair by the fire, a mug of ale in one hand, and the Queen, looking a little flushed and tired but largely unharmed, sitting on his knee.
"Let go my royal mother and prepare to defend yourself!" the Prince shouted a clear challenge, as he had been taught to do.
The Chief Bandit rose lazily to his feet.
"My dear boy," he said, " You clearly know how to fight well, and I doubt I could catch you if you ran. But fight me and you will surely die, since one must die and it cannot be me. On the day I was born I was dipped in the River of War and wet from head to foot, so not even an ankle was not touched by the strange water. It was prophesied that no man could ever harm me."
But the Prince was not a man, but a Princess, and the Chief Bandit's geas could not affect him. He drew his sword and struck off the Chief Bandit's head with a single blow.
The Queen was overjoyed to see the Prince safe and sound, and even more so when the Prince related his adventures.
"With all these magics," said the Queen, "you will be able to take back the Kingdom that is rightfully yours. But although a Prince you seem, you are a Princess, and a Princess cannot have a Kingdom without a Prince. Luckily, I heard the Bandits speak of a young and foolish Prince held captive by a Troll just beyond the mountain to the south. If you free him, he will surely help you win back your Kingdom."
The Prince, who was really a Princess, had been hoping one day to become a King who was really a Queen, but did not doubt the wisdom of his mother's words.
They gathered provisions and loaded up the magic saddle-bags of the Dragon Horse. The Dragon Horse was so large that it could easily carry both of them, and the Prince bade the horse take them to the cave of the Troll that lived beyond the mountain to the south.
It so happened that a kindly Duke lived in a tower not far from the cave, and he agreed to lodge the Queen while the Prince, who was really a Princess, continued his quest.
The path up to the Troll's cave was strewn with rocks and boulders and also strewn with skeletons of men, none of which had feet.
The Prince was nearly at the top of the path when a mighty voice rang out in mighty challenge.
"Who approaches the cave of the Mighty Ghroll?"
Tall as five men, with three heads and seven arms, the Mighty Ghroll stood before the cave, menace on all three of his countenances.
Remembering the importance of truth and politeness, the Prince, who was really a Princess, replied, a little awkwardly.
"I am a poor Prince who has lost his Kingdom, and have come to rescue . . . another Prince, who I hope will aid me in my quest. Will you release him or shall I have to fight or make ransom?"
The Troll was a little taken aback by the Prince's honesty and politeness, but it was his custom to make adventurers fulfil strange and impossible tasks in order to win his favour.
"Very well," said the Troll with a wry smile, "You need only complete one challenge and I will allow you to free the other Prince. Follow."
The Troll walked into the cave, and the Prince, who was really a Princess, had to run to keep up, having only normal sized legs. Deep in the mountain, the tunnel expanded, into a vast empty room with a floor of polished red granite, and lit like a ballroom by ten thousand candles. In the middle of the floor stood a man made entirely of brass, dressed in a brass tailcoat with a brass rose in his buttonhole and brass dancing shoes.
"Your challenge," said the Troll, "is to dance with the Dancing Man until he tires.
"The Prince at once turned and ran from the cave, and the Troll stared after him, the wry smile turned to surprise on two of his three faces, but the third face also turned to surprise as they heard the sound of feet hurrying back into the cave.
The Prince, of course, had run to the Dragon Horse to fetch the shoes of Queen Abtath, which fit him especially well, since he was really a Princess.
Without another word, the Prince took the hand of the Dancing Man, and placed another hand carefully upon his waist, and an unseen orchestra struck up.
For many hours they danced. The Dancing Man was an excellent partner, and since the Prince had been taught to dance as a man, graciously allowed him to lead. The Dancing Man's brass shoes struck occasional sparks as the shoes of Queen Abtath glid and flew across the granite floor, and never before had the Troll's six eyes beheld such a spectacle. Hours turned into days and days to weeks until, one morning, the Dancing Man's hips gave the smallest creak, and he suddenly stopped still, to dance no more.
By now, the Troll was not surprised. Two of his heads had begun to suspect some sort of sorcery after the third day, and the third head had begun to expect that they Prince would succeed after the first week. So all the rest of the while they had been trying to think of ways to keep their bargain and get revenge for having lost the pleasure of cutting off the Prince's feet (as they would have done).
"Now," said the Prince, still full of vigour, "you promised to allow me to free the other Prince."
"I did," said the Troll, adding gleefully, "so go and free him. If you can."
The Prince, who was really a Princess, ran off into the Troll's dungeon to seek the imprisoned Prince. Eventually, he heard the prisoner's mournful cries, and sought him out, in a deep, dark pit.
He was bound and weighed down with heavy chains, was thin, unshaven, filthy, his eyes sad and piteous as his mournful cries.
"Now, " said the Prince who was really a Princess, "cease your complaining, for I have come to rescue you."
"It is hopeless," the imprisoned Prince replied, "for the chains of the Troll are cursed. All who seek to free me and cannot are themselves enchained, by the ankles, and the Troll cuts off their feet to remove and eat them."
"But the others who have tried did not have a Key of All Locks," the Prince who was really a Princess replied, producing it with a flourish. However, he soon discovered that even the Key of All Locks was of no use, since the imprisoned Prince's chains had no keyhole.
The imprisoned Prince nodded resignedly, but the Prince who was really a Princess remembered his lessons, and did not give up so easily. He drew out the Sword of the Angel of Silver, and cut through the chains as easily as through a loaf of bread.
But as they fell away from the wrists and ankles of the imprisoned Prince, he saw to his dismay a strange transformation take place, for the curse of the chains was such that they made woman appear to be man, so before his eyes the imprisoned Prince became a beautiful Princess. The rescued Princess was so grateful that she showered the Prince who was really a Princess with embraces and kisses, and was surprised at his apparent lack of joy at this development.
"Come," said at length the Prince who was really a Princess, "let us escape this dungeon and take council with my Mother and her new friend the kindly Duke." So saying, He took up the broken manacles of the cursed chain and placed them in his sack, explaining to the rescued Princess that he collected all he could that was magical.
On arrival in the great ballroom under the mountain, they saw that the Troll waxed with anger, and at once threw itself upon the Prince who was really a Princess, intent on rending him limb from limb. But the claws of his seven hands skidded across the breastplate of the Angel of Silver and the fangs of his three mouths found no purchase anywhere on the Prince's body as long as he wore the armour.
The Prince who was really a Princess drew his glittering sword and struck off two of the Troll's heads, which tumbled away across the polished red granite, cursing and spitting as they went. The Troll hesitated.
The Prince remembered his lessons in piety, and declared, "I can yet be merciful if you will promise to mend your ways and let us go in peace."
In fear for his immortal life, the Troll promised that henceforth he would waylay and imprison only the wicked, and so the Prince who was really a Princess and the rescued Princess went back up the tunnel to the entrance of the cave, where the Dragon Horse waited to bring them safely back to the tower of the Kindly Duke.
The Kindly Duke was overjoyed to see that the Prince had rescued a Princess, and was confused as to why the Queen seemed less happy about it.
The rescued Princess was, for her part, deeply enamoured of her rescuer, though she realized, of course, that they could not be married until the Prince had reclaimed his Kingdom.
"My father," said the rescued Princess, "is King of Araby, and will surely provide you with a mighty army with which to reconquer your Kingdom."
Upon hearing this, the Queen resolved that it was best that the Prince, who was really a Princess, should continue to appear to be a Prince, if this was a safe means of obtaining an army.
The next day, the Prince who was really a Princess, and the rescued Princess, took their leave of the Kindly Duke, and set off upon the Dragon Horse for Araby.
Many would have been their adventures upon that long road, had it not been for the swiftness of the steed of the Dragon King. But as it was, before long and without incident, they were received a the tented palace of the King of Araby, who wept for joy at the sight of his lost daughter, and the handsome and noble young Prince who had delivered her.
The Prince who was really a Princess told the King of Araby the sad tale of the loss of his father's Kingdom, and the King of Araby at once declared that he would bestow upon him one of his nine armies of Djinn, that he could reclaim his Kingdom.
This was good fortune indeed, since it was a long road back to the North, and no ordinary army could keep pace with the Dragon Horse. But any one of the Nine Armies of Djinn was fast enough to arrive in advance.
And so it was that a mere few days later, the young Queen and the Kindly Duke, the Prince who was really a Princess, and the rescued Princess, and the Dragon Horse, and the great host of one of the King of Araby's Nine Armies of Djinn, stood at the edge of the great forest that encircled the Kingdom.Emissaries were sent to the Queen's eldest daughter, begging that she prepare for sudden invasion and reconquest, but the eldest daughter sent back a message that filled all with dismay.
The Greedy King, the message said, possessed a magic throne, and once he had sat upon the throne in any Kingdom, no man could take it from him, neither through force of arms, nor subterfuge, nor by theft nor by process of law.
"Well," said the Prince who was really a Princess, who read the wording of the magic with great care, "that's convenient."
"I for one," replied the Queen with a conspiratorial nod, "am beginning to see a pattern."
The Prince who was really a Princess rode out at the head of his great army, the rescued Princess at his side, and was met upon the official field of battle by the Greedy King and his Wife, with their great army.
The Greedy King was not concerned by the Prince's Dragon Steed, not his glittering breastplate and shining sword, nor by his magic boots, nor even by the thousands of Djinn who stood, screaming, behind him. He sat, complacent upon his magic throne, that was borne on a bier by ten huge slaves.
Now the Greedy King's wife was, after all, the Prince who was really a Princess's sister, so he didn't feel altogether right about just striking the Greedy King's head off with a single blow. So, as was the custom, they met alone between their two armies, and the Prince who was really a Princess bent close to the Greedy King, and whispered his secret in the Greedy King's ear.
Upon hearing the secret, the Greedy King looked again at the Dragon Horse, he looked again at the glittering breastplate and the magic boots, and the shining sword that cut the very air into blue fire, at the vast army of screaming Djinn, one of the King of Araby's Nine armies, and grew suddenly rather pale.
"Now," said the Prince, "I suggest you take your Magic Throne and your army, and you leave my Kingdom never to return, and in return I will tell noone the secret of your vulnerability."
The Greedy King made no reply, but instead departed at once for his own Kingdom, and indeed handed over several other Kingdoms to the Prince who was really a Princess, in the hope that no longer surrounded, the Prince would be more likely to keep his promise.
The young Queen and the Kindly Duke were at once summoned, and preparations were made for the Prince's coronation.
It was, of course, the expectation of every subject that the Prince would marry the rescued Princess, so the Prince, who was really a Princess, felt that it was only fair to reveal his secret to her, also. At first she was downcast, because even if they kept the secret, they could still never have an heir. But the Prince pointed out that this was really of little concern, since they had magical chains that could make any woman into a man, and a magical gown that could make any man into a woman, and all manner of other magical objects and trinkets besides, so they could do much as they wanted.
The Prince who was really a Princess was crowned King who is really a Queen, and he married the rescued Princess and they lived long and happy lives. And she bore him several sons and daughters, and in his turn, he bore her several sons and daughters, since it didn't much matter which of them wore the chains. And of their many sons, some were probably really daughters, and of their many daughters, some were probably really sons. It hardly really matters.