Once upon a time there was a little girl called Susanna. Her father was a fisherman and they lived by the ocean in a tiny cottage which overlooked a quiet harbour. Each day, Susanna's mother would carry her down to the quay to meet her father as he returned, and to marvel at the wriggling silver treasure which he had conjured up from the sea. They then used to return in triumph to a feast of steamed lobster, or whole salmon stuffed with crab. When Susanna was three years old, the family decided to travel northwards up the coast to show the child to her grandmother. This was a difficult journey, but all went well until they drew near to where the grandmother lived.
All of a sudden, a great storm blew up, which howled like a tortured sea monster, and tore the rigging from the fishing boat. Even worse, it then pushed the little ship ever closer to some rocks which churned with froth at the mouth of the harbour. As Susanna's father struggled at the oars, her mother realised that they might all be killed. She took Susanna and tied her to some of the blown glass spheres that fishermen use to mark the location of lobster pots. As the vessel neared its destruction, her mother kissed Susanna on the forehead and lowered the little girl over the side into the water. Buoyed up by the make-shift raft Susanna watched helplessly as her mother and father disappeared into the storm. When the tempest was over, it was found that both Susanna's parents had been drowned but she, by a miracle, was washed to shore still breathing. From that day on she lived with the grandmother whom she had never seen.
As Susanna grew up, she spent every morning with her grandmother mending nets for the fishermen, and each afternoon, at about dusk, she used to walk several miles to the nearest well to bring back fresh water. The water from that particular well was especially soft and she used it to wash her hair, which was long and very beautiful. The young woman took special care of it since she considered herself plain and feared that without its help she would never win a man's heart. Her face was, in fact, perfectly pretty and she had many talents, but the other villagers only ever praised her for her hair. It was golden like a field of wheat in sunshine, and it lay in gentle waves as if the motion of the sea had crept into her comb.
At that time, in the same part of the country, young prince Henry was also much distracted. His parents were insisting that he choose a bride from among the many ladies of the court. But the song of love had yet to play on his heart strings, so he used to slink away on his favourite horse to go hunting in the countryside. His pride and joy was an ostrich-plumed hat that had been brought to him from Africa. He would wear it on these secret adventures since it complimented his emerald green eyes and made him seem taller than he really was. As it happened he was pursuing a fox, more in sport than with the intention of killing it, when he stumbled upon Susanna at her well. Taken with a sudden thirst, he dismounted and cranked the handle - an overflowing bucket of refreshment rose to the surface. Noticing Susanna's astonishment, he attempted to put her at her ease.
"This water is most welcome. To the really thirsty tongue, the finest wines pale in comparison."
Susanna nodded without saying a word - silenced as much by surprise as by her natural shyness. Henry seemed perplexed, not having much experience of country folk he wasn't quite sure how to behave. Noticing her empty bucket, the prince was seized with an idea. He cranked the handle again and brought more water within view.
Finally stirred, Susanna cried out "You mustn't work on my account, Your Highness. You are a prince and I should wait on you."
"Nonsense. A prince should be the servant of his people." He had heard the phrase in a play one time and thought he'd save it for a suitable occasion. Susanna smiled in wonder at his generosity of spirit. The prince didn't know what else to say.
After a pause he mumbled, "It's getting late. I should ride back now, or they will miss me at the castle."
Susanna sadly curtseyed a farewell and the prince rode off into the forest. On the walk home she cursed herself for not having been more talkative.
"He must have thought me a country bumpkin, lost for words in the presence of a prince, and that after he was so kind to me."
Arriving at her grandmother's house she took the water from the bucket and placed it into a clear glass bottle and garlanded it with flowers. She kept thinking of the ostrich-plumed hat and his emerald green eyes and couldn't sleep. She went over their meeting a thousand times, thinking of all the brilliant things she might have said to win the prince's heart. At other moments she thought that it would have made no difference. She was a fisherman's daughter and he was the son of a king.
After a week of little rest, Susanna grew pale, her undulating hair lost much of it's lustre and her eyes became red with weeping. Her grandmother asked Susanna what was wrong, and the girl revealed everything. She had kept it secret until then, thinking that no-one would believe her.
"You have two choices," explained the wise old woman, "Win the prince or forget him."
"I could never forget him."
"Then you must find a way into his heart. There is a wizard, on the far side of the mountains, who is famous for his magic and his worldly knowledge. You must go to him and ask how to make the prince fall in love with you."
"But not with magic spells! I want him to love me for myself, as I love him."
"I did not say to deceive him with a potion, but Fate sometimes needs a little nudge."
The next day, Susanna set off on foot into the mountains. She filled her basket with dried fish, fresh apples and some of the hard biscuits that the fishermen of her village used on long voyages. Each day she climbed higher and higher and the weather grew colder and more threatening. At night she would hide in one of the many caves, only slightly less afraid of being eaten by a bear, than of freezing to death. During the day she clambered over crumbling boulders and stepped carefully across bridges of ice.
Five days after she had begun, just as her food was nearly exhausted, Susanna arrived at the outer walls of the wizard's castle. Above her head she saw forty feet of vertical granite blocks crowned with a row of hideous gargoyles. Each was poised to gush boiling oil onto any attackers and slit windows threatened a hail of arrows. Susanna realised that escape from such a fortress would be impossible once she was inside it.
She steeled her nerves for the encounter to come, and cried out:
"Mordred, great wizard, I come here to ask for your aid."
There was no reply. She tried again.
"Mordred, I have walked five days to ask this question of you. I am alone."
With a sudden crack, one of the blocks of granite half-way up the wall slide backwards and then to one side. Mordred the Wizard peered out from the gloom within. He wore a magnificent blue cloak covered with alchemical symbols embroidered onto it in gold.
"What is it that you want?" he asked suspiciously.
"You must teach me how to win the heart of a man."
"Show me your face."
Susanna pulled back the hood of her cloak.
"Your face is pretty enough. You do not need my help."
"But I have traveled far to get here."
"In that case, here is my advice. Smile a lot. Laugh at his jokes. Don't be too easy or too difficult, and be kind to his dog. Men are fools when it comes to love."
"But this man is a prince!"
"Then you would have me give you an elixir of love, so that you can steal his heart and plunder his kingdom?"
"I do not wish to trick him, but my grandmother said that Fate sometimes needs a little nudge."
The wizard paused.
"And if I do help you, what can I expect in return?"
Susanna frowned. She hadn't really thought about that. It would have to be a great gift to be worthy of achieving her heart's desire. Further lowering the hood of her cloak she pulled out the tresses of her hair. They tumbled down like a waterfall of gold almost reaching the snow at her feet.
"You may have my hair."
The wizard felt a sudden quickening of the blood and his eyes flashed with fire.
"If I am to teach you my secrets," he announced, "you must become my apprentice."
"Willingly," replied Susanna.
"But to do so, you must fulfil three tasks of my choosing. If you succeed, then I shall teach you all my secrets, and you will be free to leave - but you must do so within a year."
"And if I fail?"
"You will become my prisoner to treat as I see fit."
"To what purpose?"
"The nights are cold in the castle."
Susanna blushed at the effrontery of the old man, but she swallowed her reproof to him.
"What are the three tasks?"
"You will only find that out, once you decide to try."
"That does not seem fair."
"Then walk back home and forget about your prince."
Susanna knew that that was impossible, but she still delayed. Seeing her hesitation the wizard softened his manner a little and said
"You must be cold. Come inside and sit by the fire, then you can make up you mind at your leisure."
"I will only go inside, once I have decided. My freedom is worth more than warm toes." But Susanna already knew what she would do. She loved the prince but did not know how to win him, and perhaps she could achieve the three tasks after all.
Mordred grew impatient.
"I see that your pride is greater than your love."
Burning with rage, Susanna controlled her rebellious tongue.
"I agree to your bargain. Three tasks in less than a year, or I am yours."
"To do with as I will?"
"To do with as you will."
The wizard rubbed his hands together in delight.
"But if you try to force yourself on me, before the year is out, you will wish rather that all the harpies of hell had descended on your flesh, than that you should break your word to the daughter of a fisherman."
The wizard's triumphant smile vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
"You have my solemn oath."
"And you have mine."
As the wizard slipped from view, the stones at the base of the wall rearranged themselves into a magnificent entranceway. The newly revealed doors swung open and Mordred stood in the full light before Susanna. He was younger-looking than she had first thought, with flecks of black in his greying beard. Taking her hand, the wizard swiftly led her back through layer after layer of the castle's defences. Between one set of walls was a deep trench filled with evil-smelling tar. The next hid great machines built like horizontal windmills armed with swords. The one after that was lined with glowing volcanic lava, which oozed restlessly - awaiting its next victim. Finally, in the inner courtyard, Susanna was relieved to see plain stone slabs and a tall round tower.
"This is where you shall live," announced Mordred. Susanna and he went inside to a meagre supper eaten in silence.
The next day Susanna was awake bright and early. She washed up the dishes, swept the kitchen floor and moved around the furniture into a more convenient arrangement. Mordred was slow to stir and when he did finally stumble into the kitchen, he looked tired and somewhat bleary eyed. Susanna immediately asked
"What is my first task?"
"There will be plenty of time for that. You should spend a few days settling into the castle."
"That was not part of the bargain. If I only have a year, I should start straight away."
Mordred led Susanna to a room high up in the tower. It had a large arched window which revealed the walls below and a distant view of the mountains. There was a single wooden chair, an easel and some paints.
"Your first task is to paint a picture which is so realistic that I can eat it for breakfast."
"But I have never painted!" protested Susanna.
"Then you must learn!" growled the wizard, and he
left her to her work.
Susanna knew that it was hopeless. No-one could paint a picture which you could eat for breakfast, but she felt that she owed it to herself to try.
Over the following months she experimented with mixing oils, layering them into mirages of light and shade. But however vibrantly she painted oranges or meticulously recreated pieces of bread, she knew that the pictures stayed as just that. No thirst would be quenched by the drops of dew on her grapes nor hunger slaked by the waxy translucency of her cheeses. As winter turned to spring she threw open the great window to let in more light. The view that greeted her was forbidding. Not a plant grew. Not a single creature was in sight. The castle with its strange odours and stark walls had excluded any hint of life.
The young woman became lonely for her village and imagined the countryside around it bursting into song. She remembered her grandmother's garden drenched with flowers and the trees filled with apple blossoms. To calm her melancholy she painted watercolours of fine petals and recreated each branch using heavy oils, speckling the paint until it almost felt like bark. When at last the picture was finished, she crept to bed, with tears in her eyes and the conviction in her heart that she would be a prisoner for ever.
The next day, when she returned to the room, she noticed two remarkable things. The first was a sprinkling of twigs that had appeared, as if by magic, on the canvas, and the second was a fat, ponderous bee which was rubbing itself against the watercolour of her grandmother's flowers. The bee was, in fact, a queen, and after this unsuccessful attempt at one last meal, she settled herself in and began to build a hive in a corner of the room.
Staying in the shadows, Susanna watched, over the next few days, hoping to find the secret of the magically appearing twigs. After waiting patiently for many hours, she saw a robin redbreast appear, carrying more twigs in its beak. The little bird set about building a nest on the picture of the branch which Susanna had created.
After a week, the sprinkling had been transformed into a springy cushion fit for the most precious of gems. The robin, proud of his work, sang with joy at the top of his voice, calling out for lady love to blow in on the wind. She soon arrived, circling him and pecking suspiciously at his handiwork. After much delay, all seemed satisfactory and within a fortnight there lay two perfect eggs, nestled beneath the lovers' feathery warmth. Susanna went to look for the wizard in the dungeon where he used to sulk, surrounded by bubbling glass vessels and jars of mysterious powders.
"Mordred, the first task is done."
"Ridiculous," exclaimed the wizard, "No-one can paint a picture realistic enough to eat."
He raced ahead of her into the room, frightening off the birds who flew out of the open window.
"What is this?"
"I painted a tree, and the nest, with these two eggs, appeared as if by magic. And, if that is not breakfast enough to feed your appetite, here is honey made from watercolour blossoms."
The wizard was flushed with anger. "You will not trick me twice!" he yelled, and stormed off out of the room.
Susanna was secretly glad that the eggs had been left undisturbed. She very carefully placed the nest on the windowsill outside, so that love would find fruition in a family. The honey, however, she consumed with a little bread from the kitchen. She was still licking her fingers when she came downstairs to ask Mordred for the next task.
"Surely you should rest after your great labours," he suggested bitterly.
"That was not in the promise," she reminded him.
"Very well, but this time, no cheating."
Susanna could have retorted that she had not cheated this time, but she bit her tongue, which, after all, still tasted of honey. Mordred led her to a second room which, unlike the first, was completely empty.
"Your second task is to build a chair which is fit for a king, and which can support my weight."
Susanna was delighted. This seemed easier than the first task. "What materials can I use?"
"Only what is in this room."
"But it is empty!"
"You may not leave the room until you either concede defeat or build the chair - and do not think that you can cradle me in your arms."
Susanna glared at the old man as if that was the last thing in the world she had in mind, but he continued with his speech.
"There will be plenty of time for that when you fail. Just to be sure that there are no tricks this time, you must leave the room, and close the door behind you, before I sit on the chair."
The wizard then walked out, confident of his success. Susanna slumped down. Building a chair out of nothing was impossible, but she owed it to herself to try. An idea came to her. She bent down very low and carefully examined the stone slabs of which the floor was made. Perhaps she could pry one up and build a chair of stone. But all the joints were sound and the stones would have been too heavy to lift anyway. She scraped at the walls, but those joints were even firmer, and the ceiling was a single expanse of immovable, grey slate.
Perhaps she could make a hammock from her clothes! Then she noticed that in her haste to show the wizard the nest and honey, she had only put on a thin slip and a few undergarments. She had promised herself not to reveal all her beauty to the lascivious magician unless she failed in her task, so undressing was out of the question. She leaned back against the wall with tears in her eyes.
Maybe it was impossible and she must admit defeat. She played idly with strands of her hair as images of an ostrich-plumed hat flashed before her eyes. When she came back to her senses she saw that she had made a braid, like she used to do when she was a little girl. In a flash, she saw the answer. Being from a fishing village, her grandmother was an expert in tying rope into knots of different shapes. So skilled was she, that she could take a strand of hemp and sculpt it into a basket for bread, or into an undulating sea serpent to frighten the children.
With all the knowledge gathered from days spent with her grandmother, Susanna twisted and knotted her hair into cords of great strength and beauty. Each strand had a different weave, sometimes breaking out into starbursts, at other times convolving into swirling patterns of spiral shells. Yet another was like a lover's ladder with footholds carefully crafted for a midnight tryst. Down below, the strands were woven into a seat of rippling braids. Each became a wave in an unquiet ocean on which a small flotilla of ships sailed with nets outcast - just resting on the surface of the water, waiting to catch the first fish of morning.
When all was complete, Susanna called out to Mordred.
"I have done enough!"
The wizard gloated in his victory before even opening the door.
"So you concede defeat at last!"
"No, I have created the chair!"
"What! Let me see."
The door burst open and the wizard strode across the room towards her. He was then stopped in his tracks as a look of alarm and wonder flitted across his face. Examining the chair in detail, he marveled at the intricacy of the design, and the skill of the craftsmanship.
"Do you not think it fit for a king?"
"Indeed I do, but that does you no good. I said that you must leave the room, and shut the door behind you. I see no scissors in your pocket or knife in your hand, and even if you could cut your hair, there is nothing to hang it from."
"There is plenty to hang both it and you."
Susanna walked over to the door, carefully draped her hair over the top of it, and then left the room, closing the door behind her. The wizard was furious but undefeated. He approached the chair as it hung there in its golden splendor. He must sit and try it. Perhaps the knots would unravel. Positioning himself carefully over the tranquil ocean, he sat down as hard as he could manage.
Now the door fitted only poorly to the top of the frame, and the full weight of the wizard tugged at Susanna on the other side. She was lifted a good six inches off the tips of her toes and she wanted, above everything else, to cry out in pain. But she was a fisherman's daughter. If the sea could not break her, she would surely not give in to the weight of an old man.
"Do you concede defeat?" she asked.
The wizard was lost in the fragrance of her hair. How sweet it smelled and how soft against his cheek. If she escaped his grasp, he would never be content again. He resolved that the third task he would set her, would be truly impossible - but he could savour this moment just a little longer.
Susanna bit into her hand to stop herself from screaming. She tasted blood in her mouth and felt as if her head would split in two. Just as she knew that she could stand the pain no longer, the door suddenly opened, and she fell in a crumpled heap to the floor and was covered over with the bedraggled remnants of her victorious throne.
"The next one will not be so easy!" yelled the wizard who then marched off more furious than ever. After he had left, despite her victory, Susanna lay there sobbing for an hour.
The following day, Susanna was not so keen to find out about her next task. She had decided, instead, to make preparations. Wearing her baggiest cloak, she filled her pockets with two bottles of water, a barrel of biscuits, two pencils, a chisel, a book of mathematical tables and a coil of rope. When she was sure that all was concealed from view, she approached Mordred.
He looked at her knowingly, as if the cloak was invisible.
"You won't need any of the things which you have thought to steal from me," he announced.
Despite herself, Susanna blushed with embarrassment at being found out.
Mordred revelled in this small victory.
"This time cheating is beyond even you."
He grabbed Susanna's hand and almost dragged her up a winding stairway, to the highest room in the tower. Despite her forebodings, Susanna found that she liked their destination. The ceiling of the room was made of a cartwheel of beams supporting a circular roof and underneath, the young woman was presented with an array of dusty musical instruments. There were hunting horns, marching drums, silver flutes and an elaborately sculpted harp in the form of a mermaid.
"Your final task is to produce a musical sound which destroys the walls of the castle."
"Even a thousand musicians could not do such a thing."
"So you concede defeat?"
"I still have six months!"
"Use them wisely, then. I shall be waiting."
Susanna looked around in despair. She had heard stories of a soprano at court who could shatter a wine glass with her voice, but destroying an entire castle was altogether different. The trumpeting of a hundred elephants would not disturb such stones, and the strummings of a single girl seemed without all hope of success. Susanna sat idly down by the mermaid harp, admiring its delicate face and curvaceous tale. For the first time since entering the castle, she realised that she might never see the ocean again, or feel its spray against her cheek. To bring it fresh into her mind's eye she played a little sea shanty that she had learned from an old sailor. He used to stop by and bring her grandmother a bottle of rum at the beginning of each winter. Susanna's voice was out of practice, but the room echoed richly and she grew more confident.
After it was done, she wondered what to do next. She reasoned that, in six months, her life would not be her own. The wizard would have possession of her, and her time and freedom would be lost. She was not afraid of him, but she did fear that she might forget her grandmother and the village, and all those she held dear. To keep such thoughts alive she decided to compose a ballad, to tell the story of her life. In it she described the shipwreck that had left her an orphan. She extolled her grandmother's love, adored the handsome prince, and vilified the sour-faced wizard who longed to have her as his prisoner. Each verse, sung in a minor key, was filled with trials or thoughts of loss, but the chorus was all smiles and frills as princely eyes looked kindly on a speechless girl.
Each afternoon Susanna climbed up onto the roof of the tower, with the mermaid harp as her companion. She sang her ballad to the mountain tops, as the wizard gleefully crossed off another day on his calendar. The castle walls mocked her music with a harsh, metallic echo, and the last rays of hope dwindled in her heart.
As autumn turned to winter, this scene was repeated many times, and the young woman knew that soon the snows would come again, and her life would be shut in on the castle for ever. For a final time she went up onto the roof to conjure up her memories, and bid the sun a fond farewell.
Unbeknown to Susanna, a travelling minstrel approached the tower just as her song began. He was tired and cold, and dearly hoped that he might sing for his supper and bed down for the night. He was just about to announce his arrival, when a soft melodious sound greeted his ears. Suddenly downcast he knew that his poor skills would bring only jeers in such a place, for this castle must be enchanted. Looking up at the darkening sky he saw the outline of two mermaids singing, as one played fairy music on the other's hair. Perhaps they both conspired to lure lonely travellers to their doom. He should plug his ears and flee - but then he thought that he could stay and learn their secrets. Concentrating with all his might, he memorized the words and tune as they wafted down to him. He comforted himself with the thought that another, lesser court might think it grand if he could recreate the lilt of siren song. When all was safely in his head, he slipped away, thankful to still be alive. Susanna, cold and shivering, clambered down from the roof, sure that her days of happiness were at an end.
A week later the court rustled in an expectant pause. The new minstrel was to be the highlight of yet another banquet to find a bride for the royal heir. As the introduction began, the prince himself was in a melancholy state. Despite his mother's urgings, none of the ladies of the court seemed worth wooing. One was too vain, another too avaricious. All seemed more impressed with his prospects than with himself. If he was going to fall in love, he felt sure that it would be with a stranger, perhaps one of the country girls who often took his fancy, but they were mostly too timid to talk with him. Not really listening to the words of the song, his mind drifted back to the day when he was out hunting and had stumbled across a maiden at a wishing well. He had gone back, two days later, to try to find her, but she had vanished without a trace.
All at once, he realised that the words and the music were echoing his private thoughts, and he sat up with a start. His eyes widened as the girl in the song picked through snow and ice to reach the wizard's castle. His cheeks grew red with indignation as the wicked old man tried to ensnare her. As the last despairing refrain faded into the rafters, there was barely a dry eye in the palace.
"Where did you hear this?" demanded the prince.
"I composed it, Your Highness, to please the royal ear." The minstrel hoped that this would gain him greater favour with the prince.
"And the girl you sang of?"
"A harmless fancy, to charm your heart."
"And what of this ostrich-plumed hat? Would I be seen dead in such a thing?"
"Your Highness, the prince was not intended to be yourself. Your eyes are emerald green, I must admit, but the hat was pure invention."
"I often go riding in such a hat, when I slip away from court. I do this in secret, for safety's sake, and one day, I did meet a girl by a well. Tell me the truth about this music or you will suffer for it."
"I was up in the mountains, Your Highness. I know not where. Two mermaids in a high tower sang this melody to entrap me. I memorized their art and stole away, hoping to find recompense in such enchantment."
"Your payment will be the axe if you do not take me back there. It is monstrous that a girl should be imprisoned for loving a prince in his own kingdom. We shall lay siege to that castle and rescue her."
The banqueting hall was abuzz with whispering. Half the courtiers thought the prince had been ensnared by mermaids' trickery. The other half realised that their hopes of a royal husband were at an end.
"Bring me my generals and my engineers! We shall make siege machines to smash the walls, and ingenious devices to overcome the perils which stand between this maiden and her freedom."
And so it was that just two weeks after her final song, Susanna was awakened one morning by the sound of an approaching army. Going to her door, she found it locked. Mordred had bolted it from the outside as she slept. Going back to the window she heard Prince Henry riding up to the outer gate.
"Mordred the Wizard, you hold captive one of my loyal subjects. I demand that you release her immediately."
"What makes you think that she is here?"
"This minstrel heard her plaintive song, and repeated it to me."
"This minstrel lies, Your Highness. I turned out the rascal for stealing from me. He made up this story to be avenged."
Susanna cried out.
"I am here, Your Highness. Mordred has bolted my door, but not my window."
The prince became furious.
"Mordred, I am your prince. Release her now."
"This castle is my home, and I am prince here. The maiden came to me of her own free will, to be apprenticed in my dark arts. If, by nightfall today, she has not completed three tasks, then she is mine forever, on her sacred oath. Then no prince can come between us."
"The day is still young."
"And so are you. You know nothing of the rain of horrors that will lay waste to your army, and shatter your bones, if you attack me."
"I care nothing for your threats. By sunset we will know our fate, one way or the other - but take care. If you harm this maiden, and victory is ours, you will die for it."
The prince surveyed the walls and observed the evil gargoyles. His eyes were keen to their danger and he withdrew to begin the battle. At his instruction the soldiers hauled forward two huge catapults to bombard the outer defences. Made from the tallest trees in the kingdom they were strong enough to throw boulders as large as houses against the castle. The first rock landed short of its target and smashed into jagged fragments on the ground. The second sailed out of view, producing little more than a distant plop as it sank into the river of tar. The third, however, struck home shattering the even blocks into heaps of rubble. As the dust settled, the soldiers were able to see great iron gears which had made the stonework shift as if enchanted. Heartened that the wizard's magic was merely mechanical, they pressed on with the bombardment, leveling towers and ripping gates from their hinges.
The prince was especially keen that none of his subjects should be exposed to undue danger. This war was of his own making, and he did not want his new-found love to be saddened by tragedy. Once he was content that the stonework posed no further threat he advanced at the head of his men right up to the river of tar. Protected by a wall of the soldiers' shields, the sappers tried pushing blocks of granite to build a road across, but the stone was heavy. It sank into the glutinous morass within a few seconds. Fortunately, Susanna's song had been quite descriptive and the prince was armed with unusual supplies. Cartloads of bull-rushes were carried forward and cast onto the blackness. Mixing with the tar they became a stable surface which squelched under foot, but was no longer dangerous. He and his men crossed to the second wall.
Moving quickly through a breach, they were confronted with the horizontal windmills which swished great overlapping blades of steel through the air, threatening to slice in two anyone who ventured near. Before departing, the prince had dreamt up all manner of ways to defeat this lacerating monster. He had imagined acid to dissolve the metal, a bridge to span across it, fire to melt it, but finally he had settled on the simplest to arrange. Fishermen from Susanna's village carried forward two anchors which had been joined together with a thick iron chain. Heaving with all their might, the fishermen threw one anchor into the center of the whirling knives. Immediately caught up it wrapped itself around an axle, dragging the second anchor in towards it. A great scream of steel grinding on steel heralded the end of the device as muffled explosions were heard from deep within the earth.
After a moment, the men pressed on again, this time over the third row of defeated stones. Buoyed up by thoughts of victory they were unprepared for the sudden wall of flame which greeted them. Nearly roasted by its ferocity they quickly fell back, with many an eye-brow singed. It was later said that not a single moustache survived the battle against the evil wizard. Mordred stood on the roof of the central tower jeering at their failure. The building had been untouched by the catapults, for it contained Susanna and the prince's hopes.
Much chastened by this unexpected reversal, the prince and all his generals sat thinking what to do. There was little water round about and too few buckets to carry it anyway. The flames had stretched a hundred feet up into the sky, so ropes or any form of ladder would prove disastrous. Prince Henry, in much agitation, tossed a snowball from one hand to the other as he racked his brain for a new idea.
"There must be some way to quench this flame," he muttered as he threw the snowball on the ground in his frustration. As it landed he was taken back to the time when he was a boy, playing with his grandfather in the depths of winter. They used to make snowmen in every shape and form sculpting them into heroic captains or hibernating bears. One time a great ball, intended to be the toe of an ogre, had rolled away from them and careened off down the mountain gaining in size as it went.
The prince had his answer! Forming his men into a double column they marched up the slope overhanging the castle. Starting with a single handful they made a ball which grew and grew, until it was thirty feet high. Some men pushed from below, others brought lances and tree-trunks to push higher up. It was huge, they had to confess, but maybe they had been too ambitious. As it neared the ridge of the hill, the ball stuck fast, wedged into immobility by a half-submerged rock. Heave as they might it wouldn't budge. Finally one of the soldiers suggested building a fire on the other side to slightly melt their strange projectile. Straw was brought and rushes dipped in tar.
The fire roared but then exploded into steam as melting snow touched glowing wood. A final shove and at last it moved, majestically at first, but then with speed as it thundered down the mountain, absorbing snow and trees and debris as it leapt towards the tower, slicing itself in two and drenching the river of lava with its melting slush. A plume of steam hid everything from view and for a terrible moment the prince thought that the castle, the wizard and Susanna had been swept away by this man-made avalanche. But as the clouds subsided he breathed again and rushed down the icy slope to find her.
Susanna had seen the battle from the safety of her bedroom window, but she had had to run under the bed as the snowball hit. After the impact, her room was half filled with dripping trees and mud-covered rocks. Climbing over this sudden indoor garden, she went back to the window carrying a hastily constructed rope ladder. She had made it from strips of bed-linen and pieces of wood prized from the framework of her wardrobe. Throwing the ladder lightly over the windowsill, she felt giddy seeing how far down she must climb, but her calculations had been correct and the end of the ladder just touched the ground. She started to descend as the prince ran up the heap of snow at the base of the tower. The would-be lovers were moments from reunion when Susanna glanced up and saw Mordred the Wizard glowering back. He began pulling her ladder, rung by rung, back inside the tower. The faster she climbed the harder he pulled. She was almost stationary against the wall of rock as step after step took her closer to the end.
Down below Prince Henry was frantic, certain that his heart's desire was about to be dragged from view. Susanna reached the end of the ladder, and dangled from the final rung, her feet scraping against the stones.
"Jump down to me."
"It's too far."
"I'll catch you."
"No, you'll be hurt."
"Now, before it's too late!"
Gazing up for a final time Susanna saw the triumphant face of Mordred the Wizard. He was working with unnatural speed and he had murder in his eyes. Trusting to the strength of her lover's arms, Susanna released her grip. As she plummeted down towards the prince, she realised that he had been rather optimistic in his predictions. As they collided, the well-meaning man was knocked onto his back and pushed several feet below the surface of the snow. Both were plunged into blackness. Some seconds later, her head aching, Susanna came back to consciousness.
"I killed him," she muttered to herself as she distractedly stroked an ostrich plume with her hand. Tears fell from her eyes and landed on his cheeks which were almost as pale as the cushion of snow beneath his head. Imperceptibly at first, and then with strength, Susanna realised that the prince was still breathing. Pulling him towards her, she rubbed his icy hands, hoping to return a little warmth to their ashen grey. Finally he stirred and within a few moments his eyes opened in a smile.
"Light as a feather," he stuttered, in a faint attempt at gallantry.
The whole army arrived with a great battering ram, ready to destroy the door of the tower. Within minutes it was shattered, and Mordred the Wizard stood before the recovering couple, with a sword at his throat.
"Mordred the Wizard, you have resisted your prince and sought to imprison one of his subjects. It is my gift to her that she may decide your punishment. After that is settled, she will return with me to the palace as my bride."
"Kill me now, then, for there is no kindness in her heart."
Susanna was very grave. "Mordred, what have you to say in your defence, before I pronounce your fate? Speak freely, for my mind is not yet made up."
"Very well. I consider myself to have done no wrong. The bargain which you entered into, you made freely, knowing the price of failure. If it was unwise, that was your mistake, not my cunning. In the year which followed, I kept my word, never forcing my advances on you."
"Out of fear of my anger."
"That is your belief. I have my own view. Also, in that time, I taught you well."
"Oh really, and what is it that you taught me?"
Mordred looked less wary.
"I taught you that it was possible to paint a picture so life-like that it could be eaten for breakfast."
"True, although it was my skill which drew it."
"I taught you that a royal chair could be made from an empty room."
"I have my grandmother to thank for that!"
"And I taught you that you could make a musical sound that would bring about the destruction of my castle."
"So you agree that I fulfilled my three tasks?"
"I am curious, then. What great secrets would you have taught me once I had succeeded?"
"That is for my own counsel."
"Come now, the tasks were fulfilled. The castle lays in ruins does it not? And your life hangs in the balance."
With sarcasm in his voice the wizard answered.
"Since you insist so graciously, I will tell you. My great secret is that I have no secrets. When I was but twenty five, I was no apprentice, but a knight at arms riding on a quest. On my travels I met Ilsa, a bewitching sorceress, who enticed me back to this castle and made me her husband. But on our wedding night this model of sweetness and seduction transformed herself into an evil hag who kept me prisoner. The spell she cast on me outlasted her life. I was trapped here until someone would come and destroy the castle walls. I am sorry if I made you miserable, but my freedom was at stake too. If you had really failed I would have released you, and all the sadder for me since I came to love you, but knew that it is hopeless for one my age to woo a girl in the flower of her youth."
The prince and all his soldiers stared at the wizard in amazement. Susanna's expression more closely resembled disbelief.
"And here we see the wizard's true magic - a whispered spell that transforms a lust-filled gaoler into a hapless victim. In the tavern of my village, I have heard many a drunken farmer explain that they married a beautiful enchantress only to have her turn into a heartless witch who didn't understand them."
Looking now with a steady eye, Susanna saw that the prince was indeed as handsome as she remembered, but, she reflected, she hardly knew him and she owed it to herself to be cautious.
Turning to the prince she said "I would not have the same said of me. For that reason I will return to the palace with you, but not as your bride."
The prince looked crest fallen.
"Despite how we both feel, we do not have love. . ."
The prince began to object, but Susanna silenced him with a finger to his lips.
"But we have the chance of love. One may grow from the other but it takes time and patience. If you love me in a year with half the ardor I see in your eyes today, and if one tenth of the love I now posses still lingers in my heart, then I shall count us blessed beyond compare, and gladly be your wife."
The prince, knew that he had met his match.
"I surrender to your terms, but such a bargain should be sealed with a kiss."
"Indeed it should."
And in the sweetness of that moment, Susanna knew that the next year was going to be far more enjoyable than the one just past.
Turning again to Mordred she said:
"If you really loved me, you should have told me so and released me from my promise. In return I might have loved you too, for the prince was only a dream then - a man who might not even have remembered me."
"Never!" protested the prince.
"And as for your story, do you remember this?" Susanna produced a small book of love poems written by Mordred to woo the lady of the castle as he sheltered there one night from a storm. Susanna had found it when rummaging through Mordred's things to find supplies for her next task.
Mordred flinched in recognition.
"Your punishment is this. The king's heralds will travel to every town and village and announce that Mordred the Wizard betrayed the memory of one who loved him, with the hope of gaining his freedom."
Mordred blushed with shame down to his toes.
"You will work for a year with the royal blacksmiths, teaching them what knowledge you have of refining and metalwork, and then you must build a house here as high as the tallest oak tree. Make it fit for the birds so they may nest in peace, sheltered from the wind."
"This punishment seems a trifle light," suggested the prince.
"That may be so," smiled Susanna, "but I would not have you think, for all the world, that I have a cruel heart. Also, Mordred and I both know that his greatest punishment is the memory of a chair on which he can never sit again."
After they were married, the prince and his new princess went to her old village and tried to persuade her grandmother to live with them. But she was adamant in her refusal.
"There are still nets to mend and children to hear stories. What would I do in the palace? Such a place is for the young, for dancing and for love."
Despite their pleadings, they returned without her, promising to come back and visit the old woman every Spring. Susanna's grandmother never mentioned to strangers that she was related to royalty. She believed that, nudges aside, success in love was a matter of fate and no reason for boasting. But each winter, when her old friend came with his bottle of rum, she would relate, with tears in her eyes, how her granddaughter had outwitted Mordred the Wizard, and brought about the destruction of his castle.