Once upon a time there was an orphaned princess who lived on
an island. She was homely rather than beautiful, but her parents
had left her an enormous fortune, so knights came from all around
to try to take it away from her. Before he died, her father had
built a huge castle to protect his treasure, with many concentric
rings of high stone walls. Between the walls there were bare courtyards
with wells for the soldiers to drink at, and fireplaces for them
to cook their meals.
The knights outside the walls constructed towering wooden machines to topple the stone and they built tunnels underneath the foundations to undermine them. But all their efforts were in vain because the walls were built with magic - the late king had also once been a sorcerer.
Eventually, the knights gave up the siege and went home empty handed. So notorious was their failure that stories eventually reached the court of King Richard, where there was much debate about what the knights had done. Sir Steven De Vere, complained that they had behaved most unchivalrously, sending a whole army against a single woman, and he boasted that he could win the treasure all by himself. King Richard was reluctant to let him go, since Sir Steven was an experienced soldier and the crusades were about to begin again, so he allowed Sir Steven a single month to see what he could accomplish.
When Sir Steven arrived on the island of the princess, he put on his best suit of armour and rode up to the gate.
"Princess," he cried, "I have been sent by King Richard to take your treasure to him so that we may fight a crusade in the Holy Land. I intend you no harm and, as you can see, I have no weapons with me."
The princess was somewhat surprised.
"What makes you feel that you can succeed where whole armies have failed?" she asked.
"I shall not succeed, your highness, but I have given my word that I shall try."
"And why do you still wear your armour if you come in peace?" the girl inquired.
"So that an angry arrow from you will not kill me."
"I will do you no harm as long as you do not try to scale the walls."
"I understand," said the knight, and there was a long pause.
"What do you want?"
"Well princess, since I am to be here for a month, can we pass the time by talking to each other?"
"What would we possibly talk about for a whole month?" she asked. "We are strangers to one another."
"If you will indulge me", answered the knight, "Tell me which is the more beautiful, the blue of the sea or the blue of the sky?"
"The sky of course. Its subtle colours and variation exceed the palettes of our finest painters. The blue of the sea is but a distant echo of the beauty of the heavens."
"But princess," replied the knight "The sky is just a lantern to the beauty of the waves as they glitter in the dusk of evening. Surely it is the canvas and not the candle which holds the true secret of the painter's heart."
The princess had never looked at it that way before, and her voice was going hoarse from all the shouting.
"What is you name?" she asked.
"Steven De Vere of King Richard's court."
"Well, Sir Steven, if we are to talk like this much longer, I shall lose my voice, so I am going to let you into the first courtyard. If you try to harm me, you will never escape the castle alive."
"But if you are a gentleman, we may talk some more about the colour blue."
"I accept your terms."
The gate was opened and the knight entered into the first courtyard. When the she met him face to face, the princess thought that perhaps the most exquisite blue was the blue of the knight's eyes, but she quickly dismissed the thought as being far too dangerous.
They talked some more about different colours - whether the red of cherries was more cheerful than the petals of roses, whether the green of emeralds was more intense than fields of grass on a bright summer's day. The princess almost wept as they spoke because she was reminded of all the lovely things she had known outside the ramparts, before her parents died and she became the general of the castle. As the sun began to set, the princess went away for a few moments, and returned with pitchers of wine and pewter plates of food.
"She does not trust me enough to bring me plates of gold" thought the knight, but the food was excellent. Soon afterwards the knight began to feel drowsy and fell asleep. The next day when he awoke, the princess was high up on the second set of ramparts.
"Good morning," she said "I enjoyed our conversation yesterday, but today I am the general of the castle again. We may talk, if you wish, but do not think that I can be charmed into giving up my treasure."
"I would not think of it," replied the knight who secretly was glad with progress. He had been on many quests before and, to be honest, he was slightly worn out by them. This one he was determined to enjoy, even if it ended in disappointment.
"Princess, which is more beautiful" he asked "the melody of bird song, or the strumming of a lute?"
"Bird song, of course" replied the princess. "The birds are free. Their whole body becomes their instrument as they celebrate their health and love. A lute, on the other hand, is an unnatural prison for the fingers - a hollow box taught with cat gut. How can there be any comparison?"
"Bring me a lute," said the knight "and I will show you."
The princess did just that and the knight played her a song in which the birds of the forest sang out from his finger tips. The princess thought it was a marvel of cleverness, but she also let shed a single tear, since it was so long since she had been to the forest, and no birds ever flew to the castle.
When he saw this, the knight wept too. He had not realised that the princess was so lonely, although, of course, it fitted in perfectly with his plan. They had supper, as on the previous evening, but before he went to sleep, the knight tied a ribbon round the post of the well so that he would be able to find his way out again one day. The next morning, the princess was once more up on the ramparts.
"Today I am the general again. You are very clever Steven, with your stories and your music of the world outside. But you are still a knight and I do not trust you."
"Have you ever been in love princess?"
The princess was startled by the directness of the question.
"Twice only, what about you?"
"Oh many times. Sometimes happily, sometimes hopelessly, sometimes just before a battle, always just before I had to go away. But love is too private a thing to shout to the roof tops."
"Well come into the next courtyard, there are comfortable benches there where we can talk."
The gate opened and the knight went through. He and the princess sat talking for hours. She had loved two men. One had died in battle and the other, a serving boy, had been banished by the king and was now happily married and living as a farmer.
The knight had had many experiences, some of them he remembered fondly, others he seemed to wince at inside as if he had been mauled by a lion. The princess felt slightly jealous that the knight had known and done so much, but she found his honesty a refreshing change. She was all too familiar with beautiful young men who declared their undying love for her as if she was the only woman in the world. They had supper, as before and on the days which followed, the knight would wake up to find the princess on the next set of ramparts and he would charm her with a question. Sometimes they would be about practical things such as the best way to build a tent, or the most delicious food to make with plums. At other times the questions would be more romantic, like whether it was men or women who fell more deeply in love. Sometimes they would swap roles at lunch time and argue the opposite point of view to the one they had expressed in the morning.
As the days went by, the plates remained pewter and the knight realised that he never saw any servants to the princess. On the thirtieth day the knight knew that the time had come for him to leave. He went to the well to fill has water bottle and found tied to the pillar a small piece of red ribbon. As he suspected, the princess had been leading him from rampart to rampart like the spokes of a wheel. He was back to where he had begun.
"Tell me princess, which is more beautiful, the tears of laughter or the tears of farewell?"
"The tears of farewell, since they carry distilled in them all the laughter and tenderness of our friendship." The knight could not bring himself to disagree, so he just smiled weakly and rode away.
The crusade was hard that year. The knight fought many battles and was struck by an arrow in the shoulder, which meant that he would never wield a sword again. It was a full two years before he returned to the castle. When she saw the knight coming, the princess threw open the gates and rushed out to embrace him.
She led him back into the courtyard through a door-way which he had never seen before, right into the centre of the castle. There before him was a tall watch-tower which legend said contained the treasure. It was an ugly fortified structure with hideous gargoyles and stone guttering for pouring boiling oil down onto the crowds below.
"Come into my bedroom," she told him, "I have a confession to make."
The bedroom was very spartan with a plain wooden bed, a dresser with a tarnished copper mirror, and a simple china bowl for the princess to wash her hair.
"This is all the treasure I possess," she explained. "My father spent all our money on building the castle. The larger it grew, the more men came to try to steal what they thought must be inside, until there was nothing left."
"Don't you think I know that," said the knight. The princess was astonished. "You are the treasure in the castle, poor orphaned and lonely as you are, you are why I came back, not for gold."
"Do you really mean that?" asked the princess, and she looked into the knight's eyes and knew that he did. She took off the knight's armour and tenderly caressed his shoulder where he had been wounded. They kissed for the first time and made love on that plain wooden bed, finally falling contentedly asleep.
The next day they awoke and looked out of the window. To their delight, the ramparts had disappeared. They had been replaced by an orchard of cherry trees and a meadow of green grass which stretched down to a deep blue ocean. Tears welled up the princess' eyes.
"Listen," she said, "there are birds in the trees, and they are singing to me."
© 1990 Gavin Miller. All Rights Reserved.