© 2004 Connard Wellingham
There was once a king who wished for a son to inherit his kingdom. It was his greatest sadness that he seemed destined only to have daughters. When their number reached twelve, and he had worn out three wives in the process, he finally accepted that it was his fate never to have a son to whom he could teach the manly arts of swordsmanship and jousting nor introduce to the pleasures of hunting. So he resigned himself to dying without an heir. Despite this, he was very fond of his daughters. In fact he positively doted on them. They were all very beautiful and could twist him round their collective little fingers.
So the oldest girls grew into adolescence then womanhood and the youngest from babies to little girls to adolescence. Yet, strangely, they never married despite the string of suitors eager to acquire the hand of the beautiful princess in marriage. The possibility of inheriting a kingdom was, of course, an added attraction.
Now, although the king adored his daughters, he was aware that something was not quite right. At first it was the younger girls' nursemaids complaining about the older sisters. Being a doting father, of course, he did nothing. As time went on, the complaints got louder. The nannies joined in, then the girls' maids.
"Every night your daughters disappear and do not return till morning," they said, wringing their hands. "We do not know where they go or what they get up to."
The king spoke to his daughters who, with wide-eyed innocence, declared that they didn't know what all the fuss was about and, anyway, how could they just disappear during the night? They were so persuasive that the king dismissed the complaints as the grumbling and whingeing of old women, which was grossly unfair as there were many young and comely girls employed in the palace.
Now it so happened that all the girls slept in the same room. Once upon a time it had been quite a small room, when the king had only a few daughters, but, as the numbers increased, so walls were knocked down and the room enlarged. Every time another daughter was added to the collection, their father would implore them to move to separate chambers. And every time he would meet with the same response. They loved their room. They didn't want to move. They liked being together. Please, Daddy, please don't make us move. For the sake of peace he would let the matter drop and do the only thing a good father could; knock down yet another wall to make the room larger.
The complaints continued. Indeed they became louder and more frequent. Finally, the queen herself joined in. As she was the mother of the most recent batch of daughters, the king was forced to listen.
"All right," he said at last. "If they disappear at night, we shall lock the door."
And so, from that day on, after the princesses had washed their faces and brushed their teeth and put on their nightdresses and gone to bed, the king would shut and lock the door tightly and take the key with him, placing it under his pillow while he slept. The princesses sulked and pouted most prettily but the king would not be moved.
"Until we have got to the bottom of this mystery," he said, sternly. "Your door shall be locked."
Locking the door, however, made no difference. Every morning the girls would awaken slowly and reluctantly, groaning and complaining how stiff they were. Their hair would be dishevelled, their nightdresses crumpled and torn, their bodies stained with sweat and other fluids. The king begged, the king pleaded, the king threatened but, try as he might, the princesses would not tell what happened to them in the night.
As he was unable to discover the truth directly, the king tried subterfuge. He posted guards outside the princesses' door. In the morning they sheepishly reported that they had heard and seen nothing. Privately the king suspected that they had fallen asleep but he kept his counsel. As the guards had failed, he made the servants stand vigil outside the princesses' door. They, too, reported only failure. Finally, since there seemed no other alternative, the king, himself, mounted guard and, though he was certain he had not slept a wink, in the morning his daughters were the same as always and he had neither heard a sound nor seen a flicker.
In despair he made it known throughout the land that, whoever could solve the mystery of the princesses nocturnal adventures, would receive the hand of his choice in marriage and be pronounced heir to the throne. However, if after three nights, the vigilant was unable to discover the secret, his life would be forfeit. Naturally, despite the dire warning, this announcement brought a queue of hopeful suitors, all of them eager to inherit a throne and all of them certain that the king was in his dotage. After all, the princesses were locked in their room all night and the room was at the top of the palace. How hard could it be to discover where they went?
The king selected the son of a king of a neighbouring realm to be the first. The young man was not exactly the kind of person the king would have chosen for a son-in-law being both arrogant and conceited. However the king and queen treated him courteously and entertained him well. At the appointed hour he was led to a small chamber adjoining the princesses' room. There he was told to make himself comfortable in preparation for his vigil. To assist, the door to the princesses room was to be left unlocked.
The prince settled himself on the bed. This would be easy, he thought to himself, all he had to do was wait and watch and the mystery would be resolved. He whiled the time away by considering which of the twelve beautiful princesses would be his bride.
The palace settled down for the night. The princesses prepared for bed. The prince was dozing lightly, for he had wined and dined well, when his door opened and the eldest princess entered. She was clad in a diaphanous nightgown that swirled about her as she moved. Beneath the semi-translucent material, her full breasts swayed seductively.
She smiled invitingly. "Forgive me for intruding," she murmured. "But I just wanted to make sure you were quite comfortable. Oh, and I have brought you a glass of wine and some sweetmeats."
The prince was overwhelmed by both her beauty and her generosity. In fact her was almost hypnotised by her swaying breasts.
"Why... thank you. Most kind," he spluttered.
He took the glass and drained it in one gulp. The princess smiled enigmatically.
"I will bid you goodnight, then," she said as she glided out of the door, her hips rolling enticingly.
The prince watched her leave with lust in his eyes.
The next thing he was aware of was the sound of the princesses' maids rousing them from their slumbers. The prince was in a panic. Somehow he had slept the whole night through. What was he to do? By the time he was summoned to breakfast, he had his story down pat.
The king had mixed feelings about the prince's lack of success. On the one hand he was disappointed that the mystery still remained unsolved while on the other he was beginning to dislike this self-important young man intensely. His tale of the night's vigil, told in a manner that made the prince out to be a hero of epic proportions, was so patently untrue that he felt almost sick. The prince was so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed that it was clear he had enjoyed a night of solid an undisturbed slumber. The king sighed, though quietly and to himself. He had given his word and the prince would have his three nights.
The second night proceeded much as the first though, this time, the prince was visited by the second oldest princess. She was dressed in a robe even more filmy than her sister and was, if anything, even more beautiful. She flirted so outrageously as she handed him the glass of wine and the sweetmeats that the prince downed the wine without tasting it.
In the morning he was even more contrite and even more worried. He had again slept throughout. Not even the scratchings of a mouse had disturbed his peaceful slumber. As a consequence his tale to the king was even more outrageous and the king had great difficulty in restraining himself from strangling the pompous oaf on the spot.
On the morning after the third night, the king summoned the executioner before breakfast.
The fate of the prince dampened the enthusiasm of many of the potential suitors. A good number of them slipped away, deciding that a life in the clergy or as a merchant was, perhaps, not as bad as they had previously believed. Still, some remained, either confident that they could solve the mystery or believing the chance of inheriting a kingdom and marrying one of the king's exquisitely beautiful daughters was worth the risk.
None succeeded. Be he son of lord or knight, merchant or scrivener, each and every one of them failed to penetrate the mystery of the princesses' nightly outings. As each failed contender was led out to the execution block on the third morning, the queue of applicants became shorter and shorter until, one afternoon, the king looked up and there were none left.
Now there was a man, the third son of a poor farmer who, seeing that the land would not support so many, left his home and family to seek his fortune. After several years of wandering, he signed up in the army of a neighbouring king who was having trouble with bandits and robbers. The young man was a good soldier and a good fighter and was soon promoted to the king's personal guard. On a perilous mission to assault the stronghold of the chief robber, the king and his men were surprised in ambush. The soldier fought bravely and, by sheer good fortune, intercepted an arrow that would have certainly killed the king. After his wounds had healed the king, in gratitude, discharged the soldier from his service with a handsome reward. Greatly pleased, the soldier set off for home only to be set upon by the very band of robbers he had been fighting not so long ago. He managed to escape with his life but little else and was, all in all, grateful for that.
So he wandered hither and yon, seeking employment and shelter where he could. One fine day he had stopped to rest by the side of a small stream in a wood when an old woman approached him.
"Why so sad on such a fine day?" she asked.
"Fine day or foul it makes no difference to me," the soldier sighed. "For one who seeks the unattainable, the weather is of no importance."
The woman set her bundle down and sat beside him. "And what is this elusive goal that you seek?"
"Why, merely a place to settle down. Something taken for granted by most but, to me, it is more unattainable than inheriting a kingdom."
The old woman looked at him sharply. "Would you, perchance, have anything an old biddy could eat?"
The soldier laughed ruefully. "Little enough, mother, but what I have you may share." He dug in his pack and produced some bread that was almost stale and a hunk of cheese. "If this meets your requirements for a repast, eat your fill."
They ate in silence, the man ensuring that the old woman had the lion's share for, in truth, she looked thin and frail and more in need of the food than he.
"So," she said when the last crumbs had been consumed, "you are seeking a place to settle down? What would you say if that place was this kingdom and you would wed a beautiful princess to boot?"
"I would say you had spent too many hours in the hot sun, mother. Either that or your years had stripped you of your wits."
The old woman chuckled then told him of the king's proclamation.
"If so many of the rich and wise have failed, what chance has a simple soldier like me?" he cried.
"Tush and fiddlesticks," the woman retorted. "Being rich is no guarantee of wisdom. The task is simplicity itself. Merely avoid the wine which contains a sleeping draught and..." she rummaged in her bundle, "... when you follow the princesses, wear this cloak. It will make you invisible in all but the brightest sunlight."
There are many who, at this point, would have laughed and been certain that the old woman had entered the her second childhood but the soldier had learned over the years to be a good judge of character and there was something about this old woman that ran deeper than the eye perceived.
"I thank you, mother, for the counsel and the gift. I will try my hand at solving the mystery of the princesses. Who knows, I might even succeed." He shrugged. "And, if not, I will at least find peace of a sort."
"Do as I say and you will succeed," she said.
She rose to her feet, shouldered her bundle and, in a twinkling, had disappeared.
In thoughtful mood, the soldier set out for the palace. There he was greeted with courtesy despite his ragged clothes and hard-bitten features. The king and queen invited him in. He was bathed and shaved and given a set of fine new clothes. He was invited to table where he sat at the right-hand of the king. Having served a king before, the soldier knew his manners. He drank sparingly and ate delicately. He spoke politely and quietly and did not brag or boast. The king began to revise his opinion of the soldier. Now he was properly dressed and clean-shaven, he was not unprepossessing. Indeed he was almost handsome in a rugged kind of way.
At the appointed hour the soldier was shown to the room next to the princesses' bedchamber. As he settled himself down, the door opened and in walked the youngest of the princesses with the customary glass of wine and plate of sweetmeats. Now, all the princesses were beautiful but the youngest was, perhaps, the most beautiful of all. Her hair tumbled over her shoulders in golden ringlets and framed a heart-shaped face dominated by large baby-blue eyes and a small rosebud mouth. Her arms and legs were slender and shapely, her feet and hands long and delicate. Beneath her flimsy nightgown was a figure that defied her youth. She smiled and her smile was at once open and friendly and warmly inviting.
The soldier was immediately struck by two thoughts. The first was that this was the most enchanting and endearing girl he had ever seen and the second was that this must be the wine that the old woman in the woods had warned him about.
He sprang from the bed and made a deep, flourishing bow. "Your Highness will forgive me for being so forward but I have to confess that never in my life have I had the privilege of beholding a lovelier vision than I see before me right now. And one so fair bearing night-time gifts is more than a poor soldier could ask."
The young princess blushed brightly and rushed from the room in confusion. In truth, she thought the soldier a most handsome man. His years of hard toil and military service had given him a ruggedness of visage and firmness of gaze that made her heart beat more than a little faster. The soldier smiled at her flight. In her haste she had forgotten to make sure he drank the wine. Thinking carefully about the words the old woman had spoken, he decided the sweetmeats were safe to eat. The wine he carefully disposed of. Then he composed himself on the bed as if for sleep and waited.
It was not long before he heard female voices outside.
"Are you sure he drank the wine?"
"I can't remember. I think so." He recognised the youngest princess.
"You really are a silly little thing. You must make sure he drinks."
"I'm sorry. I got so confused."
"He is very handsome... and very gallant," another voice said. "Mother was positively drooling at dinner."
This caused a fit of muffled giggling.
"Hush, hush, silly girls," said the first voice, who the soldier took to belong to the oldest princess. "We must make sure he is asleep."
The soldier began to snore loudly. He was aware of noises at his door as the princesses peeped in.
"There, I told you, he's sound asleep," the youngest princess said with relief in her voice.
"Good. Then we are safe," another said.
"He'll sleep like a log. I put enough sleeping draught in his wine to settle three men his size," the oldest exclaimed. "Come. Let us prepare."
They scampered off, giggling. The soldier remained where he was for several minutes, snoring loudly. When he was sure they had all departed he leapt from the bed and pulled from his pack the cloak of invisibility the old woman had given him. 'I hope this works, ' he muttered to himself as he pulled it tightly around him.
Very cautiously he peered round the door. No-one was in sight so he crept to the princesses' room. They had left the door slightly ajar and a thin ray of light spilled out into the dark corridor. Hardly daring to breathe, he listened at the crack.
From within came the quiet rustling of the princesses moving around, of hair being brushed, of items being picked up and laid down. The soldier, picturing the twelve beautiful princesses moving around the room in their filmy nightwear, became quite aroused and had to remind himself sternly to keep his mind on the job. Someone sighed. "I wish sometimes we could get all dressed up in our best dresses and go dancing. I love dancing."
"Yes," said another princess, "and sometimes I wish we could put on our finest clothes and go to balls and grand dinners."
"Well I, for one, wouldn't change a thing," said yet another voice. "I really enjoy our nights. It's what I love doing best."
There was general agreement. "I wasn't really complaining," the first voice said, plaintively.
The soldier was much intrigued. What was it that the princesses did at night that they enjoyed so much?
"Are we all ready?" the oldest princess asked.
There was the sound of hands being clapped sharply twice. Then mysterious shuffling and creaking noises whose meaning and import the soldier could not fathom. He heard the murmuring of the princesses' voices, then silence. Afraid he might lose them, he pushed open the chamber door. To his surprise the room was empty but, where the oldest princess's bed had been, stood a wide open trapdoor with a set of shallow steps leading down.
Hastily, the soldier pulled his cloak around him and hurried down the steps, assuming that this must be where the princesses had gone. The steps wound slowly downwards for some distance. He could hear the princesses' voices, laughing excitedly, so he hurried to catch up with them lest he be left behind.
At the foot of the stairs was a path that ran through a wood of silver trees. Unhesitatingly, as if they knew the way well, which indeed they did, the princesses set off along the path. The soldier followed. As they went, he looked around him with interest. The silver trees were slender and not tall. Their silver leaves rustled strangely in the gentle breeze. Above the trees arched a sky of brilliant blue lit by an unseen sun. It occurred to him that he night need some proof of this wondrous wood so he quietly stepped aside and broke a small branch off one of the trees. The noise sounded loudly in the quiet wood.
"What was that?" cried the youngest princess, who was at the back.
"It was nothing," the eldest declared. "Just an animal in the woods. Hurry up or we'll be late."
The silver wood became a golden wood, the trees taller and more stately. Once again the soldier was moved to gather some evidence of his passing and broke off another branch. Again the noise sounded loudly in the quiet wood. "There was that noise again. Did you not hear it?" called the youngest princess.
"I heard nothing but our princes urging us to hurry," the oldest princess said from her place at the front.
The golden wood gave way to one where the leaves glittered like diamonds and rattled with a musical tinkling sound. The soldier was awestruck with the spectacle of this marvelous wood. He just had to take back proof of its existence for he was sure no-one would believe his unsupported word alone. He did not dare break off another branch but, fortunately, he spied one that had broken naturally lying by the side of the path. Eagerly he snatched it up and hid it under his cloak.
"Did you see that?" the youngest princess cried. "There was a branch just there and now it has gone."
"You are being very silly tonight. I don't know what's got into you. Do try and keep up," the oldest chided.
The woods came to an end and the path debouched onto broad wooden jetty. Waiting at the jetty were twelve small boats manned by twelve handsome princes. As the soldier loitered at the foot of the stairs, the older princesses were being assisted into the boats by their escorts. In turn, each princess was handed into a boat with much bowing and kissing of hands and murmured pleasantries. The princesses were all much excited. Their faces were flushed and their eyes sparkled.
The last, and youngest princess, was about to step into her boat when it occurred to the soldier that, once it left, there would be no boat for him. In a panic, he rushed across the jetty and clambered into the boat just as the prince was about to push off. His weight made the boat sway.
"What was that?" the princess cried in alarm, clutching at the gunwales. "Something nearly tipped the boat over."
"Oh, probably a large fish," laughed her escort, a comely young man with dark, flashing eyes and dark hair that fell in curls around his collar. "I must say you look positively ravishing tonight."
The prince plied the oars and the little boat set out across the lake. The prince rowed with a will and the boat glided slowly across the limpid waters.