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Chapter 7: The Boy and the Seven Swans

Once upon a time, in a land where happiness and harmony had existed for so long that no one even knew what the word “war” or “weapon” meant, there was a queen and king who had seven daughters. At the Gifting Ceremony of each daughter the royal fairy Philippa bestowed upon them a magical skill that would fill them with complete joy. The eldest, Andromeda, was given the gift of wisdom, the second, Lyra, the gift of song. The third, Cassiopeia, was given the gift of knitting, and so forth, all the way down to the youngest.

But even with seven talented daughters, the queen and king felt something, or someone was missing from their perfect family. It wasn’t long before another baby was born, and finally they had a boy.

The royal couple named their new son Orion and his birth was celebrated throughout the land. On the day of his Gifting Ceremony, the infant was presented to Philippa the fairy. She placed one hand on the baby’s head and the other over his heart and closed her eyes, just as she had with each of his sisters. Then she waited for the images to pass through her mind that would tell her the gift that was best fit for the child.

With each sister the gift had come quite easily. For the fourth daughter, the image of a horse galloped across her mind. “Horsemanship!” she announced for the baby Venus. For Stella, the fifth, a picture of a compass and sextant surfaced. “Navigation!” she had said.

But as she held the boy, she felt uncertain. Surely, an object did come to her mind, but it was something she did not have a word for. It looked useful and vaguely familiar, perhaps even ancient. She doubted if she understood her vision properly, but since all eyes were on her she decided to come up with the word that best fit.

“Cutlery!” she announced.

There was a hesitation as everyone contemplated this unexpected response, but the king began to clap and soon everyone was applauding and cheering for the new baby boy whose talent would be chopping up vegetables.

And so, as soon as he was old enough to stand on a stool, Orion was thrust into the palace kitchens and given a knife. At first he cut bananas, then advanced to carrots, and then finally meat. It was clear to the royal chef that the boy did indeed have a gift for wielding a blade, and only after minimal guidance was able to cut up anything with speed, precision and finesse.

With Orion in the kitchen, the banquet table became a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach, with watermelons sculpted into fruit baskets, perfectly carved hams and steaming bowls of julienned carrots.

But Orion’s gift did not bring him the pleasure that his sisters felt when they were using their gifts. Luna, the sixth daughter, was gifted with dance, and the joy that she brought to those who watched her was only outmatched by the joy that was on her face as she performed. Nova, the youngest, possessed the gift of animal speech, and she could beckon any bird to perch on her finger. For Orion, dicing potatoes and mincing celery did not give him the challenge nor the joy that he craved. Though he tried to be creative, by carving out more interesting edible creations for each banquet, the task grew tiresome and eventually loathsome.

He soon refused to go to the kitchen. Instead he played for hours with sticks, stabbing pillows and smashing candelabras. He was louder than his sisters, more demanding, and more reckless. In short, he became a palace nuisance. The king and queen were at their wit’s end to figure out how to keep him under control. “Perhaps we should send him to a boarding school,” they whispered to one another in moments of desperation.

But Andromeda, the eldest daughter, observed her brother with wise eyes. She gathered her sisters together, all of whom had had it with their youngest sibling.

“He is annoying!” said Stella.

“And destructive. He destroys everything he comes in contact with.”

“I can’t concentrate on my knitting when he is present,” cried Cassiopeia.

“And whenever I try to sing, he mimics me by howling like a wolf,” said Lyra, folding her arms. “It is insulting.”

“Something is definitely wrong with him,” stated Luna.

Andromeda calmed them all. “No, sisters, I do not believe there is anything wrong with our brother. I think he is simply unchallenged. How would you feel if your gift was cutlery?”

Every head nodded in sympathy.

“I have an idea,” she said. “Let’s teach him our gifts.”

“He will never be as good at knitting as I am,” said Cassiopeia.

“I can’t even imagine him singing!” said Lyra.

“Or dancing!” added Luna with a laugh.

Then little Nova, who had been silent during the meeting, finally spoke. “He is good with animals,” she said timidly. “Or . . . at least, he tries to be.”  Her sisters stared at her. “He is not afraid of them, and does not scare them away. I’ve taught him things. And I think I could teach him more.”

Not to be outdone by the youngest, the sisters grudgingly decided to give Andromeda’s suggestion a try.

Over the next few months Orion was passed from sister to sister, each girl teaching him her talent as long as she (and he) could possibly endure before handing him over to the next. At first, he squirmed, complained, and protested, but as he began to see progress in his new skills, he grew less restless and bored, and more interested in what his sisters had to teach him.

Andromeda shared with him book after book about philosophy, diplomacy, history and mathematics. Cassiopeia taught him to knit his own socks. Luna found him to be a teachable dancer with surprising fluidity and grace. Stella taught him to read the sun, moon and stars. Only Lyra met with defeat, for singing was the one skill that escaped Orion’s grasp.

He never could master the talents quite as well as his sisters, but he worked hard and improved. He did not find complete joy, but he did catch glimmers of it.

Then one day, when he was 17 years old, an unusual visitor arrived at the palace.

She called herself the Midnight Queen and she came from a faraway queendom. She was old, with long silvery hair and bright black eyes, and would have been quite beautiful if it weren’t for her pointed, yellow teeth. She rode in an ebony carriage, drawn by six coal-black horses. She had two other carriages behind her, one for her clothes, and one for her servants, all of whom had bright black eyes, just like her.

The king and queen graciously welcomed their guest and prepared the best chambers for her and her servants, and a great feast was arranged. After dinner, the king and queen desired to show the Midnight Queen their talented children. Each child performed their gifts, except Orion, who still refused to have anything to do with the kitchen, and declined to display what he had learned from his sisters, lest he be compared and deemed less worthy.

The queen’s black eyes glittered with delight as she observed the splendid talents of each sister. “You are so fortunate to have so many beautiful and talented daughters,” she said to the king and queen. “I would give anything to have even one daughter so gifted.”

“We also have a son,” said the queen with pride.

“Yes!” said the king. “Our boy Orion! He is just as talented. Have the chef bring some fruit and Orion will show you what he can do.”

A table was brought, with knives of all sizes and several large watermelons and a pumpkin, but Orion refused. After all of those talents, he was going to cut up fruits and vegetables? It was humiliating. He hid in the shadows and would not emerge, no matter how much his family coaxed, all of whom were more embarrassed at his lack of charm and graciousness than by his talent.

But the Midnight Queen didn’t care two beans for the son. “I am so grateful that your daughters shared their gifts with me,” she said, “that I would like to bestow a gift upon them.” She snapped her fingers and her servants brought in seven black boxes, each tied with a scarlet ribbon. The girls unwrapped the gifts and pulled out beautiful satin nightgowns, each the color of a ripe blackberry. Delighted, they all wore them that night to bed.

Orion didn’t care. He didn’t want a satin nightgown.

In the morning the palace woke to find the Midnight Queen and her entourage gone. Orion and his sisters emerged from their chambers and sat to breakfast, the girls still wearing their satin nightgowns, and discussed the strange and premature departure of their enigmatic guest.

Andromeda offered some wisdom as to why the queen had left, but as soon as she spoke something strange occurred. Her skin turned black and feathery, as did her hair. Her nose and mouth grew long and scarlet. Her neck stretched and her body shrank until Andromeda was no longer a lovely daughter, but a black swan with shining feathers.

The king and queen rushed to her side, and tried to speak to her, but Andromeda only honked back and flapped her wings in fear.

“Let me speak to her,” offered Nova. But as soon as Nova approached her swan sister and tried to use her animal speech, she, too, was transformed into a swan. The two black swans were skittish and frightened and soon took to the air, flying out the windows of the Great Hall together.

Everyone ran out to the balcony and watched the swans disappear into the morning light. “Where are they going?” cried the queen. “How will we ever find them?”

Stella opened her mouth, thinking she could add some insight into what direction her sisters had gone but as soon as she did, she too, turned into a swan and flew away.

“Stop this!” cried the king. “My children, you must refrain from using your talents. The Midnight Queen must have cursed you, and when you use your talents you transform into swans. I command you to not use your gifts until we find a way to bring your sisters back.”

The next few days were long and dark days at the castle. There was no singing, no dancing, and no joy. Everyone missed their three sisters, especially Orion.

Perhaps, he thought, if I turn into a swan, I could go and find my sisters and bring them back. Late one evening he went to the kitchen and cut up an apple in the shape of a rose. He held it in his hand, waiting to be transformed, but nothing happened. He had not been cursed. Orion didn’t know whether to feel relieved or neglected.

His four remaining sisters languished. Eventually they could not resist the temptation to use their talents, and one by one they turned into swans and flew away until only Orion was left. The palace had never seemed so dismal.

A year went by, but the king and queen seemed to age ten years. This troubled Orion and he became restless. To pass the time he took long rides on Venus’ horse. One day he heard strange sounds in the forest: metal against metal. He came to a cave at the foot of a hill. Outside the cave was an old man, dripping with sweat, pounding a hammer against red-hot metal. Then he took the metal and plunged it into a barrel of oil and the metal hissed as steam rose from the barrel.

Orion was mesmerized. “What is that?” he asked. “Are you making a great knife?”

The man looked up from his work, gazed at Orion and shook his head. “This is no knife. This is a sword.”

Orion inched closer. “What . . . is a sword?” he asked.

“It is an ancient weapon. There has not been a need for one for two centuries, but there is a need now, and for a man who can wield it.”

Orion frowned. “Is it used to cut up large melons?”

The man stopped pounding and stared at Orion. “It is used to kill.”

After that Orion kept his mouth shut. He watched the man work on the sword all through the day. When the sun set, Orion built a fire and watched the man work into the night. It was near midnight when the man finished. He laid it on his palms and presented it to Orion. “Test it. See how it feels.”

As Orion wrapped his fingers around the handle and felt the weight settle in his palm, he felt a quiver of excitement race up his arm and through his body. He rotated his wrist and watched the moonlight flash up the blade. He swung to the right, he swung to the left.

All of the sudden, Orion heard a loud roar. He looked up to see the old man coming at him with another sword raised high above his head. Orion crouched, closing his eyes and shielding himself with the new sword to keep from being cut in half by his attacker. The blow was deflected, but the man attacked again, clashing his sword against Orion’s. This time Orion stood his ground and fought back, using the sword as a weapon instead of a shield. The man kept striking, forcing Orion into the forest where they dodged tree trunks and fallen logs by the dim light of the moon. Orion was grateful for Luna’s dance lessons that helped him order his steps and keep his feet steady as he thrust and swung the blade. Soon he began to feel more natural and fluid, and the feel of the sword—the grip, balance, the weight—all felt so innate, so sublime, and it filled his heart with indescribable joy.

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Syrena Dyreng

Orion grinned. He began to strike at his opponent with more confidence. He advanced instead of retreated. Then he took advantage of a hesitation made by the old man and flipped the man’s weapon from his grasp where the blade tip stuck into a thick over-hanging branch.

Breathing hard, the old man walked to the quivering sword and pulled it out of the branch. Orion steeled himself to continue the fight, but instead of engaging, the man bowed.

“You will do,” he said with a kind smile.

“Excuse me?”

“While the world was at peace, she has grown in power.”

“Who?”

“The rat.”

“Rat? What rat?”

“Just remember that weapons are not to provoke, but to defend,” the man said, guiding his sword back into its sheath. “They are not to make wrongs, but to correct them. Not to cause loss, but to recover that which was lost.”

Now that made more sense. Orion didn’t know anything about rats, but there was an evil queen he wouldn’t mind trying this sword out on.

“Good sir, may I ask your name?” Orion asked.

“Spinach,” said the man as he began packing up his tools. “Sir Spinach.”

“With all due respect, Sir Spinach, isn’t this a large sword for a rat?”

He shook his head. “It will barely suffice.”

“But Sir Spinach, what if I can’t find this rat that you speak of?”

“Oh, you will find her,” said the old man, lifting his satchel onto his shoulder, “And when you meet, you must kill her, for if you do not, she shall take over the world.” He then turned and disappeared into the cave.

Orion waved the sword around a few more times, enthralled by the feel of it. He realized he had never thanked the man, so he trotted after him into the cave, but the cave was not as deep as it had seemed and he soon found himself staring at a granite wall.

Orion looked at the new sword in his hand, marveling. He kissed the blade and rode home as fast as the horse could go, his heart bursting with joy.

He had found his true gift.

 

TO BE CONTINUED . . .

Author’s Note: The final post of Fairy Tales for Boys will be published tomorrow. Or maybe the day after that, depending on whether or not I have to take another member of my family to the hospital (my husband broke his ankle yesterday).

If you are enjoying Fairy Tales for Boys, please share with other quarantined friends!

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Chapter 5: The Boy and the Three Bears

Once upon a time there was a boy who had everything he ever wanted and was consequently very spoiled and selfish. His name was Golden.

He lived as an only child at the edge of a wood, and he never did anything his mother asked him to do. When she said, “Wash the dishes,” he would go outside and play. When she said, “Clean up your dirty clothes,” he would fling them around the house. So, on the fateful day when his mother said, “Don’t ever go into the wood alone,” he decided to do just that.

Off he went into the forest, looking for excitement and adventure, kicking mushrooms and decapitating wildflowers as he walked. He didn’t see any wild animals except for an old, scruffy-looking black rat which he caught, swung by its tail, and threw into a bush.

Before long he came to a small house that was owned by three bears. The three bears had just left for a walk to let their porridge cool, and were not at home. The boy was curious about the house, as he didn’t think anyone lived in the woods. Plus, he was very hungry and forgot to bring a lunch. He knocked on the door but there was no answer, so of course he walked in.

To his delight, there on the table were three bowls of freshly made porridge! He tried the first bowl, but it was too hot. He tried the next bowl but it was too cold. He tried the last bowl and it was just right. He ate it all up, but he was still hungry, so he decided to mix the hot and cold bowls together and then it was just right, too, and so he ate everything until there was no porridge left.

He then found three chairs. One was too hard, one was too soft, and one was just right. He wasn’t one to just sit around in chairs all day, so he decided to make a fort and took the cushions off and tipped the chairs over and stacked them on top of each other. But playing in a fort all by yourself gets boring, so he decided to see what was upstairs.

There he found one large room with three beds and he started jumping from one to the other and had a wonderful time of it until he broke all three beds. Now that his fun was done and he didn’t know what to do, he decided it was time to leave and find some real wild animals instead of messing around in stranger’s homes. But as he went to leave through the front door, the three bears walked in.

“AAAAHHHH!!!” screamed the boy.

“AAAAHHHH!” screamed the bears.

Papa Bear caught Golden by his suspenders and held him in the air. “What are you doing in my house?” he roared.

“And what did you do to our living room?” demanded Mama Bear.

“And why did you eat all of our porridge?” yelled Papa Bear.

“And why did you break all of our beds?” cried Baby Bear.

Golden didn’t know what to say except, “I want my mommy!”

“You aren’t going anywhere until you clean up this mess!” said Mamma Bear.

She made him wash all of the dishes and cook new porridge for the bears. After he put the chairs in order and tidied up the living room, Papa Bear took him upstairs with a tool box and made him fix all the beds. Then he had to change and wash the sheets and re-make the beds so that the room looked even better than it did before he came.

After everything in the house was cleaned or repaired and the sun was beginning to set, the three bears walked him home (because you never know what wild animals you might come across in the forest) and handed him back to his very worried mother. They informed her that Golden was invited over anytime to have a playdate with Baby Bear, provided he minded his manners and didn’t destroy anything.

After that Golden always did what he was told, even if it was washing the dishes or picking up his clothes, and every Tuesday and Thursday he and Baby Bear got together and played for hours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Chapter 4: The Boy Who Guessed the Secret Name

Once upon a time there was a group of old women who liked to get together and knit in the village square, and while they knitted, they bragged about their children.

“My daughter makes beautiful dresses,” said the tailor’s wife.

“My son can grind wheat faster than any man in the kingdom!” said the miller’s wife.

The baker’s wife, who often felt inferior in front of her friends and wanted to prove that her child was just as good as theirs said, “My son can bake loaves of dough into bricks of gold.”

Well, none of the other women could top that, and the baker’s wife felt satisfied, even if it was a complete lie. Little did she know that her statement was overheard by a servant from the castle.

“He can bake loaves of dough in to bricks of gold?!” exclaimed the Queen when the servant told her. “Bring him to the castle at once!”

The young man and his mother were brought before the queen. “Is it true you can bake dough into bricks of gold?”

“Uh . . . no,” said the boy, with a puzzled glance at his mother.

“He is just being modest,” said the baker’s wife. “Go on, tell the queen the truth, son.”

“I am telling the truth. I don’t know how to bake dough into gold.”

“Well,” said the queen. “We shall see about that.”

She put the boy in the royal kitchen with a huge pile of dough. “I want all of this dough made into bricks of gold by morning or we will chop off your head.” And then she bolted the door.

The young man sat on the bench, feeling very confused as to how he came to be in this dreadful predicament. After all, was it even possible to make dough into gold? Did they share any similar chemical components? He looked around to see if there was a way he could escape, but escaping seemed just as likely as turning things into gold.

“I can turn anything into anything,” said a small voice.

The young man, whose name was Alastair, looked around. “Who said that?”

“Me,” said the voice, and a black rat jumped up onto the table.

The boy frowned. “I don’t think it’s very sanitary for you to be in the kitchen.”

“Does it matter? You don’t want to turn the dough into food to eat, you want to turn it into gold. And I can help you do that.”

Alastair laughed. He laughed and laughed and laughed.

“Stop laughing,” squeaked the rat.

“First of all,” said the boy, regaining his composure, “why are you so excited to help me? What’s in it for you?”

“Because we both need something. You need to turn this dough into gold to save your life, and I need a baby that I can raise to be my apprentice and carry on my wicked legacy.”

The boy shrugged. “I can’t help you. I don’t have a baby brother or sister. I don’t own a baby, and I can’t give birth to a baby. Maybe you should go ask a girl.”

“Stop being difficult,” said the rat. “If you make this dough into bricks of gold, the queen plans on having you wed her daughter, the princess.”

Alastair narrowed his eyes. “Is she a baby?”

“No, you imbecile! She is a perfectly beautiful young woman, only a year younger than you.”

“Is that so?” said the boy as he pulled up a stool and leaned on the table. “Tell me more about her.”

“She’s everything you ever dreamed of, with hair like the sunrise and lips like the sunset.”

“Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s bake some gold!”

The rat held up her paws. “Not so fast. Before I help you, you must promise to give me your first-born child, if it’s a girl.”

“And if it’s a boy?” asked Alastair.

“You can keep it.”

“You got yourself a deal!” The arrangement sounded perfect to Alastair, who didn’t care much for babies, and if he did ever have a baby, he would much rather have a boy than a girl anyway. He shook hands with the rat, and together they began pulling off dough and placing it in the bread pans.

In the morning when the queen unbolted the door, she saw the young man sitting at the table with a confident smile on his face. Stacked next to him was a huge pyramid of golden bricks.

The queen clapped her hands. “Marvelous!” she exclaimed.

Alastair was then introduced to the princess, whom he thought was far more lovely than the rat had described, not to mention affectionate, witty, and smart. They married, and their first year of marriage was so blissful that Alastair forgot all about his promise to the black rat.

****

In time the princess became pregnant. Alastair was filled with excitement and anticipation. On the day of the birth he was the first to hold his new baby girl.

He and his wife were so happy to have this new little princess, and together they took care of her; holding her, bathing her, and making silly faces so she would smile. Alastair cherished his little daughter and couldn’t remember a time that he had ever been happier.

A few weeks later, as the sun peeped over the distant mountains, the princess shook Alastair awake. “Alastair! Get up! There is a rat in our room! Kill it!”

“Yes, yes, wake up and kill the rat, you silly boy!” sang the rat. “But you won’t be able to because we made a bargain.”

Alastair sat up in bed. “You,” he said.

“Yes! It is I! Ha! Ha! Ha! And I know that you’ve been blessed with a beautiful baby girl, which means you owe me something.”

Alastair dashed to the crib and stood in front of the baby. “Never,” he said.

“Alastair?” asked the princess, narrowing her eyes. “What is going on?”

Alastair didn’t know what to tell his wife. He realized now that making a bargain with the rat had been a huge mistake. He was younger then, and he didn’t realize how deeply he would love his baby girl. The thought of this dirty rat taking away his precious child and breaking the heart of his wife made his body tremble with anger. Deal or no deal, there was no chance he would let this rat win.

“Leave this castle at once,” demanded Alastair.

“‘Leave this castle at once,’” mimicked the rat. “A deal is a deal,” she said. “And a magical deal is more binding than any other.”

The princess panicked. “What deal? Alastair, what did you do?”

“I made a deal with this rat that she could have my first-born child . . . if it was a girl.”

“YOU DID WHAAAATT???!!” The princess leaped out of bed and started throwing shoes at the rat. “Get out! Get away from my baby!” she screamed.

The rat dodged all of the shoes with ease until the princess had thrown every shoe in her closet and was panting in exhaustion.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” said the rat. “I realize this must be an unpleasant surprise. But a magical deal cannot be broken.” She held out her greedy black paws. “The baby, please. Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of her.”

The princess crumpled into a sobbing heap, but Alastair stood his ground. “There must be another way. Something else I can do for you. I am a prince now. I can give you anything you want. Gold, jewels, silk . . . anything!”

The rat laughed. “I made gold bricks for you out of bread dough. You think I can’t make those things if I want them? What I can’t make is a baby, and we made a deal.”

Alastair reached for a sword and swung it at the rat, but the sword bounced off of her, as if she were protected by an invisible shield.

“Remember, a magical bargain cannot be broken,” said the rat smugly.

“Then we shall make another bargain,” said Alastair.

The rat cocked her head. “Go on.”

“Give me a task and three days to accomplish it. If I can’t, the baby is yours. If I can, you must leave and never return.”

The rat laughed. “Silly boy! You are simply prolonging the inevitable,” she said. “But I do love to make a deal. . .” She caressed her whiskers thoughtfully. After a few moments a sly smile appeared on her face, showing her pointed, yellow teeth. “Very well. Here is your task: you have three days to guess my name. I will visit you on the morning of each new day. If you can guess my name by the third day, you may keep your baby.”

Alastair frowned. “You could ask me to slay a giant or kill a dragon, and you want me to guess your name?”

“If it sounds too easy than we can stick with our original arrangement.”

“You are a dirty rat,” he said, and agreed to the bargain.

Alastair wasted no time. He thought of sending out a proclamation to the kingdom, offering a reward for anyone who knew the name of a talking rat, but the princess pointed out that first, everyone would think he was crazy, and second, he’d probably get hundreds of imposters who would waste their precious time with normal, everyday rats. So they decided it was up to the two of them.

The next morning, a servant brought breakfast into the royal chamber and placed it on the table where the prince and princess were compiling a list of names. The servant bowed. “Anything else, Your Highness?” he asked.

Alastair lifted his teacup and took a sip. “No, thank you, Spinach,” he said.

A few moments later the rat appeared at the window. “Do you know my name?” she asked, blinking her bright black eyes.

“Katrina,” said Alastair.

“Sylvia,” said the princess.

“Marilyn,” said Alastair.

Alastair and the princess tried dozens of names, but the rat shook her head at every one.

“Time’s up!” announced the rat, and she crawled out the window.

The next morning the servant brought in breakfast to the prince and princess while they prepared a whole new list of names.

“Will there be anything else, Your Highness?” asked the servant.

“No, thank you, Spinach,” said Alastair. And the servant departed.

Just as before, the rat appeared at the window and asked, “Do you know my name?”

“Gertrude,” said the princess.

“Grogda,” said Alastair.

“Forcythia,” said the princess.

And just as before, they read through their entire list of names until the rat said, “Time’s up! One day left!” she crowed, and crawled out the window.

The princess was beside herself with grief. “Alastair, what will we do? We can’t let that horrible creature take our baby!”

Alastair wiped her tears and promised that he would find out what the rat’s name was. That night he snuck into the forest and asked the animal creatures if they knew of a black rat. But of course, Alastair did not speak animal, and the animals, being merely animals and not enchanted witches, did not speak human. So that was fruitless.

Depressed, hopeless, and out of ideas, Alastair returned to the castle. He tossed and turned all night, for he knew that on the morrow he must surrender his beloved baby.

In the morning the servant brought breakfast to the couple, who were tearfully making their last list of names.

“Will there be anything else, Your Highness?” asked the servant.

“No, thank you, Spinach,” said Alastair.

But instead of leaving, the servant hesitated. “If you don’t mind me asking, sire, you and the princess seem very distressed.”

“We are distressed. If you do not laugh, I will tell you why. In a few moments a rat is going to appear in that window and ask us to guess her name. If we cannot guess her name then she will take our sweet baby.”

“A talking rat, sire?”

“Yes. You probably think I am crazy.”

“Oh no, sire, I don’t, for I once knew a talking rat.”

“YOU DID?” asked the couple at once.

“Yes. She actually locked me in a tower in the desert when I was five years old and I had to stay there for 10 years. She wasn’t a rat then, of course, she was a witch. Luckily my father saved me and we escaped, but then she followed us to our home where she tried to turn my father into a rat but her spell reflected off a mirror and struck her instead.”

Alastair and the princess stared at Spinach, their mouths agape. “Well, what is her name?”

Spinach bit his lip and looked at the ceiling. “It was a long time ago, and it was a very strange name, and to remember it I had to rhyme it with something. Oh, I remember, it rhymed with . . . with . . . pretzel.”

Just then, they could hear the scratching of something outside the window. Alastair told Spinach to hide under the bed, but Spinach couldn’t fit under the bed, so Alastair told him to crouch down on the side of the bed furthest from the window, so as not to be seen by the rat.

The rat appeared, a smug smile on her face. “Do you know my name?” she said.

Alastair and the princess looked at each other and swallowed.

“Wetzel?” said Alastair.

“Snetzel?” said the princess.

“Fetzel?” said Alastair.

The rat placed her paws on her hips and narrowed her beady eyes. She didn’t like where this was going.

“Zetzel?” said the princess.

“I know!” said Alastair, his face brightening. “It’s Chetzel!”

“Enough of this foolishness! Don’t you think it is time you gave up? You have one more guess!”

The princess looked at Alastair, who glanced at Spinach, who had changed position and was lying on his back with his legs together and both arms stretched up at diagonal angles.

Alastair looked back at the rat. “Could it be . . . Yetzel?”

The rat screamed like she had been tossed in a firepit. She hopped up and down. She tore out handfuls of her fur. She whacked her head against the stone wall. “You cheated! You cheated!” She was in such a rage that she hurled herself out of the window, and was never seen again . . . in that kingdom, anyway.

Alastair, the princess, and their baby lived happily ever after.

And Spinach was knighted.

 

 

 

 

 

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Chapter 3: The Boy Who Brought A Basket to his Grandfather

Once upon a time there was a boy who lived with his father at the edge of a great wood. The boy had bright red hair and everyone called him Little Red. His father, who also had red hair, was called Big Red.

One day Big Red said to Little Red, “You are old enough to go into the forest alone, and I need you to do an important errand for me.” He took a basket, covered by a cloth, and said, “Carry this basket to your grandfather who lives in the middle of the wood. Take care you do not get distracted, for the wood is a wild place. Most of all, you must not lose the basket, nor tell anyone what’s inside.”

“What is in the basket, Father?” asked Little Red.

Big Red leaned over and whispered into Little Red’s ear. The boy’s face became serious and grave. He looked up at his father. “I promise, Father. You can count on me.”

The boy set out on the trail early the next morning, knowing that it would be quite a long walk to his grandfather’s house. As he went, he thought he could hear footsteps behind him, but when he looked no one was there. Then, as he rounded a corner, out from behind a tree stepped a very beautiful fox.

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Danny Dyreng

“Hello, little one,” said the vixen. “Where are you off to on this lovely day?”

“I’m going to my grandfather’s house to give him this basket.”

“That is a big basket for such a small boy. What’s inside?”

“I–I cannot say.”

The vixen cocked her head and pouted. “Why not?” she asked. “I won’t tell anyone. It can be our secret.”

The boy started walking again, but the fox followed close behind.

“Is it bread and wine?” she asked.

Little Red didn’t answer.

“Is it ham and cheese?”

Little Red didn’t answer.

“Is it blueberries and cream?”

Little Red didn’t answer, but he did say, “Having you trotting behind is making me uncomfortable.”

“I am only protecting you from the wild things of the woods,” she said. “You never know when you might meet a wolf or a bear or . . . a rat?”

The pair stopped walking, for a large, black rat sat in the center of the path, blinking her bright black eyes.

“Hello, little boy,” said the rat. “What do you have in that basket?”

“This is my little boy,” said the fox. “Go and find your own little boy. And besides, there is no use asking him. He won’t tell.”

“I’m not interested in little boys,” said the rat to the fox. Then she turned to Little Red and asked, “Could there, by chance, be a baby girl in that basket?”

The fox swiveled her ears toward the boy in interest. “Is there?” she inquired, batting her eyes. “I’m very good with babies.”

“Definitely not,” said Little Red.

With that, the rat scampered into the weeds.

“Nosy rat,” muttered the fox.

The boy gripped the basket a little tighter and walked a little faster. Everyone in the woods was after his basket! It was not light, however, and the farther the boy went, the heavier the basket seemed.

“Ah, you are getting tired. Let me help,” said the fox, and she reached for the basket.

But Little Red held it to his chest. “I’m sorry, Ms. Fox, but it is my basket and only I can carry it. Besides, I’m not tired.” Even though he actually was.

They continued to walk through the forest.

“Oh, look at those flowers off in the distance. Come with me and gather them for your grandpa.”

“No,” said Little Red who kept on walking.

“You must be thirsty. Why don’t you come with me to my den for some tea? Then, once you are refreshed, you can continue on your journey.”

“No,” said Little Red who kept on walking.

“Ouch!” cried the fox, falling down and holding up a limp foot. “I think I’ve twisted my paw. Can you help me?”

But Little Red knew she was pretending and he kept on walking. The fox became angry and she bounded ahead of the boy and blocked the path.

“You shall go no further until you show me what is inside of that basket,” she demanded.

“I will not,” said Little Red.

The vixen stepped menacingly toward him, baring her teeth and backing him up against a tree.

Little Red was very frightened. Surely she would eat him up, whether he showed her what was in the basket or not. If he could only hold her off until he got to his grandfather’s house.

“What lovely, big eyes you have,” said the boy. “I’m certain you could see me from a mile away.”

“Indeed,” said the fox narrowing her eyes.

“And what large, soft pointed ears you have! You could probably hear me breathing from the other side of the forest.”

“That is for certain,” said the fox, twitching her ears.

“And what an amazingly strong jaw you have. It could easily crush my fragile, little bones.”

“Yes!” snarled the fox, showing her teeth.

“And how patient you must be.”

“Huh?”

“Yes, for you are a hunter, and hunters are the most patient of all the animals.”

The fox took a step back. “Most definitely I am,” she said, sitting down primly and wrapping her bushy tail around her legs.

“I am just a small little boy. I cannot run from you, nor can I hide. I also cannot show you what is in my basket. But if you are patient, when we get to my grandfather’s house, he will tell you.”

The vixen laughed. “I am a fox, and I know when someone is playing a trick on me.”

“This is no trick!” said the boy earnestly. “I’m telling the truth. You would be very interested, I think, in what he would tell you. Besides, what I have in my basket, my grandfather has many, many more!”

“Is your grandfather very old?”

“Very old. And feeble.”

The fox decided that she could be patient, especially if there was more of what was in the basket.

“Please, dear fox. Just walk with me a little further through the woods, and protect me from wild bears and wolves like you said, and when we get to my grandfather’s house your curiosity will be satisfied and he’ll give you a bellyful.”

Then it is food! she thought, licking her chops.

The fox was content to walk with the boy and before long they came to the grandfather’s house in the wood. Little Red knocked on the old man’s door.

“Who is it?”

“It is me, Little Red!”

“Who is that with you, Little Red?”

“Oh, just a friend I found in the forest.”

An old man with a bushy red beard opened the door and the fox looked up. Her eyes grew wide and her tail flicked nervously. She glanced around, noticing for the first time the animal hides stretched out on the door, the racks of guns over the mantle and the large fox-skin rug spread out before the hearth.

“Old Red!” she gasped.

“Well hello, little fox,” said the man. “What a lovely coat you have. Would you like to come inside my cottage?”

“Your grandfather is Old Red!” exclaimed the fox.

“Yes, he is,” smiled Little Red. “The greatest hunter in the forest!”

And with that, the fox bounded away and disappeared into the woods.

“It is too bad she couldn’t stay for tea,” said Old Red with a grin. “Oh, well. Let’s see what your father made for me.”

Little Red put the basket on the table and took off the cover revealing a dozen newly fashioned crossbow bolts.

“You are a good boy, Little Red. I was running low. Say,” he said, taking his crossbow down from its place on the wall. “Would like to join me on a fox hunt?”

Little Red smiled.

 

 

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