Inspired by the foreword to ‘The Forgotten Garden’, by Kate Morton.
Once upon a time, there was a young and handsome prince of a very powerful kingdom, destined to one day be the wise king of those lands, when his father gave him the throne. However, when the time comes the prince should prove his worth and pass a single test, proving that he was worthy of fulfilling his destiny.
Therefore, one fine day, his father the king took him to the edge of a mysterious forest, thick and tall, with the tops of the trees fading high above as far as the eye could see. He told him that his proof was in there, and that when he had overcome it leaving the forest, he would be the king.
The valiant prince hastened to carry out his father’s orders, and entered the forest, sword ready, prepared for any difficulty that presented him: a bear, a huge boar or some similar beast, perhaps a dark wizard to whom defeat, or maybe a fierce fire-spitting dragon.
The truth is, he did not have the slightest idea of what his test could be.
Then the prince came to a clearing in the woods. In it stood a cottage, almost as tall as the tree that grew from it, breaking through the roof and disappearing high above. The brave prince entered the cottage, without knocking on the door, since he already sensed what was to be found.
At the end of the cabin, next to the hearth, was an old woman sitting in front of a loom.
‘But what manners are those? Don’t you know how to call before entering?’ said the old woman, who was a witch, in case you hadn’t noticed.
‘Here I am to fulfill my test, old crone, and thus be worthy of my destiny. Speak, then. Shall I defeat you in a battle like no other? Or do I have to disenchant a maiden under your hex? Perhaps solve a riddle on the edge of a magical precipice? Speak up!’
‘Sit down and shut up.’ said the witch.
The prince, to his surprise, obeyed.
‘I have a kettle on the fire. Do you want sugar? And some pastries, right?’
Instantly a pink porcelain tea set materialized along with a glass coffee table in front of them. The prince knew that he must be suspicious of anything the witches offered to eat or drink, or so they said… but the pastries were chocolate and the tea smelled to pennyroyal.
The prince then found himself chatting happily with the old witch while they were drinking tea and laughing like old acquaintances.
When the witch had finished tasting her tea and pastries, with a satisfied sigh she turned to her loom and began spinning a new piece.
‘Good. Now let’s talk about serious things. Your test. To seal your destiny, this is what you must do.’
The prince sat up in his chair, suddenly serious. He had almost forgotten what he was there for. He looked suspiciously at the tea and pastries. Were they enchanted to cloud his judgment? But he decided no. Something told him that the witch had a good heart.
‘You shall bring me three strands of the Fairy Kingdom sovereign’s hair, which you will find if you follow the path that brought you to my cottage and know well where to look.’
The prince considered the witch’s words. Is it? Was it all? No dragon to defeat in a singular battle? No dark wizard more cunning than any beast? No riddle with which to challenge his wits? The prince told himself that the task must be more important than it seemed, and much more difficult. It had to be.
‘But why must I bring back three strands of the Fairy Queen’s hair?’ spoke the young prince to the crone. ‘Why no other number, why not two or four?’
The crone leaned forward but did not halt her spinning. ‘There is no other number, my child.
Three is the number of family, for do we not speak of past, present and future? Three is the number of time, for do we not speak of mother, father and child? Three is the number of fairy, for do we not seek them between oak, ash and thorn?’
The young prince nodded, for the wise crone spoke the truth.
‘Thus must I have three strands, to weave my magic plait.’
The prince looked at the loom, and thought that the witch would surely want to braid the enchanted strands to weave a mighty or invisibility cloak. So he said goodbye to the old woman and with her best wishes, went further into the thick forest.
In search of the Fairy Kingdom. A place as wonderful as it was dangerous, where a wrong step could mean the loss of the man who dared to set foot there. Ruled by its own rules and symbols, rites and enchantments more powerful than any force on earth. Where the Sun, Earth, Moon and Starlight marked the passage of time that nevertheless seemed to stop forever. A place that very few managed to get to, and from which no one managed to get out.
The prince removed branches and leaves, and walked silently, respectfully, searching among the oak, ash and thorn. He did not dare to cut any branches or leaves, or damage any bush. He admired the brightly colored flowers from afar and was always watching where he stepped. It was not a good idea to break into someone’s house breaking things. One could end up cursed for life. The witch had told him.
Before entering the Fairy Realm, something said to the prince that he should leave the sword behind. The prince did not know what he was going to find, but that impulse was much stronger than his fear. So he put the sword down and entered another clearing in the thick forest.
And at once he was captured by beings of overwhelming beauty and steely gaze in their slanted eyes. They were dressed in what looked like oversized leaves and flower petals, and their spears were made from branches that were sharper than any sword.
Oh, yes. They were beautiful and fearsome, but none of them was as beautiful and fearsome as the Fairy Queen.
The Throne Room was a rounded space of trees that the prince had never seen before. They were cobalt blue in color, with silvery thin branches and flexible like hair. The Fairy Queen was sitting among them, in garments as transparent and translucent as her great iridescent wings. Her honey-colored eyes seemed to know everything, on a face of unearthly beauty. But most impressive of all was her hair. Long and silky to the feet, dark blonde in color, braided and interwoven with the thin branches of the blue trees. It was such an intricate design, so complex, so delicate, that it was impossible to tell where the Queen ended and the trees began. It looked like she was wearing the forest as a crown.
The prince’s famous intuition spoke to him again, indicating that the strands of the fairy plait the witch desired were those and not others.
Then the Queen spoke, and her voice filled the entire clearing, and the prince’s ears and mind :
‘Speak, unknown, and tell why you entered the Fairy Kingdom without invitation. ‘
The prince would have fallen to his knees before the Fairy Queen, if he had been able to, but the guards held him tight, still without injuring him. He managed, however, to bow and said,
‘Your Majesty, I present myself before you and your people as a humble visitor who has not come to do any harm. I am the prince of the neighboring kingdom. I have come to ask you to give me three of the strands of your plait, the silver ones, for a friend who needs them.’
There was a shudder among the faerie people. It seemed that they had even stopped breathing.
‘We should execute him immediately’ said one of the guards, bringing his spear closer to the heart of the prince.
‘No’ said the Fairy Queen. – ‘He has come as a friend and not as an enemy, because he does not carry weapons or tricks, and he has spoken with ignorance, not with evil. You see, prince, these trees here are not ordinary trees. They are as old as the time of fairies on this earth, and will remain here as long as fairies and magic remain. They watch over, care for, and guard the Fairy Kingdom, and keep it secret except for a few. They are the true kings of the forest. They are the ancestors and memory of our people. Their name cannot be pronounced by any mortal, and they are nourished by the magic of the Fairy Queen, by means of these threads that you covet, in exchange for their innumerable gifts. There is nothing more important to fairies. Nothing.’
The prince was thoughtful at the Queen’s words, pondering what to answer, for he did not intend to surrender so soon.
‘What if I offer you something in return? Something to match its value?
The faerie people shuddered again, but this time with what seemed laughter. The amused Fairy Queen raised an eyebrow, and her gaze was a little less relentless.
‘What could you give us in exchange that can be so valuable? Such a thing is unthinkable. ‘
‘I still don’t know, if I have to be honest. But give me three days. Let me remain here among your people, and I will find a way to compensate you for your incalculable gift. Give me three days, and if my offer is not to your liking, I will leave forever and make sure no one else bothers you again. You have my word.’
Perhaps it was because of the prince’s courage, perhaps because the faerie people had begun to languish before the tedium of so many equal days and needed some fun, perhaps out of curiosity. The Fairy Queen accepted the deal and the guards released the prince.
‘Be, then. But we are going to change the conditions of your stay a little, before sealing the pact. If you are not able to offer me something that equals or exceeds the value of my precious strands, you will be executed for your daring. Do you still wish to stay?’
The prince nodded, for this was proof worthy of his courage and the prize to which he aspired. They sealed the deal, then, in a way that only pertained to those who were there.
Then the guard who had proposed to execute him arrived, and sulkily offered him a bowl of soup. The prince looked puzzled at the Queen.
‘It is nightfall. And you must supper something. We do not neglect our guests.’ She said with a musical laugh.
The prince thought fairies were very strange, but this time he did not distrust the food they offered him. He believed in the deal they had made and in the word of fairies, and he had three days before these people wanted to end their lives.
What a great hospitality.
So the prince sat next to the Fairy Queen’s throne to eat. It turned out that what they had given him was rice pudding.
The Queen stared in surprise at the prince sitting on the ground without remorse, in silent company. In her thousands of years of existence, no one had wanted to sit with her, leaving her alone with her regency.
The prince fell asleep curled up in one of the roots of the blue trees, and slept like never in his life. A long and deep dream, like in stories.
The next day came and went, and the prince and the Queen began to talk to pass the time. And at dusk, with the lights of the faerie village lighting up in the distance, the Queen Fairy asked:
‘Have you already decided what are you offering me in exchange?’
‘No, not yet, Your Majesty, but tell me more about the language of birds.’
And the Fairy Queen told him everything she knew about the countless birds that populated the forests, which was a lot, and she introduced her owl, the wisest of all birds, her friend and guardian, with whom she had long conversations about everything that happened within the limits of her Kingdom. The prince listened to the Queen’s words and contemplated her face, shining with fairy dust, absorbing her voice in wonder.
The next day came and went, and the prince and the Queen entertained themselves walking through the clearing. It turned out that the branches of the blue trees were infinitely long, so they could see fairies working, eating, singing, dancing and playing instruments that moved everyone who heard them. And at dusk, with the lights of the faerie village lighting up in the distance, the Fairy Queen asked:
‘Have you have already decided what are you offering me in exchange?
‘No, not yet Your Majesty, but tell me more about the things that grow.’
And the Fairy Queen told him everything she knew about the countless species of trees, shrubs, flowers, mushrooms, and herbs that grew in her domains, which was a lot, and she introduced to him each of the blue trees, having each one its name and personality. They spoke to the Fairy Queen in their sweet voices, which only she could understand, and she recited to the prince an ancient faerie poem that the trees remembered, about everything green and good in the world. The prince listened to the Queen’s words and contemplated her face, shining with fairy dust, absorbing her voice in wonder.
The next day came and went, and the prince and the Queen watched sadly the movement of the Sun across the sky and the rising of a beautiful silver-colored Full Moon. For they both felt an unexpected bond that had been forged between them, a bond that was to be broken when the day came to an end, one way or the other. The fairies gradually gathered around the throne with the arrival of twilight. And at dusk, with the lights of the faerie village lighting up in the distance, the Queen Fairy asked:
‘Have you already decided what are you offering me in exchange?’
-‘Yes, Your Majesty. Now I have decided’. And he knelt before her, before the entire Fairy Kingdom. ‘I offer you my heart. It is all I have, and more valuable than my kingdom, or my crown. Take it, for is yours, but in exchange for nothing. I no longer desire the strands of your plait, but tell me more about you, and what makes you laugh, before I’m gone forever.’
The Fairy Queen looked him in the eyes, while the faerie people held their breath. Then he could see in her beautiful eyes the same tenderness that he felt, the same connection that in a short time had become so strong. The Queen could see it clearly, a bright and indestructible braided thread that bounded them both. A bond that united two equal souls, stronger than the very roots of her land.
The Queen looked at the blue trees, listening for a moment to their voices, and at that moment three of the silver strands were released. And she herself with a magic pass cut all the others, leaving her free.
Everyone present looked at her in shock, and she turned and spoke to her people:
‘These trees are old enough. They are strong and wise, and they are firmly rooted in this powerful land. It’s time to change things up a bit. I think they can go on without me. ‘
‘But I want, and can, follow my heart.’
They married some time later in the witch’s cottage. The three strands with which she made the magic plait served to join their hands as they pronounced their vows, looking into each other’s eyes, the future and their destiny. They were the sovereigns of both kingdoms, which lived a prosperity and happiness never seen before.
The new couple planted some of the strands of the fairy plait in pots, to extend the enchanted forest beyond its limits. New silver leaves have already started to sprout in the pots. A beautiful new beginning.