The story-teller of the seven secluded kingdoms wasn’t always a story-teller. When she was born, her mother, the queen, wanted to call her Fabula, so perhaps she knew something even then. But her father was afraid that his mother, Ethel, who after all these years still held the purse-strings, and held them very tightly, wouldn’t like it, so the baby was named Princess Gloriana Ethel Doris, but everyone called her Cara.
The queen, wisely or unwisely, chose a nurse for her daughter who was forever telling her stories. If Cara wouldn’t go to sleep because she was teething or she was over-excited, her nurse would tell her a story and she would go to sleep at once. When she lost her favourite teddy-bear and she was inconsolable, her nurse read her stories for an entire morning about a bear who lived in a forest with a piglet and a tiger, until finally she stopped crying.
She spent every moment reading when she wasn’t being made to go for health-giving walks or to learn the major exports of all the cities in the seven kingdoms. Then there came a day when one of the palace maids found her sitting in a circle with her dolls and her bunnies all around her, but instead of having a tea-party, she was telling them stories. When the king heard this, he said, “No, no, no! She should be learning how to dance in glass slippers, and what to say to foreign ambassadors when they ask her to dance, and whether the cheese comes before the dessert or after it. Reading is a complete waste of time for a princess.”
The queen said, “She should be studying Political Geography and Economic Theory so that when she marries and rules as queen one day, she will be able to guide her husband well. Stories are merely frivolous distractions.” So the nurse was dismissed, and all the books were locked in an iron bookcase. The princess went for long walks and even longer rides, and learned to dance like a floating feather and how to eat a peach with a knife and fork and how to say, “How delightful it is to meet you,” in thirty-seven different languages. But no matter where she was or what she was doing, she never stopped making up stories in her head.
As she grew older, she kept on making up stories, even when the queen started making lists of princes and emperors that would be suitable as husbands for her, and her father went through the Royal Treasury sighing to think of how much gold he would have to give for her dowry. Little by little, Cara found audiences for her stories. The royal footman who accompanied her on her morning rides was always ready to hear a story, although he only liked hearing about pirates and battles with lots of blood and stabbing. The gardener’s children, when Princess Cara went out to the greenhouses to pick peaches, came running to hear fairy stories and stories with rabbits and kittens and ducklings. The maids would stop everything they were doing to listen to love stories about handsome princes, and princesses disguised as maids. Even the Royal Hairdresser would ask her to tell him a story as he trimmed and curled, preferably ghost stories, as hair-raising as possible.
In time, kings’ sons and the sons of emperors and even once a pirate-king’s son came to inspect her, but either they didn’t like her or she didn’t like them, so nothing ever came of it. Cara was busy with all the worlds in her head and hardly noticed that the princes and young emperors-to-be stopped coming, but her parents, the king and the queen, noticed.
“What are we going to do?” the king asked the queen, anxiously. “A princess without a prince is like a fork without a knife, a bat without a ball, no use to anyone. She can’t live here all her life.” For the princess had three older brothers who had married countesses and duchesses who knew all about Political Economy and how many fairies to invite to a royal christening, and they had brought them to live in the palace. There certainly wasn’t room in the palace for the princess as well.
The queen said, “I have no doubt that she will make a wonderful aunt to all her nephews and nieces when they come along, which I trust and hope they will very soon, but it would suit everyone better if she had her own home and her own palace and maids and gardens to keep her busy. I’ve made a list,” she said, distractedly, “of counts and dukes, and younger sons of lords who may be interested in marrying her. Do you think the pirate-king’s son is so very much out of the question?”
Then there came a terrific noise at the window, a crash and a thundering roar. Everyone in the palace hid under tables and in cupboards. When the noise was over and the smoke had cleared, the king and the queen were missing.
The three princes mounted their fastest horses and collected the army together and the palace guards and the strongest men in all the villages and towns, and searched for the king and queen, far and wide, in robbers’ dens and bandits’ caves, in the lairs of wicked magicians and even on board a pirate ship, but there was no trace of the king or the queen. Eventually they all came back to the palace and sat down glumly in the Royal Chambers. “I believe there is only one place they can be,” said the eldest son, a prince called Bassett. “I think they must have been taken by a dragon.”
The other princes gasped in horror. Princess Cara said, “Then you must go and rescue them at once, before the dragon kills them.”
Bassett’s wife, who was a very high-and-mighty countess, said, “Of course, the younger brothers must go. It would be very wrong for the heir-apparent to endanger his life, when the fate of the kingdom would be in his hands, should anything… unfortunate happen to the king and queen.”
The two younger princes gasped in even more horror when they heard this. “Of course we would be more than glad to go, but we know that Bassett will insist on going himself. He would not leave such an important mission to anyone else,” they said.
Their two wives, the duchesses, nodded vigorously and agreed. “Bassett definitely should be the one to go. He has the biggest horse, and he looks so nice in his shining armour,” they said.
This argument went on all afternoon, because at heart no-one knew in the least how to kill a dragon, and they were afraid that even if they did go, it would be already too late to save the king and queen, and they would just be throwing their lives away needlessly.
Finally, the princess went up to her room and came back down again with her hair tied back with tiny seed pearls, and stout walking boots on underneath her gown. “What are you doing?” her brothers said.
“Someone must go,” Cara replied, “and at least I know a little about dragons from all the stories that I have read. I will go and see what I can do.”
“But how will you know where to look for them?” the youngest prince asked.
The princess pointed out of the window. “Dragons make their nests in the heart of a high mountain. See the dark cloud hovering over the mountain to the west? It isn’t a rain cloud, it’s smoke from the breath of the dragon.”
The footman, Drake, stepped forward and said, “Let me accompany your Highness,” for he had grown very fond of her on their long morning rides, and he was afraid that in her imagination the dragon was much less dangerous than it actually was.
“Good,” said Bassett, stepping forward to clap the footman on the shoulder. “You can bring back word if help is needed, armed guards, and spears and cross-bows and so forth.”
So Cara set out, with Drake the footman riding at her side. When they had ridden as far up the mountain as the horses could take them, she said to him, “Drake, wait here with the horses.”
“But your Highness!” he said.
“Your wife would never forgive me if anything happened to you,” Cara said firmly, “and I would never forgive myself if your children had to grow up without a father. If you hear me scream, go for help, but if you hear nothing and I don’t come back, take the horses and go home.”
He would willingly have gone in her place by now, but she slipped off before he could say another word.
She climbed up the mountain, following rough tracks until she came to a pathway of scorched earth left by the dragon’s tail as it dragged itself up the mountainside. She could hear the roaring of the dragon’s breath, and the trembling of the rocks as they reverberated to the dragon’s heartbeat.
In the heart of the mountain she found her parents, in the centre of the dragon’s cave. The dragon lay with its tail coiled around them. Its scarred face and its torn wings told the story of its immense age, and its deep wickedness. It laughed when it saw her. “Have they sent you to distract me while they build their armies?” it said, in a voice that rustled like dry paper.
“I have come to take my parents home,” Cara said. Her mother sobbed, and her father gave a faint cheer.
“Where are your weapons? Where are the gifts you plan to bribe me with?” said the dragon.
“I haven’t come to fight you, but I do have a gift to give you in exchange for my parents’ lives,” Cara said.
“What is that?” the dragon said, in a voice as dry as dust.
“You have lived a long life, and seen everything there is to see,” Cara said to the dragon. “Time must weigh heavily on you, with nothing new to see or to look forward to. I can offer you new worlds, new lives, new adventures. I can tell you stories of ancient times, and times and places yet unheard of.”
“A story-teller?” said the dragon. “I have known many, and eaten many. But come, do your best. I may let you go, I may eat you and let the old ones go, or I may even keep you, if your stories please me.”
With a trembling in her heart, Cara sat down on the other side of the cave and began. Hour after hour she beguiled the dragon with stories of great goodness and great wickedness, stories of heroes and warriors, of the great Rustum when he was still a boy, of the princess who was covered in thorns, of the five treasures, and the dancing swordsman, of Dharab the greatest dragon-slayer in all the seven kingdoms although she had to break off this story suddenly when the dragon began to glow a fiery red. The dragon listened with its eyes half open and half shut, but never closed enough so that the king and the queen felt they could slip away unseen.
Finally the dragon snapped, “That is enough! Your stories are wondrous – had they been any less so, I would have eaten all of you, long ago – but I tire of listening, and the hour for hunting is almost here. I will finish these old ones, and then go to the palace to eat my fill. You, story-teller, I will allow to live, for now.”
“Wait!” Cara cried, as the dragon’s tail closed in a tight circle around her mother and father. “One more story, the most wonderful of all, that I was saving for last.”
The dragon yawned and snapped its jaws. “Very well, one more,” it said, settling down to listen with the king and queen firmly in its grasp.
Cara knew that she had only one chance. She drew deep within herself, and from the stories her nurse had told her, the stories she had woven herself for the maids and the gardener’s children, the stories she had read at night by lamplight, she made a story like none she had ever told before, a story of love, and sacrifice, and a change of heart.
As she spoke, the listening silence in the cave grew deeper and deeper, as every living creature held its breath. As the dragon listened, it felt its own heart changing, and it howled as only a dragon can howl. “I will not!” it howled. “I will not let my heart change!”
It grew to an enormous height, towering over Cara and her mother and father. Its scales glowed red and then white as its own fire consumed it from the inside. It burned and melted and exploded in a shower of coloured fireworks, which landed on the floor of the cave as a great, mountainous heap of precious stones, diamonds, amethysts, carnelian, citrines, sapphires, jasper and emeralds.
The king, whose heart had changed too, wiped a tear from his eye. The queen hugged her daughter and they laughed and cried together.
As they were leaving the cave, the king looked back at the mountain of precious jewels. He said to the queen, “Do you think we might…?”
“Better not, dear,” the queen said. “We know where they’ve been.” But then she remembered her mother-in-law, Ethel, who held the purse-strings so very tightly, and she had second thoughts. “Perhaps just one, dear,” she said. The king picked out a very large diamond and popped it into his pocket, and they followed Cara down the mountain.
After the celebrations, when the king had told the story of their rescue over and over, Cara went to her room and filled a small bag with paper and pens, and spare clothes, and food for a day or two. She kissed her mother and her father. “You’re not going?” her father asked. “What will you do with yourself?”
Cara smiled. “I’m going to listen to stories and to find my own, and to tell them to anyone who wants to listen.” And so she did.
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