It was April, and down in the orchard the first flashing blades of the new year’s growth were pushing aside the old, worn, winter stuff. The sky was blue and very clear, but the wind was cold. So the nursemaids put the little princess down under an apple tree, wrapped in her shawls, and ran away to play tag under the twisted apple branches, to keep themselves warm. And that was when the grass took her. Why did it happen? Was it the magic-making of a distant sorcerer, offended by some slight the royal family had forgotten? If it was, nobody ever found out. Or did the grasses embrace her because they had found a sister, as new and fresh and innocent as they? Perhaps, as some authorities later claimed, it was the baby herself who made the magic.
“But never mind who did it!” stormed the king, pacing up and down beside the tree while the nursemaids wept in a huddle. “How do we get her free again? That’s the question.”
The green tendrils that were wound around her little body seemed as soft and fragile to the touch as grass blades should. But they held the child in a grip stronger than steel wire. Every cutting edge that the royal household could think of was brought down to the orchard. They tried steel, stone, bronze, and even a knife of sharpened shell: a ritual object, relic of the old days when a king succeeded not by inheritance but by the sacred murder of his predecessor. They tried fire, they tried weed-killer . . . But when the king sent for his enchanted, diamond-bladed broadsword and started to saw away, dangerously near to the child’s throat, and the baby started to scream—the queen called a halt. She protested that if all they wanted was to get the baby loose from the grass, a couple of pounds of high explosive, strategically placed, would probably do the trick. At last they decided to dig up the whole patch of grass on which she was lying, and carry it back to the nursery; roots, dirt, and all. “Look at it this way,” said the court magician. His spells had been helpless, and his nerves were all on edge. “You’re not so much losing a daughter, as gaining a window box.”
The infant had a little peace then, while messages were sent out, chasing up magical practitioners from all the lands around. She slept, and woke, and slept again. She did not cry. She did not want to be fed. She smiled and slept and woke, and the grass blades twined ever closer and thicker around her tiny limbs, until only her face and one hand remained visible. A day and a night passed. On the third day, the princess, who till then had kept up her usual baby cooing and babbling, grew very quiet. Her mother, who was watching, saw a change come over that small, familiar face. “She looks so sad,” thought the queen, and leaned closer, so that the grass blades fluttered in her breath. She put out a finger to touch the baby’s hand . . . Was it possible? Was the grip of those determined tendrils getting weaker? Yes, it was true. The springy green coils were relaxing; the brilliant sheen of life was fading from them . . . The queen got slowly to her feet. She said aloud, as if the grass was a human enemy and could be deceived, “I think I will call the maid, and go downstairs. Baby is so quiet.” She crept out of the room, and rushed down the stairs in a swirl of skirts, biting her fists in excitement. But before she could call for the servants or the king, something stopped her. I will tell no one, she decided. I will not hope, I will not be excited. I will wait . . .
It was terrible to wait, because the grass might be growing weaker just to grow stronger again in a little while. Perhaps she was missing her last chance to free the child. But the queen thought of how you might lift and tug and tear—and have in your arms a baby bleeding from ten thousand wounds. The queen did not believe in the “malign sorcerer” for whom all the king’s men were hunting. She was afraid of the grass itself. It was alive; it had, if not a mind, then at least a will of its own. It had taken her baby for its own inscrutable reasons: and it would not willingly let her go.
She said nothing. No one else noticed that the grass was fading. In the middle of the night she came into the nursery very quietly. The nurse was drowsing in her chair. What of the child? From the cradle came the very faintest of sounds, a breath of a sigh. The queen looked down at her baby. Uprooted, shut away from the sunlight and the air, in spite of the earth that had been carried with it, the grass was withering. Already the blades were turning yellow and wan, like something grown in darkness under a stone. The princess lay still. Her eyes were open. She looked up at her mother, patiently: quietly accepting the suffering that was marked on her face, with no more outcry than the grass itself . . . which was also dying.
The queen saw that it was too late. Whatever made the baby a separate being, separate from the tendrils that bound her, was lost. She was the grass. Uprooted, she would wilt and fail and die. The queen stooped and picked up the whole bundle in her arms. She was so blinded by tears that she stumbled and several times almost fell as she hurried down the stairs, through the great, still, dark rooms of the palace, and across the gardens to the apple orchard. There, standing out dark in the moonlight, was the small ragged trench where the turf had been cut away. The queen knelt beside it. She looked down into the pale, dreaming face of her lost daughter. There was no longer the faintest hint of recognition in the princess’s open eyes, or of any human expression. She put the bundle into the hole, and scratched and worked the soil until she had done all she could to make the plot whole again. Then she went to the gardener’s potting shed and came back with a can of water. It was as she sprinkled water indiscriminately over baby and grass and earth that she understood the full strength of the enchantment. For the baby stirred, and started to laugh. Looking up through the moonlit drops, she smiled as if she was greeting her mother. But it was obvious that she did not see the queen at all. As surely as Persephone, overtaken in the flowery fields of Sicily by the king of the dead, this child had been kidnapped by the powers of the earth. She was gone, she had been stolen out of the human world . . . maybe forever.
• • • •
It was a tough fight, but in the end they let the queen have her way. The king thought the whole thing made him look a fool. Within hours, the conjurors and the alchemists and the amateur heroes would be pouring into the palace grounds, eager to do battle against this wicked spell. Now the queen wanted him to cancel everything, and let well alone. The king said he couldn’t see anything “well” about it. He had a six-month-old daughter staked out like a cucumber vine in his backyard, and how could it possibly make sense to leave a situation like that undisturbed? Luckily for the queen, the bulk of magical opinion soon came over onto her side. The professionals felt that the kind of power that would be needed to break the bond between grass and baby would certainly break the baby, too. The theory that the baby herself had done it appeared, and quickly gained ground. They decided it must be necessary for the princess to be enchanted like this, so that some prince (whose identity would emerge in time) could fulfil his destiny by freeing her. “Wait until she’s older—” was the general run of advice. “Let Nature take its course.” The queen found that these wise counsellors were reluctant to look her in the eye, as they took their fees. She felt that she understood their message only too well. But the king was satisfied.
The first thing he did, when he had been forced to wind up his rescue operation, was to assemble a team of architects, and get them designing the daintiest little summer-house, an orchard palace to be built around the enchanted apple tree . . . The queen was very sorry to do it, but she had to stop him again. She knew the poor man was doing his best, and that his rather inarticulate nature found relief in action, even the most futile action. But she also knew that his dainty arbour would kill her daughter. The baby’s nature was one with the grass, and neither wind nor rain nor snow nor frost must be taken from her. She must live the life of the earth to which she was bound, or no life at all.
“What do you want me to do?” cried the king. “Go down there and tramp on her?”
“Of course not,” replied the queen. “It would upset you horribly to do that. But she wouldn’t mind, not if you trampled her into mud. She’d be back, as soon as you gave her a chance. That’s what you must understand. She is the grass. Oh, I hope you’ll be ready—”
“Ready for what?”
“When winter comes.”
• • • •
Winter came, and under the apple tree the child sickened and faded, as the queen knew she must. The king bore it very well, except for one frosty day when he was caught creeping down to the orchard, unrolling an extension lead behind him, an old one-bar electric fire hidden under his robe. But the queen’s persistence was rewarded in the spring, when the child bloomed like the loveliest of April days. All through the summer, she was well and strong; all through the winter, she faded: and so it went on, through many winters and many springs. As well as thriving and failing with the changes of the season, the princess grew with real human growth, from a baby into a girl. The grass grew with her, so that her lengthening limbs made a green girl-shaped mound under the tree—a kind of horizontal topiary. Though she never spoke, and grew entirely silent before she was a year old, her eyes were alive. They opened to the daylight, closed at night, and seemed to smile at sun and rain. Some people said she was lovely—as far as you could see. Then, just as the girl in the orchard reached “marriageable age,” the queen died. She was still young. But she had spent so many hours sitting out under that apple tree, in all weathers—and perhaps she wasn’t very strong to begin with: anyway, she died. It happened suddenly. A cold turned in a day or two into fever and inflammation of the lungs. The queen hardly knew she was ill before she found herself on her deathbed, comforting her weeping husband.
“Don’t be sad. My daughter has taught me. I am not afraid to lie down in the earth. I believe she is happy, maybe happier than any of us. But my dear . . .”
Afterwards, the king had a sneaking conviction that if she had managed to talk any more, she would have forced him to promise to leave their daughter in peace. But luckily she didn’t. So, after a decent interval, he began his preparations.
The court physician was called to a consultation in the orchard, with the king, the court magician, and a crowd of other functionaries. He gave the grass princess as thorough an examination as was possible, and told her father, looking very grave, that even if she was released, there was little chance that his daughter could ever “live a normal life.”
“And if one of these heroes of yours could somehow free her,” said the great man. “Would he want her? Have you considered that she must be horribly scarred?”
“But it is magic,” protested the king. “When the spell is broken, everything will be fine.”
“There are some enchantments,” declared the physician, “that aren’t worth breaking.”
But the court magician supported the king. Years of doing nothing about a bad magical situation on his own patch had galled his pride. He had always secretly resented the queen’s triumph, and he and the physician were old rivals. He saw the grass princess problem as opportunity—not for himself, of course, but for the prestige of his discipline.
He sighed—a wise and reluctant sigh that put the blame for anything that went wrong firmly on his master’s shoulders. “I don’t think it is possible,” he declared, “for us to accept the advice of medical science. Though we take these considerations seriously, we have here to do with a matter of destiny—a concept that ‘medical science’ cannot, with all due respect, fully understand. By my art, I have learned that the princess must and will be freed . . . by one bound as she is bound, and scarred as she is scarred . . .”
“What?” spluttered the king. He stared at the magician accusingly. He had thought the two of them were agreed. There was nothing really wrong with the princess, no reason why she should not make a complete recovery—
“Ah—” The sage blinked. He had not meant to say that. Sometimes these things happened to him. It was one of the disadvantages of his profession. Just occasionally, one was not altogether in control. He corrected himself hurriedly. “Metaphorically speaking, that is. Bound and scarred as—er—a metaphor for the heroic experience.”
The physician snorted. “I thought we were concerned about the girl, not the ‘destiny’ of some unknown youth. Well, I wash my hands of the whole affair”. He stalked off, and the consultation was over. Magic had won the day.
• • • •
Alas, it seemed that the doctor’s pessimistic estimate was shared by the eligible young princes and nobles around about. There were ten or twenty young men who should have been the princess’s suitors—some rich and handsome, some not so rich or not so handsome, all of them eager to make a good marriage. But they were not interested in the mound of grass in the king’s orchard. The king became uncomfortably aware that his daughter had become a joke amongst his neighbours’ sons. If you suggested to anyone that he should try his hand at “the grass princess job,” it meant you considered his prospects to be in very poor shape indeed.
• • • •
There came a grey, cold day in November, two years after the death of the queen. Under the old apple tree, the princess lay wan and haggard and worn. The shape of her in the grass didn’t change with the seasons now that she was grown, but in winter, her face, what you could see of it, looked like that of a sick little old woman. It was her birthday; she was eighteen years old. A young man rode into the gardens, dressed for hunting. His name was Damien. He was the same age as the princess—a rather dishevelled young man, with a look of angry unconcern. He had come dressed up for this quest, his manner seemed to say, but that didn’t mean he took it seriously. He left his horse and came down between the trees. He had been sent here from the palace office, but he surveyed the scene in bewilderment. There was something distinctly macabre going on. Two middle-aged noblemen and a pack of servants were cavorting around the dead body of an old woman . . . who appeared to have been long buried, except that her face and one withered hand had been dug up. Somebody was tying balloons in the branches above this half-exhumed corpse—
“Excuse me. Can you direct me to—”
They didn’t hear him. The whole crew had suddenly burst out singing: “Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!” Suddenly the prince realised where he was and what he was seeing. He had not imagined it would be like this. Evil enchantment had a distant, romantic sound . . . He decided to leave, quietly.
“Hey!” yelled one of the middle-aged men. “Hey—you there, wait!”
He recognised the king. The other gentleman must be the court magician. The king was a friend of the prince’s family. He couldn’t escape now. He bowed, awkwardly.
“Hail, sire. I have come, if you will permit me, to attempt to free your daughter from foul enchantment, and thereby win her hand in marriage.”
No one spoke. A manservant who was holding a pink iced cake on a tray coughed. The princess’s nursemaids gaped at him, making him feel extremely self-conscious. Damien, who had few friends and was oblivious to gossip, did not know that he was the only suitor who had taken up the king’s well-publicised offer. He was unnerved by this reaction.
“So, what do I do? Do I kiss her, or what?”
He saw that there was something else showing besides a withered face. The princess’s hand lay by her grass-grown side. The fingers were bare; they looked like thin and sallow grass roots. He guessed he must take her hand. The king and the magician were still staring, as if affronted by his presence. He stepped forward and went on one knee . . .
“No, no, no—”
One of the servants was pulling him to his feet. The two older men moved, making a barrier between the grass princess and her suitor. They were dressed identically, in sober suits under dark court robes. Their eyes were smug and old. He didn’t even want the princess: but there they stood, age and authority incarnate, between Damien and all the world’s prizes . . .
“I see,” he said angrily. “I’m not good enough. Fine. I’ll be on my way.”
“Ah—” The king suddenly produced a smile. “Not so, ah, not so fast, young man. You see there are certain—ahem—requirements. You can’t expect to win the hand of an enchanted princess just like that!” He laughed lightly. “You’d better come to my magician’s office.”
The magician had devised a list of tasks. He had spent time on this, and performed several magical operations, in his dark tower away in the remote fastness of the West Wing. He was proud of his list. He felt that it reflected the importance of the grass princess affair, in the annals of magic, and that the success of the hero would also, and rightly, be the crowning achievement of his own career. Prince Damien studied the list of magical treasures that he had to secure—beg, borrow, or steal—while the king and the magician explained to him how he would be welcomed when he’d completed his tasks. There would be a newly devised and very impressive ceremony. He would be escorted in state to the orchard, where he would take the princess by the hand—and she would rise from the grass, a beautiful maiden, ready to be his bride. He must, of course, agree to complete confidentiality. No interviews, no publications except with the express permission of the palace Office of Magic.
Damien wasn’t paying attention. The first item he had to deliver was the silver sword of the Divine Huntress. His spirits rose. He signed everything they put in front of him. There were handshakes all round. The king and the magician returned to the birthday party and Damien rode away, full of hope and determination.
“Unfortunate case,” said the king, when the boy was gone. “Young Damien. The mother ran off, you know, back to her own people under the hill. But the son’s completely human. One of those things, genetics, they call it, I believe: It can play tricks. So he ended up with his father, who married again. There’s a pack of new kiddies, new wife can’t stand the boy of course, and his father is doing his best to fix the succession. It would be a funny thing if he—well, you know. I had a soft spot for his mother . . . but that was long ago.”
The magician nodded thoughtfully, but his eyes gleamed. “Fairy blood!” he remarked. “Things are falling out very well for me . . . Ah, for the princess, I meant, of course.”
Damien knew exactly what to do. The Divine Huntress is another name for the goddess of the moon. The silver sword would have to be a moonbeam. For any other young prince or sprig of the nobility, the first task might have been impossible. Moonbeams tend to slip through one’s fingers, and it was clear that the “sword” had to be a functional weapon. For once, his mixed race was going to be an advantage. His mother had lost interest in him, the way those people tend to lose interest in fleeting human affairs. But he still had friends (as far as those people can be called friends) under the hill. He rode straight away to Wild Swan Lake, where his mother and his father had first met, one midsummer dusk long ago. There, on a night of the full moon, he tapped on a certain door (invisible to wholly human eyes) in the hillside that rises from that lakeshore. He was not allowed beyond the threshold. He would never be allowed beyond, unless he consented to give up his humanity, but he spoke to someone there. The first price demanded was a strip of skin the whole length of him, but he beat the fairy haggler down. He gave up a strip of skin from around his wrist, and didn’t ask—he thought he’d rather not ask—what it was for. In return he was given a black, polished tree root shaped like the hilt of a sword, and a long sheath of birch bark, sewn with spider thread. Then he knelt at the water margin and touched the hilt to one glimmering silver ripple, which slipped into the bark sheath as if they’d been made for each other.
He returned to the palace a month after he’d set out. His wrist was painful, and there’d be a scar there for life, but he was feeling confident. The king and the magician received him in strict privacy. In the West Wing, in the magician’s comfortable study on the floor below his magical laboratory, they dimmed the lights. The magician took the fairy sheath and, slowly, drew out the sword of the Divine Huntress. The bright scalloped blade shone like silver. He laughed in delight. “Excellent! A triumph of my art—!”
“Well done!” said the king.
Damien noted that somehow his achievement had become the old conjuror’s “triumph.” But it didn’t matter. He had questing-fever now. He set out at once for the uttermost ocean, where he was to mine the yellow foam for a bushel of mer-gold. This transaction was not so simple. The Smith of the Uttermost Ocean lived in the galleries of a great cavern of green serpentine, that was half-filled by the tide twice a day, and only visited by one questing hero or so in a generation. He was a lonely and embittered minor divinity, and he insisted that Damien had to work for his gold, as well as pay for it. The Smith knew how to distil many precious and useful ores from the sea. He was an exacting taskmaster and he treated Damien like an apprentice. Damien spent two years in the damp, snakestone gloom, the roar of the waves a constant booming in his ears, learning more than he had ever desired to know about the trade of smithying and the inner nature of metals. Time and again, he thought he’d completed his task, and then the Smith, who complained that the terms of the engagement were vague, changed his mind as to what quantity of gold constituted “a bushel.” But at last, he managed to escape with his prize.
When the magician’s security guards escorted him once more to the sage’s study, he could see that the king and the magician didn’t recognise him. He himself didn’t recognise the room. It seemed larger, and everything looked shiny. He limped across to the magician’s huge desk, and dumped his burden. “That’s a bushel,” he said. “The equivalent of eight gallons of sea-foam gold, dry measure. It may seem like less, but I got the Smith to sign for it.”
They were looking at him strangely. “Are you hurt?” asked the king.
“Not exactly. It was the price of the gold. One hamstring tendon: The Smith needed it to mend his bellows; he’s lost both his own hamstrings, as you know.”
The magician opened the seaweed sack. A greenish glow oozed out. He dipped in his hand. The magic gold dust slithered over his palm. “Beautiful,” he murmured. “And all mine!”
Damien could still hear the sea rushing and roaring in his ears. It was as if an endless earthquake had taken up residence in his head.
“Very good,” declared the king. “Very good . . . You are doing a good quest, my fine fellow. And now, I believe it’s the Lost Helmet of Invisibility.”
So Damien set off in search of the Helm. He thought of going home to visit his family first, but decided against it. His oldest step-brother was now crown prince, and Damien’s presence would only open old wounds. Besides, he had questing-fever.
It took years, this time. The Helm had been lost for over five hundred years. Before he even began to look for it, he had to learn how to search: in old libraries and record offices, in museums and monasteries. He had to work to support himself as well. Since the crisis over the succession had been weathered, it was a lot more difficult getting money out of his father. Sometimes he thought of the princess. He saw in his mind’s eye that pallid hand, and wondered what it would feel like to touch it. He wondered what they would talk about, when he was king and she was queen. But the achievement was more important than the reward. When he finally returned to that orchard and freed the famous “grass princess” from her bondage, (she was famous now. The court magician had made sure of that,) he would had done something with his life, and nobody would be able to deny it.
Damien discovered that around the time when the Helm disappeared, a certain giant called Lamerish of the Crags had been a prominent social figure. He had been much more socialized than the average giant: In fact, he was a noted art collector. There had been rumours. But no one could prove—or dared to try—that he had a secret collection of stolen treasures besides those that he kept on open display. The Helm of Invisibility had disappeared from the treasury of a royal family that was now extinct. Lamerish the giant, Damien learned, seemed to have vanished from history at about the same time. The first part of the search ended when Damien established that a small, craggy piece of a neighbouring kingdom’s highest mountain range had also vanished from modern maps.
He knew that the only way to reach a place made invisible by magic was to travel there through fairyland. So he went again to the door in the hillside—a different hillside from the one above Wild Swan Lake, but the same entrance, to the same forbidden realm. The guardian of the threshold could have been the same as the person with whom he’d bargained for a moonbeam sword-blade. Damien couldn’t tell. One doesn’t see those people clearly. In this world, they are a trick of the light. He saw the shadow of leaves moving, a glint of sunlight eyes, a hint of dappled animal limbs . . . He was told that the price of his journey to the Invisible Crag would be that he would not be able to find the door in the hill again. He would be earthbound, forever. Damien accepted the bargain. Something touched his eyes lightly. He saw and felt nothing until he found himself standing knee deep in alpine snow, a terrifying desolation of rock and ice and snow rearing up around him.
He climbed to the giant’s castle. No one challenged him. He passed through the fallen gates, through snowdrifts to the great doors of the keep, where human and giant-sized men-at-arms were still standing, frozen and mummified, upright in their corroded armour. The giant must have stolen the Helm, or had it stolen: used it to hide his castle, and then discovered too late that he could not undo what he had done. Obviously he wasn’t a student of magic, or he would have known that the Helm was protected. Any thief who used it would find he couldn’t take it off again, and couldn’t return himself or anything he had rendered invisible to the visible world. Damien walked into the great hall, through ranks of priceless, mouldering artworks. The giant Lamerish was sitting there alone, in a huge bronze chair that had once belonged to an Emperor, facing the doorway with dark, unseeing eyes. He must have died, along with all his people, of hunger and thirst. The Helm was like a closed crown, the bands of magic metal set with dim grey jewels. Damien lifted it from the giant’s yellowed skull, being careful not to touch it with his bare hands. He wrapped it in his spare shirt.
The crag had returned to the real world as soon as Damien took the Helm from the skull. He set off to make the long descent. He’d been prepared, but conditions above the snowline were worse that season than he had imagined possible. By the time he reached safety, his hands and face and feet were ravaged by frostbite. It was months before he was fit to travel back to the palace.
• • • •
The magician was ecstatic. He positively drooled over the Helm. The king was excited too. He kept repeating: “Well done, well done, very good work!”—and patting his hands over his plump belly as he sat in comfort in the magician’s splendid audience chamber. They were both looking extremely prosperous, as was the whole palace.
Damien just felt terribly tired. But some profound emotion began to stir as he watched the two self-satisfied old men.
“I’d like to see the princess again now.”
“Eh? See the princess?” The king, bemused by this suggestion, looked to the sage for guidance. The magician discreetly pursed his lips and frowned. “I’m afraid that’s impossible,” declared the king. “You see, my boy, you haven’t completed the tasks—”
Damien set his teeth, and clenched his scarred fists. “I’d like to see the princess.”
To avoid a scene, they took him to the orchard, accompanied by the minimum security escort. Nothing had changed much there. The rest of the palace was full of people these days, bustling about the business of the “grass princess affair.” But the magician had wisely realised that the enchanted princess was not, in herself, an impressive object. It was better that she remained a mystery, unvisited and secret.
It was September and the grass had been allowed to grow rich and long. It had gone to seed in plumes of russet and gold. There was a humming of insects in the sultry afternoon air. A few red apples glowed between the leaves of the old tree; a single ageing nursemaid jumped up from her chair and curtsied.
The king and the magician had to wait for Damien to catch up. He limped towards them, flanked by guards, and stared down at that blurred hummock in the long grass: the weather-browned leaf-shape of her face, the sallow root-fingers of her uncovered hand. He remembered the scene he’d imagined: the delicate hand waiting for his touch, the sweet face looking up like a fallen star . . . A rush of bitterness overwhelmed him. He saw what the grass princess was. She was bait in a trap. She was the bait those two gloating, fatherly monsters had used, to lure Damien into their service. They had taken the treasures. They had taken his strength, his youth, his time, his birthright . . . And for nothing. Because suddenly he knew that he would never win. That hump in the grass would never stand up, a human girl. He’d been so naïve! It was obvious to him now that the magician hadn’t the slightest idea how the “enchantment” could be broken. The list of tasks was pure, greedy invention.
“Damn you!” he yelled. “You old bloodsuckers! Liars! Thieves!”
The guards reacted quickly. But they didn’t know how much force they should use. After all, Damien was supposed to be the hero of the story that was keeping everyone in business. The prince, lame and weary as he was, shook off their restraining hands. He flung himself on the grass. He got hold of the hand. It didn’t respond: It was inanimate as earth. He dropped it and started tugging and tearing, sobbing furiously—
“Cheats! I gave you my life! For this thing, this scrap of dirt—”
The guards dragged him off, prising loose his twisted fingers. The king was shaking his head sadly, the magician looked wise and pained.
“That won’t do, you know,” said the king mildly. “You can’t force her.”
Damien stared at them. The grass cuts on his hands were stinging. “I’ve finished,” he said heavily. “You can keep your quest.” He kept on looking back, staring with the same dull anger, as he stumbled away. The magician made a sign that the guards were to let him go. “Most regrettable,” he remarked. “Very shocking.”
“What a shame. And he had only one task left to perform. What was it, by the way?”
“Bring peace to the House of Ayi,” supplied the magician. He shrugged. “Something for the good of the community. A social service, you might say. There’s no treasure involved. I put it in—” he added, in a lapse of unusual candour, “because I felt otherwise our requirements might seem a little, well, acquisitive—to ignorant opinion.”
“Any chance that he might perform it? And come back?”
The two prosperous gentlemen glanced at each other, with almost a sly look. Secretly, the king was well aware that the quest was bogus, and that if a hero managed to fulfil their conditions, they’d have to start thinking of new excuses for why the enchantment remained unbroken . . . The magician knew that the king understood this.
“Very little,” he assured his master. “No chance at all, I’d say.” With a nod to the nursemaid, they turned to leave the orchard. “Well, Damien has failed,” went on the magician. “We must seek a new champion. There will be plenty of candidates, there’s been a great deal of interest building up.” He rubbed his hands in anticipation. “I must compose a new list.”
• • • •
Damien left the orchard where the grass princess lay dreaming far behind him. He decided to take up the usual career of a disinherited prince and become a mercenary soldier. He was strong from the years at the smithy, and he still had the remnants of his early training in his father’s castle. But he was lame and scarred, and he couldn’t raise his own troops or even equip himself well. He wandered for months through the neighbouring kingdoms without finding employment. At last, he came to a country where warfare had become a way of life. The farmlands were devastated, the people were starving. The cities were battered fortresses, struggling along from one siege-and-burning to the next . . . Damien rode into this blighted land at the beginning of winter. He couldn’t locate the armies, but one day as he was riding through the desolate fields, a woman stepped out in the road in front of him, and took hold of his horse’s bridle. She was dark-skinned, like many of the people of this country. She was dressed in ragged leather, unarmed as far as he could see, and had a bloodstained rag tied round one shoulder. She wore gold braided in her wiry hair, and gold rings on her fingers. It was dusk: The gold and her eyes and teeth shone like life in the gloom.
“That’s a fine horse,” she said.
The mare was not a fine horse. But Damien looked at the woman—brigand, beggar, or soldier, it was all the same in this country—and he loved her. He knew from the way she looked up at him that she felt the same sudden flame. “Who are you?” he said.
“I am a queen, but at this moment a beggar-queen. Will you help me?”
“And I’m a general,” laughed Damien. “Get up behind, I can give you a lift.”
The beggar-queen thanked him, got up behind and directed him across the fields, past the gibbets where the dead hung in chains, through a burned village to an armed camp. When she slipped to the ground at the first guard post, uproar burst out. Damien learned that he had met a genuine queen: Nenya the Black, who had been captured by the Duke, her brother, and had escaped as he found her—alone and unarmed.
So the prince joined Nenya’s army. He never became a general, but before long he became her lover. The other officers, a desperate crew of cutthroats, called him Hob because of his limp, and they didn’t resent his privileges. Nenya the Black was a tigress, too hot for any but this brave fool of a stranger. Damien heard her story, partly from Nenya herself and partly from one of her real generals, a grizzled old soldier called Camiero Goodwill. There had been war for generations, between the Black Ayi and the White. The Black Ayi were indeed often black-skinned, but that wasn’t how they got their name. They were devils, declared Camiero with pride. Nenya and Ester of Ayi, when they were very young, had ruthlessly destroyed the Whites and briefly pulled the whole country together. They were brother and sister, and lovers, too, as was the custom. Then the Emperor—a foreigner, explained Camiero, who for some unfathomable reason imagined he owned Ayi—interfered. He made Ester a Duke, with legal title to the whole domain, on condition that he marry his “White” cousin, a child who had been taken off and reared abroad (which was how she came to be still alive). The Emperor didn’t know or care about local customs.
“Nenya bided her time,” explained Camiero. “Until the White arrived. She nearly cut the little girl’s throat, and then we’d have had peace. But we were betrayed. That traitor Ester turned the army against us and threw us out, Nenya and her whole train—I was with the queen then already, you see. So she raised her own army, and the war began again.”
The story was told differently in the countries where Damien had been a prince and a questing-hero. But he accepted the new version, in which a blood feud made sense and Black Nenya was in the right. He forgot his old life almost entirely. Sometimes, on the edge of sleep, he would remember the grass princess, and wonder if she would ever find a hero . . . scarred as she was scarred, bound as she was bound. He knew the famous words now, though he hadn’t heard them before he started the quest. The magician hadn’t been able to prevent them from passing into popular mythology. But it was not his problem any more.
One day—it was the end of another winter—Nenya took him out onto a tawny, snow-stained mountainside, to a ridge that overlooked a wide view of rolling hills. Things had been going well for the queen. She was about to begin her great attack on Ayi itself. It was a fine morning; they were on horseback.
“Do you see those towers?” she said. “The four great towers against the sky? That’s the castle of Ayi, where I was born. I will never rest until I am back within those walls.” She did not look at Damien. But he looked at her, and he was consumed with jealousy and hatred for the Duke of Ayi. After that day, the lovers began to quarrel. Camiero and the other officers—men and women both, because in Ayi Nenya was not the only tigress—looked on and shrugged and didn’t try to intervene. They’d seen this happen before. Damien was jealous, and Nenya scornful. Damien demanded proof of her love, Nenya told him he was a common soldier, and she owed him nothing. He still shared her bed. Her passion there grew savage as her forces closed in on Ayi. But Damien knew that it was the Duke’s face she saw in the dark, her traitor brother’s body she embraced.
They were preparing to attack an armed supply train. It was a minor part of Nenya’s plan, this ambush in a pass called the Scartaran Defile, but she was leading it herself. Damien had been sent off, with jeers from the queen, to guard the spare horses. He decided that this was his chance to tackle Nenya alone. He left the horses and sneaked around the lines of ragged soldiers, hidden in the boulders and the long brown thickets of winter grass, to where Nenya was sitting by herself a little way off from her officers, as always before a fight. “Nenya,” he whispered. “We have to talk—”
“No.” She jumped up and turned on him, a long knife in each hand. “I have made up my mind. I’m going to kill you. It will be your release, poor fool.”
So they fought. But it was Nenya the Black who fell, her life choking out of her.
Without Nenya, the ambush became a rout. And it was that day, after the battle, that the Duke Ester killed himself, on learning of his sister’s death. It was that same day, as Nenya lay in the castle courtyard on a wooden trestle, at rest within the walls of Ayi, that the Duke’s young wife came down—looking like a child before the crowd of war-hardened savages—with her baby in her arms, and spoke to the people, saying that the lovers should be buried in one grave, and from now on there would be peace. Damien was there, through these great events. He found that he was somehow counted responsible for ending the feud. He said all he wanted was to go home. So the Duke’s wife gave him money and a fine horse, and set him on his way. Some time later, maybe days or maybe hours, he found himself on a road somewhere, got down from the horse and ran into a wood. He was looking for the door into fairyland. He could not find it. He ran wildly into a thicket of thorns, and struggled there until he fell, bleeding from ten thousand wounds.
• • • •
When he woke up, he couldn’t see. He heard the pad of bare feet, and felt someone was bending over him. “You’re awake,” said an old, kindly voice. “That’s good. I am the Hermit of the Borderland. I found you hurt in the wood and brought you to my home. Don’t be afraid, you will not be blinded for long.”
Damien touched his own face, with his scarred fingertips. “What’s this?”
“A compress of bruised herbs. It’s a kind of wild grass. It will speed the healing.”
The prince lay and thought about that. “Grass,” he repeated. “It smells of earth.” He sighed. “I have to make a journey. One more journey.”
“In a few days.”
“No. At once.”
So they set out.
• • • •
In the apple orchard it was April again, with a wind like ice and the sun like honey. The princess who lay bound in the grass was blossoming like the trees. The nursemaid, who had once been a blossoming girl herself, playing tag in the chilly sunshine, talked to the princess quietly, while she did her knitting. She liked to talk, and no one could prove that the grass princess didn’t hear you, even if she never answered.
The Hermit led Damien, his eyes still bound. The prince heard a comfortable murmuring voice that broke off suddenly.
“Am I in the orchard?”
“Yes, sir,” said the nurse.
“The king? Is he here? The magician?”
“Oh no, they’ve all gone, I’m sorry sir. The king is on his holidays, in the Fortunate Isles. And the magician . . . if you mean the old one, he left us a while ago. You see, we didn’t attract the right kind of hero, after prince Damien failed. And our sage had a very good offer from a big ‘multinational,’ I think they call them. So we’re very quiet here now. The palace is mostly shut up. Should I show you to the reception office?”
“No, thank you.”
Damien sat down. His hands brushed the young grass. He could not tell if it was warmer where it covered what had once been the body of a girl, he could feel no pulse of separate life. He groped, and found her hand. It lay in his for a moment, like a twist of dry grass. Then the world shivered, and changed. Warm fingers grasped his. The princess stirred, sat up, and stood, drawing Damien to his feet.
“Who are you?”
Damien let go her hand and pulled the grass from his eyes. The princess was standing there, clothed in the rags of a baby shawl and her tumbling dark hair: a strong, shapely young woman, with no visible scar from her long imprisonment.
“A friend,” he said. “Just a friend.”
The nursemaid ran and fetched the clothes, the set of clothes that was traditionally kept ready. The Hermit told the new young woman what she must do to give thanks for her deliverance. Soon she was dressed. She returned to the stranger, looking shy and solemn.
“They tell me you broke the enchantment. And that means . . . I belong to you?”
He shook his head. He thought of his bitter experience, his long trials, his guilt and shame. He was stricken, scarred, and bound. He had nothing to say to this stainless creature. How could she possibly understand?
“No. You don’t belong to anyone. Walk away, princess. Forget what happened here. Be your own woman.”
So the princess walked away. But when she came to the orchard gate, she stopped. She turned and came back. Damien saw that the scars were there, after all. He saw the misery and frustration of her bondage, the silent courage and endurance, all the voiceless suffering of the years, looking out of eyes that mirrored his own.
“This isn’t the end of the story,” she said. “It is the beginning. Be my friend.”
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