Once there lived a prince who, as all princes do, came of age to marry. However, no princess could be found who met the prince’s exacting standards. His father arranged for him to meet many princesses: girls from near and far; plain ones; lovely ones; rich ones; poor ones… The prince dismissed them all.
In each one he would find a flaw that disqualified her. “She’s no true princess,” he would say, “A princess must be kind. Gentle. Noble. Regal. She must command both love and respect.”
Eventually the king grew tired of his son’s refusal to chose a bride. He became angry, and swore that if the prince would not marry, then he would not ascend to the throne, and that his younger brother should be named successor. But the prince would not budge.
The king became sick, and died. Before he did so, he kept his oath. The prince’s younger brother was made king, and he and his wife took up their thones as king and queen. The younger prince had not been overly particular in choosing a bride; his wife came from a wealthy kingdom and was quite pretty.
However, the old King’s choice of successor proved to be a very poor choice, for the new King was cruel and unjust. He was harsh with the people and had no compassion on them in their suffering. To his older brother he was viciously unkind, for he was afraid that the older prince would try and usurp the throne.
One day, when the older prince was walking in the garden, he heard a voice call his name. He looked around, but there was no one to be seen. But then he heard the voice again, and so he searched through the garden until he found its source.
Nestled among the flowers of the garden was a pea-plant. Upon it hung but one pod. The prince opened it; inside was a single pea.
“It is good you have found me,” said the pea, ” for I have news that you should hear.”
“As I hang here in the garden, many people walk past, and so I hear the comings and goings of all the castle. Your brother, the king, is afraid of you. He has arranged for you to be murdered, this very night, so that you might not take the throne from him.”
At this the prince was overwhelmed with grief; although he knew his brother disliked him, he had not realized that it would cause his death.
“Take heart.” said the pea. “You are not dead yet; but you must flee the castle without delay.”
“Where shall I go? What shall I do?” cried the prince.
“Don’t worry about that,” said the pea, “but take me with you, and I promise you that you shall find good fortune, just so long as you are careful to follow my advice in everything. And now, it is time to leave.”
So the prince put the pea into his pocket. Taking nothing with him, he slipped out of the castle by the servants’ entrance, escaping unnoticed.
As he was going down the road, he chanced upon a beggar asking him for alms. But having no money (what use does a prince in a castle have for market coin?) he was about to pass the beggar by, when the pea bade him stop.
“If you wish to travel safely,” said the pea, “you must not appear so princely as you are. Exchange clothing with the beggar; he will certainly be grateful for some finer stuff.”
The prince was unconvinced, for the beggar’s rags were poor indeed, but after some discussion with the pea, reason prevailed. The beggar was more than willing. Just as the pea had said, he was overwhelmed by the prince’s generosity.
The prince traveled away from the castle in the beggar’s clothing, trying to find a safe place where he could stay. But he had no provisions of any sort, and he quickly realized that his only hope was to follow the profession of his hastily borrowed uniform, and beg.
It was not easy for the prince to become a beggar. He wasn’t naturally talented at it. He carried with him much pride, which he was force to give up, with much sorrow. However, his work was made easier by the fact that the people he was begging from mostly knew what to do and how to treat him. The good folks treated him well, and the bad ones… well, they treated him badly.
But, with no place to go, and with no other opportunity presenting itself, the prince managed to carve out a role as a beggar. He was not totally overwhelmed, for he had the pea ever at his side, and from time to time the pea would point out to him a person who was liable to be more generous than another. And so, in this fashion, he traveled across the country he once believed would be his own.
All through this time the prince learned a great deal about the world, and about life, and about his own self. He asked a great many questions, mostly starting with, “Why?” and he worked his way past his own despair and dejection at being exiled. From time to time he questioned his friend the pea, reminding him that he had been promised good fortune. To this, the pea always bade him be patient, and assured him that all good things came to those who were willing to wait for them.
One day, at the end of a particularly long and grueling day of travel, the prince was resting at the side of the road. He was utterly spent, and although he had hoped to reach some town or village, his legs would bear him no further, and so he sat in the ditch at the side of the road.
In other circumstances, he might have found himself abominably hungry, but as it was, he could think only of his thirst. The road was dry and dusty, and he had found no streams or pools on his journey that day.
And so he sat in the dust and the heat, with his head down, covered by his beggar’s shawl, to shade him from the sun.
In his preoccupation with his fatigue and thirst, he did not hear the footsteps. But he felt the hand on his shoulder, and heard the voice.
“Excuse me, sir… would you like some water?”
The prince could not really think; he could not appreciate the rarity of someone offering him something, unbegged. He was too tired and thirsty for that.
He just looked up, and met the eyes of the girl bending down over him. And when he did, he knew.
He had found his true princess.
In his travels, the beggar had suffered many hardships and insults. They had been painful; at times he had felt utterly worthless and wretched.
But there was no pain to compare with what he felt as he watched the peasant girl walk away. His heart was being torn away from him with every footstep fading in the distance. She was a true princess, but what was he? He looked at his rags, at the ditch where he sat. A beggar. There was no chance of love, of marriage…
Who would marry a beggar?
Certainly no father in the world who would give the hand of a true princess away to a beggar.
He had been given the grace of a drink of water, certainly. He had found a princess, it was true. But the delight was being washed away with dread. He turned his pain into anger and poured it out upon the pea.
“Where is my fortune?” he cried. “What fortune have you brought me? You have brought me to the greatest treasure, my only joy… and it is beyond my grasp! It would be better if you had left me to die at my brother’s hand, than to live the phantom life of a beggar, seeing everything, having nothing!”
The pea was silent, and eventually the beggar’s tirade broke down into a quiet sobbing.
“Ah, my poor friend,” said the pea at last, “I see it has not been easy for you. But consider this – there once was a day where you wore different clothes: a day before you put on these rags and made yourself a beggar. Perhaps there will come a day when you will take off these rags, and you will no longer be a beggar.”
“Only one thing is certain…” continued the pea, “if you do not get out of that ditch and find out which village she comes from, you really *will* lose your princess.”
So the beggar got up from the ditch and so he followed the road that the girl had taken.
When he arrived at the girl’s village, he found it in turmoil. Every man, woman and child was gathered in the village square; men were shouting; the confusion was deafening.
“We’d better go.” said the beggar. “It seems there is trouble, and that is the last thing we need.”
“No,” said the pea, “we should at least find out what is going on. There may be a chance here to find yourself some new clothes, I think.”
So the beggar eased his way into the throng, and began to ask questions about what was going on. Piece by piece he put together the story of the uproar.
It turned out that it was time for the village to present its annual tribute to the king. They had gathered together enough gold for the smith to create a single golden ball – the wealth of the village.
But… the ball was lost! Some believed it had been stolen. The entire village had been searched, but no trace of the ball could be found.
Tomorrow the King’s man was to arrive, and if he were to find the village without its tribute, they would be taken as rebellious, and the King would be certain to exact a terrible reprisal.
“I am sure,” said the pea, “that the people of these village would offer a proper reward to someone who could restore their treasure to them.”
“Well,” said the beggar, “if they can’t find it, I don’t know how I would ever. And if it is stolen, how could I recover it?”
“Be that as it may,” said the pea, “it cannot hurt to ask. At least find out what is at stake before giving up.”
So the beggar looked over the throng, trying to find someone who looked an authority. He picked upon a barrel-chested man in the centre of the crowd. Making his way through to him, he asked him what would be given if someone could recover the treasure.
The man looked at him and began to laugh. Loudly. So loudly that people around them stopped shouting and started staring. Before long the entire group had fallen quiet and the only sound was the laughter of the barrel-chested man.
“This beggar asks,” bellowed the man to the crowd, “what we would give to the man who recovered this treasure.”
The beggar shifted awkwardly. He was acutely aware that every eye was upon him. He wished he could disappear, run back into the crowd. But then… he saw her face among the others. She was there too, watching him. He couldn’t run.
“Yes, sir,” he said loudly. “I do ask.”
“Well,” mocked the man, “what did you have in mind?’
The question stunned him. He hadn’t thought about what he actually wanted. He looked down at his pocket.
“Don’t look at me.” whispered the pea. “What *do* you want?”
“A house and land” the beggar blurted. He hadn’t thought; the words had just come out. As soon as they did, he was afraid. It was too much.
It was to his shock that, after a brief consultation, the people of the village agreed. If he could recover the golden ball, he would be given a house and a plot of land.
Once this was agreed, the beggar lost no time in seeking an out of the way spot where he could consult with his friend the pea. To his chagrin, however, the pea had no better advice for finding the golden ball than to sit under a tree and rest for a bit.
Being himself completely lost as to how to begin, the beggar condescended to follow the pea’s advice, and, finding an elm at the edge of the village, he sat.
After a time, the pea spoke up.
“My friend the elm,” he said, “says it saw a very small child playing with a golden ball in the field over there. It says that it did not see what became of the ball, but that it is certain the child did not come back to the village with it.”
The beggar sprang up. “Then let us search the field at once!” he cried.
And so he did, but he found no trace of it in the field. He did find, however, an abandoned well in one corner of the field. He peered down into its black depths.
“Do you think…” he murmured.
“What are you willing to risk?” challenged the pea.
The beggar looked at his rags. “What do I have to lose?” he said.
The village awoke the next morning to see, in the middle of its square, a creature of the pit. It was filth and slime from head to toe. It stank – to a village accustomed to all the smells of life it stank – but resting in its palm… was a golden ball.
The barrel chested man approached it. He was followed by his daughter and the rest of the village.
“We are much indebted…” he began, but he stopped as he saw a flash of white appeared from out of the the grime – a broad grin was spreading across the creature’s face.
The beggar, for his part, was happy just to sit and hold that golden ball and smile at his princess. He knew that there was no way she could see through the filth to know it was her that he was smiling at… but… she was smiling too, standing behind her father and smiling at the creature of mud.
There was no way for her to see, and yet she knew, and so the beggar just sat there with a big, foolish grin on his face. “There’s a princess for you,” he whispered to the pea.
“No, my friend.” whispered the pea. “There’s a princess for *you*.”
And indeed it proved to be the case, for the beggar was no more a beggar. With his new home and land, he became a farmer, and if it was not a princely occupation, it was an honest and respectable one. He settled in the village. He courted and married his princess.
He introduced his wife to his friend the pea; they gave it a seat of honor on top of their mantleplace. They were happy; they had a son, who brought them much joy.
And they grew peas.
It would be nice to say that the farmer lived happily ever after, but that sort of thing only happens in fairy-tales.
Life has a way of intervening in things, and happy though he was, the farmer was not immune. Nor, it seemed, was anyone else, because a dragon came to the kingdom. No one was certain why it came, although people were unanimous that its presence was a Bad Thing. Be it the burning or or the man-eating or the killing of the King’s knights, the dragon was most unpopular.
The King put out a ransom on the beast, and although many tried to claim it, all who tried were killed. In his desperation, the King raised the amount and raised it, until eventually he pledged half his kingdom to the man who would slay the beast.
The farmer did not try. He stayed with his wife and his son and his land.
One day, the pea spoke to him from above the mantlepiece.
“How long are you going to let this continue?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” said the farmer.
“I think you do.” said the pea. “There’s a dragon ravaging the country and you’re content to hide here and let your people suffer.”
“I’m a farmer,” said the farmer, “I don’t have people – only my wife and my son, and I take care of them the best I can. Let the king deal with the dragon – that’s his job.”
“You know who you are,” said the pea. “You can’t let this happen.”
“Watch me.” said the farmer.
“No,” said the pea. “I don’t think I will.”
The next day, the farmer awoke to find that the pea on the mantlepiece was shrivelled, dried and black. He spoke to it, but it said nothing back. The pea was dead.
The farmer cried for the loss of his friend the pea. His wife and his son mourned too, for the pea had been a friend to them all. Only the farmer knew, however, why the pea had gone. And he set out to find the dragon.
Finding a dragon is not particularly difficult – they tend to advertise their whereabouts. But how to approach one? He was no knight to take the open field, but perhaps – just maybe – he could find the dragon’s lair and pull some trickery in the close and the dark. The farmer went exploring.
The farmer had no weapons for his hunt, but he took his tools – his hoe and rake and gardening stakes. He trekked through the hills and forests where he knew the dragon must keep its lair. He found it -mostly by the stench – a foul hole in the side of a hill. The entrance was littered with bones, some animal… and some human. It took all his courage for him to enter. But he lit his lamp and went in.
The cave was a loathsome cave, and the smell was overpowering – a stench of death and decay. But the cave was not large, and did not take much time to explore. But what trap to lay for the dragon? The farmer could think of nothing to snare or kill a beast so large.
His thoughts were interrupted by a noise – a snorting and a scratching at the mouth of the cave. The dragon had returned to its lair… and he was trapped inside.
The farmer did not know how he would fight the dragon, or how he would get out alive, but two thoughts occurred to him. The first was that he had no chance of fighting the dragon in the dark, and the second was that he must get away from his lamp. He placed it on the floor and darted to the opposite side of the cave, flattening himself against the wall.
The farmer could hear the dragon coming closer, the scraping and grinding of claws and scales on stone. He held back a gasp as it came into the glow of the lamp, and he saw the hulking shape of its blackness. As he had hoped, it turned directly towards the lamp, hissing and opening its jaws to devour it.
The farmer knew that if he was to live, he must take any opportunity. No sooner had the beast turned its back on him then he rushed upon it. His thought was that he must get close – too close for the dragon to use its claws or its tail – and so he flung himself upon its back.
The dragon screamed a piercing cry that made the farmer’s blood run cold. But in the confines of the cave, it could not beat its wings or shake him off. Neither could it reach around to seize him in its jaws. It tried; it lashed its tail against the stone walls of the cave and craned its neck, all the while giving forth its hideous cry of rage.
The farmer clambered atop the shoulders of the dragon. He had abandoned his tools on the floor of the cave, but he had slung across his back a single garden stake. This he reached for, noting as he did the way the scales of the dragon’s shoulders joined together.
And then he struck. He thrust the stake as far as it would go, sliding it home between the scales. The dragon wailed and shuddered… and then collapsed to the floor of the cave. It was dead.
The farmer’s heart was racing as he slid from the dragon’s back, and he was filled at once with both triumph and disbelief. The deed was done – he had slain the dragon.
The corpse, lying in the middle of the cave, seemed smaller, somehow. It had lost its intimidation and its terror. The farmer collected his lamp and his tools and turned to leave. But before he did, he took his hoe and struck off the very tip of the dragon’s tail, placing it in his bag.
“This is for you, my friend.” he said, and the farmer went home.
The farmer said nothing to his wife or son about his adventure. He hid the dragon’s tail in a box beneath his bed, and quietly went back to farming.
The absence of the dragon, however, was quickly noticed and caused a great stir. The king, delighted that the beast was no longer terrorizing, ordered a search of the land to confirm the dragon was dead or gone. His knights found the lair and corpse.
“The dragon is dead, sire.” they reported. “Whoever has killed it has taken the tip of its tail as a trophy.”
“Very well,” said the King. “The man who wishes to claim the reward must produce the tail.”
But the tail was safe beneath the farmer’s bed, and so no one came forth to claim the reward. And the farmer stayed a farmer, and the dragon stayed dead.
The next year, however, a terrible drought came upon the land. The crops in the field withered and died. All across the land, people were starving. The king, cruel as ever, would spend nothing from his treasury to import food. He left the people to fend for themselves, and their suffering was great.
The farmer’s own crops failed, and those of all in his village. When the farmer looked at the gauntness of his son’s face he felt a gnawing that was greater even than his own hunger. Walking through his village, he could not hide the truth that starvation was out walking the streets as well; the village could not live. His thoughts turned to the dragon’s tail beneath his bed. He knew what he had to do – he had to redeem the tail.
The guards at the palace scoffed when a farmer arrived, seeking audience with the King. “We’re here to keep trash like you away.” they mocked.
“Please,” said the farmer. “Please. My people are starving.”
“And what is that to us?” they spat back at him. “What is that to the King?”
So the farmer showed them the dragon’s tail. “Even if the people are of no concern to the King, perhaps this may be.”
They let him in.
Now, he King was not fond of holding audiences with his subjects. He was afraid of them. He knew they despised him, and, because he was afraid, he despised them. When the farmer was brought before him, the King was furious.
“Why are you wasting my time with this miserable peasant?” he cried. “I have enough of these, why must you bother me with this one?”
“He has the dragon’s tail, my Lord.”
“Is this true?” demanded the King.
The sight of the dragon’s tail filled the King with hate – hatred for the tail, hatred for the farmer, hatred for… (himself?) In the time that had passed since the slaying of the dragon, the King had come to hope that perhaps he would not have to pay the reward at all. He was loath to part with half his kingdom.
He might have paid it, perhaps, to a nobleman or to a brave knight. But to a farmer?
“How dare you disturb me with this impostor?” the King screamed. “Farmers don’t kill dragons! This man is a liar and a fraud; he has cheated or stolen to gain this tail! Throw him in my dungeon and never let me see his face again!”
The farmer was taken to the dungeon, where he sat alone in the damp and the dark. His family and village were starving. His last hope – the dragon’s tail – was gone. His friend the pea was dead.
And he? He was helpless to do anything about it.
Time doesn’t exist within a dungeon. That is, it doesn’t exist as it does everywhere else. It no longer has meaning, and so it is a dead thing, an empty ticking away of hours with no evidence of hours passing.
The farmer did not count hours, or days, or even weeks. He saw no point. The farmer knew (as everyone in the kingdom knew) that the King’s dungeons were for people to die in. Sometimes by execution, or by sickness, or by starvation. No one was ever freed. And so the farmer ignored time. He knew how his story would end, and long it took… well, that was irrelevant.
He was asleep when they came for him, awakened by the clatter of his own manacles being loosened. He was surprised by the chills he felt, by the tightness of his gut. He had not thought he would be brought out to die; but he had thought, if he was, he might be numb to it…
But no, he was afraid. What bloody scene awaited him? A gallows? A bloody block? Some dank pit? He struggled and fought, thrashing out to grasp at the dungeon walls, anything to cling to! The damp stone was at least familiar. He knew the dark confines of the dungeon and could not bear to leave them for some more awful thing.
But the guards were strong, and the farmer was taken away. squeezing his his eyes as tightly closed as possible. He did not want to see the place where they were going. He could not bear to know.
Eventually he felt the guards release him; the farmer collapsed in a heap on a floor. He kept his eyes shut. He would lie there; he would defy his executioner. He waited for the kicks, the angry voices. But… no blows came, no harsh commands. And then… he felt ashamed. Could he not face his death? Was he really so frightened that he must lie on the floor with his eyes shut? No, he should get up.
He opened his eyes and stood up.
There were no guards around him; he was alone, alone and in a large hall. He looked around, but the guards had really had left him, if only for the moment. Puzzled, he began to walk around the hall.
The farmer knew the room he was in from days long past; it was the Hall of Kings. The walls were covered with their portraits – stately, regal, serene.
The farmer knew them all; he whispered their names as he walked along. He stopped when he reached the portrait of his brother. The King in the painting had a petulant look, and the farmer remembered how, in the days before his brother’s coronation, his anxious brother had complained about the time it wasted, sitting for this very painting.
He looked away from the painting; he didn’t want to remember any more. But his eyes fell on the plaque beneath the painting, and he saw the dates there – the date of the King’s birth… and of his death.
“Yes, the King is dead. He died yesterday.”
The farmer had been transfixed on the painting; he had not heard footsteps or see the other man approach him. The man was dressed in robes, and around his neck hung a heavy golden chain. It was the Visir.
“So very sad,” said the minister. “His last days were most unhappy. He was haunted, you know. A haunted man. He thought there was a plot against his life. ‘They know what I have done,’ he would say. ‘They tell me so. They know what I have done.'”
The farmer looked dumbfounded at the Visir.
“I asked him.” continued the Visir. “I asked him who he thought was telling him. He said it was the garden. He thought the garden was speaking to him, threatening him.”
“I don’t understand.” said the farmer.
“He wasn’t well, the King. So very, very sad.” said the Visir. “But that’s not what killed him. It was a hunting accident, one of those freak things that you never see coming – a tree fell over and crushed him. A healthy, strong tree, too… and not a breath of wind that day. I’ve never seen anything like it. But…” the Visir’s voice softened, “perhaps it was for the best. He wasn’t well.”
The farmer was having great difficulty forming any words. His mind was a jumble. Thoughts were popping up all over and he couldn’t get them to stay still.
“I suppose,” said the Visir, “that you’re wondering what this has to do with you.”
The farmer nodded.
“Yes.” he mumbled. And then, belatedly… “M’lord.”
“The King, as you know, had no children.” said the Visir. “And now the Queen has gone back to her own kingdom, renouncing her claim to the throne. She never loved this castle or this kingdom.”
The minister looked the farmer directly in the eye.
“That causes quite a serious problem of succession.” he said. “An empty throne is an invitation to mayhem and bloodshed. And so,” he went on, “I thought I had better give this kingdom to you. Unless I am very much mistaken, you already own half of it.”
The minister reached inside his robes and brought out the tip of the dragon’s tail. He handed it to the farmer, who took it somewhat gingerly. The farmer shook his head.
“I’m just a farmer.” he said. “The King never paid me the reward for the dragon. I didn’t want half the kingdom, just food for my family and my village. Please… let me go home to them.”
“Walk with me.” said the Visir. “I have something I think you need to see.”
They walked along to the end of the hall, until the Visir stopped before a wall mounting. It was covered by a drape. The Visir pulled the cloth away, revealing a gorgeous frame. Within it was not a portrait… but a piece of wood.
The stick was long, and thin. One end had been sharpened, crudely. Nearly the entire length was stained black – only the very tip of the butt end was untouched.. The farmer recognized it as the garden stake he’d used to kill the dragon.
“That’s a garden stake.” he said. “I’m a farmer. All I want is to go home to my village and my family.”
“If you had stuck that bit of wood into the ground, that would have made you a farmer,” stated the Visir. “But you didn’t. You stuck it into a dragon, and that made you a prince. People who kill dragons aren’t farmers, they’re princes. That garden stake, as you call it, saved the kingdom.”
“The King pledged the reward.” he went on. “He may never have intended to keep his word, but not even a King can break the strength of a King’s pledge. Make no mistake, the land is yours.”
“No.” said the farmer. “I can’t be a King.”
“It’s not only about you.” the Visir said softly. “Come with me.”
The Visir led the farmer out of the hall, and out onto a balcony. Below them stretched the entire kingdom. The farmer gasped, to see it. He had seen the view before, but… not this view.
The entire land was withered and dry. The sky above the hills was rusty red and the fields were brown with dust. The forests were blotches of brown and sickly yellow. He looked desperately around for any sort of growth, any sprig of green or flash of blue water, but all he saw was brown. The land was dying.
“The plants refuse to grow.” the Visir said. “Nothing grows. The plants refuse to live in the old King’s land.”
“The land,” he continued, “needs a good King. The people need a good King. The kingdom needs a King who will tend to it; who will care for it. In time the plants will grow again, but before that, the people need to live. The royal treasury must be opened and grain imported.”
The farmer looked at the land again. He began to cry. He could see where the old road wound between the Two Hills. Past that he knew was the Lazy River (it was hardly even a creek, now) and beyond that was his village, his home. He wanted so much to be there, but it was all dying…
He took his gaze from the countryside and looked at the Visir.
“I don’t know anything about being a King.”
The Visir smiled.
“Neither did your brother. But you seem to have an awareness. Nobody knows how to be a king; that’s why you have advisors.”
The coronation was most unusual in its simplicity. There was no excess of pomp or ceremony. In attendance were not just the court… but also peasants! The nobles sniffed and were aghast… but held their silence, for they knew better than to malign the king’s invited guests.
When the King ascended the throne, his robes were not red or purple. They were brown. The Queen wore neither lace nor jewelry, and the prince’s suit was utterly bereft of frills.
The King’s crown was a simple band, completely unadorned. His sceptre was a polished rod of wood, with not a trace of gold or silver to be seen upon it.
But there was one jewel on the rod. A single embedded in the very tip of the sceptre was a single emerald – cut round, not square.
“It looks,” laughed one observer, “the spitting image of a pea.”