THE QUEEN AND THE CAULDRON
Chapter I: The Princess Who Escaped
Four kingdoms, that is how it starts. There once were four kingdoms, of the old kind where kings and queens were wise and just, princes were charming and brave, and princesses were virtuous and fair. They were lands where farmers worked hard in fertile fields; where bandit lords held court in deep, dark woods; where bards sung their songs of love and adventure, silver and gold, in the hallowed halls of the nobility.
Four kingdoms: first among them proud Ascamore, where chivalry still lives. West of her lies Carabas, home of merchants, pirates and dreamers. To the south, Vezini, where information holds greater value then gold and each day is a new conspiracy. To the north, prosperous Guilder, which is where our story begins.
The sturdy hardwood door slammed open and King William Shamrock of Guilder stormed into the chamber. Trifolia! he bellowed. His face was glowing red and he was breathing hard through his nostrils. Blast, girl! Where are you!?
When he did not find his daughter the princess within her chambers, he hurried back out to the corridor again, his eyes rolling wildly as if trying desperately to catch a glimpse of her. Confounded girl! Where has she run off to?
As he rushed around a corner he nearly ran into his wife, Queen Midea. She was a milky skinned beauty with icy blue eyes and hair black as jet. She was actually shorter then her husband, but still seemed to be the taller of the two whenever they were together.
Oh, there you are, William, she said, her perfect face marred by a scowl. I take it you havent found her yet?
Damn that girl! William roared. Her husband-to-be is practically at the gates and she picks this time to vanish into thin air!?
Deep breaths, dear, Midea said. We still have at least an hour or two before Prince Galahad and the Ascamorean dignitaries arrive. Let the servants look for now, we have other things to worry about.
With some effort, King William managed to calm down. He put a hand over eyes and groaned- Oh, my poor nerves. I cant take much more of this; its a disaster! Where in Gods name is Trifolia?
As a matter of fact, Princess Trifolia Shamrock was at that very moment riding away from the castle on her favorite horse, a snow-white mare named Windflower, in an attempt at running away. She wore her sturdiest and plainest travelling clothes, and her long golden hair flew wildly in the wind.
She felt confident that the attempt would be successful. This was not an act of whimsy; she was well prepared, having spent over a week planning her escape. And she was a rather clever girl, quite possibly much cleverer then most other seventeen year-olds.
She had brought along a healthy supply on food, water and even some money the later mostly copper mixed up with a few silver, and a couple of gold coins safely stashed away for emergencies. If she had learned anything being brought up at a court, it was that gold always attracts attention. Furthermore, she had also made plans for avoiding the pursuers her parents would undoubtfully send after her once they figured out what had happened.
In truth, the current queen was only her stepmother. Trifolia and her twin brother Paris were the children of Queen Vesta, the previous wife of William. However, Vesta had died under mysterious circumstances shortly after the birth of the twins, and soon thereafter the king had remarried. Vesta had not even had time to name her children, and Midea had picked out the names instead.
What kind of a name is Trifolia Shamrock anyway? Its sounds ridiculous! Having never cared much for her true name, she had more or less forced her brother and all the servants to call her Tria instead. Her parents still stubbornly called her by her given name, however.
While William and Midea had never been cruel to the twins, neither had they ever been loving. Tria and Paris had been brought up by servants, largely ignored by the two regents. Paris spent his time practicing his archery, throwing parties for his friends from the Guilderian nobility, or simply standing in front of a mirror, admiring his own reflection. But while Paris was a shallow young man, Tria seemed to have gained all the depth he lacked. Her favorite pastime had always been to lock herself into Vestas grand library reading her mothers beloved books for hours upon end.
It was during these sessions of literary consumption that Tria had discovered that she possessed a most peculiar ability; anything she read from a book she would always remember perfectly should she so wish. This had naturally been a great help for her education, but also to fill her head up to the brim with dreams of the world outside the castle wall. The more she read, the more she yearned to see this world for herself.
And so, when her father had announced that she was to marry Prince Galahad Lionheart, heir to the throne of the neighboring kingdom of Ascamore, Tria had decided that enough was enough. She had only met this prince once seven years earlier, and she vaguely remembered him as a quiet and serious boy who did not seem particularly interested in good literature. Be that as it may, an engagement to a boy she didnt even know had been the last drop that spilled the cup, and Tria had decided to leave Guilder and her life as a princess behind once and for all.
The only drawback to this plan, she felt, was that she wouldnt be around to see their faces when the eve for the grand ball was at hand and they stood there without the promised princess. The ironic timing for her departure had been carefully calculated; everyone had been to busy preparing for the party to notice her slipping away, and by the time they realized that she had left the castle, the esteemed guests would have already started to arrive. With a little luck, the ensuing chaos would buy her enough time for her trail to go cold. She felt only a little bit sorry for the young prince and all the other royals and nobles who had travelled so far just to meet her, but she dulled this feeling with the thrill of being free at long last. In the end, her disappearance would simply be another scandal for them to gossip about, and she couldnt care less about that.
Once Tria felt confident she had put enough distance between the castle and herself, he held Windflower in to walking pace. She had stayed away from the main road and now skimmed the edges of the great forest South of the capital. She knew the paths in the area well, since she had often taken rides there before, but she was now very close to the border of what was known land to her. Very soon she would be leaving her old world behind.
This, she realized, was the point of no return.She still had time to turn around and ride back. Shed be late for the ball and in all kinds of trouble with the Queen, but she could still make that choice.
A raven flew over her head, cawed at her and landed in a nearby tree. Tria wondered if this was a good omen or a bad one.
She climbed of the horse, leaving it loose to rest and feed of the grass, and took a seat underneath the tree to contemplate her next move. Not that she was thinking about going back. Absolutely not!
Her belly growled, and Tria realized she hadnt eaten since breakfast. Berating herself for not taking the chance to eat her fill while she was embezzling her provisions from the castle kitchen, she pulled a piece of fresh bread from the pouch and uncorked her waterskin.
While eating, she happened to cast a glance into the tree and found that the raven was looking down at her.
And what are you gawking at? Tria asked. She waved her hand at the large bird. Shoo. Fly away.
Instead of doing as told, the raven cocked its head to the side and seemed to be listening. After a moment or two, Tria realized that she heard something as well. It sounded like far-off singing, but she couldnt quite make out the words.
However, before long the singer appeared, walking up the same path she had travelled down. He was a young man little more then a boy, a few years older then her at the most. He was lanky and somewhat skinny, with unwire hair the color of straw. With his worn, tattered travelling clothes he gave the impression of a walking scarecrow. Aside from his rucksack he carried with him a small cauldron, and as he sang he rhythmically struck its bottom like a drum. As he came nearer, Tria began to discern the words:
There once was a boy from the wayside
Who travelled to Heaven and back
He stole all the stars from the dayside
And carried them off in his sack
A tongue made of silver, a heart made of gold
And faith in the saying: Luck favors the bold.
Can take you as far as to Heaven
Or that is what I have been told
By the time he had finished the verse he had nearly walked past Tria. He seemed to notice her in the last moment and stopped to look at her.
Well, good day to you, milady! he greeted with a broad smile. And, if I dare say so, a good day for me, for it truly isnt every day I happen upon such a pretty girl along my way.
It should here be pointed out, for the sake of clarity, that this was in no way an exaggeration. Most who had ever met Tria in person spoke very highly of her uncommon beauty. With her hair of gold, her rosy cheeks and eyes as blue as the clearest sapphires, she was the spitting image of her mother in her youth, and it was widely said that she was the only female in the entire kingdom who could challenge Queen Midea as far as good looks were concerned.
This didnt mean she was susceptible to flattery, however. If anything, she was all too used to it.
Why thank you, she replied with little sincerity, and tried her best to imitate that icy glare her stepmother would always give people when she wanted them out of her general presence. I wish you only further good fortunes on your journey.
If the young man had noticed her subtle hint to leave her alone to enjoy her meal in peace, he certainly did not act on it. Milady, your kind words and radiant appearance shall not go unrewarded, he said with a short laugh. He gave the cauldron another bang on the bottom, quickly flipped it around, and stuck his hand into it. To Trias great surprise, he pulled out a red rose, which he presented her. To you, fair maiden.
In truth, this simple trick amazed Tria far more then she was willing to let him in on. She had always held a fascination with magic and illusion. Furthermore, Tria knew her roses Queen Vestas two great passions in life had been books and roses, and her garden still stood in full bloom each year. Not only did this one look real enough, it was also a large and nearly flawless specimen that looked as if it had been freshly cut from the bush.
Im sorry, Tria said, pretending to be disinterested, but I have been taught not to accept gifts from strangers, and particularly nameless vagabonds.
Oh, where are my manners? the boy exclaimed. I completely forgot to introduce myself! My name is Jack, and Im at your service.
Jack who? Tria asked.
Why, Im many Jack, he replied. Jack the Green, for example. Or Jack with the Lantern. Jack of All Trades, Leaping Jack who jumped to the moon, or the Jack who stole the queens heart and carries it with him still. He finished with a gracious bow.
Those are fairy-tale characters, Tria pointed out.
Indeed? Perhaps I am one as well? Jack suggested with a grin. Noting Trias unamused look, he sighed. Very well then, Jack Grim is my name. Wanderer, fortune-hunter, adventurer and former pigkeeper Jack Grim.
Tria had to laugh at this. Former pigkeeper? she asked, arching an eyebrow.
Jack shrugged. My pigs ran off. I suppose I wasnt a very good pigkeeper.
Well, in that case, thank you Jack, Tria said and took the rose. It smelled exactly like the roses outside the library window, and reminded her of home. You may call me Tria. Now tell me, she added quickly, before he could ask for her full name, how did you do that? Ive never seen that trick before.
Tis not a trick at all! Jack said. This cauldron is a real magical artifact of great mystical power, with sway over all flowers and plants in nature.
Tria laughed. Oh, now youre just pulling my leg.
Not at all!
Then prove it!
Jack let out a theatrical sigh. Very well, if you insist.
Without any ceremony, he held the cauldron up by one of its iron ears, seemed to think for a moment before going: Aha, I have it! and then he gave it another whack. A low, clear tone rang through the air. And for a moment nothing out of the ordinary seemed to occur.
Then a shudder went through the oak. Startled, Tria leapt to her feet, and the raven took to the sky with a frightened cawing. Staring at the tree, Tria noticed that something had appeared on one of the branches. As it grew rapidly before her eyes, she realized that it was an apple, as red as the rose he had given her.
Hold out your hand, he instructed. Dumbfounded, Tria obeyed. Jack flicked the cauldron with his finger, and the apple immediately fell from its branch and landed in her palm.
Hows that for a trick? Jack asked triumphantly.
Tria hesitated for a few moments, just staring at the apple. Then she took a big bite, and her eyes went wide as she munched on it. Iff a weal appewl! she said in amazement. Iff dewicious!
Jack laughed. Im glad you like it.
Tria didnt know quite what to think. What she had just witnessed shouldnt have been possible. Its an oak, for crying out loud! It doesnt make sense!
Real magic. The kind she had read about in the stories. That was the only explanation.
She downed the sweet-tasting piece of apple and turned to Jack. Say, I dont suppose you would let me try it?
Jack gave her a funny look; a kind of smiling frown. Try it? You?
Yes. Please, Tria said, swallowing her pride. I have always wanted to do real magic. Just once, thats all I ask.
I dont know, magic is serious business, Jack said and scratched his chin. And besides, whats in it for me?
Well... Tria put a hand on her hip and cocked her head. Hows this; Ill trade you one kiss for a go at your cauldron.
To tell the truth, Id rather you give me money, Jack said. Pretty girls are aplenty, but a man needs gold if he wants to eat well each day.
Why, you cheeky unwashed vagrant! Tria said, finally starting to lose her patience. Ill have you know Im a princess and there are plenty of fellows better then you whod jump at a chance to... she gasped and slapped a hand across her mouth, but it was too late. Jacks eyebrows had shot up and he snapped his head around to stare at her.
Princess? he said as his face lit up with realization. Oh, of course! Now it all makes sense. You must be Trifolia Shamrock, the beautiful princess Ive heard so much about!
Tria felt the panic rise. She certainly hadnt expected her identity to be disclosed so soon. I-Im sorry but I have to get going now. Please forget what I said. Cursing her temper and carelessness she hurried passed him, towards Windflower who grazed happily nearby.
Youre running away, arent you?
His voice sounded completely different now. It stopped her dead in her tracks, and she turned to look at him. How did you...?
He chuckled. Oh, Ive done my fair share of running in my days. I recognize the signs. He scratched his head and cleared his throat. Look, I was kidding before, about the money. The truth is, this cauldron will only obey me. But if youre still interested, I have an offer for you. From one runaway to another, so to speak.
What kind of offer? Tria asked.
See, I could sell it to you, Jack explained. It would be yours to command then, but only if you pay the proper price.
She took a step closer, still on edge. And what is the proper price?
His face broke into a grin, and his voice returned to normal. Actually, the proper price is you! he said, pointing at her.
She came dangerously close to slapping him right then and there. Noting this, he put his hands up in defense. More precisely, he quickly added, the price is your life. And before you panic, taking me for some kind of roving murderer, please let me explain.
Tria was still eyeing him with open suspicion, prepared to run at any moment. But she nodded. Go on.
Like I said, Jack carried on, the cauldron will only obey me or whoever walks the roads of these lands on my behalf. My proposal is simply that we trade, your life as princess of Guilder for my cauldron.
You mean, you take my place? Tria said, slowly. You become the new princess?
Taking your form is a simple task, once we are both in agreement, Jack said with a shrug of his shoulders. And I always wanted to live at a castle. If you think about it, you really dont have anything to lose. In fact, with me posing as you, nobody will even notice youve run off. He spoke faster now, like a town square merchant trying to seal a deal. And you have my word I wont do anything to harm your reputation, since the spell will be broken if Im found out.
I dont know, Tria said. He spoke the truth; it was a profitable deal for her, but on the other hand, she also felt uneasy with the prospect of a stranger assuming her identity. She gave him another suspicious look. Youre not the Devil, are you? I dont mind striking deals with wizards, but I draw the line at devils!
Jack stared at her with wide eyes for a moment, and then he threw his head back and laughed. Bless you, princess! No, Im not the Devil. Im just Jack. Simple, everyday, almost ordinary Jack. Youll find that to be quite enough as it is. He held the cauldron up. Come now. Genuine magic iron pot! Its the offer of a lifetime! Take it or leave it, what do you say?
I say you are out of your mind, Tria replied. But... yes, we have a deal.
Excellent! said Jack gleefully. He held the cauldron up towards her. Now, just hold on to this end while I hold the other.
Tria did as told, taking the cauldron by the ear so that they held it between them. It seemed to her much lighter then it should have been, and she thought she could feel it vibrate slightly in her hand. Then Jack let go and took a quick step back. The true weight of the cauldron returned immediately and Tria nearly dropped it.
Thats it? she asked, feeling disappointed. She had hoped for colorful flashes and perhaps a even thunderclap.
That is it, Jack confirmed. Tria looked at him and squinted. For some reason she couldnt discern him clearly. He seemed somehow diffuse and blurred. She blinked, rubbed her eyes and took another look, and then she really did drop the cauldron.
Instead of lanky Jack Grim, she now found herself standing face to face with... another Tria. It was like looking into a mirror, except her reflection was grinning, rather then staring with a wide-open mouth. Even their clothes were the same.
See? I told you it was easy, Jack said. He or was it she now? made an elegant twirl, ending in a curtsey and a wink. Dont I look great?
Thats... amazing, Tria admitted. You still sound like yourself, though.
Oh, indeed I do. Jack coughed and cleared his throat. There, is this better? he asked, now with Trias voice.
Tria could only nod. Standing in front of this person, who was identical to her in every way, filled her with conflicting emotions. It was quite a bit disturbing, but at the same time, strangely exhilarating. As if suddenly, anything was possible.
Rather then thinking too much about it, she bent down and picked up the cauldron. She tried hitting it lightly in the side, but nothing happened. So, Jack, how does this thing work?
Hmm? Jack, who had been busy admiring his new perfect fingernails, glanced at her. Oh, it doesnt really matter what you do. Just be firm and decisive, show it whos boss. And make sure you have a clear idea of what you want to do, otherwise anything can happen, and I do mean anything.
Tria thought for a moment, trying to think of something similar to what Jack had shown her. Her eyes fell on the rose which now lay discarded by the roots of the oak. She drew a deep breath, concentrated on the one thing she wanted to occur, and hit the cauldron so hard that her hand hurt.
The same low, clear tone resounded yet again, and the effect was instant. The rose made a little jump into the air and drilled itself deep into the soil by its stalk. And then it started to grow. New stalks grew out, sprouting leaves and buts that opened into new blossoms. After less then a minute, the single flower had turned into an entire bush full of large, red roses.
I did it... Tria breathed. She drew a quivering breath and started laughing. I did it! Jack, did you see that? Did you see what I just did?
Well done, princess, Jack said with an encouraging nodd. I can tell youre cut out to be a great magician. But now I fear its time for us to part ways, less your royal parents start wondering whats become of you. He turned to the horse and started making sounds meant to call its attention. Come here, horse! Nice horsie! What did you say her name was?
Um, Windflower, Tria replied and frowned. Hold on, youre taking my horse?
Of course, Jack said, giving her another of his strange, amused frowns. It looked funny seeing it on her own face. You dont suppose someone will notice that her royal highnesss horse is missing if I dont? Thatd spell commotion neither of us need, Id say.
This put something of a damper on Trias mood. Not only would she have to walk on her own two feet, but she would also loose her only companion on her journey. This was a part of the deal she had not expected and one, she couldnt help but notice, that Jack had neglected to bring up. Oh... Oh, all right. I guess that does make sense. But you better take good care of her!
Oh, dont worry, I have a great hand with animals. The boy wearing her face smiled warmly and stroked the mare over the neck. They all love me. ...Well, except the pigs, he added, rolling his eyes. Never could figure out why.
With these words he swing himself into the saddle and handed Tria what was left of her equipment and effects. a rolled-up blanket, a tinderbox, and a bag of personal mementos. Fortunately, it wasnt more the she could carry with her.
God speed and good luck on your journey, Tria Shamrock, Jack said to her.
Thank you, Jack, and good luck with your new life as princess, Tria said in return. And good luck meeting your new husband-to-be this evening, she added to herself. Youre going to need it.
And so they parted; Jack on Windflower, riding towards the castle, and Tria continuing southward on foot, both leaving the old oak behind.
What neither of them noticed, however, was that the rosebush Tria created had doubled its original size. Unknown to them it had never stopped growing, and only continued to grow after they left. The roses would slowly climb the trunk of the tree, enveloping it, ensnaring every limb and every branch and every twig in its embrace until the entire oak was covered in roses, red as blood and filling the air with fragrance, much to the awe and wonder of whoever happened along the path. It would continue to do so every year for many decades to come, until the old tree finally died of old age, taking the wondrous roses with it. But that, as they say, is a different story.
Jack felt very pleased with himself as the horse carried him to the castle he expected would be his new home for quite a while. Riding was much preferable to walking, he decided.
He was trying to put together a new song about the events of the day something about a princess who traded her crown for a pot but he had trouble finding good rhymes. So rather then singing he had to make do with humming, adding lose words and phrases here and there. This annoyed him a bit, for he had found that the princess had a lovely voice for singing.
A shadow briefly passed over his face, and he looked up to see a large raven circling above his head. Jack put two fingers to his mouth, whistled, and held his arm out. The raven swooped down and landed on his wrist like a trained falcon.
I think we can expect great things from our vagabond princess in the future, Jack told the bird cheerfully. Id say that went well, wouldnt you?
Ha! Kiss my beak, you scoundrel, the raven said in a decidedly human, female voice. I suppose now youre going to tell me you planned that?
Not as such, Jack admitted. But it did go according to plan, wouldnt you say?
Yeah, right. So, let me get this straight - you traded away your so-called magical artifact of great mystical power for a chance to crossdress?
I traded it, Jack said patiently, for a chance to walk straight into Shamrock Castle right under the noses of the king, the queen and all the guards, and snoop around without getting caught and thrown in the dungeons after five minutes. He shrugged. Besides, if what were looking for is really there, we wont ever need that old cauldron again.
Provided we even find it, said the raven. I dont like it.
My dear Rafvna! You doubt my judgement?
I doubt you have any, Rafvna said dryly. You are far too impulsive, Jack Grim. Impulsive, rash and foolish.
Need I remind you, Jack said, that I have never ever made a deal of any kind that I havent profited from in the end?
Wait and see, theres a first for everything, Rafvna said, and with that she took to the sky again.
Jack merely laughed, loudly and chiming, with Trias borrowed voice.
As for the real princess, she was walking with a spring in her step, still bubbly from excitement. She amused herself by tapping the cauldron with a pebble she had picked of the ground, causing different kinds of flowers to sprout along the roadside.
The thought of Jack taking her place didnt bother her anymore. Aside from the surprise that awaited him and the castle, she had given the matter some thought at it was now clear to her that Jacks career as princess would not be long-lived. William and Paris had never been the brightest pair, but Midea had eyes like the hawk and a very suspicious nature. Magic disguise or not, Jack couldnt possibly fool the queen for long. Tria smiled. She had lost her horse, true, but in return she had gained magic and, with a bit of luck, a favorable head-start at least. Overall, she believed she had struck a very good bargain.
And so, with a song in her heart, Tria Shamrock wandered down the road to destiny, and all the flowers of nature followed in her wake.