Once upon a time, a well-meaning, hard-working, but mentally complacent knight named Grant fell from the top of an enchanted tower where he had been hanging by his fingertips because he forgot to hold on. His descent was witnessed by his loyal squire Calvin, and the princess who would rather stay in her tower –thank you very much– than be married to his beautiful blonde head wherein thoughts any more abstract than that morning’s breakfast echoed like a pebble in a canyon.
As Calvin the Squire watched his friend and employer expire, the whole past year flashed before his eyes: cowering in fear while Grant ran towards a foul-smelling dragon, trudging behind Grant through miles of foreign terrain, reading to Grant by the campfire at night. They had talked about the future. If Grant won the princess, he would make Calvin a knight. Calvin wouldn’t be one of those adventure-ing knights –he’s had enough of that for a lifetime –Instead he will live in a castle and buy as many books as he wanted. Calvin could also have his own personal squire, maybe even a team of them. He would go back to his own village and hire boys like himself –young, hardworking, eager to see the world. And he would find the best instructors train them so that they could fight dragons themselves instead of cowering behind someone else.
And now all those dreams and plans lay as far away as the blood pooling around Grant’s head.
The princess returned to her book. It was a book she had looked forward to reading for a long time and one she was beginning to enjoy very much. She had planned on finishing it today before the sun set, but this interruption had put her behind.
Suddenly, Calvin had an idea. What if he married the princess? He had made it as far as Grant, after all. He may not have Grant’s looks or strength, but that didn’t seem to matter to this princess. Gosh, his parents would be so proud when he rides into his little village on the largest stallion in the land. Maybe he would get a whole armor of gold. Then all the golden knights like Grant would have to step out of his way and bow. Wouldn’t that be fine? Yes, he has just as much a shot at this as Grant, right? He was just as deserving, was he not?
Calvin cleared his throat loudly.
The princess sighed again. This always happened. Every time she was in the middle of a good book, she would be interrupted by these obnoxious proposals. It was one thing if these men interrupted her to have an intelligent conversation —maybe about the telescope she designed or the technology behind the new repeating crossbow — and then leave. But no, these intruders wasted her time with fatuous courtesies as meaningless as they were rehearsed and then got offended when she preferred her books!
This pasty-faced boy hanging outside her window was clearly a squire since he didn’t have his own armor. And since he was also clearly smarter than that yellow-haired idiot, he must have realized he now had a chance to win her hand. She would bet her crown he just spent the last five minutes lost in a daydream about riches and glory.
Well, she might as well get this over with if she wanted to read in peace.
“Who are you?”
Calvin flashed a gap-toothed smile and winked like he had seen Grant do countless times.
“M-My name is Calvin, m-my lady.”
The princess rolled her eyes. Yep, he was just like the others. Calvin continued.
“Legends of your b-beauty have traveled f-far and wide. B-but now, having seen you with m-my own—”
“Legends have very little basis in fact, Squire. I live at the top of a magical tower that I can only leave if I am rescued. Anyone who has seen me in the last ten years has ended up dead like your friend Sir What’s-his-name. Otherwise I’d be trapped in some boring castle right now instead of my own tower. So nobody could have given an accurate account of my looks neither far nor wide. These legends you heard were probably propaganda designed to entice people like your friend into exterminating dragons and performing other unpleasant acts of public service.”
“Hey, killing dragons is dangerous work! Grant literally saved my life many times. Of course I would never have gone anywhere near a dragon if it wasn’t for him, but he still saved me.”
“My father had lawyers draw up liability waivers. Everyone who embarks on the quest is responsible for their own injuries and failures.”
She pointedly turned away and returned to her book. Calvin stared at her for a few minutes, jaw slacked, slightly drooling.
“Well geez, lady! A man just died! He was my friend and now he’s dead. We talked every night and he brushed his hair five times a day and I read him fairy tales and he was going to make me a knight and now he’s dead!” Calvin was surprised at how angry he felt. He ducked out of sight and quickly rubbed his sleeve across his cheeks. When he pulled himself up again, he was suddenly looking into a pair of sad brown eyes.
“I’m expected to be a trophy, not a person,” said the princess. It was the only apology she had ever given. It tasted sour in her mouth.
She looked down at the field of rusting armor. From her height she can see that the ground was darker where the blood had fertilized it and the vegetation had become wilder and more vivid. For the first time, she let herself wonder about the lives inside the armor. Maybe this one wrote to his mother every day. Maybe that one liked kittens. She never got to know them. She had cared as little about their lives as they did about hers.
“Why do you want to be a knight?”
“I-I want my own squires and a library. I want to read whatever I want without anyone telling me to make the bed or go to the market or do something useful. And I never want to go near a dragon again.”
“So if I married Grant –or you, since you were clearly thinking about it– you would get your own library. I suppose Grant would continue fighting dragons. What do I get?”
Calvin had never thought about that. It seemed in all their fireside conversations, they had only talked about what they would do if Grant won the princess. They never wondered what the princess would do, or even what she wanted to do.
“What happens to princesses after they get married?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I think they’re supposed to be happy, even if the guy is an oaf or a nincompoop.”
Calvin laughed and the princess smiled. He suddenly realized she had a stunning smile. He had never seen a complete set of teeth before. Their brilliance, combined with the hours he had been clinging to the walls of the tower, made his arms weak. Too weak.
The princess grabbed Calvin by his stringy hair right as his head disappeared from view. The pain gave him just enough adrenaline to grab madly at the windowsill. She hooked a hand under his arm, braced her foot against the inside of the window, and managed to drag him into the tower. She was as surprised as he was that she hadn’t just let him fall.
Calvin found himself on the deepest, softest carpet he had ever seen. Around him, bookshelves lined the walls filling the room with the dusty smell of paper and ink. An orange cat slept on a writing desk with one furry paw draped over its eyes. A small table in the middle of the room was laid with a light lunch and a steaming pot of tea. As he watched, two cups and a second plate of food materialized by the pot.
“Ah, it’s lunchtime,” said the princess. “The enchantment provides three meals a day and tea in the afternoon. You can’t have heroes climbing up here to find a skeleton. Let’s eat and then I can help you get down.”
As they ate their lunch –perfectly grilled trout, garlicky mashed potatoes, and a large slice of carrot cake each– the princess explained that while the enchantment prevented her from leaving the tower, it said nothing about installing a pulley system and hauling her books, furniture, and cat in with her. She even managed to communicate with her family this way. Every week, she lets down the pulley and a messenger arrives with a care package and a letter from her parents. The packages usually contained fresh fruit and cookies from her mother and books and weapons from her father.
“The biggest problem,” she explained, “is that even though I have designed a double-tackle pulley system that is nearly frictionless, the height of the tower still imposes excessive strain on the rope itself.”
Calvin nodded and furrowed his brow, hoping it made him look like he understood.
“Yes, that is a c-conundrum.” he murmured.
The books he read were all about knights and quests. Who killed what when and which princess they were rewarded with at the end. Every problem could be solved with a forceful hack of the sword. Anything complicated or unexpected was explained as “magic” or “destiny”. Calvin looked at all the books around him and wondered what other worlds existed and what other answers were possible.
The princess continued, “I merely replaced the rope with a high-tensile chain and spent the last month building a windlass that could support the additional weight.”
“Ah, a windlass! Of course.” Calvin wondered if a windlass was a kind of windmill, but he didn’t see anything like that in the room. He did notice some sort of contraption made of two large wheels near the window.
“I hauled all the parts up piece by piece.” She showed him the callouses on her hands. “My goal is to transport my piano up here someday, but I still need to make more adjustments. It should be able to handle your weight though.”
“So in the future, heroes like Grant wouldn’t have to climb all the way up here?”
“Of course not. But they still will. It’s not as heroic to be lifted into the tower by the princess you were supposed to rescue.”
With that, she stood up from the table. The dirty plates and utensils vanished.
“Oh yes,” she said when Calvin yelped in surprise. “I never have to do the dishes.”
The princess dragged one of the chairs over to the contraption with the wheels. In a few minutes she had attached the chair quite securely to the end of a long chain and lowered it out the window.
“Climb in,” she said. “I’ll lower you.”
Calvin looked down. The ground seemed farther than he remembered. Now that he has had a warm meal and hot tea, he wished he could take a nap in the armchair with the cat purring on his stomach. He would love to read all these books and unlock their secrets in peace. He could almost see why the princess didn’t want to leave. She could learn what she wanted and spend her days however she chose. This was freedom and comfort. Grant could not offer her anything better, even if he thought of it.
“Goodbye, Calvin,” said the princess. “I enjoyed meeting you. It’s been so long since I’ve had company for lunch.”
“G-Goodbye, Princess,” said Calvin.
Calvin got up on the windowsill. Casting one last look at the room in the sky, he placed his left leg onto the chair…
…and he was laying on the carpet again! His head was spinning and his back ached. The princess looked down at him with a furrow between her brows.
He got up slowly, teetering a little, and reached for the window again. This time, he didn’t even get his foot onto the windowsill before he was suddenly knocked onto his back again.
The princess muttered something that was definitely not princess-like, even for her.
She walked to the window and very, very carefully, reached her hand out. Then she slowly lifted a leg onto the windowsill. Then the other one. She sat on the windowsill and looked up at the sky. She laughed.
“What’s going on?” asked Calvin.
“I think the spell is broken.” She rushed to her desk and rummaged through the papers and notebooks piled on top.
“Nobody wrote down the exact wording of the enchantment, but —”
She unfolded a stack of faded pages that smelled faintly of perfume.
“‘Dear daughter’,” she read out loud, skimming over most of the small neat handwriting.
“‘…so worried you had disappeared… couldn’t sleep before the big party… wore my new dress with the pearls… Lady Simperton was jealous of my…’”
The princess flipped the page over.
“Ah, here it is!– ‘That witch Nancy says only a marriage or a rescuing will allow you to leave the tower, as expected. Her skin is not what it used to be, despite all the time she spends inside…’”
The princess turned to the second page.
“I think that’s all she said on the matter –‘My new skincare routine… The dressmaker says my waist is still…The weather continues charming. Your long suffering mother…’”
The princess threw the papers down.
“‘A marriage or a rescuing’? I must have broken the spell when I rescued you from falling!”
She ran to the armoire by the bed and pulled out a large knapsack. She ran back and forth filling it with books, maps, a crossbow, the apples stashed in her desk drawer…
The cat opened one eye to watch her, then yawned and wrapped itself into a neat fuzzy ball.
“I’ll leave you a note for my parents. Don’t let the cat get into the soup. Don’t bend the spines of my books.” She shouted at him rapidly as she pulled on a pair of brand new hiking boots.
“But why do you want to leave? Where will you go?”
“I spent my whole life living through books. I want to see the ocean. And a city. Maybe I’ll even find a dragon!”
“Dragons smell really bad up close. And so do cities and oceans. You have everything you could want right here!”
“All the answers are in these books. But all the questions are out there!”
Calvin grabbed the princess’s hand. This might be his last chance, after all. He felt his face getting hot, but he took a deep breath and looked into her eyes with all the honesty and good intentions in his dear young heart.
“You don’t have to go alone. The legends are true. You are beautiful.” He lowered his lips to her cool fingertips.
The princess looked at him with those big brown eyes. She raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, I know. I have a mirror.” And with that she swung herself onto the chair.
Calvin looked so defeated and helpless, that for the second time that day she felt something like pity. After all, she realized, it was not his fault he could only see one solution when there were actually infinite possibilities.
“I’ll find some other way to break the spell. You just wait,” she said.
“Oh cheer up! If we were together, you would be as miserable with me as I would be with you. You’d agree if you weren’t so preoccupied with societal expectations and the socio-economic benefits you think I represent. Let’s be friends instead.” She took his hand and shook it.
“Don’t forget to clean and oil your knives every night.” Calvin found himself saying. “They won’t magically get washed like your dishes.”
They smiled at each other.
She sat down in the chair with her bulging knapsack in her lap. He turned the crank attached to one of the large cylinders and watched her slowly descend.
“Goodbye, Calvin!” she called. Her eyes shone. As she felt the sun shining on her face from the blue-gray sky, she threw back her head and laughed.
“Goodbye, Princess!” Calvin called after her. Then he suddenly thought of something.
“What is your name?” he yelled.
“I’ll have to think of one!”
And that was how Calvin the Squire, though not a knight or royalty, achieved the life he’d always dreamed of through luck and the foresight to not let go when he was hanging off a tower by his fingertips. If you think about it, luck and a little foresight is really not much different than how knights or royalty earned their current positions anyway. But now that Calvin is living comfortably at the top of an enchanted tower waiting for rescue or marriage, what he accomplishes with his advantages without anyone to see or judge him will show us the true quality of his character and potential.
In the meantime, the princess’s beautiful new boots were soaked through with the mud and blood around her former home. She could feel the cold, smelly slurry squelching between her toes and a blister start under her left heel. The path from her tower to the village by the river had looked so short on the map and so straightforward from her room at the top. As she struggled through the thickets, long sharp thorns drew stinging lines across the perfect, not-sun-damaged-at-all skin on her hands and face. Adventure-ing was going to be harder than she thought.
Continued in Untitled Fairy Tale: Part 3!