THE PRINCESS AND THE WHITE BEAR

A SANTHARIAN FAIRY-TALE

 
The Frethoni Book of Fables   
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Introduction. This romantic tale of loyalty and temptation has nonetheless a realistic feel, conjuring up the cold of the Northlands and the beauty of its determined heroine with equal efficaciousness. Adults will enjoy it for its tidy triparate form and solid Northern morality; children will find the repetitions engaging, the trials of the Princess thrilling, and the conclusion satisfying. We have set it down here as we heard it recounted by a Skald of Hargath, and may presume from internal clues that the story indeed originates from the region.
 

ast of the wind and South of the ice lived a Princess of the Northlands. In a small, poor castle built of Faerin stone lived she, with her father the King, her mother the Queen, and a host of hungry mouths.

Each day the Princess would rise, and break her fast on dried fish and lichen tea. Then she would go about the castle, seeing to the needs of her people. She brought hot broth to the sick-in-bed Queen. She mended the torn furs of the ever-hunting King. She gathered rockmoss with her own hands and thrust it in the cracks of the walls. She took her jaag-sled, and stepped into its harness, and hauled wood for the fireplaces.

And the wind howled, and the ice crept up, and the castle was ever colder day by day. Sometimes the Princess, at the end of the day, would sit by her whale-oil lamp and warm her cracked and reddened hands – for she kept no fire, saying that others needed the scarce wood more, and young bones had more flesh on them – and drop a few tears on the furs of her bed.

One day the King had twisted his back in a stag-hunt, and the Queen’s cough was worse than ever, and it seemed that nothing would go right for the young Princess. She worked the sun-short day through, but as soon as ever she could, she fled to her bedroom and flung herself down at the side of her bed. And she wept bitterly, and her tears fell on her white fur coverlet, and a drop of blood from her hands also.
 

The White Bear
View picture in full size Picture description. And all of a sudden the Princess stood in front of a large White Bear... Image drawn by Jeni Malament, used with friendly permission.

Then the fur moved, and warmed, and flexed under her fingers, and before she knew it, she was kneeling with her head on the flank of a huge White Bear, who stood where her bed had been. The Princess fell back, but she did not cry out. The White Bear turned his long neck and opened his strong jaws and spoke.

“Princess,” said he, “You are passing fair, but truly, you are most poor. Will you come with me away from this place? I am a great and wealthy mage, and I can give you riches and comfort such as you have never known. Would you not like gold to pour through your fingers, and silver to count at nights?”

The Princess looked at the White Bear and shook her head. “Nay, great mage,” she said, “I am poor, but so are my people. I will share their joys and sorrows.”

The White Bear stretched himself, slowly, supply, out on the floor. His fur had all the softness of a maiden’s cheek, and his blue eyes glowed gently. “Princess,” he said, “You are very beautiful and deserve beauty around you. I will bring you jewels to deck your body, drape you in Shendar-silk and sate you with perfumes. You will be a queen of loveliness, and all men will eat their hearts to but look at you. Come away with me.”

But the Princess shook her head again. “Nay, White Bear. I have no lovers and desire no love but that of my people, whom I must care for. I will not come away.”

Then the White Bear rose, towering above her. The air smelt of his musk-anger, and his teeth were bared as he spoke; “Princess! I am a sorcerer of the Dinali, and in any of my forms most powerful! I shall rip you apart if you do not come with me, and leave your torn flesh here for your people to find at day-break! Come, or I destroy you entirely!”

The Princess shrank back, yet her hand closed on the unused firerod that lay on the hearth where she cowered. She lifted her head up to meet his blazing eyes, and she answered him. “Mighty sorcerer, if you destroy me, neither my people nor you shall have me. I will not go, not for your wealth, nor your beauty, nor your power. Be gone, and tempt me no further!”

The White Bear loomed like an iceberg, and it seemed that the cold air grew even colder for a moment in the room, and then the Princess heard him speak again.

“Very well, Princess, if you will not go for yourself, perhaps you will strike a bargain with me for your people. Come away with me, to my home in the Wastes of Despair, and your people shall have all that you could wish for them. By my magic I shall restore this castle. A forest shall grow nearby that they may have wood. Their wells I shall build up and their livestock increase. And,” he added, his blue eyes glowing, “Your mother shall be restored to health, that she may govern in her rightful place again.”

The Princess wept, but she set the firerod down. Finally she spoke, her voice unsteady, but clear. “Make it happen so, White Bear, and give me seven days to take my leave of my family, and I will go with you.”

“You shall have six days, Princess, and on the seventh, Hrothgrinskad, that is Restday in your tongue, I shall come for you. Be ready in the courtyard at sunheight,” said the White Bear slowly, and he leapt into the empty fireplace and vanished. But in the place of her white fur coverlet lay a coat of the finest silver skins, and a wedding mantle of dwarven design, sewn with pearls and spangled with mithril snowflakes.

Elvday the Princess awoke with a deep joy in her heart and a deep fear, without knowing why. Then she remembered the promise she had made, and ran swift as an icehare to her mother’s bedroom. She came through the chamber door, and stopped, for there stood the Queen in the King’s arms, both of them laughing for joy, and both hale as when they were wed. Loath though she was to grieve them then, her story must out, and so she came, and hugged them both, and told her tale as gently as she might.

“Take you away to the Wastes of Despair?” roared her father. “I and my hunting hounds will see that beast quartered and his hide under my throne first!” But the Princess laid her small chapped hand on her arm and looked at him with her dark eyes, and he held his tongue.

“A Princess,” said her mother, “must always keep her promises.” And the Princess put her other hand on her mother’s waist, and hugged her in.

“I know, mother,” she said, “you taught me that ere I was able to walk. I will gladly trade my future marriage, my claim to the throne, and perhaps my life to this sorcerer-beast if it will keep you healthy, our kingdom sound, and our people safe. We shall see. Do not forget that he has given me six days.” Indeed, and those six days were to pass quickly, and each with its own happening that the kingdom would never forget.

Havday, the Princess stood with the King and Queen as they proclaimed the bargain to their people, all of whom fit in the crumbling stone courtyard. And as the King spoke the last word and the folk began to exclaim in amazement, the ancient walls shook, quivered, and slid back into place without a crack between any of their stones or even a pebble falling on one person’s head. The entire castle was examined and found to be stouter and less drafty than ever before.

Branday, they began to pack the Princess’s clothing, scant as it was, for her departure, and found huge trunks standing everywhere in her room, full to the brim of lovely mantles, hoods, coats, and even warm skin trews, all of the same soft white fur. “There are too many for one body,” said the Princess, “and I have my gift from the Bear already. So she dealt them out to those who needed them, and there were enough for all, and the children’s pinched faces grew rosy in the new warmth.

Orkday, they went to the larder, to scour together some food for the Princess to take with her, for the King expected it would be a three or four day’s journey to the Wastes. But there in the coldrooms hung sides and haunches and split carcasses of as many animals as the Chief Cook could name, from the tiny quail and conies to the great elk of the northlands. Each carcass had the same strange mark gouged along its flank; the four-lined rake of a huge clawed paw.

Dwerday, the Princess went to the stables to see to her pair of sleighdeer, and to have the sleigh itself made ready. She found the mangers heaped high with golden hay, and the barn likewise, though before there had been only the marshy wisps of fengrass scraped into half-dry piles on its stone floors. Her sleigh glowed with fresh paint, the runners were well-tallowed, the leathers suppled, and the stablemaster claimed that it had happened overnight without his knowledge.

Folkday, they loaded the sleigh with the things for the Princess’s journey, with her clothing, and gifts from, it seemed, everyone in the castle. From little hand-carved poppets pressed on her by sniffling toddlers to a full set of antler eating knives (the kitchen staff), from scraps of bright cloth pieced patiently into a summer kerchief to the King’s best silver drinking goblet, the gifts all held something of the love the Princess had shown to her people. At the last the Queen took her aside and pressed a small packet into her hands.

“My dearest, only, daughter-child,” her mother said, “This is the one thing I can give you to protect and help you. My magicks left me when I wed your father, but this one gift I saved, should I ere have need of it. It holds the power of both Virginity and Truth; wield it only in deepest straits.” She kissed her daughter’s forehead, and left her.

Res’day all the people gathered in the courtyard again, within strong stone walls, and wearing their new furs. The sleigh was ready, and full to overflowing, the Princess’s deer hitched and tossing their heads against its weight. The Princess stood by the open gates, her father and mother just behind her. She wore the shining coat the White Bear had left her, but the mantle she tucked deep in one pocket, and in the other she had her mother’s parting gift. The sun rose higher, shining wanly through the cloudy skies, until it reached its apex. Noon, it was, and just at that moment a great white form appeared on the horizon. It moved like the north wind itself, and was at the gate while the people were still gazing at the sun.

“Greetings, Princess,” said the White Bear, bowing his head gravely to the King and Queen as well. “Are you ready to fulfill your promise and come away with me?”

The Princess looked around at her people again. ““You have kept your bargain… so far,” she said, “I will keep mine.”

“Ah,” said the Bear, ruefully. “So far? Their prosperity will hold as long as you are faithful, Princess, so you need have no fear of my weavings rubbing thin. Are you ready, then?”

“Yes,” said the Princess, and she made to step towards her sleigh. “I will follow you, however you go.”

“Nay, that you will not, Princess,” said the Bear, and his voice was a deep growl. “You will come to my kingdom with nothing but yourself, and my gifts on your back. And you yourself will come on mine!” His head snaked out, and his teeth set firm but soft around the Princess’s fur-clad waist, and before she or her parents could so much as gasp, he had twisted his neck and tossed her upon his huge white back.

A grey cloud went across the sun, and a sudden gust of wind blew up. Snowflakes flurried from off the surface of the packed snow, hiding the castle gate in a blur of white. When the wind lowered, the White Bear and the Princess were gone.

In the courtyard, the castlefolk stood staring at the loaded sleigh and the trembling reindeer, but out over the wild wastes the Princess lay on the back of the Bear, his powerful paws making the strals vanish behind them.
 

The Princess Riding on the Bear
View picture in full size Picture description. North it goes, on the back of the Bear towards the Wastes of Despair... Image drawn by Jeni Malament, used with friendly permission.

Stral after stral the Bear galloped, West with the wind and North for the ice, towards the Wastes of Despair. The sky grew darker and the faint sun sank towards the horizon and the Princess shivered.

“Are you cold, Princess?” the White Bear said, never breaking stride. But the Princess did not answer. “Nestle down into my fur, then, sink your hands deep and warm them. I will not let you fall.”

“Will we reach the Wastes tonight, White Bear?” the Princess asked him. “The sun is near setting, and every child of Faerin lands knows it is death to be out of walls after sundown.”

“Nay, Princess,” said the Bear. “The Wastes are far, and my magick weak, expend it as I would upon your people. Do not fear, the bindings will stay… and do not fear for yourself either. We will stop here, since you are weary.” And the great bear drew to a stop and sank down so that the Princess might dismount.

The Princess looked around her, but never a building did she see. It was snow, and ice, and rock, and grey scrub and shingle, with here and there a stunted tree. And as she looked, the sun’s last light shimmered and was gone, and a cold blackness came over her. Then was her heart fallen within her, and an icy sickness throughout all her limbs, as she thought on how she had made her bargain with a beast. Surely now he would devour her, and no man would know more of her, or of her people.

And she felt, in the darkness, the breath of the Bear upon her face, and she bowed her head to await his pleasure. But instead of fangs rending, and claws ripping, she felt around her body the warm comfort of her own fur coverlet, or so it seemed. The Princess sank on the Bear’s breast, and he curled his mighty body around her so that neither the stone of the ground nor the snow of the air could reach her, and her weariness overtook her so that she slept.

When the Princess woke, she lay for a moment with her eyes closed, thinking herself awakened from a dream, and in her own bed with her own castle and people around her. For the fur was warm around her body, and the scent of woodsmoke rising, and food cooking, and the chatter and buzz of people dimly heard through walls and corridors. Then all that had passed in the seven days gone, came back to her, and she sprang up with eyes wide.

A great chamber she was in, but no princess’s bedstead, indeed. She lay only in her shift, among tattered skins in the chimneynook of a vast kitchen. Carved all of ice it was, and surely some strong magick sustaining it, for the chairs and tables were of ice, and the shelves upon the walls, and even the fireplace where a huge fire roared and leapt was all of crystal ice, unmelting under the lick of the flames. There were cook and maid and scullion and potboy busy at their tasks, their voices like birds in the chamber’s echoing space. And even as the Princess rose to her feet, one turned upon her and shouted,

“To your work, lazy wench! Look how she lies asleeping late, like some fair princess, when the Master would break his fast, and all of us toiling to fetch it to him!”

The others laughed, and the cook threw a long-handled brush at the Princess’s head. “There, Potgirl, get about your scrubbing. We’ve enough pans, sooth, to keep you crowned and throned till Solsticeday!” Nor would they listen to her protests, but mocked her chapped hands, and made light of her tears and anger till she swallowed both and set about the filthy pots.

All day she labored in the kitchen, with now and then some leavings of food as the cook pleased, and when the last pan was scrubbed, a coarse laugh and a push to the chimneycorner. “There you sleep, Potgirl, Raggedfur, Ash-Princess!” mocked the scullion lad, as he ducked out of the icy doorway to escape the cook’s parting blow. The Princess laid herself down in the ragged furs, and fell asleep to the hissing of the dying fire.
 

For seven days such was the tale of the Princess’s time: waking to jeers, scrubbing pots during the day, gulping half-eaten scraps, and huddling into the chimneynook to sleep. The only things to cheer her were three: her mother’s gift which she found in her shift pocket, the heat of the always-burning fire, and the kitchen cat, a great snowy animal with immaculate coat, that would snuggle in the furs with her at night. She would talk to it, whispering into its soft pricked ears, and it let her drench its white coat with tears at times.

On the seventh day there were less pots than usual, and more food, and even a word of praise. “I’ll give you the good ware tomorrow, if you can make souppots shine like that,” said the cook, and she gave the Princess an entire ungnawed taenish leg. “Now, get you to your corner, for there is to be a feast tomorrow, and there will be plenty to be done… Mind you bank up the fire first, though!”

So the Princess took a good large log, and laid it to the back of the fire, and raked the coals up to it, and covered them over with a dank slab of bark, that they might burn slow and steady all night, to be ready at dawn for the next day. In truth she was no wearier than usual, for her tasks at her castle had kept her hands always busy, but her heart was sore and her mind perplexed. She had taken courage for the unknown worst that might befall her at the claws of the White Bear, or the Wastes of Despair, but somehow this grinding servitude seemed worse than the unknown. The fire banked, again she laid herself down, with the cat against her back.

Well, in the morn she rose as usual, and indeed there was plenty to lay her hands to. The good ware was set out, and the baking and roasting and broiling and seething began before breakfast was fairly cleaned away. Though she could not leave the kitchen, and indeed had not seen more of the place where she now lived than the back courtyard, the corridor up to the dining hall, and the servants’ privies, she could hear the stamping of sleighdeer, the grate of runners on ice, the shouting of greetings muffled through distance and heavy coats…

It was to be a feast indeed, she learned from the tray porters and serving lasses who kept ducking in and out the frosty corridor. The Master was to be wed that night, and a momentous occasion, to be sure, though she could get no more from anyone than than. And when the cook saw her talking, she hurled a half-empty saucepot across the chamber to crack against the ice wall, roaring at the Princess to get back to her scrubbing.

Suppertime came, with all the furor one might expect of a great lord’s castle, and when the first of the courses were born in, and the entire kitchen working to get the next onto the platters, a tray porter came bounding in with a great grin and empty hands. He paid no heed to the cursing cook who gestured him towards a tureen, but cried out.

“The Master commands that you send him in the Potgirl who scrubs the pans in his kitchen!”

The cook swore again, and beat her ladle against the crystalline table. “A dirtied plate, no doubt, or a grease smear on the serving ware. You lazy wench, it’ll be your hide I’ll use to clean it with!” But the porter seized the Princess’s arm and pulled her away, up the corridor and towards the dining hall, struggle as she might.

Into the hall he dragged her, and set her in the center before the head table, just as she was. There she stood in her simple tunic, her face bestreaked with soot smears and her legs with dust, her hair tangled and her eyes red, her hands and arms the only part of her that were clean. Yet she held her head high, vowing that she should look the Master in the eye as a Princess should, though she be no more than a Potgirl to him. And she vowed further that she would use her mother’s gift, for whatever virtue it had, that she might be delivered from her servitude before all.
 

The Prince Reveals Himself
View picture in full size Picture description. Under vast ice-shaped arches, on a dais of snow covered with snowy furs, sat a man clad all in white Image drawn by Jeni Malament, used with friendly permission.

Under vast ice-shaped arches, on a dais of snow covered with snowy furs, sat a man clad all in white. His shoulders were broad, his forehead deep, and keen were his iceblue eyes. His face was young, and unlined, for all that his hair was white as the winter sky. The Princess put her hand into her pocket and drew out her mother’s gift, and the moment she loosed the strings, she knew him for the White Bear that had stolen her away, and for the white cat that had licked her tears, and for the Master of the Castle that she had served.

He stood, and smiled, and held out his hands. “Princess,” he said, and his voice was the rumble of the bear and the purr of the cat, and something more, altogether human and powerful, “Princess, forgive me for thrice testing you. You are the fairest, and the sweetest, and the strongest of heart that ever man might see and desire, and not temptation nor fear nor grieving will sway your soul from its purpose.”

He set his hands upon her shoulders, and as he did the fouled tunic became pure silk, falling about her like a spring wind. Her body was cleansed and her hair fell dark down her back, with pearls woven into it. “I am no Dinali mage, no fell-purposed beast, nor sorcerer-king. Here I am only a man who would love you, and have you love him.”

The Princess looked him deep in his eyes and thought of the two virtues her mother’s gift held. And she knew that for the one, she would trade the other. Truth has that power, and Truth melded with Love even more.

“Which part of you should I love, then?” she asked. “The White Bear who gave my people all the wealth they needed, or the cat who comforted my heart with his gentle beauty when I was alone, or the Master with powerful magicks in his hands? Had your first words not been of forgiveness, your love would move me no more than your wealth, your beauty, or your power. But….” and she smiled like the sun coming through clouds, “I forgive you. And I would learn all that there is to love.”

Then a great cheer went up, and the people in the hall crowded in upon them, and there the Princess saw not only the court of the Bearlord, but the faces of her own folk, whom she had thought lost to her. There her mother and father came smiling, robed full fairly and with shining faces, and there her nurse, and the hunters and bakers and weavers, the men and women, the children down to the smallest toddlers, and all whom she had left. “The Bearlord has given us half his kingdom,” the Queen spoke, “and that half is fairer and greater than twice our whole. So here we have come, and here will dwell, in truth….”

“And in love,” finished the Bearlord, “which is the greatest of all.” The Princess kissed him, and the feasting began.

And the wind blew West, and the ice moved North, and so may it ever remain!


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Fairy-tale written by by Bard Judith View Profile