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
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
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
The Princess looked around at her people again. ““You have kept your bargain…
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.
Picture description. North it goes, on the back of the Bear towards
the Wastes of Despair... Image
drawn by Jeni Malament, used with
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
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
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.
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!