Stares-Past-Stars

Once upon a time there was a wolf who lived in the forest. This is not remarkable, of course, for (in those days, at least) the forests were full of wolves.

This wolf, however, was unusual. He did not have a pack. He did not even have a mate. Instead, he chose to live by himself, on the edge of a broad lake. There, he would spent the nights staring at the stories that the stars reflected in the placid black water. That was how he got the name Stares-Past-Stars.

He spent his days stalking whatever small game the pack that who hunted in that forest had overlooked. That pack had no use for Stares-Past-Stars. In his meditations, once or twice, the idea had come to him to join them. When he loped into their den, though, he found their language strange and their customs beyond understanding. For their part, they did not even seem to notice him. They went about their intrigues for pack-position without giving him so much as a sniff.

He tried telling them the stories he saw in the stars. He might as well have been explaining leaves to roots. So he gave up and returned to his lake.

One particularly clear morning, while taking his morning drink, Stares-Past-Stars saw a small cottage at the bottom of the lake. He had never seen it before, but there it was. Curious, he dove into the cold water (for though it was warm late spring, the lake was fed by mountain snow). He swam down, down, down, until he reached the front window.

He looked in. The window must have been a very good window indeed, for it kept any water from rushing in. He could see a woman inside. She was frantically pushing a towel under the crack of the front door, where the lake seeped in. He could see the fireplace had been stopped up with bedding, clothes, and whatever else she could find, so only a little drip-drip-drip got through. A puddle was spreading though, and soon enough the cottage would be full and she would drown.

“Help!” the woman cried when she saw Stares-Past-Stars watching her at the window. Her voice sounded most odd because of the water.

His breath ran out at that moment. He surged to the surface, gulped another lungful of air, and dove back down. This time, he swam hard as he could towards the window. He broke through it, in a great fountain of water, and seized the frightened woman by the scruff with his teeth. He dragged her to the surface against the rushing tide. Fear made the woman foolish, and fought him the whole way, kicking and scratching, but he held on strong.

When they reached the pebbly beach, the foolish woman gave him one last kick in the side for good measure. She ran off into the forest, leaving Stares-Past-Stars gasping on the shore. After he had coughed all the water out of his lungs, he stood on shaky legs and sniffed the wind. He could tell the foolish woman had run far away.

“Well, let her go,” he thought. “If she makes it out of the woods without being eaten, good luck to her. And if she is eaten, good luck to whomever eats her.”

It was then that he noticed she had dropped a scarf in her haste to escape. He lifted it with his snout and gave it a sniff. It did not smell entirely like the foolish woman. The outermost scent, yes, was hers, but beneath that there was a long-worn odor woven deep into the night-black yarn.

“She must have stolen it,” he thought, “and what is stolen ought to be returned.”

He draped the stolen scarf around his silver neck and trotted away from the lake. He snuffled the foolish woman’s trail for quite a while, in the hopes that she might lead him to the other smell on the scarf.

For all day and a night he followed the foolish woman’s trail through the forest. In the darkest hour, when the blazing river of stars above was covered by clouds, he found her.

On the very edge of the forest, a stone’s throw from the farms and pastures where people lived, there was a long-lost church. No one had gone there in a very long time, and the forest had reclaimed almost all of it. The only part that was not overgrown with trees and vines and thorny brambles was the altar, and it was there the foolish woman sat, holding her leg.

From the darkness at what used to be the door, Stares-Past-Stars could smell her pain. He could also smell her blood, and it made his stomach growl, for he had not eaten in a day and a night.

“Who’s there?” the foolish woman cried. “I warn you, my stepmother is Queen of the Night and my father a powerful Fisher King.”

“That must be why you’re a thief,” Stares-Past-Stars growled as he strode over brambles and vines to the altar. Just as he got close, a high wind parted the clouds. The blazing light of the river of stars above filled the ruined church. Then he could see that the woman had turned her ankle and then pierced both her hands on thorns when she fell.

She saw him too, but she did not scream, for she saw the scarf a moment later.

“Mine!” she cried, and lurched off the altar to snatch it off his neck. He was too quick for her. He leapt and bounded nimble up the branches of a nearby tree, until he stood in the empty picture-window, backlit by the blazing river of stars.

The foolish woman hobbled after him. Heedless of her bleeding hands, she scrambled over brambles and briars, trying to find purchase to climb the tree.

The wind fluttered the night-black scarf round the wolf’s neck. It carried the smell beneath the foolish woman’s smell to his twitching nose. Without even thinking, Stares-Past-Stars raised his face to the sky. The stars were full of the smell on the scarf. A gust caught it off his neck and carried it to the altar. He could see, deep within the night-black yarn, glittering motes of light.

“No, you stupid wolf!” the foolish woman shouted. She stopped her climbing and dropped to the ground. “My stepmother will kill us both!”

The motes of light within the yarn poured out onto the altar like stars. They assembled themselves into the glowing shape of a lovely woman. Stares-Past-Stars leapt down from his perch. He bowed deeply with both paws, as wolves do, for he knew this must be the Queen of the Night.

“Thank you, good wolf,” said the Queen of the Night. “In her jealousy for her father’s love for me, my step-daughter wove this scarf from the wool of purest nothing. She gave it to me as a gift, and I did not think it any harm. To humor her, I wore it. After I had worn it a year and a day, she was able to complete her spell. She drew me into the nothing, all my star-stuff and love, and there I have been imprisoned for many years.”

“Lies! Lies!” cried the foolish woman on the ground, but the wolf knew differently and snapped his teeth at her neck for silence.

“She told her father, who fishes the great River of Stars, that I had run off, no longer loving him.”

An endless silver thread dangled through the broken roof of the long-lost church. From the depth of the sky came a whisper: “I knew better. I boarded her house and threw her in the lake for punishment. But she would not tell me where you were and I could not see.”

The Queen of the Night wrapt the silver thread round her waist. “I am here, my love.”

“Bring my foolish daughter to me,” the voice from the sky said.

Stares-Past-Stars grabbed the daughter by her scruff. He dragged her to the altar. The Queen of the Night trussed her round with the nothing-scarf. She tugged on the silver thread and it reeled them up.

Stares-Past-Stars returned to his home by the lake. He spent the rest of his days weaving stories out of the reflected River of Stars. If anyone had ever asked him about the foolish woman in the drowning house and her stolen scarf, he would just have said: “It just shows that you’ve got to look past the way things seem.”

The Pareidolian Stare.

Once upon a time, there was a sleepy village of no particular account. It nestled at the foot of a mountain of middling height in a duchy so unremarkable that its duke was able to avoid visiting court for decades at a time without notice. The only claim to any note that this village could make was a contest called (for reasons no one could remember) the Pareidolian Stare.

The contest was held at no fixed time. Instead, at some point during the year, the oldest person living in the village would walk into the street, grab the arm of the first passerby, and whisper in that person’s ear: “Pounds and pence, the Pareidolian Stare is one month hence.” That passerby would find repeat the message to the first person they met, and so on and on, until a month later, the whole duchy from the duke on down knew it was time to descend on the village.

The rules were simple. At dawn on the day of the contest, the oldest person in the village would find the youngest person in the village who could talk. The elder would watch the child until he or she stopped to stare at something in the way children will. Anything at all would do: a tree stump, a mud puddle, a water stain on a wall – as long as it stayed put all the day long.

Then the elder would say “Pence and pounds, the Pareidolian Stare is open to rounds.”

Everyone who had come would line up (with no little jostling). One after another, the contestants would take a long look at what the child was staring at, then tell the crowd what they saw therein.

One might say “It is an apple tree, lush and tall.” Another might say “It is a herd of milk cows, lowing in the field.” A third might say “It is the shadow of a finely tailored suit of silk.” And so on it would go, from dawn till dusk.

The duke would consider all of the claims late into the night. At dawn the next day, he would announce the most eloquent and convincing description of the Pareidolian Stare. The winner then received exactly what he or she had described – making this possibly a quite lucrative contest indeed. You may be assured that every year hundreds of men and women claimed with many passionate words to see vast treasure in water spots on a wall. They almost never won.

One year, a clever and curious woman was travelling through the duchy from a distant land, gathering quaint bits of foreign custom, when she happened to hear of the Stare.

“Well,” she said, “this is why I left home,” and made all haste to the dull village.

As chance would have it, she found herself at the head of the Pareidolian Stare. She had come intending only to stand to one side and take notes on the odd cultural practice. But when she arrived, she was caught up in the jostle of the crowd. Seeking a quiet and elevated vantage to observe, she instead was elbowed and nudged right up to the large marbled stone at the center of the proceedings.

“I don’t think I should—” she tried to say, but her efforts to demur were drowned out by cries from the crowd to hurry it along. She glanced at the old man next to the little girl in front of her. He guided her eyes with his own to the large piece of white and grey rock protruding from the black dirt field. He winked, and she took his meaning.

Her mind was racing, trying to think of something to say that would allow her to return to simply observing and making her notes. When she looked down at the stone though, she was transported into a vivid vision.

“I see a beautiful man! He is lost on a mountain. He has been led astray by the fairy – no, wait, he is a fairy. A fairy prince, tall and glittering, but he is lost, lost on the mountainside. He must be rescued!”

So powerful and real seemed the vision she saw in the rock that there was nothing for it but to run from the village and up to the mountain. The villagers were so shocked, they paused the contest for all of a minute before gathering their composure and shoving the next contestant up. He saw a thatch-roofed hut with three rooms, and the Pareidolian Stare was back on its course.

The researcher from another land, meanwhile, had run pell mell for an hour up the side of the mountain before coming to her senses.

“Wait!” she shouted, entirely for her own benefit (for sometimes one must speak firmly aloud to oneself to hear reason). “This makes no sense at all. I am sure it was merely a trick of the light, or some manner of collective hallucination. Clearly, I got caught up in the excitement of those peasants’ ritual and lost my head.”

She looked around. She was in a clearing, just under a small waterfall that trickled into a creek down the side of the mountain and back towards the high road, far below.

“How embarrassing,” she thought. “Perhaps I should just keep traveling on. I will put the Pareidolian Stare in a footnote for someone else to write up.”

She made a quick note in her papers and set off walking.

She had not taken two steps down the mountain towards the road when she heard a man calling out behind her.

“Weilaweilaweila wo! Where am I from, where shall I go!” he cried. “Weilaweilaweila wo!”

With that, he walked into the clearing.

The woman tried to say seven different things at once and nothing came out. The man was the spit and image of the fairy prince she had seen during the Pareidolian Stare.

When he saw her, he stopped wailing mid-weila. He bowed, most courtly.

“You seem wise, milady,” he said, “and knowledgeable. Can you tell me where I am from and where I must go?”

“Remarkable,” the researcher said. She walked slowly around him. From every angle, he was the same man the rock had shown. “Simply remarkable. I must be mad.”

“Why then, are we both,” he replied with a laugh. “The mad leading the mad. This ought to be a lark.”

At that moment, the woman heard a small voice whispering across the clearing. She strained to hear it. It babbled on the very edges of her hearing, almost making sense… almost… almost… She realized it was the plip-drip-plop-trickle of the waterfall, playing tricks on her. Yet, she could not help but listen, until the water spoke, and it said:

“Through the willow’s bitter bark, on the line twixt light and dark, turn left from everything, and there you’ll find the Fairy King.”

“What did the water say?” the man asked her. “I cannot hear its voice any more.”

She repeated the rhyme. He took her by the hand in a most familiar way. “I think I know where to go.”

Her curiosity battled her wisdom and won in the first round. She let herself be led uphill and down, until they came to the largest willow tree she had ever seen.

“The water never lies,” the fairy prince said. “you take the right and I’ll take the left, and we’ll meet on the other side.”

With that, he let go of her hand and began to squint very closely at the willow bark, working his way around to the left. Unsure of what was expected of her – the customs of plain folk were confusing enough, she knew nothing of the fairy – the researcher followed suit to the right.

“It is willow bark,” she said. “That much I can see.”

“Keep looking,” the prince replied from the other side.

Pausing to scribble a quick summary her mountain journey thus far (for she was a researcher), she continued her inspection. Right as her hand touched the prince’s again, on the westernmost edge of the great tree trunk, they both saw the same crack in the bark.

“There!” they cried in unison. They laughed in the way people do when they say the same thing at the same time.

“Forgive my discourtesy,” he said, “but I think it best if I go first.”

She made a mental note that the fairy considered it courteous to let a woman go first, but that the rule could be waived.

The prince drew in his breath and wedged himself into the crack in the bitter willow bark. He stopped halfway in. “I may need your help,” he gasped.

She took his meaning at once. She lowered her shoulder and shoved the stuck prince as hard as she could. With a squeak, he popped through the crack, and she came tumbling after.

Unfortunately, they fell squarely onto a sleeping monster, set to guard the Willow Gate to the Fairy Kingdom.

Seven enormous eyes, black as thunderheads, glared at them. A deep rumbling filled the dim inside of the Willow Gate. Flashing like lightning, crooked claws raked the prince across the chest and sent him reeling to the floor.

He began weilaweiling up a storm. The researcher hoped that this was some sort of battle cry. She quickly realized it was not.

She was not, however, one of those researchers whose wars were laid away in books. It can be a dangerous business, gathering up other people’s customs on paper. She had trained as well for combat as she had for anthropology.

Pulling a handful of quills from her satchel, she threw them quick as can be, one through seven, each one unerringly hitting one of the monster’s terrible black eyes. It rose, its fur bristling and crackling with static, and lumbered towards her. She emptied out every inkpot she had into a slick puddle in front of it. She grabbed the prince and, ignoring his rather undignified wailing, rolled with him out of the way of the monster, right as it slipped on the ink-pool.

Pausing to stuff a sheaf of paper into the prince’s mouth – more for her own peace than anything else – she leapt back to her feet. The monster had skidded, out of control, right into the crack in the willow bark. It bellowed, stuck fast.

The researcher paused, unsure of what to do next. The monster pulled at the willow bark, which splintered. She did not have long.

It was then that she noticed that the streaks of ink on the ground made a pattern that was the perfect image of the monster’s anatomy. Moreover, by happy coincidence, a small splash of red ink (she so seldom needed it, she barely had any at all), made an X at a certain spot. In a flash, she realized that was the monster’s weak spot.

The beast tore its head free from the willow, still wearing a ring of bark like a collar. Drawing her pen knife, the researcher charged it. Before its slashing claws could end her story, she plunged the little blade as deep as she could into the spot marked on the ink-pattern anatomy on the floor. The monster reeled back. In a puff of mist, it vanished.

“Well,” said the prince, pulling the wad of paper from his mouth. “It seems the way is clear.”

She looked and she saw that, between the line of the very last of the sun’s light and the very first of the night’s dark, a vast kingdom opened up. The prince led her in.

“Thank you for rescuing me,” he said. “I suppose you’ll be wanting to get married and become Queen some day.”

The researcher gazed out over the varied and wondrous country before her.

“I think not.”

She left the prince weilaweiling by the broken Willow Gate. She spent the rest of her life traveling from place to place in Fairy Land, watching and learning and making notes. In the end, she wrote a long book about every custom the length and breadth of that marvelous place. It was a remarkable tome, the true love of her life. At last, time closed the cover on her and her magnificent book, as it must for us all. They were buried in the same grave, and the kingdom mourned them.

The Scholar’s Wise Dog

Once upon a time, a scholar set out on a journey to visit a country that he had only read about. He brought as company only an empty book (which he would fill with notes on his trip) and his dog. He was not even sure where the country was, because maps in those days were not so good. He knew enough to head east until he reached the water and then to take a ship until the ship found land again. Beyond that, he was trusting that as he got closer to the unknown country, people would know better where it was.

Unfortunately, he never even made it to the first port. At the end of the first long day of walking, he camped a ways off the side of the high road, sheltered from the night wind by a copse of ash and willow trees. In the deepest part of the first night of his journey, his dog woke him from dreams of the unknown country. She stuck her wet nose right in his ear and snuffled until his eyes fluttered open. In an instant, he realized that he had been so weary from walking all day – for in his studies he had lost the habit of regular exercise – that he had forgotten to feed his beloved dog.

Before he untied his pack to get her (very late) dinner, he smelled wisps of a savory delight on the fresh midnight breeze. The dog pointed her nose towards it, opened her mouth, and tasted and sniffed all at once. Led by her, the scholar took up his pack and crept out of the ash and willow grove, up over the high road, and down again. There he saw a distant red smudge of a low cook-fire. The smell of food got stronger. His belly reminded him that he had forgotten to feed himself as well. Heedless of the uneven ground, the scholar and his dog made all haste towards the delicious dinner smell.

They found a cauldron, bubbling with thick meat and root stew, over a fire. There was no one around tending it.

“Hullo?” the scholar called out to the dark. “I say, may we join you for dinner?”

No one answered. The scholar picked up a bowl beside the cauldron. He ladled out a generous portion for the dog and set it before her. She sniffed it, cautiously. Though great drops of drool spattered the ground around the bowl and at her feet, she backed slowly away. Her hackles went up.

“Silly dog,” the scholar said. “Strange food is better than no food.”

The dog was unmoved.

“Fine,” the scholar said. “I will feed you your own usual dinner. But first—” he seized the bowl and wolfed it down.

The world went black and that was all he knew.

He woke in a very tight iron cage. His knees were pressed to his chest and his arms pinned to his side. He could hardly turn his head to look around. The cage sat in the corner of a cave. His faithful dog was nowhere to be found.

“Silly dog,” the scholar thought. “Ran all the way back home. She’s sitting by the study fire right now, gnawing on a bone.”

Just then a beautiful young woman carrying a bouquet of herbs came into the cave.

“Help! Help!” cried the scholar, as best he was able, being all compressed in the cage.

“Oh my!” the woman said. “You poor handsome man, all pent up.”

“Can you open the door? My arms can’t move to undo the latch.”

The woman rushed to the cage. “The door is locked.” She looked around the cave. She fetched a jar from a rock shelf. “Here,” she said. “I’ll rub this goose grease all over you, so you can squeeze through the bars.”

Even greased with goose fat, the scholar could not manage to wriggle through the tight bars. The woman held up her bouquet of herbs. “I’ll rub your arms and legs with rosemary and sage,” she said. “That will make them more supple and surely you will be able to escape then.”

Even greased with goose fat and made supple by herbs, the scholar could not manage to wriggle through the tight bars. “I know!” the woman said. “I’ll put the cage over the fire. That will soften the metal bars and you can use your muscles to pry them apart.”

The scholar knew this was a bad plan. But he was trapped in the cage and the beautiful woman would not be dissuaded. She hoisted him effortlessly over her head and carried him towards a large cook fire at the center of the cave.

Just then, a terrific baying and barking echoed through the cavern. Fur a-bristle, the scholar’s dog ran in to the rescue. She bit the very strong woman on the leg. Enraged, the woman threw the cage, scholar and all, right at the dog. The faithful hound was too quick and dodged out of the way. The cage burst asunder. The scholar lay stunned on the cold stone floor, in a pile of twisted iron. The dog and woman circled one another, and it was hard to tell who was growling more ferociously. Once she had placed herself between the fierce dog and the mouth of the cave, the woman turned tail and ran as fast as she could. The scholar’s dog followed as far as the entrance and shouted many doggish insults at her as she fled.

The scholar had been badly hurt when the cage had broken. He wanted nothing more than to lay on the cold stone floor of the cave and wait until he was healed. His dog would have none of it. Once she had chased the cannibal off, she returned to her scholar and began nosing him sharply. He groaned.

“Leave me be, silly dog,” he said. “Can’t you see I’m dying?” She would not relent. She poked his every bruise and sore spot with her snout, until he rolled over and stood up. She barked at him, happily, and herded him hobbling out of the cannibal’s cave.

Though the scholar truly did feel as though he were dying from his injuries, his dog’s persistence proved the wiser course. As soon as he got to the edge of eye-shot from the cave entrance, he spotted the cannibal woman. Her courage renewed, she limped back into her home. When she found her dinner missing, a terrible howl echoed across the countryside. She emerged, glaring every which way in search of her meal.

“I don’t know why I thought she was beautiful,” he whispered to his dog. “She looks quite ugly now.”

The dog’s only response was to herd him further on, from hiding place to hiding place, while the cannibal hunted after.

The scholar soon realized that they were in the middle of a vast ruin – an ancient city whose name was just on the tip of his tongue. Every hillock had been a splendid house, and every tangle of vines grew over what once had been a broad street. He could even picture the map of the place, a faded and spotted page in an enormous old book. When they came to a crossroads, where a great oak tree split what had once been a statue of the city’s mightiest king, the scholar knew where they were and had a plan.

“If we can get to where the old palace stood,” he said, “we should be able to hold out, even if she lays siege to us.”

The scholar’s dog would have none of it. Led by her nose, she tracked her own route, down through the ruined town, towards a wide, slow river.

“Silly dog,” the scholar said, and set about his plan.

Unfortunately for him, the cannibal knew every nook and cranny of the ruin all about. She had laid many traps in the most attractive places. When he got to the palace, he was struck down by a deadfall. Pinned under rubble and crying for help, he made easy prey for the hunting woman. She found him right quick. She tossed him over her shoulder, carried him to her cave, popped him in her cauldron to cook him till he was a fine good stew.

As for the scholar’s dog, when she reached the river, she found what she was sniffing for. A group of witch-hunters (she had smelt them from the cave) had made camp on the far shore, intending to scour the ruins for the cannibal. She swam straight cross. She scampered into their midst and shook herself down to wake them up. At first they were angry at being covered by dog-water in the middle of their afternoon nap, but she paced growling along the shore and pointed at the ruins, and soon they took her meaning.

The witch-hunters gathered up their things. Led by the wise dog, they were at the cave in no time at all. The dog barked an angry challenge, and the cannibal witch came roaring out. She was most surprised by the dozen witch-hunters waiting behind the dog. Though she fought with tremendous strength, they won the day. They trussed her up and prepared to take her back for trial.

The dog, however, had other ideas. She ran into the cave and, though it burnt her paws quite badly, she tipped over the just-bubbling cauldron. The stew-covered scholar fell out. He weakly called for help. The witch-hunters came to see, and were shocked by what they found.

“A witch is one thing,” they said, “but a cannibal is quite another. You have a very good dog there.”

They agreed to a man that a trial would be a waste of the state’s resources. They tossed the witch in her cauldron, clapped the lid on, weighted it down with stones, and tossed it in the river.

And so the wise dog was named a hero and honorary witch hunter by all in the land, and so the humbled scholar returned home without finding the unknown country, and so the witch perished in her own cauldron.

Clockwork Kate and Her Gearheart Gear

Once upon a time there was a princess who lived (by choice) in an enormous clock tower. She was a nervous sort, and the only thing that soothed her jangling, wrangling brain was the tidy ticking of gears and the clatter of levers and the throng-throng of the four brass bells (one at each corner) that rang out on the hour. The commoners called her Clockwork Kate, though the king and queen did their best to forbid the name.

Though her mother and father often begged her to live in the palace as a proper princess should, Clockwork Kate couldn’t stand a day in such chaos. They ordered and pleaded every time she came to visit, but she never gave in.

“Everyone moves around however they please,” she would tell her mother. “You never know what is coming your way,” she would explain to her father. Then she would finish her tea and return, after no more than an hour of visiting, to her clocktower chambers high above the city.

One day, Clockwork Kate found herself with child. When she told the queen, and queen told the king, both of them demanded to know who the child’s father was. Princess Kate warned them not to ask her twice, or she would retreat to her clocktower and never come down. But the parentage of a king’s heir is of paramount importance (at least for those who care about such things), and Kate’s father pressed the point. True to her word, she left the palace forever.

Ashamed and unwilling to see their kingdom go to a stranger’s son, the king and queen ordered the clocktower boarded up. They declared, on pain of death, that the name Clockwork Kate never to be mentioned in their kingdom. They erased her name from the family tree and banished her from history. The king announced the kingdom would go to his sister’s son and when he died, not two years later, it was so.

In shorter time than you might think, all that was left of the memory of Clockwork Kate was the sound of four brass bells on the hour, which the cityfolk called “Katie’s Song” – though none of them could tell you why.

Forgotten (some say happily so), the princess continued on in the soothing order of her tower. In the fullness of time, she bore a child. The baby girl made up of flesh and skin and bone on the outside, as she ought to have been, but inside her was hundreds of tiny brass gears, ticking away like who-knows-what for who-knows-why. Kate loved her dearly and called her Gearheart Girl.

Under Kate’s calm and orderly mothering, Gearheart Girl grew up quickly. She was not allowed to leave the clocktower, for (even if the building had not been boarded up tight), her mother could not bear to be outside. They would watch the city go by from high above though, looking out of one of the four clock faces. So it was that Gearheart Girl learned that most of the children below had two parents, and that most of those were a mother and a father. Curious, she began to ask Clockwork Kate to explain it to her.

At first, Kate put the question aside with a mother’s “when you’re older,” but Gearheart Girl was persistent, and never got tired. She began to ask about her father every time the last throng-throng of the hourly bells had faded away. Kate knew well enough her daughter’s persistence would go on till time itself wound down, and so she gave in.

“Your father, my dear Gearheart Girl,” she said “was one of the gnomes who live on the Mountain and under the Mountain far away on the edge of what we can see. It was he who built this clock and, when he would come to set it right, I would talk with him. Soon enough, we fell in love and there you were. Now we’re done and done with that.”

Clockwork Kate ought to have known that feeding curiosity only makes it hungry. Late that night, at the very first stroke of midnight, Gearheart Girl crept out of her covers and up to the north clock face of the tower. There, by the bright light of the full moon, she could see the Mountain, just as far away as she could see. By the time the sixth stroke of midnight had throng-thronged, she had climbed out through the hole where the clock hands came in, and stood on the very narrow ledge outside. At the stroke of eight, she raised her gear-work hand over her head. At the stroke of nine, all five fingers telescoped out into long propellers. At the stroke of ten, they began to whirl. At the stroke of eleven, she heard her mother, who had waked to find her gone, crying out for her from inside the tower. At the last stroke of midnight, the whirling blades caught the air and carried her up and away, much to her mother’s dismay.

She flew over the sleeping city and out to the countryside, whizzing past clouds and stars, straight for the far Mountain. By sun-up, she had landed. She took a deep breath of the first non-dusty air of her life. She marveled at the wild twittering of birds, the never-repeating drip-drop of a nearby brook, and the movement of everything around her, going every which way at once.

She had landed at a large stone set by the road – a marker that indicated that her grandfather’s kingdom was ending and the kingdom of gnomes began.

“Up and on,” Gearheart Girl said. She marched on the narrow road up the Mountain and into the Gnomeland. At first, she truly did march, as regular as any soldier might. After a while though, a bit of mischief took her and she added a skip to her step. Before long every foot down pointed to a different place and foot up counted a different pace.

“I never!” she said, not able to find any more words for how she felt than that.

After a time of walking – she was not sure how long, without the ticks and bells to tell her – she spotted a wee gnome beggar by the side of the road.

“Hullo there,” she said. She knew beggars from on high, but had never seen one up close. “What can I do for you?”

The beggar hobbled over to her. “Change clothes with me,” he said. “For I am cold, and you are warm.”

Gearheart Girl considered the wee gnome’s wild rags and tatters. She looked at her own very neat and pressed, but somewhat stiff and far-too-starched, drab dress. “That seems reasonable,” she said. In a trice, she had exchanged clothes with the beggar – who was exactly her size, though grown and old as the hills – and was on her way.

On she roamed through Gnomeland, whistling a tune without a beat and kicking dust under her feet. In a field by the side of the road, she saw another old gnome, surrounded on all sides by dozens of boards, laid out in neat order. He lifted a roofbeam high. He squatted down and threw it up in the air, then tried to run over to the side frames and put them up to catch it before it fell down. Of course, this was foolish, and the roofbeam clattered to the ground before he could even lift one side frame.

Happy enough to watch for a while, Gearheart Girl spent a bit of time doing just that – she could not tell exactly how much, of course. Foolish as could be, the gnome tried the same trick again and again, throwing the roofbeam as high as he could before running like mad to catch it on a side frame. It never worked.

Eventually, Gearheart Girl got bored. Without asking, she flew (using her propeller hand) over the pile of boards and caught the roofbeam at its peak. The foolish builder gnome was then able to pull the side frames up in good order. In no time at all, he had his cottage built. Without so much as a ‘thank you stranger,’ he vanished inside, shutting the door tight and turning off the light.

“I never,” Gearheart Girl said, for want of any better thought. “It is getting late and I’ve not found my father yet. I should press on.”

By moonrise, she had reached a cold and rushing river, coming straight off the mountain snows. The moonlight danced on the swirling water and white foam. Gearheart Girl stopped mid-step, entranced, by the sight. She sat down on a flat stone right at the water’s edge. Until the moon was gone she watched the river flow, and kept watching under the whirling stars. Beside the wild rush of the river, running on its own time and with its own unknowable rhythms, the tick-tock of her tower home seemed as dull as a month of yawns.

“It rolls and flows, the same all the time, but never the same,” she said. She could not believe such a thing existed, nor that she had spent her whole life not knowing about it.

“Remarkable, isn’t it?” a voice said, right beside her. So enthralled with the chaos of the water, she had not noticed a gnome had joined her on the rock. In the tricky starlight, she could not quite see him, but it seemed that he was wearing her dress and had a hammer in one hand.

“Are you my father?” she asked.

“Indeed I am,” he said. After they had fallen into each others arms with tears of joy, he stepped back with a stern look on his face. “Now, let us see about freeing your mother from her prison.”

“I don’t think she’ll like that,” Gearheart Girl said. “She does not like the chaos of the outside. Not like you and not like me.”

“Nonsense,” said her father. “I built her the clocktower because she hated chaos, true, and I loved her long before she even knew me, and I wanted her to be happy. But the chaos she hated was the chaos of a King’s Court – the hubbub and babble and nonsense of petty people grubbing for every last bit of power. All that noise and lies – who wouldn’t despise it?

“But the tower I built has become her prison. Her desire to be free of the chaos of Court became a want for simple order – and so she wastes her loveliness and the loveliness of the world away in a boarded up old tower that must soon enough run down.

“It isn’t right!” he shouted, startling Gearheart Girl with the sudden loudness. “We must burn down the prison and break her free! Or perhaps the reverse order…”

“I suppose…” said Gearheart Girl slowly. “But I still think she will not want to leave the clocktower.”

The gnome thought a long spell. He snapped his fingers. “Then we’ll show her what she is missing here in the Gnomeland.”

Taking Gearheart Girl by the hand, he led her back to his newly-built cottage. There were just enough boards left over for him to quickly build a window frame.

“Take this to Clockwork Kate,” he said. “Place it on the wall of her tower, and she will be able to look through it all the way across the noise and confusion of human life, to see the Mountain river and the life of the Gnomeland folk.”

Gearheart Girl did not want to leave her father, so soon after having found him, but she did. She flew back down the Mountain and across the countryside and up to the clocktower, swooping in right at the last stroke of six in the morning.

“My dear!” cried her mother, and smothered her in tears and kisses – and no little scolding after a little while. Gearheart Girl bore it all stoically, then presented the gift of her father’s window. She set it against the outer wall of the tower. True to his word, the window showed the broad vista of Gnomeland, the roads and rivers and cottages – and all the folk living in wild harmony.

Clockwork Kate did not change her mind right then and there. She did not change her mind over night. But one day after another, Gearheart Girl made her mother watch the wild Gnomelands. Though the child sometimes grew impatient, she waited still, trusting her father’s intuition.

At long last, after many a year had passed, Clockwork Kate caught a flashing glimpse of a deeper order, far below the chaos of the river. She clapped in delight.

“Oh my dear Gearheart Girl,” she said, though her daughter had grown into a young woman, a girl no longer. “I have been ever so wrong! I am sorry you have wasted away in this dull and dusty tower so long!” “About time,” said Gearheart Girl, right as the four bells sounded for the last time. She and her mother stepped through the window to the Gnomeland. Her father was waiting, and Clockwork Kate embraced her gnome lover from long ago, as though they had never been parted. As her parents renewed their affection, Gearheart Girl looked back through the window at her long prison. Lightning struck the clocktower in a wild jagged arc. The dry dust and old timber caught fire at once, and the flames rose higher and the wicked place was destroyed.

The Bold Bad Son and the Empty Crown

Once upon a time there was a country ruled by an empty crown. It was a simple circlet of gold that floated over a wooden throne in a great hall. Though the empty crown never spoke, nor even moved, when the servants of the state came into its presence, they left knowing exactly what it wanted them to do. They carried out its wishes and the kingdom prospered.

In a quiet corner of that same kingdom, far from the center of power and the empty crown, lived a bold, bad man, who made his living fighting in taverns and stealing when he couldn’t find a fight. His only redeeming quality was that he very much loved his widowed mother and cared for her as well as any son in the land. This was why, when the day before her birthday came round and he found himself with neither money nor prospects for a gift, he was most distraught.

All day, he went from tavern to tavern looking for a fight, but he had already beaten every local lad, some more than once, so no one would take him up for love or money.  He challenged every stranger wayfaring that way, but they all saw the locals steering shy and so were wise and let the bold, bad man be.

“My mother is a saint,” he at length said to himself, “and she shall have a present. If fighting won’t buy her one, I know what will.”

He walked along the road, intending to rob the first rich man he came upon. At a crossroads, he met a beggar leaning on a crutch and holding out a bowl.

“Coin for a poor man?” the beggar asked.

“Hobble on down, Spindleshanks,” the bold, bad man said and brushed the beggar out of his way. Or rather, he would have brushed the beggar out of his way, but he found the other man harder to move than he might have guessed.

“I know you,” the beggar said. “You fight for gold in the taverns and steal when you can’t fight. Care for a go? Winner takes what’s in my bowl, loser is the winner’s slave till sun-up tomorrow?”

The last rays of the setting sun glinted at the bottom of the beggar’s bowl. The bold, bad man thought “Easy gold!” and agreed to the terms as set.

The two fighters squared off at opposite corners of the crossroads. The beggar tossed aside his crutch. He swayed on his weak legs. The bold, bad man laughed and counted the coin that would soon be his. He strode up to the beggar and struck him with a mighty blow.

To his surprise, the beggar did not fall down. In fact, he seemed to stand up a bit straighter. His legs filled out and his shoulders unstooped. The bold, bad man punched him again, harder than the first time. Again, the beggar took the hit and seemed to grow six inches taller. In a whirling flurry of blows, the bold, bad man flailed at the crippled beggar, until he could hit no more. Panting, he bent double and braced himself on his knees.

The beggar stood tall, completely healed of his infirmities. He blew one puff at the bold, bad man, and the strength left the proud fighter’s arms and legs and he fell to the ground.

“Well,” said the beggar, picking up his crutch and bowl. “I guess you know what this means.”

The bold, bad man was too weak and confused to object. He had never lost a fight and did not know how to behave.

“Your first task, as my slave till sun-up, is to rescue my sister. She was seized for vagrancy by the town guard and now languishes behind cold iron bars. You must go to town and, by hook or by crook, find a way to win her free and bring her to me.”

The bold, bad man was very familiar with the town’s gaol. He made his way there with all haste, hoping to be free of the beggar’s tasks with enough time to buy his mother a birthday present still.

He knew that the cells were in the basement, with a barred window at the street level. He peered into the dim dungeon. Within, he could see a withered crone in rags. When she saw him, she tapped the wart on the side of her nose.

“You smell like my brother’s slave,” she said. “Though you hardly look strong enough for the job.”

“I’ll show you strong!” The bold, bad man grabbed the cold iron bars. He strained and strained, pulling at them with all his strength.

“Put your back into it,” the crone said. “Show some will, Noodle-arm!”

The bold, bad man grunted. He pulled until black spots swam in his eyes and his head felt like it was going to explode. His arms burned. The bars did not move.

“My brother should have sent a strong man to do the job, not some newling infant with fat, soft arms.”

Barely able to spare the effort to speak, the bold, bad man gasped: “I’m the strongest man in town, maybe the strongest man a hundred leagues round.”

“Pah!” spat the crone. “Step back and I’ll show you how it’s done.”

She hooked her crooked pinky finger around a bar. She tugged and it popped loose into her hand. She dropped it to the ground and, one, two, three, popped out the other bars with her spotted little finger.

“I loosened it up for you,” the bold, bad man said, as she leapt nimbly up and out the window. “Anyway, let’s go to your brother. I’ve still got to get a present for my mother.”

“Not just yet,” the crone said. “When the Law pinched me, they sold my cauldron at auction to pay my gaol fee. The Mayor’s cook bought it. I want it back.”

The bold, bad man objected, but to no avail. The beggar’s sister would not budge an inch until she had her cauldron back. So he crept through alleys and over rooftops and under shadows until he came to the Mayor’s manor kitchen door.

What he did not know was that a foreign prince was passing through, and the Mayor was having a banquet for him. The prince had been summoned by the servants of the state, who understood that to be the will of the empty crown. Being wary, as princes will sometimes be, he had agreed to come, but brought a large retinue of bodyguards and spies to ensure that he would not be assassinated.

One of these, seeing the bold, bad man creeping up to the Mayor’s manor, didn’t think twice. He threw a net at the presumed assassin and raised a ruckus that brought everyone running. Strong as he was, the bold, bad man was no match for a dozen soldiers. He was trussed up quickly and brought to the dining hall to face the wrath and justice of the foreign prince.

Though he was tied up in so many ropes and nets that he looked like a giant ball of string, the bold, bad man could just barely see out of his bonds. What he saw would give him nightmares for many years to come.

Just as the guards dragged him in, the cook entered the hall with the crone’s cauldron, filled and bubbling with a beef stew that was a local specialty. The cook presented a silver spoon to the foreign prince and offered him right of first taste. The magic of the crone’s cauldron, however, turned what would have been delicious broth into a vile poison. The moment it touched the foreign prince’s lips, he began to twitch and change. Great bulges burst out of his back, erupting into scaly wings. His fingers grew three more joints and nails hard as iron. His teeth shot out in all directions, gnashing and slashing. Quicker than it takes to tell, a monster stood where once had been the foreign prince.

The bold, bad man watched through his bonds as the monster did what monsters will do. Everyone in the hall who was not able to flee was horribly slain – except for the bold, bad man, whom the monster did not see, all trussed up like a ball of string.

When he had devoured everyone in sight, the monster-prince stomped out of the Mayor’s manor. He ravaged the countryside for a while, then returned to his home kingdom, far away. Perhaps I’ll tell you his story another day.

In the meanwhile, the beggar and the crone had arrived at the dining hall. The crone took up her cauldron, while the beggar unraveled the bold, bad man’s bonds. As soon as he was free, the bold, bad man looked to run away. The beggar just tapped his crutch and rattled his bowl.

“Till sun-up,” was all he said, and it was enough to stop the bold, bad man’s flight.

The crone poured all the stew out of her cauldron. “Feh,” she said. “Disgusting.”

She wiped it clean with a bloody table cloth. “Get on in then,” she said to the bold, bad man. “We’ve only got all night.”

Prodded by the beggar’s crutch, the bold, bad man stepped into the clean cauldron. It grew in size as he got in, until it fit him nice and snug.

“Fly you off and hie you on,” said the beggar. “Bring me what was lost, before the dawn.”

The cauldron rose into the air. It sailed through the window, picking up pace as it went. At a terrific speed, it rushed above the countryside. Terrified, it was all the bold, bad man could do to cling to the sides and hope it did not up-end, dropping him to his death. On it flew, until it came to the great city at the center of the kingdom, to the great palace at the center of the city, and, at last, to the great throne room at the center of the palace.

There, it tipped over, sending the bold, bad man tumbling out in front of the wooden throne. Above him, he saw the empty crown, floating. No one else was around and there was nothing else in the room.

No one said anything, yet he knew, sure as he knew the sound of his own heart beat, that the crown did not want to be stolen. But he was a bold, bad man and not a servant of the state, and therefore he felt no obligation to what an empty crown might want. Quick as dice, he pinched it and tucked it in his shirt. He leapt into the cauldron and flew back across the country to the crossroads where he had lost his first fight.

The beggar and crone were waiting there. The bold, bad man dismounted the cauldron and tossed them the crown.

“Are we good and quit now?” he said. He feared he would never find a present in time for his mother’s birthday.

The beggar took the empty crown and placed it on his head. For just a moment, the bold, bad man saw him as he truly was, but he would never speak of that and so I won’t either. At any rate, the first rays of the sun shot over the curve of the east and the bold, bad man found himself alone at the crossroads, no sign of beggar nor crone.

There was, however, a small cauldron on the ground next to him.

“You’ll do, I guess,” he said. He took it to his mother and gave it to her for her birthday.

Without the empty crown, the kingdom soon fell into confusion and ruin, but the quiet corner where the bold, bad man lived with his mother did not see much of the worst of it. There, life continued as it had, indifferent to empty crowns and servants of the state.

Though the cauldron never showed the same kind of magic again, it did make perfect stew every time and, if you ate the stew hot from the pot, it made you feel light as a feather and almost, almost able to fly. The bold, bad man quit fighting and became a tavern cook the rest of his days. And his mother was delighted with such an unusual gift.

The Carpenter’s Journey

Once upon a time a carpenter decided leave his dull old town and journey to a distant city. Though his kinfolk tried their best to dissuade him, once the idea came into his head, nothing else would do. His uncles told him stories of men who met horrible deaths on the road. His aunts reminded him of every pretty girl in the town and country. His cousins, one by one, said (in their own words): “You’ve a good life here. Why find trouble in a far-off place where no one cares about your fate?”

“I’ve hammered every bit of wood in this town and sawed every plank in the country around. It’s past time and tide to find something that I’ve not yet tried,” was the young carpenter’s only response. His old mother and father, knowing their only son’s stubborn heart well, said nothing, but helped him pack his things and blessed him at the door.

“Be kind when you can,” his father said.

“Be careful when you can’t,” his mother added. They kissed him and sent him on his way.

He set out walking. He walked all day and late into the night. Even though the dark around held who-knows-what, he pressed on down the road. The thought of distant sights and smells and sounds made his footsteps light.

“Besides,” he thought, “the full moon makes the way as bright as day. I’d be in more danger in the forest back home.”

Up ahead of him, just over a low rise in the road, the carpenter heard two voices arguing.

“You dropped it, you fetch it,” growled a gruff man.

“I wouldn’t have dropped it if you hadn’t startled me,” said a stern woman, “barking orders so loud.”

“He won’t have his dinner if you don’t nip down there and clip it out.”

“And you’ll be the one to tell him that, and it will go the worse for you,” the woman shot back.

They fell to squabbling on and on, around the same two points – he, insisting that she fetch what she dropped, she refusing. No progress was made, nor any seemed likely to the carpenter, listening to this bickering.

The carpenter remembered what his father had told him. He strode up and over the rise with a smile on his face, ready to help smooth out the argument.

When he crested the hill, he stopped dead in his tracks. Floating in the sky – no, standing, on a landing made of shimmering solid moonlight – were a cook and a butler. Behind them, the carpenter could see the solid white light rose in shimmering stairs all the way to the face of the moon. Beneath them was a crossroads, with a well set right at the center.

The cook was frowning the stubbornest frown you’d ever want to see. She was dusted from head to toe in flour. The butler wore a blue velvet coat with silver buttons. He had the head of a wolf, with a snarling lip and haughty air. The carpenter had never seen any such sight in his short life.

“I say,” he cried, “this is why I left that dull old town.”

The cook and butler looked down.

“You there!” the cook said. She pointed to the well with her dusty ladle. “Climb down and fetch the silver bucket at the bottom there. It fell from me and I want it back before the moon sets.”

“You shouldn’t send a groundling to fix your mistake,” the wolf-butler said. She turned back to him with a glare, and they were off and arguing again. The carpenter watched them until the amusement grew weary. Then he whistled a whistle that carried a country mile.

“My father told me to be kind when I can,” he said, “so I’ll climb down quick as can be and get your bucket.”

“Thank you,” said the cook. “Don’t drink from it, no matter what.”

“It’s filled with the Moon King’s wine,” added the butler. “One drop and a groundling like you will fly off forever into the darkness between the stars.”

With that admonishment ringing in his ears, the carpenter swung one leg over the edge of the well. To his surprise, he found a ladder of glowing moon-rungs all down the side, as far as he could see.

“That’ll do nicely,” he said, and began to climb.

He climbed for a very, very, very, very long time. His arms burned and sweat stung his eyes. A time or two, he nearly slipped, so tired he was from all the climbing. It seemed that all he had ever done was climb down that well, one moon-rung at a time. After so long, all he could pay attention to was the rungs in his hands and the rungs beneath his feet and the next ones down.

That was how, without noticing how it happened, he found himself climbing out of another well-top. He brushed himself off, caught his breath, and looked around.

“I must have climbed clear through to the other side of the world!” he exclaimed.

He stood in the middle of a strange garden, filled with plants he had never seen. The sun shone bright and high. The air was warm and filled with a dozen smells he could not find names for – sweet and odd and sharp and new. Even the heavy hornets, drifting from flower to flower, were gold in hue and looked like no hornets from back home.

This is why I left that dull old town,” the carpenter said. “I wonder which way I ought to go?”

He was not sure, for the well stood at the center of a crossing of two garden paths, leaving him four choices. The sun was at its peak, and he could not guess the directions.

Just then, he heard the most beautiful music he had ever heard. Strings from an instrument he could not name plucked out a simple five-note song that floated over the garden. The flowers seemed to shiver as the music touched them, and the sleepy buzz of the hornets kept time with the tune.

The carpenter stepped off towards the sound. As he did so, he almost kicked over a silver bucket, filled with shimmering wine. Remembering his task, he picked it up. He looked down the well at the endless moonlight ladder.

“Perhaps a bit of rest wouldn’t be amiss,” he thought. “I am sure they can wait a moment or two while I recover my strength for the climb back.”

Thus assured of his own good intentions, and carrying the bucket at his side, the carpenter walked through the perfumed garden towards the source of the beautiful, exotic music.

In no time at all, he stepped through a break in a hedge and saw a wide dais, made of gold bricks. On it, he saw a woman of his own age playing an empty tortoise shell that had been strung with five bright iron wires. She wore silk robes whose patterns dazzled his eyes. He rubbed them clear of tears.

This,” he said, “is why I left that dull old town.”

The woman looked right into his eyes. Her eyes were black as the darkest night, but their corners crinkled with mischief. She winked at him and nodded her head to her left and to her right, without a break in her beautiful playing.

To the musician’s left, a squat young man in rich, but spotted, robes lolled on a reclining chair. He dug bright yellow wax out of his ears with one long fingernail, then flicked it across the dais. He seemed to the carpenter to be bored by the music, the garden, and the world at large, to be bored by everything around him except the waxy gold from his hairy ears.

To the musician’s right, a ways away from her on the dais, the carpenter saw a burly man and sour woman, who each wore the largest crowns he could have imagined. They sat across from each other at a table made of gleaming alabaster. Behind each of them stood a retinue of servile bureaucrats, too many for the carpenter to count. When one of them would say something, the servants behind them would murmur approvingly, while the servants behind the other monarch would hiss and tisk and carry on.

The carpenter ducked behind the hedgerow and peered through. After spying for some time, the story became clear to him. The woman playing the beautiful music was the Garden Emperor’s daughter, while the waxy man was the Hornet Empress’ son. The two parents were, as parent will, planning their children’s future as husband and wife – as well as the unification of their two empires as a result of this wedding.

The negotiations showed no signs of ending. The music continued. The Garden Princess stared the carpenter square in the eyes, and he knew exactly what she wanted.

“This was why I left that dull old town,” he reminded himself. Thus emboldened, he leapt onto the dais. Taking her hand in his, they ran together into the garden. For the briefest time, it seemed that they might get a good head start, but the unpleasant Hornet Prince emitted a great loud whine as he saw his bride-to-be being stolen by a stranger. In a trice, pursuit was organized. Hornets and Gardeners hot on their heels, the carpenter led the princess back to the well.

“It’ll never work,” she said. Her voice was every bit as filled with mischief as her eyes, and every bit as pleasantly strange as her music. “Look!”

The carpenter could see they were surrounded. He threw one leg over the well and cried, “Come on!”

Unfortunately, at that moment, he saw he had dallied too long in the garden at the other end of the world. The moon had set back over his own country road, and taken with it the shimmering rungs.

“Doom!” cried the carpenter as the army rushed down.

Fortunately, the Garden Princess had studied many things and, at once, recognized the silver bucket of the Moon King’s wine, and knew exactly what it could do. She seized it from the quailing carpenter and took a swift sip. Quick as light, she flew up into the sky, past the sun itself and out to the darkness between the stars.

The carpenter took one look at the flashing sharp tools of the Garden Emperor’s minions and the sharp stabbing stingers of the Hornet Empress’ soldiers and followed the Princess’ lead. He quaffed a great draft from the bucket. It was just in time too, for two dozen rakes and two dozen stingers pierced the side of the well where he had stood but a blink before.

Together, the Garden Princess and the carpenter wandered the darkness between the stars for many lives of men, until the Garden Empire and Hornet Empire had both crumbled to dust and been forgotten. After more sand had passed through the world’s hourglasses than there are stars in the sky, they came to the Moon King’s palace, shimmering and bright against the night. They knocked at the door.

The wolf-headed butler answered. “We thought you would never arrive,” he said.

“I—” the carpenter started to apologize.

“He wasn’t talking to you,” shouted the flour-dusty cook through the kitchen door.

The Garden Princess kissed the butler on both cheeks. “Isengrim,” she said, for that was his name, “so good to see you again.”

Confused, the carpenter let himself be led in from the dark. He was not confused long, for the Moon King himself swept down the majestic silver staircase and embraced the Garden Princess, lifting her in his great arms and swinging her around.

“Daughter, my daughter!” he cried. “I thought you had died!”

As the father and daughter exchanged tender words of reunion, Isengrim explained to the carpenter that, though the Garden Emperor had claimed the princess was his own, he had, in fact, found her by the well in the garden one morning. She had strayed too far from the Palace of the Moon and lost the ladder home. Eager for prestige, and knowing he could command any dowry for such a bride, the Emperor hid her in the sun and pretended she was his own.

“Until you climbed down the well and saved her,” the cook added.

After all their time together in the darkness between the stars, the carpenter and the princess had, quite naturally, fallen very much in love. His daughter restored, the Moon King could see no objection to their being married, then and there.

As they danced along the shimmering floor of solid light, to a perfect five-note tune, the carpenter whispered in his new bride’s ear, “This was why I left that dull old town.”