Once upon a time there was a shipwright named Nigel who had four sons. John, the eldest, was witty and clever. Paul, his second son, was fair of face and charming. George, Nigel's youngest son by his beloved wife Agnes, was thoughtful and wise. And then there was his son Richard.
Richard came into Nigel and Agnes's life one dark and stormy night when a basket carrying a small child was blown onto their doorstep on the wind of a roaring hurricane. Agnes, who was as kind as the day is long, took the boy to her heart, and loved him as if he were her a child of her own womb. Nigel, John, Paul and George were dubious about the boy at first. Unlike Paul, the second son, Richard was rather funny looking, with a large nose and sad eyes. And he possessed neither John's wit nor George's wisdom. Richard was a sickly child as well, who never grew in stature like his tall and strong adopted brothers. Yet as the seasons flew by and the years progressed, the three sons of Nigel and Agnes grew to accept the boy as one of their own, and nicknamed him Ritchie.
Nigel tried to teach each of his sons the art of ship building, but none of them showed any natural talent for the craft. John, Paul and George were more interested in singing like bards than sawing through boards. And Ritchie just didn't seem to have a knack for construction. So Nigel purchased lutes for his sons to play instead, so they could entertain him while he worked in his woodshop. The eldest three boys immediately took to their instruments and quickly learned all the popular madrigals of the day. Soon they were composing ballads of their own as well. But Ritchie couldn't master the complicated finger patterns required to play the lute. So kind-hearted Agnes took pity upon the lad and bought him a drum that he could strap around his shoulders and play instead. Ritchie loved his new instrument, and started marching around the woodshop all day while his brothers sang songs, beating syncopated rhythms on his drum with the two wooden sticks that Nigel had carved especially for him.
As the boys grew into men, they started performing in pubs and courtyards all around their sea-based hamlet. Their fame quickly spread. Soon all the fair young lasses in the neighboring towns and villages were flocking to the brothers' concerts to hear them perform. John, Paul and George flirted shamelessly with the maidens, but Ritchie held back, too shy to try his luck at love. The elder brothers' reputation as heart-throbs and lady killers spread rapidly throughout the kingdom, but they were each too busy writing and singing love songs to actually fall in love themselves.
Before long, the brothers were each in their mid-twenties, yet none of them had taken a bride. Agnes began to despair that she would never have a wee, bonny grandchild to bounce upon her knee. So Nigel decided to take matters into his own hands. He gathered his sons together one evening after they had finished performing at a fair, and told them he was sending them on a quest.
"I have heard tell of a magnificent castle that stands deep in the countryside," Nigel announced. "The duke who rules over the land has four beautiful daughters, who would most certainly make fine wives for you four lads. Many princes have tried to win the sisters' hearts, but none has claimed them yet. But you lads, with your wit, charm and wisdom, should succeed where they have failed."
Ritchie lowered his head and stared at the wooden plank floor with his sad, blue eyes. "But Papa," he said. "I have neither wit nor charm nor wisdom. How shall I win the heart of a duke's daughter?"
"You have your brothers, and they will help you," Agnes interjected. "For they love you as if you were their own flesh and blood." Then she threw her three natural-born sons an icy look to let them know she expected them to help their hapless brother woo a wife.
"Well, as there are four girls in the castle, I don't see why we can't each have one," reasoned George, the wise son.
"I have good looks to spare," noted Paul, the handsome son. "Ritchie can bask in my beauty while he courts his pick of the daughters."
"And if worse comes to worst, I can devise a plan to trick one of the girls into marrying our little drummer boy," promised John, the clever son.
"I don't think that will be necessary," said Agnes. She smiled at Ritchie, then encircled him in her arms. "Go with your brothers now, son, and do me proud."
The next morning, the four young men set off on their journey by foot. They took turns pushing a small cart filled with their instruments and a luncheon that their mother had prepared.
"I will set my sites on the duke's fairest daughter," boasted Paul.
"I will tell my cleverest puns, then court the daughter with the hardiest larf," replied John.
"I will engage the girls in a lofty philosophical discussion so I can seek out my true soul mate," added George.
"I'm getting hungry," said Ritchie. "I think we should stop to eat now."
The brothers found a grassy meadow, then sat down to share their repast. Before long, they were set upon by a colony of ants.
"Beastly beasts!" shouted John. "These ants are crawling up my pants! Let's find their anthill and stomp it to the ground!"
"No!" begged Ritchie. "The anthill is their home! They were here first. Let's find another place to sit."
Before John could argue, Ritchie had gathered up all their plates and cups and pushed the cart to another corner of the field, beside a small pond.
"He's soft," whispered John to George.
"But kindhearted," George whispered back.
"Like our dear mum," Paul interjected.
After the four lads ate their lunch, they lay down to rest for a short while. Paul closed his eyes and started to sleep. But his nap was interrupted when a duck flew overhead and relieved herself upon Paul's fair face.
John laughed at his brother. Paul flew into a rage.
"I'll get the bird who did this!" he cried. He gathered up all the rocks he could find and started hurling them at the duck, who had settled into a secluded spot in the tall grass across the pond.
"No!" Ritchie cried. "She didn't mean it. Look yonder, she was just flying back to her nest." He pointed to a small flock of ducklings gathered around the mother duck. "I'll dampen a rag for you so you can wash your face."
Ritchie soaked a small cloth in the pond and offered it to his angry brother.
"That blasted bird better not try another stunt like that again!" Paul swore. "Next time, I won't be so forgiving."
George nudged John. "Next time Ritchie might not have a towel at the ready to offer him."
"Let's hope the duke's daughters are shortsighted like me, and don't notice the dribbles of duck shite in our Paulie's hair," John replied with a rakish laugh.
The four brothers gathered up the remains of their meal and continued on their journey. As they stepped into a copse of tall trees that lay just beyond the castle, they heard a loud buzzing.
"Oh no!" cried Ritchie. "Bees! Let's get out of here before we all get stung!"
"Don't be such a coward, Ritchie," George said. "We should smoke these bees out of their hive. Then we can take their honeycomb and offer it to the duke as a token of our good will."
George immediately set to work gathering sticks, twigs and dried moss. He placed his kindling under the hive and started striking a flint stone against a piece of iron to make a spark.
Though terrified of the bees, Ritchie rushed to the hive and pushed George out from under it. "No, brother, you are putting us all in danger, and what's more, you are endangering this innocent colony of bees. How will they survive without their home?"
John leaned towards Paul and whispered in his ear, "I said it before and I'll say it again. He's soft."
"Well, he can be useful sometimes too," Paul replied, wiping his hair and grimacing as he plucked a bit of dried duck dropping out of his bangs.
The brothers tallied forth, and soon approached the duke's castle, which was surrounded by a large moat. Not knowing how to call down the drawbridge, they pulled their instruments out of the cart and started singing a medley of ballads. The duke's four daughters immediately leaned out the windows of the highest tower and gazed down upon the troubadours. John, Paul and George blew them kisses and started dedicating love songs to each girl. Ritchie lowered his gaze shyly, but kept up a steady rhythm on his drum to accompany his brothers' ardent singing. After a short while, the drawbridge lowered. The brothers gathered up their instruments and marched into the castle, with Ritchie bringing up the rear, pushing their wooden cart.
The duke eyed the young men warily and asked their purpose. When John explained that they had come to woo his daughters, the duke cut him off.
"Anyone who would marry one of my girls must first pass a test," he proclaimed. He called to his servant, who handed him a pearl bracelet. The duke held up the bracelet for the brothers to inspect.
"My careless sister-in-law was wearing a pearl necklace that matched this bracelet and lost it in the field on the west side of the castle. I sent my servants to fetch it, but they discovered the clasp had been broken and the pearls were scattered across the meadow. If one of you wishes to court my daughter, you must first go to that field and collect all of the beads. There are five hundred of them."
John smiled a lopsided grin. "That should be easy to do. As a boy, I was often tasked with gathering the small nails my father had dropped on his woodshop floor. But these pearls are bright, and will surely gleam in the sunshine. Let me set out tomorrow morning, and I will find all of your missing pearls."
"Let it be," said the duke. He welcomed the brothers into his banquet hall and served them supper, then found them a bedchamber to sleep in.
The next morning, the guards escorted John to the western meadow. They gave him a sandwich to eat for lunch and a bag for the pearls. "We will be back at sunset," they informed him. "Good luck."
John wished them good day, then started hunting for the pearls. He immediately found one. "This will be simple," he thought. He returned to his searching, but after an hour had passed, he had found only two more beads. Then he noticed a collection of stone statues standing at the eastern edge of the meadow, and walked over to examine them. Each statue depicted a man with a forlorn look on his face. John squinted, because his eyesight was poor, and saw that the statues appeared remarkably lifelike. Then John noticed each of the stone men was holding a small bag in his hand that looked exactly like the pouch the guards had handed him.
"Queer," John remarked. He resumed his search, and after two hours' time, found six additional pearls. He sat down to eat his sandwich, then walked back to the statues once more.
"They're bloody perfect," John muttered under his breath. "They look like real men."
And then a frightening realization dawned upon him. "Zounds!" he cursed loudly, not caring if anyone could hear him. He set to work furiously, searching for pearls, but by sunset, he had collected only twenty-five in total. He heard the guards returning. He stood up to salute them, and noticed that the duke was standing between them with his arms crossed in front of his chest. John opened his pouch and poured the pearls into his hand to show the duke his booty. Then he squinted at the men so he could see them better, and called out, "Can I come back tomorrow to look some more?"
The last thing he saw, before his eyes were turned to stone and his legs were petrified, was the duke shaking his head.
That evening, Paul, George and Ritchie sat at the supper table in the sumptuous banquet hall, greedily devouring the feast that their host had laid out for them. When they heard footfalls approaching the room they looked up, eager to welcome their brother back to their company. Instead, they saw the duke walk in with an evil smile on his face.
"Your brother John has failed in his task," he bellowed. He pointed at Paul. "Tomorrow, you shall go to the meadow and try to collect the pearls."
Paul hardly slept that night. The duke had refused to answer his questions about John's whereabouts. He had a sinking feeling that his host was up to no good.
In the morning, the guards escorted Paul to the field, gave him a sandwich and a pouch, and wished him luck. Paul immediately walked to the edge of the field and examined the statues. Some of them appeared a little weathered, but others looked like they had been freshly hewn out of rock. And then he spied a statue that looked exactly like his brother John. It was even dressed in the same tunic John had been wearing the day before.
Panic set in. Paul fell to his hands and knees and searched furiously for pearls. He worked all day in the hot sun, not even stopping to eat his lunch, but by sunset, he had gathered only fifty pearls. With a sinking feeling in his gut, he stood up when he heard the guards approach. He saw the duke walking between them with a terrifying scowl on his face. Paul dropped his bag of beads and ran towards the statue of his brother John, but before he reached the spot, he too had been turned into stone.
That evening at supper, George argued with the duke that he and Ritchie should be allowed to leave the castle, and not be forced to continue the fruitless search for the pearls. The duke ignored his protestations and sent the two young men to their bedchamber. He locked them inside the room and laughed maniacally as he stepped away into the hall. George spent the night fervently praying. Ritchie spent the night crying into his pillow.
The next morning, the guards took George to the meadow, handed him a sandwich and cloth bag, and left him to search for pearls. George noticed the statues at the edge of the meadow and immediately recognized the petrified shapes of his two brothers. He set to his task frantically, searching under every blade of grass for a loose pearl, and praying the whole while to the angels and saints for help. By nightfall he had collected one hundred beads, but was still far short of his mark. When he heard the guards approach, he ran to the statues of his brothers and placed himself squarely between them. The duke came to the edge of the meadow and met eyes with George. George dropped his pouch, raised his head and hands towards the skies and prayed for mercy as he was transformed into stone.
Ritchie spent that night pacing his bedroom floor, wondering how he could succeed where John, Paul and George had failed. But not being clever or wise, he could think of no solution. When the guards led him to the field in the morning, he glimpsed his petrified brothers, sank to the ground and sobbed. "Oh woe is me," he cried. He tossed his sandwich aside, covered his sad blue eyes with his hands, and wept.
Soon he felt a ticklish prickle against his fingers. He lowered his hands and saw a line of ants encircling his digits like rings. He stared at the insects in wonder. And then the largest ant broke out of the line, crawled to the middle of his palm, and raised her head.
"Fear not," the ant commanded him. "I am the queen of the colony you rescued the other day, and now I have come to rescue you. You need not worry anymore. My ants will find your pearls."
Quick as a flash, the ants crawled off Ritchie's hands and marched into the meadow. One by one they collected the loose pearls and carried them back to Ritchie's side. And one by one, Ritchie accepted the ants' offerings with a grateful, "Thank you," and dropped each bead into his bag. By noon the ants had gathered three hundred and twenty-five pearls. The ant queen approached Ritchie and raised her head once more.
"Go back to the castle and give this bag to the duke," she instructed him. "Tell him to combine these pearls with the beads your brothers collected. I am sure he will find that all five hundred pearls are now accounted for."
Ritchie lowered his head and gently kissed the ant queen's antennae. "Thank you, my lady. I can see why you are the queen of your colony. You are a grand and noble ruler." Then he walked over to his brothers' statues and placed his hands on them one by one. "I will come back for you," he promised. "I don't know how, but I will find a way to restore you to flesh."
Ritchie returned to the castle and presented his pouch to his host. The duke snatched it greedily, then dumped its contents into a bowl and started counting the beads one by one.
"You have done well," the duke stated after he counted the final bead. "You may now marry one of my daughters."
"I don't want to marry any of your daughters now," Ritchie replied. "I want my brothers back."
"Ah," sighed the duke. "That is not yet possible. They left the other tasks uncompleted."
"Other tasks?!" Ritchie exclaimed. "What more can you ask of us?"
"I will tell you later, after you eat," said the duke. He ordered his guards to escort Ritchie to the banquet hall for supper.
Ritchie picked at his food, too upset to eat with any relish. After he gave up and pushed his plate to the center of the table, the duke entered the room and joined him.
"Tomorrow morning my guards will take you to a lake that lies on the edge of my land," the duke said. "Many years ago, my foolish brother dropped the key to this castle's cellar in the water. You must find it before nightfall. If you do not, you shall meet a fate far worse than that which befell your brothers."
"But I can't swim!" Ritchie protested. "How do you expect me to find a key at the bottom of a lake?"
"That is your problem, not mine," answered the duke.
True to his word, the duke sent his guards to fetch Ritchie from his bedchamber the next morning. They carried him in a horse-drawn wagon to the lake that he had visited earlier with his brothers, then left him there with only a sandwich for company.
Ritchie stared at the water's surface in dismay. Then he looked at his sandwich. "This will probably be my last day to live, so I might as well leave this earth with a full stomach." He brought the sandwich to his mouth.
Just then, the mother duck that he had saved waddled up to him. "You shall not die today, my friend, if I have anything to say about it!" she said. She called to her ducklings and quacked out a set of instructions. The entire family of fowl jumped into the lake. They bobbed in the water, swimming back and forth between the surface and the silty bottom of the lake for several hours. Then finally, one of the ducklings popped out of the water with a rusty key in its mouth. The mother duck whisked her baby to Ritchie's side and ordered him to drop the key at Ritchie's feet.
Ritchie accepted the key with a broad smile. "Thank you, mother duck. You are gracious and generous, just like my kindly stepmother Agnes. I am forever in your debt."
"Nonsense," the duck replied. "Consider it a debt repaid." She called to her babies, and they gathered around Ritchie's feet. He offered them crumbs from his sandwich, which he had left untouched, and they stayed by his side until the guards returned at sunset with the duke.
Ritchie greeted the men with a grin, holding the key aloft in his left hand.
The duke gestured for him to come to the wagon. He snatched the key from Ritchie, slipped it into his pocket, and ordered his men to drive back to the castle.
That evening, Ritchie ate his supper greedily. When night fell, the duke came into the banquet hall to join him. Ritchie met his eyes with a solemn expression. "So now that I have found your key, will you free my brothers?" he asked.
"No," answered the duke. "That was never part of our arrangement. Tonight you will select your bride from my four daughters, and I will send you on your way. But choose wisely. Only one girl is destined to leave my castle with you."
Ritchie dropped his jaw in frustration.
The duke laughed and ordered Ritchie to follow him up a long circular staircase that led to the top of the castle's tall tower. "One of my daughters has a sweet tooth," he explained when he and Ritchie reached a small landing at the end of the steps. "So I let her sip at a honeycomb each night before she sleeps. Because you have been so successful with your tasks, I will allow you to marry this daughter. But you may marry only the girl who sucked from the honeycomb. You must examine the four princesses while they sleep and determine which one sipped the honey. Then you can kiss her. If she awakens, you may marry her. But if you touch any of my other daughters, I will have my guards kill you on the spot."
The duke threw back his head with another maniacal laugh, then called to the guards who were standing beside the doorway. "Accompany this man into my daughters' bedchamber," he ordered them. "And watch him carefully. If he touches any princess but Lucy, slaughter him!"
As soon as the duke started climbing back down the stairs, he guards led Ritchie into the room beyond the door. There Ritchie saw four identical girls lying on beds covered in fine silk sheets. Each girl was sleeping soundly.
Ritchie tiptoed to the side of each girl's bed and gazed upon her. He couldn't for the life of him tell one princess from the next. "How am I to know which girl ate the honey, when I can't even tell them apart?" he groused.
The very next moment, a bee flew into the room from an open window and landed on Ritchie's large nose. He froze up in terror, but she set his fears to rest with her kind voice.
"I am the queen of the hive you saved the other day," she declared. "I will fly to each girl's mouth for you, and suck gently on her lips to seek the taste of honey."
Then she flitted from Ritchie's nose to the mouth of each girl. She returned to the girl in the second bed, buzzed two times around her face, then darted out the window.
Ritchie threw a nervous glance at the guards, then approached the girl in the second bed. He bent over her pillow and gently kissed her lips, then stood right back up, so the guards would have no call to punish him.
The girl remained sleeping. Ritchie started to panic, wondering what cruel torture now lay in store for him. But then the girl slowly opened her eyes. She stretched out her arms and yawned, then noticed Ritchie standing by her side and gasped. "Who are you?" she cried nervously. Before Ritchie could answer, she broke into a smile. "Oh, I recognize you now. You are the drummer from that band of minstrels who serenaded my sisters and me from across our moat."
Ritchie gazed at the princess for a long moment, awestruck by her beauty. The guards immediately started walking towards him. He reached out his hand to the girl.
"Yes, you're right," he agreed. "Come with me. I think your father wants us to get married now."
"My father?" the girl replied. "My father is dead. What are you talking about?"
One of the guards placed his hand on Ritchie's shoulder. A fresh wave of panic spread through Ritchie's body. "But aren't you…isn't that…?" he stammered.
The guard started dragging Ritchie away from the bed.
The princess sat up straight. "Release him!" she called out in an imperious voice. "And leave this room immediately!"
"But your highness," the guard replied. "Your uncle, the duke…"
"Be gone!" shouted the princess. Her loud cry awakened her sisters, and they all sat up and started to cry.
"What's going on?" Ritchie asked. Before the princess could answer his question, the queen bee flew back into the room, followed by her colony. The bees threw themselves at the guards and started stinging them. The guards fled the room screaming.
"Quickly now, we must plan our escape!" exclaimed the princess whom Ritchie had awakened. She grabbed Ritchie's hand. "My uncle will soon return."
"But I don't understand," Ritchie replied. "Isn't the duke your dad?"
"Never!" cried the princess. "The duke is my uncle. He grew embittered when my father inherited this castle instead of him, so he turned to sorcery. He used his powers to kill my parents and claim their kingdom. But he kept my sisters and me alive to lure suitors to this castle, to help him find our grandmother's magic pearls and the key to the enchanted cellar where my parents hid our family's treasures."
"I just found those things and gave them to the duke," Ritchie admitted sheepishly. "Maybe I shouldn't have done that."
The princess gazed upon him with an expression of pity. "I'm sure you had no choice," she replied. "My uncle is cruel and twisted. He probably tricked you into doing his dirty work."
"He turned my brothers into stone!" Ritchie exclaimed, his blue eyes tearing up.
"He's such a mean old man!" cried one of the other princesses.
Just then the duke came storming into the room. "You have failed, Ritchie!" he shouted. "You were only supposed to kiss one princess, but you have disturbed them all!"
"No, uncle," a third princess called back. "He didn't touch me. Lucy's cries woke me up."
"You will all be crying when I'm through with you!" the duke threatened. He raised his hands, baring a pearl-encrusted knife, and pointed it at Ritchie.
"It's just a small dagger now," the duke said, flicking the knife back and forth in front of Ritchie's face. "But if you'd prefer, I can transform it into a pearl encrusted sword and run it through you. Or a pearl-encrusted hatchet for chopping off your head."
Ritchie stepped away from the princess and wrapped his hands protectively around his neck.
"You fool!" the duke sneered. "Do you really think you can stop me with your grubby little hands?" He took a step closer to Ritchie.
Just then, a fierce wind blew into the room from the open window and knocked the duke off his feet. A second gust of wind followed, as strong as the gale that blew Ritchie's basket to Nigel and Agnes's doorstep all those years ago. It blew the girls' chamber pot out from under a bed, then sent it rolling to a spot beneath the window. It knocked the dagger out of the duke's hand and set it careening across the floor. When the knife crashed into a wall, it transformed into a large pearlescent clam shell. The shell rocked back and forth on its hinge, then opened up, releasing an even more powerful torrent of winds that lifted all of the bedchamber's inhabitants into the air. Ritchie and the princesses flew about the room on the hurricane-strength winds, struggling to grasp each other's hands. After circling the room several times, they finally managed to form a chain of linked limbs.
The duke, however, had no one to grab. The winds tossed him about, knocking him against the walls and the furnishings until he was senseless. Then a final gust of wind blew out of the shell. It coiled around the duke like a snake, then hurled him over the upturned chamber pot and out the open window. The duke's body crashed onto the ground at the base of the tower with a deafening crunch.
Then the shell slowly closed. The wind diminished as it retracted. Ritchie and the princesses drifted softly to the floor and landed on the ground just as the two sides of the clamshell touched. They stood in silence for several seconds, panting.
At long last, Lucy – the princess Ritchie had awakened with a kiss – turned to face him. "My evil uncle is dead at last! You called down the wind and sent him flying through the window!"
"Over a chamber pot, no less!" exclaimed one of her sisters. "He flew out through the bathroom window!"
Three of the sisters collapsed into giggles. Lucy wrapped her arms around Ritchie and kissed him.
Ritchie blushed, not sure how he should respond. He had never kissed a girl before, let alone a princess. He started to smile, but then his face fell once more.
"But my brothers," he moaned. "The duke turned them to stone, and now that he's dead, he won't be able to change them back."
Lucy winked at him. "I think we might be able to help you," she declared. "C'mon girls. Let's go see that band of darling minstrels who sang to us!"
Lucy and her sisters tore down the tower steps, with Ritchie following close at their heels. They ran out the castle door, over the drawbridge, and into the field populated by stone statues, stopping only when they reached Ritchie's petrified brothers. The moon shone brightly upon the stone figures, illuminating their faces in an unearthly glow. The girls stared at them longingly.
"Ooh, I like the cute one!" squealed Lucy's sister Michelle.
"I fancy the one who's squinting," said Lucy's sister Prudence. "He sang that song with the funny lyrics."
"I prefer the one who is raising his head and hands in prayer," said Lucy's sister Eleanor. "He looks very spiritual."
The three sisters joined hands, raised their voices in song and started dancing around the three statues, while Ritchie stood back with Lucy.
"I don't understand what they're doing," Ritchie said. "Will their singing bring my brothers back to life?"
"Perhaps," said Lucy. "Music is a very powerful force. It lifts our spirits. Perhaps it can reanimate your brothers' spirits too."
"I hope so," Ritchie sighed. He stood silently for a long moment, then turned back to Lucy. "I also don't understand why your uncle tasked me with discovering which of you girls had eaten honey before you fell asleep. I can see why he wanted the magic pearls and the key to your family's treasure, but why did he want me to wake you up?"
"I imagine he wanted to get rid of me," Lucy replied. "My sisters are, by turn, clever, wise and charming, but I have none of those qualities. My uncle never enjoyed my company. He was probably more willing to part with me than he was with Michelle, Prudence or Eleanor."
Ritchie smiled at her. "I enjoy your company," he said shyly.
"And I yours," she agreed.
The sky to the east brightened with the approaching dawn. Lucy joined hands with her sisters and started to sing with them. Ritchie clapped out a beat to their tune. And as the sun rose in the sky, John, Paul and George slowly transformed from stone back into flesh.
When they were finally able to breathe again, they shouted in delight and hugged each other. Then they hugged their adopted brother. And then they hugged each of the four beautiful sisters. Ritchie explained the curious events of the last few days to his brothers. Then John cast a squinty-eyed look around the meadow and stared at the other gloomy statues.
"I think a benefit concert is in order for these poor gents," he declared. The four brothers ran to the castle to collect their instruments. The sisters ran to the castle to collect some chairs to sit on while they listened to the brothers perform. And the castle guards, after burying the battered corpse of the duke, collected more chairs and sat beside the sisters so they could enjoy the performance as well.
One by one, the stone statues came back to life. When the last of the petrified suitors resumed his human form, the brothers called their concert to an end. Everyone left the meadow and returned to the castle to share a feast. The next morning, the four brothers proposed to the four princesses – John to Prudence, Paul to Michelle, George to Eleanor and Ritchie to Lucy. The girls agreed to be their brides.
And so it was that the four sons of Nigel and Agnes returned to their hamlet by the sea with four identical wives. Nigel and Agnes threw a large party in the town square to celebrate the four unions, and there was much singing and dancing, long into the night.
And there ends this strange tale of ants, ducks, bees and beetles. And I know it is true, because I drank some mead at the wedding feast!
Inspired by the Brothers Grimm fairy tale "The Queen Bee," published in 1812.