DISCLAIMER: This is an adaptation of an adaptation of a story penned by the Brothers Grimm. Jim Henson, and the Brothers Grimm get all the royalties and credit for the story and RankinBass/WB get the credit for the ThunderCats. I own nothing.
This story will be presented from the POV of a Storyteller delighting children.
"Please Uncle WilyKat," begged the twin cubs as they settled into their beds for the night, "You always tell the bestest stories."
The teenaged Cat couldn't help the smile that etched its way onto his face at the compliment. So far, Kat prepared the bestest snacks, played the bestest games, and told the bestest stories. Ah how he was going to love dangling this over their parents when they returned from the Autumn Ball.
"All right you two troublemakers," Kat grinned as he finished tucking the twins into bed before he moved into a chair closer to the fireplace and retrieved the Storybook he carried in his Forever Bag.
"I think I've got a story to tell."
Azan the GrovelPig
Imagine a warm night, a cold night - a night like this one or any other for that matter in a Kingdom much like this one… or any other for that matter as well.
Outside the Kingdoms castle, the wind sings its songs of battles fought and days yet to come. Inside the Kingdoms castle, King and Queen sleep all snuggley-wuggled up together in warmth and love. But, when the King attempts to snoggle his wife, he finds his lips firmly planted upon a foot that was where her head should be and the murmured sighing from her velvet lips is at his toes and not his ear.
"Ho my Queen," he calls. "Ho!" but she's not budging.
She's there for a reason.
"Just this once," she tells him. "It's worked for others, it might work for us."
"Knucklehead!" mutters her husband. "Don't be silly. You'll not get a child like this. We must have faith that a blessing shall come to us in proper time. If you would like, I can arrange to have one of the servants or one of your Ladies to sit with you for company until that blessing does occur. Now come up this end. I'm properly frozen and a cold King is a grumpy King."
But the Queen didn't want a member of the court or even a villager for conversation or company; she wanted a babe - a little thing of honey and softness, to wrap up in a bundle and sing to and cuddle with and hug to bits. She'd wanted this child for what seemed a lifetime until she couldn't bear to watch the lambing of the calves come or the eggs hatch, it hurt her so.
The Queen sought scrolls and texts of remedies. She dressed in layers during the long, hot summer evenings and shivered nearly nude during the long, cold winter nights. She even slept upside down from the ceiling while her husband lay underneath her but still, still, and still again, no baby ever came. She went to gypsies at fairs, paid a fortune in charms and trinkets listened to the most outlandishly hog washed hogwash a person could hear:
"They say if you chant for three days in a smoke pit while wearing a grass skirt..."
"They say if you bathe first in mud and then in the saliva of a roathe, and then drink the milk of a stench cow..."
"They say if you kiss a bat, swallow a frog that has eaten a thrush's pebble then sleep in a pool of honey..."
"They say the embrace of a goat, the dung of a Balgus Troll, the powdered tassel of a bull sprite, and dew from a spider's tooth..."
"Any one of these will get you a son." she was promised.
And not a one ever did.
More and more, the King could not bear to listen to his Queen go on about a child. No man wanted a son more than him. He knew his bones were stiffening and that he couldn't move as quickly or gracefully as he once could. Each day he would sit upon his throne and decree and negotiate and do all the things a truly great King should do but all the while he hoped for a little cub to lift upon his shoulders, to sit in his lap upon the throne and pluck the crown from off his brow, pretending to be King, ordering his father to play with him all day long. A cub to watch grow strong and wise and one day, to pass along the mantle of King to.
Oh yes, he yearned. But he would never speak of it to anybody. A King such as he could not show weakness of any sort.
However, nothing above, upon, or below Third Earth would deter his wife the Queen.
One night, she brought him a glass of brackish liquid. A bit of a tonic, she told him, to be drunk at night and in the morning. As much as the King loved his wife, he could not help it as his face darkened and wretched in frustration.
"ENOUGH!" he roared, the sheer volume of his voice quaking the walls of their bedchamber. "I have had enough. No more scrolls. No more gypsies. No more trinkets or tonics. If we are to have heirs, we will have them. If not, what else can we do?"
But as we already learned, the Queen was nothing if not determined. "I want a babe. I wouldn't care if it were a strange thing made of caramel, marzipan, marshmallow, or pudding. I wouldn't care if it were as ugly as a hedgehog. I want a cub to wrap in a bundle and sing to and cuddle with and hug to bits."
Now, to say you wouldn't care when you want something is a dangerous thing. That Queen wanted a cub with such a want that she wouldn't have cared at all what she got. It was such a want that if she did get a hedgehog, she'd bring its snout to her breast and let it suckle till it couldn't suckle any more.
No sooner said than done, the room went chill with the mischief of dark magic and the Queen got her wish. In hardly no time at all, she has her boy-cub - a little ball as ugly as sin with a pointed snout and sprouting quills as soft as feathers everywhere above its waist.
No more curious a sight could be imagined than the Queen taking this hedgehog baby – this bundle of sweetness and tickles, this perfect smile in a sea of silky quills that had the eyes of the brightest blue.
And no mother ever loved her babe more than the Queen. She would wrap him in soft, warm shawls and sing him old lullabies. She snuggled him and cuddled him and hugged him to bits. And she gave her little darling a darling name. Azan, she called him. Azan who is my hedgehog.
As much as the Queen loved her Azan, the same could not be said for the King for he could not bear to look at his son. The King didn't see what his wife saw. He didn't see the eyes like the sky on a cloudless day, he only saw his people laughing at him. He didn't feel the softness of his son's quill's he only felt the peoples pitying stars upon his back. He didn't hear the lullabies, only the gibes, the speculations, and the tittle-tattle of small minds with much to gossip about. He wouldn't leave the castle nor would not leave the royal grounds with Azan. The King would not be seen in any way with his child. The shame of what had befallen him turned his heart into a twisted knot of rage and shame and slowly, the King came to hate his son, the hedgehog cub.
As time always goes by, day followed day, week chased week, and the half-hedgehog grew up. His coat filled in thicker and thicker and his eyes grew bluer and bluer and his snout pointier and pointier. To his mother, he was the sweetest and most doting of sons; a true jewel at her throat and wrist. And if he could have, Azan would never have left his mothers side for elsewhere, the insults and curses curled him up into a ball. The spite he was shown turned his coat into spines, the insults teased his quills into sharp protective needles. If he came into a room, his father the King would leave it. If he crept up to touch his fathers hand, it would be slapped away.
This was the life of Azan - a world of light and dark, a world of his father's brooding, his mother's love, and the taunts of those who would creep up to the stables and taunt him with their 'anything-strange-is-ugly taunts.
"Hey, beastie!" they would yell, smug as bugs. "Hey, hairy! Hey, critterchops! Hey, prickleback!"
And Azan would curl up into a ball and shiver and cry and wonder why he was so different.
Then they found a name that stuck, a name they painted on walls, shouted when he could hear - a name to haunt him. "GrovelPig!" they called him. "GrovelPig!"
And in those hateful taunts and cruel words, Azan learned he was strange and he learned he was ugly and he learned to be sad and he learned the name that was given him. GrovelPig.
He retreated to the stables, to the animals that understood him. For every quill on his body, Azan had a different animal for a friend and Azan had a lot of quills. He had a special way with these creatures and they loved him. He could talk to them and understand them when they talked back. If his mother ever needed to find him, the first place to look would always be the stables for usually, her son could be found there with his cock-rooster.
Azan tended to this bird since hatching it from an egg. He would spend hours combing the roosters comb, polishing his beak to a mirror shine, and feeding and fattening and strengthening him. It wasn't long before the rooster was the biggest rooster you could imagine, a huge, hugeness of a rooster, a vast, vastness of red all plump and flush-feathered. Whenever the sadness struck Azan, whenever he caught his reflection in a pool, saw his strange boy-beast face, he would run to these friends to be amongst them, for they found him neither odd nor strange but magnificent.
His father would come home from the court and see the boy sitting amongst the animals, pigs nudging his cheeks, the cows caressing him, the dogs licking his hands, and the King would be disgusted. The worst times came during sup. Azan might have spoken like a boy, but he ate like an animal, snout dipping into the plate, lap-lap-lapping, slurp-slurp-slurping, champ-chomp-chomping until one day his father snatched the plate from his lips and took the youth by his ear, dragging him out the door to the feed troughs by the stables.
"No longer!" he cried. "Get out! Get out! From now on you'll live and eat outside with the other beasts!" And with that he returned to the kitchen and slammed the door shut on his only son.
Darkness fell and the castle was quite silent. Azan had not returned, had probably not moved from where his father had cast him to the ground. Inside, in one chair sat the Queen, her face caught by the firelight, the tears glistening. In another was the King, thick brows furrowed, face set. Nothing was said to his dear wife, but, every so often, he would let out a sigh with his head bowed to the floor. At length, he stood up, took a coat and fetched a torch before walking out into the thick black owl-hoot night.
"Azan!" he called as he walked the grounds but his son would not answer. "Azan" the King cried again and again but still, his son would not answer.
For hours, the King wandered about the dark, a great needle in his heart. One moment there was a great and furious rage welling up in him, the next tears, huge tears splashed his boots as he tramped and tramped and called and called.
Under the black velvet of the sky Azan laid all night in the wet, sticky grass amongst his animal friends, thinking and thinking until he'd thought a hole in the ground. He did not answer his father's cries, did not return to his mother's tear. He just laid there silently thinking and counting the stars.
Come mornings light, the King - wretched, and weary and woeful - returned and was utterly shocked to find his son, the GovelPig, who had never once spoken ill or complained or had ever been anything other than the best son a man could wish for, sleeping upon the steps. And the King wanted nothing more than to pick up his boy in his arms and hug him and cuddle him and love him to bits.
But he couldn't. He looked down at the pointy snout and short arms and quills for hair and he just couldn't.
"I've trudged all night for you," the King growled, kicking the sleeping child awake. "And now you'll not eat for a week off my food."
Azan stood up in an instant, quills rippling and bristling up and down his back. "Father," he said in his flute voice, "I want you to do some things for me."
The King was outraged. "You what?" he barked.
"I want you to go to the village saddle-man and have a saddle made for my cock-rooster. When this is done, allow me some sheep and some cattle and some pigs. Do this for me and I shall ride away never again to return."
"Oh, will you now?" was the King's furious retort.
Azan simply nodded, undeterred. "I know which ones I'd like and they would be happy to come with me."
"Come with you where?" demanded his father.
"To where I go," replied Azan. "Which is away. Which is to somewhere. Where I can hurt no one and no one can hurt me."
Sorrow and anger fought within the King hearing his son's words. "You can't go. What of your mother who loves you and dotes on you?"
Azan did not reply but rubbed the tears from his blue, blue eyes. Finally, he looked up and curled his mouth into a brave smile.
"Father, all night I have laid outside trying to understand why you can't love me. I've thought and thought until I've thought a hole in the ground. But now it's all right. When I have the saddle, I'll go. I shall fashion a flute from the love and memories of my mother and compose a song for her that is bitter and sweet all at once and begins like hello and ends like goodbye. Fear not father, nevermore will you have to bear the shame of having a GrovelPig as your son."
The King was ashamed but not towards his son. He went to the saddle-man and commissioned the finest saddle for the rooster and he herded up the animals his son had asked for and he told his wife to pack a lunch, and all the while the GrovelPig sat on the stoop and waited until all was ready. Then he went to his mother and she hugged him and cuddled him and loved him to bits, then to his father, who wanted so much to do the same but couldn't, and said goodbye and, before the King could stop him, hugged him with all his might, and his father knew for the first time how soft and made of sweetness and honey his son truly was.
Then Azan the GrovelPig was away, flinging himself upon the saddle and riding off; the strangest steed, the strangest rider, the strangest army of hens and sheep and pigs and cattle. His parents watched him until he was nothing more than the faintest smudge off in the distance, the King stroking the quill Azan had shed during the goodbying, while the Queen felt a crack faulting her heart, like a tiny pencil line.
And with each hour Azan was away, the line grew thicker and thicker until one day, not long after, her heart split in half and she died.
Twenty years later, a great battle between two Kingdoms was fought in the lands and Jaga, the King who had triumphed found himself separated from his troops and quite lost in the great forest of Midnight Woods while returning home. Midnight Woods was the kind of forest where the trees point down and the rocks point up, the paths all lead back to each other, and all you can be certain of is that you aren't certain of anything.
And once the old grey beard was lost he got more lost and more lost, until he was well on his way to losing his mind.
Oh yes, he was well on his way out of his mind when he heard a sound that was a bitter sound and a sweet sound all at once; a music that began like hello and ended like goodbye. So, with little choice in the matter, the King followed that sound through glade and thicket and brush until he came at length to a clearing where animals roamed - sheep, cows, pigs, and hens. Huge, these creatures were, and content, looking like what animals on holiday must look like.
And behind them was a palace - a most extraordinary sight of the imagination, a fabulous dance of glass, jewels, metals, stone, waterfalls, and wishes.
After regaining his senses Jaga approached the great doors and knocked. The tall creature who greeted him was neither Cat nor beast, but somewhere in between. He had the build of a warrior, the eyes of a Prince, but his nose was stretched into a snout, and sweeping back from is eyebrows to his calves bristled a battalion of gleaming quills. He looked nothing less to the astonished King than half a Cat and half a hedgehog, which was precisely what he was.
Jaga sucked in his breath and introduced himself, recounting his plight and his pedigree, of his missing army and empty belly. The creature said nothing through all this, and Jaga, story told, looked nervously at the sharp spikes and waited...waited through a long threatening silence.
Finally, in a voice of dark woodwind, the creature spoke. "You are welcome, sir, in my home," he said with a bow before leading Jaga into a magnificent hall, where huge fires leapt and crackled. There, already laid for two, was a table straining to support the food spread across its top.
Straightaway they sat down and ate of the meatiest of meats, the greenest of greens, the sweetest of sweets and the juiciest of juices. And after all was eaten, with the embers glowing in the fires and the sun drawing in, Azan the hedgehog, for so it was, took up an ornate flute of his own make and began to play.
And what songs these were - haunting and sinuous, threading through the evening air. Laments that were bitter and sweet all at once, that began in hello and ended in goodbye. And before he could think 'I'm full now and found,' the King fell asleep.
How long Jaga slept, he did now know. Dreams in many colors that broke over him like waves, hugging his sleep, washing away his worries came and went. When he awoke, Jaga felt like a new Cat, ready for anything - or so he thought - but my dears, what a sight greeted his eyes. For his pillow had become the roots of a tree, his bed a mossy bank, and the view was not the creature's Great Hall, which was surely where he had fallen into slumber.
No, ahead of him sparkling in the sun's early light was his own palace! He knew not how he had come here, all he knew was joy. And he began to dance as only Kings once lost and then found can dance.
A King's jig. A jiggle-joggle with a jangle and then a leap. Then a flute took up his rhythm in a merry reel and, looking round, the King saw the hero of his honor, Azan the hedgehog, astride his giant cock-rooster.
"Anything!" cried the grey bearded King. "Anything you wish for is yours, for you have saved and salvaged me, you have led me full and fed from the labyrinth of trees that point up and rocks that point down."
But Azan would have no reward. He was ready to ride off.
"I insist," insisted Jaga insistantly. "Name anything, my dearest friend."
It was then a curious smile came to the creature's face, and his bluest of blue eyes twinkled. "Very well," he said. "Then I ask for the first thing to greet you when you arrive in the palace, whatever that may be."
The King thought on this request, imagining his first steps on reaching home. Jaga knew his first sight would be of faithful, worried-himself-sick-eared Snarf, the Royal mascot. No meaningless gift, for this was a wonderful creature, long the King's friend and companion. Nonetheless, Jaga agreed. His Snarf would have a merry life in the freedom of the forest, in a place where Azan was King.
"It is yours," he told Azan. "The first thing to greet me."
At this, Azan bowed in gratitude. "In one year and one day, I shall return to collect my reward." he said, and without more ado turned the rooster about and set off, a strut and a gallop into the distance.
Jaga watched him, hand held up in grateful salute, then turned himself and hurried home, the delight of return engulfing him.
Sure enough, as soon as Jaga set foot upon the drawbridge, trumpets sounded with much fanfare and the heavy doors of his palace swung wide open. There before Jaga, racing to embrace her long-lost father was his daughter the Princess Raineyii – who was most fleet of foot. Jaga took her up in arms, their tears mixing together as he swung her round and round and round.
Snarf - who had been napping a pleasant nap prior to the trumpet blasts - came next; the diminutive creature prancing circles around the two.
Bells and villagers sang out the King's return. "Wonderful!" they tolled. "Hurrah! Harrah!"
Then, through his chorus of welcomes and well wishes, Jaga caught another sound on the breeze, a sound both bitter and sweet, beginning in hello and ending in goodbye. And looking up, still clutching his dear child, he scanned the horizon.
There on the very edge of the hills, he caught the silhouette of his rescuer, flute raised to snout.
A chill panic gripped Jaga and with a chocked sob of despair, he dropped his startled daughter. It seemed to the old King as if a black cloud had fallen on him for, in his excitement, in his delight, he had forgotten about his promise and now the weight of it crushed him.
"Not my Snarf," his heart wept bleakly. "Not my Snarf, but my daughter. My daughter..."
Much can happen in a year's time.
Jaga settled into the dance of days. The snow, when it came, covered everything. The sun, when it shown, stunned his being. The trees dried from green to russet and shed their summer dresses as Jaga the King lay awake through the nights, unable to sleep, listening as the seasons came and went, grazing the stone walls of the palace with their unyielding fingers. In the day times, fear took hold and the King could be seen fretting along the battlements, his eyes squeezed to the distance, waiting, counting the days.
And all the while suitors from far and wide pilgrimaged to his Kingdom, seeking Raineyii's hand for all who saw the female were beguiled. She was a Princess of Sweetness and Cherry Pie.
Jaga's nightmare, of her delicate skin pierced and bleeding from the creature's terrible coat of quills, haunted him and twisted his heart into knots until he prayed that he had never been found; until he longed to be lost again in the forest. Jaga had spoken to no one of his rash promise. To no one, not even his daughter.
Oh yes, much can happen in a year.
Sometimes the minutes drift, marooned in time, and a single afternoon can seem a lifetime. But when one dreads the future, days can make one dizzy with their mad and frantic dash.
So it was with the King. It was upon him - that fatal day - before he'd even caught his breath. A year had whizzed like a firework fizzing into the air. The evening had found him slumped glumly on his throne. And when the bells dully thumped out the hour at six, he was still there, gray and dejected. At the last chime he heard another sound, a sound both bitter and sweet, beginning in hello and ending in goodbye. Jaga stood as quickly as his old bones would take him and moved stiffly to the balcony to observe the arrival of the strange creature; half-man, half-hedgehog, riding on a giant rooster and leading an army of animals. Jaga sighed and walked slowly down to the drawbridge to greet them.
"Do you remember me?" asked Azan the hedgehog, his voice now half-flute, half-bass.
"A year and a day have passed since we last met," continued the creature, his coat of quills alert and dangerous. "Will you keep your promise to me?"
The King's face set in a grim mask. "I will," he said. "I will."
Should I tell you of the Princess's tears, of their torrents, her of sighs and sorrows? Should I tell you of the pain, of how it hurt Jaga to say what had been unsaid, to explain what was unexplainable? Suffice it to say that for an hour, two, then three, after Azan came to the palace, father and daughter were alone in her bedchamber, and that when he finally emerged, the King could not raise his eyes, could only stare -bleakly, at the ground beneath him.
Jaga led Azan the hedgehog to the bedchamber, then went himself - sorrow his crown and sadness his scepter - to his wife, the Queen, to tell her all. To console and be consoled.
Azan found the Princess Raineyii sitting at the window of her chamber, hair like Sun-kissed wheat streaming down, coiling through the open shutters, as if her soul were contained in the golden tresses and sought to escape. He walked into the room and she jumped up upon first sight - jumped up before her betrothed. Her father had not exaggerated, had not played a cruel joke in poor taste. Raineyii was promised to a monster.
And yet, when the creature spoke, his voice was the voice she had always imagined her husband would have; a voice of woodwinds and of dark notes, a true voice.
"Do you know me, Princess?" the voice asked.
"I do, Sir," she replied. "You saved my father and he owes you his life."
Azan nodded. "But do you know of his promise to me?" he pressed.
"He promised you the first thing to greet him on his return," Raineyii said, looking at the bluest of blue eyes, the pointy snout, and the carpet of quills. "I am yours, sir, to do with what you will."
The quills bristled and the blue eyes sparked. "Then I claim you for my bride," Azan said. "I want you to come and live with me in the forest. I want you for my Princess of Sweetness and Cherry Pie. I want to take you up and sing to you and cuddle you and hug you to bits. And I want you to love me."
A single tear crept down the Princess's sweet cheek. "Then so be it," she whispered.
"How ugly do you find me?" asked her husband-to-be.
"Not as ugly as going back on a promise," she declared, and felt the tear slide from her face to the floor.
The two were married the next day in a wedding without bells. A funeral of a wedding it was with the guests all in mourning. No words passed between the couple save the "I do's and the "I will's. After the ceremony, the banquet was presided over in silence punctuated only by the occasional sob from the Queen, or from the King, or from the Princess.
Even the music threatened its way into the room as a grave and malignant rain. Like the eyes of all gathered, it followed the couple as they left the Hall and made their way to Raineyii's bridal chamber and when they two had departed, a confetti of pity and outrage filling the room.
The fierce glow of the fire caught the highlights of the Princess's hair has she crept into bed. Red and gold light danced around her face. She lay quietly on the silk and satin of the sheets. Her husband stood by the fireplace, staring into the flames, then picked up his flute and began to play. The Princess closed her eyes and through the heavy lids, saw her miserable future unfolding.
Along the corridor in her parents' room, King and Queen lay listening to the music with breath held.
Abruptly the playing stopped and the Princess shivered. In the next moment she forced her eyes open to see a grotesque paw, half-hand, half-claw, approaching her cheek. His touch was so gentle and careful. He brushed his hand tracing the perfect shape of her features. When Raineyii shuddered, Azan withdrew his hand as if it had been burnt.
His sigh left her as he retreated to the grate to lie down. And so, the air fragile with emotions, the bridegroom and his bride settled down to sleep on their wedding night.
What awakened the Princess she could not say - nor could anyone else for that matter. A rustle, perhaps. Or perhaps it was the terror of her dreams, but when she opened her eyes she was astonished. For there, barely illuminated by the fire's farewell, was her Lord, her hedgehog, peeling off his coat of quills and laying it out like a rug on the ground to reveal that underneath his hideous exterior was a handsome face and body. Raineyii watched, dumbfounded, as her husband slipped quietly from the room and disappeared.
And lying there, half-Sweetness, half-Cherry Pie, the Princess could hardly credit what she'd seen and couldn't have, saw and shouldn't have.
Creeping to the window, Raineyii looked down and there, sure enough, was the man, all shadows, moving among his friends, the animals, in the night's quiet rain. And she found herself going to the abandoned coat of hair and quills and touching it, finding it soft and warm and remarkable.
The first rays of morning woke Raineyii from dreams of hot springs, beaches, and ice cream. There she was in her bed and by the ashes and dust in the grate laid her husband, back again, beast-like.
Had she dreamed his peeling off of his skin?
Surely she must have. But that next night, the same scene played out again: the creature standing over Raineyii as she pretended to sleep, the tender touch on her cheek, not prickly but so smooth she felt an ache when it left her, and then the magic of his transformation, the emergence of Cat beneath the hedgehog skin. And she wanted so much for this fair youth, slender in the shadows cast by the fire, wanted so much for him to come to her. But no, he slipped away. Again she crept to the window to watch him as he moved among the animals, as they nudged and nuzzled and caressed him. Again she went to the coat of quills and lay down against it, and how comfortably comfortable she found it, how luxuriously luxuriant! It made her drowsy, lying there by the fire; it made her eyelids heavy. She sighed, wrapping herself in her husband's skin, drifting off, drifting off. She knew she shouldn't, knew she mustn't, but really couldn't help herself; really couldn't stay awake another minute.
A shadow fell across her face and its dark touch woke her with a start. Standing in the doorway was her husband.
"Sir," she cried nervously. "I woke and you had gone! And left behind you coat of quills." She could not see his features or his expression for he remained cloaked in darkness.
"Which would you have as husband?" came his reply. "The Cat or the creature?"
The Princess thought on this, swallowed, considered. "I have a husband," she said as length. "And he is what he is. No more. No less." She saw the stern shape relax, soften.
"Then forgive him, Lady, if he returns to his skin," said her husband as he stepped toward the quills and assumed them, restoring the beast's silhouette. "For I am enchanted by an ancient and evil sorcerer," he continued, "and cannot leave it. But if you say nothing of this for one more night, then loyal love will break this spell forever." His blue eyes settled on her, yearning, imploring.
In that moment, her heart reached out to him. "I promise," she whispered. "I promise."
But we all know about promises, don't we? And secrets as well. What use are they when no one knows about them? When they twist and turn and tickle out stomachs and tongues. Now, you see, the Princess had a stepmother...and mothers, even stepmothers have this way of catching secret-fish and promise-fish. They eye us with eyes better served in the head of an eagle and all our rivers full of secret-fish and promise-fish are glass to them. And they fish and fish and fish until they have caught a belly full of promises and secrets.
Just so with the Queen, who that morning at sup watches a daughter skip to the table, eat when for days no appetite, and laugh when for days no laughter.
"Hungry?" she inquired, raising an eagle's eyebrow.
"Very," replied her daughter, all Sweetness, all Cherry Pie.
"Good," her mother said, smiling. "Sleep well?"
The Princess ate heartily. "Yes, thank you."
"Good," repeated the Queen, eagle eyebrow twitching, her voice casting its hook into the conversation. "Not troubled by that filthy creature?"
The Princess frowned. "No, mother," she said, defensive. "And please don't speak of him as a filthy creature. He is my Sir now. To speak ill of my Sir is to speak ill of me."
Raineyii's mother looked at her carefully, the hook dangling. "Listen, and well child," she began. "Last night your father and I went to Mumm-Ra, the ancient sorcerer who lives in the Black Pyramid and told of your tragedy. He knows of these creatures, these GrovelPig, and knows the remedy. They are the product of enchantments, you see."
"I know," the Princess Raineyii blurted out allowing the invisible hook to snag her lips.
Her mother pulled sharply on the line. "Oh? And how have you come by this knowledge?"
The Princess felt her face flush flustered. "I mean, I knew he must be," she cried, trying to wriggle away from the question. "Yes, I saw it straight away," she pretended. "He's enchanted."
The Queen reeled in her catch, triumphant. "He's told you, hasn't he?"
Her daughter denied it, all the while wriggling. "Does he take off his skin?" her mother demanded.
"No!" Raineyii insisted. "No, he doesn't! He doesn't!"
The Queen grasped her stepdaughter's hands in her own. "The only way to break the spell is to throw the skin into the fire. It he sleeps or leaves the room, cast the skin into the flames and he will be free of it."
The Princess shook her head, confused, miserable. "That's not the way!" she cried, her betrayal exposed.
The Queen settled back into her chair, the fish landed. "Sooo… he has told you… Then you know what you must do."
That night, the same story: Raineyii settling to sleep, the GrovelPig stretched out by the fire. But when, at length, he stood and shed his skin and slipped from the room, the Princess rose from the sheets.
Before she could stop herself, before the clashing voices in her head could plead sanity with her, she took up her husband's skin and threw it into the fire's greedy, devouring flames.
Oh how it burned! A thousand colors, a brilliant display of fireworks!
But then, suddenly, terribly, a cry of pain and rage curdled the air. There, below the window stood her husband, the GrovelPig, beast once more, smoke and flames consuming his skin, his head thrown up roaring out his betrayal, screaming his anguish. He threw himself to the ground trying to smother the flames, rolling and rolling over and over on the earth.
In the palace the Princess ran, ran along passages, ran down winding stairs, until she was outside, running to him, tears scalding her, gasping breath choking her. She reached him as he leapt up onto the rooster, as the animals stampeded for the gates.
"Husband!" she wept. "Please forgive! Please don't go!"
But the creature snarled and turned away from her, his quill sharp and smoking. The Princess clutched at him and was pricked terribly, falling pierced and bleeding, while the GrovelPig rode away into the night in a conflagration of smoke and dust, the air thick with clamor and alarm, the bells tolling their solemn knell: betrayal and betrayal and betrayal.
And so it was that for seven days and seven nights the Princess of Sweetness and Cherry Pie locked herself in her room and would not come out, but stayed, prostrate on the wooden floor, wallowing and sorrowing. And the days passed while she thought and thought a hole in the hearth until she knew what she must do. She went to Bengali the blacksmith and bought from him three pairs of iron shoes
heeled with Thundranium - for he was the only blacksmith in the Kingdom strong enough of mind, body, and spirit to work the dangerous ore - and, that very same night, while all slept, the Princess slipped out of the palace and set off to walk the world in search of her husband who was half-Cat, half-hedgehog.
She walked and walked until she wore out the first pair of iron shoes, and still no one had set eyes on the creature. And so she put on the second pair of iron shoes and she continued to walk, always searching, always praying to hear the music that is both bitter and sweet, beginning in hello and ending in goodbye, but nothing, no clue, no news. Until one day, weary and wretched, she came to a stream and lay down by it. The last pair of iron shoes had worn away to nothing, and she pulled them from her poor sore feet, and saw in the water's mirror that her hair was now quiet white. And the Princess of Sweetness and Cherry Pie wept for her blonde hair and her hedgehog husband, both lost forever.
Night was falling and the mist settling in, as it does in that season in that place, three pairs of iron shoes from anywhere anybody could call nowhere.
What could she do?
Then it seemed to the Princess that she lapsed into a dream. And in that dream she saw a bent figure dressed in the tattered and worn robes of a long forgotten King walking the ground, his way lit by the swinging flare of a torch-lamp. The man approached her, catching her face in the light, but instead of greeting her, he stumbled past, calling out into the mist.
"Son!" he called, tears splashing his boots as he walked. "Azan!"
The Princess got up with a start and followed him, why she knew not, where she knew not, until they came to a cottage, an old river cottage, long abandoned, bathed in dust and swathed in cobwebs. Just as the cottage came into view, the lamp guttered, faded, and went out, and as the light disappeared so did the old King. Raineyii was at a loss.
'What now?' she wondered.
Raineyii looked about, shaking her head as if to throw off the dream, but stopped suddenly, for there sitting on the porch of the cottage, rocking in a rocking chair, a small bundle wrapped in a shawl tight in her arms, was an old woman dressed in the tattered and worn robes of a long forgotten Queen. Raineyii watched, amazed, as the woman pulled back the corners of the shawl to reveal a tiny creature, half-cub, half-hedgehog. The Princess gasped, moving to the woman, but as she reached the porch the woman disappeared and the rusted and swollen door swung open.
In went Raineyii, her heart in her mouth, but inside the cottage was empty, only dust on the tables, dust on the chairs, and dust on the shutters. She sank to the floor and fell into a deep, despairing sleep.
Something woke her. A flapping maybe. A beating of wings perhaps. Raineyii was still in the cottage; she hadn't dreamed it. The morning sun was pouring in, the dust dancing with the dust in its light. The Princess crept into the parlor in time to see a great black raven fly in and land on a table, it huge wings folding into rest. The Princess shrank back and hid from the bird.
Suddenly it shook and trembled, and transformed before her eyes into a strange creature, the posture of a man, the skin of a hedgehog, quills quivering. Twas the GrovelPig! Twas her husband! Fear and trepidation gripped Raineyii.
The GrovelPig sat at the table and with a wave of his misshapen hand, food and wine appeared. He raised his glass, unseeing, while his wife looked on. "To the health of that most beautiful Cat who could not keep her promise," he toasted, and drank down her wine.
The Princess Raineyii stepped forward. "Husband," she said, steeling her courage. "How long have you toasted one who is uglier than her broken promise?"
The creature turned round, his sorrowful voice filling with anger. "YOU? How did you find me?" he demanded, the quills spiking.
"I have walked and wandered the world to find you," his wife replied. "I have worn out the soles of three pairs of iron shoes heeled with Thundranium and my hair is no longer wheat kissed by the Sun. I have walked and I have wandered and I have come to claim you and take you up in my arms to cuddle you and hug you and love you to bits."
And with that she flung herself at his mercy, risking the spikes of his rage. She clutched him as he struggled. She clung to him as his body trembled into a transformation, ravens wings unfolding and shuttering, clung to him as the shape of a noble Lion emerged, disappeared, reappeared, all the while declaring her love and loyalty.
Raineyii would not be cast off, would not give in to the beating wings, to the poking spikes, or the violent shuddering. She held fast to her husband, until finally the shaking stopped and two stood embracing, the spell broken. And they laughed and cuddled and hugged each other to bits, pain falling from them like feathers….or like quills.
And so the Princess Raineyii who could not keep her promise won back her husband through searching without hope of finding, and in time her hair grew blonde again and there was another wedding.
And this time the feasting and drinking and dancing went on for forty days and forty nights and I myself was there to tell the best story there is to tell, a story that is bitter and sweet and begins in hello and ends in goodbye.
And for a gift, the new King and Queen - for the GrovelPig who was now a lion had reclaimed his Kingdom and united the two in a union nearly as glorious as that which he shared with his wife- gave me an iron shoe worn to nothing.
And here it is.
As WilyKat finished his tale, he smiled at the sight of the slumbering children and quietly put the storybook back into his bag.
"You always do so well with them." An angelic voice whispered from the doorway. "They love you dearly so."
The teenaged Cat recognized the voice and turned to see Cheetara, newly crowned Queen of Thundera standing next to her husband, King Lion-O. It seemed the two had returned early from the Ball.
"And they were right Kat, you do tell the "bestest" stories…even if you did make me into a hedgehog." Lion-O jested. "My Queen, I think we just found our new Royal Storyteller."
Kat could only smile all the wider for it was, is, and always will be an undisputed fact that:
When people told themselves their past with stories, explained their present with stories, foretold the future with stories, the best place by the fire was kept for... The Storyteller…
1. Azan - Panthera leo azandica, known as the northeast Congo Lion, is found in the northeastern parts of the Congo.
2. Raineyii - Acinonyx jubatus raineyii: eastern Africa Cheetah
3. All credit for this adaptation goes towards The Brothers Grimm and Jim Henson Studios. WB and such can have some as well I guess.
4. Big thanks to those who have reviewd. Keep an eye out for more.