She stared at him, and suddenly, without warning or a word, went white, and fainted dead away onto the white-scrubbed floorboards, the jar of ginger clutched in her hand, which smashed as she fell, leaving a halo of glassine blood around her long, long, unbound red hair.
Polly opened her mouth to tell him she had no idea - maybe petition the local member? - when she realised she absolutely, most definitely did know what she was going to do.
She smiled. It was the smile of a crocodile as it sights lunch on the banks of the river in the shape of a plump, juicy antelope with a broken leg.
'I'm going to sue the human race for negligence against each other and the earth'.
Once upon a time – well, 'once upon a time' when Henry VIII was just on the throne, and before he started cutting off his extraneous wives’ heads – there was a tiny kitten who was born on a scrap heap outside a dirty little village in the south of England. There was no way this kitten should have survived; it was abandoned almost immediately by its mother, left for dead... and, to be brutal about it, that should have been that.
As Henry himself may have said, whilst throwing an extremely well gnawed haunch of venison over his shoulder towards his pack of eager hounds, survival of the fittest, y'know.
However, the kitten dragged itself onto the high road and was lying there, near death, when all at once there came a great trampling and trotting and viewing and hallooing. It was a company of the newly crowned and no longer ‘Prince Hal’s’, but rather The King’s Men, on their way to a great tourney in the North. The villagers all came to gawp and gape as the pages and squires scurried to water the horses and get their masters wine and refreshments to break their fast.
A young page saw the kitten and went to kick it – not out of cruelty, you must understand, but to put it out of its misery – when a great voice stopped him, and he felt a hand on his shoulder. ‘Why would you not try to save the creature first?’ inquired the voice. ‘Well, sir, it looks more like kindness to let it go to God’, said the boy. ‘I disagree’, said the voice, whom the boy could not see the owner of, as the hand was preventing him from turning around. ‘I believe that every living thing deserves a chance at life before we consign it to the possibility of heaven’.
The boy was confused. A possibility of heaven? If you were good, you had to get to heaven yes? However, his was not to question why; the voice told him to get the kitten some milk and bread, look after it and take it with him on the journey, squeezed him briefly on the shoulder, and disappeared. The boy, who was after all a page and thus trained to obedience, did as he was told. The kitten ended up looking like a very small (and very loudly purry) barrel, and it promptly went to sleep in his saddlebag.
The boy never did find out who the voice had been. But he and the kitten – soon known as Leo The Lionheart, for his habit of killing ‘infidels’ or rats before they had a chance to strike sleeping knights – became fast friends, and the page’s rise to squire and then knight came about more rapidly than he would have imagined. It was almost as if the day The Lionheart came into his life had been a lucky omen – if he believed in that type of thing.
Eventually, the boy – and you must understand, to go through his kind of training meant being of noble birth – took his place at court. He was very shy, and not inclined to the kind of bawdy blathering that the others of his age indulged in. They would have been seen as quite the odd pair, he and The Lionheart, if he had not been intensely brave, and coincidentally able to knock the teeth sideways out of anybody who questioned his - shall we say - ‘manhood’.
Plus, The Lionheart bit.
By this stage, Henry had become slightly less the young dashing prince and more the stern and running towards stout king – but there were still signs of that merry eyed boy he had once been. So when our friend and his cat – yes, Leo of course was there – were eventually presented to him and his Spanish Queen, the King’s eyes brimmed with mirth.
‘God's wounds!’ he exclaimed, ‘is this a lion I see before me? Do you seek ennoblement for this fine defender of the realm, my Lord Robert?’ (for this was our hero’s name).
Robert finally realised whom the voice belonged to, not unkindly telling him to keep the cat alive some twelve years before. He was astounded, but realised that the King awaited his reply.
‘Why yes, Your Grace, I do.’
There was an intake of breath around the court at this presumptive behaviour, except from the Queen, who looked as if this whole interchange was of absolutely no interest to her (NB future Mrs H Tudors: not wise) – and the King himself, who grinned.
‘And why is this? What possible service could a humble animal have performed to merit a rise to the ranks of my most devoted and noble men? A mere beast, not even of the field, who neither reaps nor sows?’
Robert looked squarely at the King.
‘Because, Your Grace, if every living thing deserves a chance at life, doesn’t every living thing also deserve a chance at bettering its station in said life? And as for what service Leo has provided – well, last night he recognised that the wine destined for your bedchamber was poisoned. He sniffed it and knocked it over, whereupon we had a mouse be doused in it – and the mouse died.
‘He has performed this service for you three times now, Your Grace. Because Leo indeed has the heart of a lion’.
Henry turned very white, then very red. The entire court held its collective breath. Robert felt the whisper of the axe's blade as it slowly descended on his and Leo’s necks, and squeezed his cat to the point of Leo saying ‘ouch’, loudly and ostentatiously, in Tabbyese.
‘It seems that you paid a great deal of attention all those years ago, my Lord Robert’ said Henry, quite calmly, and everyone exhaled. The Duke of Suffolk had a coughing fit and rapidly left the throne room before the king’s mood could change. ‘Not only did you listen to my words, but you listened to the intent behind them. Please bring your cat, and yourself, forward, and kneel’.
Robert of course did so. Leo refused to kneel. He sprawled at Henry’s feet. On his back, with his legs in the air.
Henry grinned again.
‘Leo the Lionheart, I now name thee Lord Leo of The Tower, Keeper of the King’s Person, Royal Ratter and Privy Council Cat. I would say arise but I doubt I would be obeyed. Lord Robert, I hereby appoint you to my Privy Council and ask you to become the head of my Personal Guard. You, I think, may manage to rise’.
Robert was astounded. He had a feeling that this may all end in tears, at least for him, because the King’s moods were what were then known as mercurial – but how wondrous that Leo was being recognised for the loyal and clever creature that he was! What gratitude he felt that Henry had not let him ‘put him out of his misery’ all those years before!
Henry waved them both away. Robert bowed out backwards. Leo sauntered fatly away, occasionally stopping to lick his behind and have a bit of a sniff up the ladies’ frocks. Sometimes, Robert reflected, it was uncanny just how much like the sovereign that cat actually was.
Amazingly, perhaps because every time he was prone to contradict Henry’s wilder ideas (mainly concerning the lady Anne Boleyn, who had just popped her minxy little head up – not yet off), Leo would headbutt him in Privy Council sessions – Robert thrived. But of course, by this stage, Leo was a ripe old age – and one day, sadly, Robert found him peacefully, permanently asleep in the sun of the winter garden at Windsor, his legs in the air and his fat tummy looking glossy and content.
There was a half chewed rat by his side.
Robert cried great tears of loss and gratitude for his wonderful companion. When his page asked him very timidly if he was not ashamed to be seen weeping in public – ‘for he is but a cat, my Lord!’ – Robert turned and took the boy to his quarters. There he gave him one of Leo’s most recent great-grand offspring (Leo was a cat that Henry would have been proud to call ‘son’, or in fact, possibly be slightly jealous of in terms of his procreational abilities).
This is what he said:
‘A cat is never just a cat. A cat is a friend. A cat is an adviser. A cat will tell you when you are a bad master with naught but a simple look. A cat will always be there to warm you. And if you are very lucky, a cat will look at a king – and make you see the value of every life’.
With that, Robert walked away, and with the King’s permission, left the court and retired to his estate in the country.
He died at the age of 82. All that was on his tomb?
‘A cat may indeed look at a king – and if a king is wise, he will look back at a cat.’
A furry tale - or should that be furry stomach? - ending.
Many, many years ago, there were no stars. The sky was - well, blank. Oh, the moon was there, lonely in her solitary glory, and the other planets of course; but there were no twinkling pieces of fiery ice for us to wonder at, for poetry to be written about, for songs to be sung to, for stories to be scribbled down in wonder... and for couples to stand under, hand in hand - with stars in their eyes.
This is how stars came to be.
They were born, as one would expect, from a fairytale.
Once upon a time, in a land whose borders have long since moved beyond memory, there lived a young princess called Asta. She was in fact rather more than just a princess; she was the Crown Princess, and when her father died (which with great good luck, would not be for many years yet), the country would be hers to rule. This pleased the people greatly, as she was generous, and kind, and known for her wit and humour. Was she a great beauty? Not really; but she had an indefinable something which made her more attractive to the young princes in those parts than all the classic sharp-cheekboned goddesses soulfully mooning around the court.
She was certainly in no hurry to take on the role of Queen. Since her mother's death, she and her father had been very close, and the thought of his not being around, a pack of large slobbery dogs at his shabby heels, was almost too much to bear.
We all know however, that life isn't kind, or fair, and that sometimes great pain has to come before great happiness. And this, sadly, was closer than anyone could have anticipated.
The entire country had been humming with excitement for weeks, because it was both the 30th anniversary of the King's ascension to the throne, and Asta's 21st birthday. Preparations for an enormous ball had been occupying the court, with neighbouring nations sending emissaries and envoys - not to mention hopeful royal suitors. Unfortunately, not all of those who had to be invited were friends... some, as the King had taught Asta carefully, were strategic guests.
One of them was Queen Ondska.
She was incredibly beautiful, it was true. She was also incredibly ambitious, and had made no secret of her desire to marry the widowed King. It was whispered that she had magic in her blood, but only the brave (or perhaps the foolhardy) dared to voice their suspicions aloud, for those who did had a nasty habit of disappearing.
Ondska arrived with her usual pomp and ceremony, a large retinue, and an even larger mirror, which glittered strangely and made the servants uncomfortable. Asta disliked her intensely, but was too well mannered to let it show - and of course she would never let her father down by being less than courteous to any guest.
The night of the ball arrived. Asta had noticed that her father had looked quite pale all day, but he assured her he was well, just preoccupied with making sure all of their guests were taken care of. And she was, admittedly, a little too excited to notice the extent of his pallor and shaking hands.
As she and the King descended the stairs into the palace ballroom, the assembled crowd bowed low. Even Ondska, although it was with gritted teeth. As they straightened up, Asta noticed a young man she had never before seen looking straight at her. He had a look of wildness, and fearlessness, and adventure, and life.
Then he grinned, and Asta's hitherto untouched heart was lost. Her worries over her father, her nagging concern over Ondska and her magic - all were gone. All she saw was a tall figure with laughing eyes making his way towards her, hand held out, asking her to dance.
His name was Prince Fin, and he had been at sea, heading his father's navy. He had been sent to the celebrations because his brother the Crown Prince and his wife were about to have their first child, and could not leave home. He explained this to Asta as they danced, saying with a grin that 'as the spare, I am used to being the last minute substitute for diplomatic missions. I must say in this case, it is no hardship at all.'
'In fact, I am not sure I am likely to ever return to sea - unless I were to have a new executive officer, who just happened to be a princess.'
Asta blushed. And grinned back. And Fin felt his heart turn over.
Suddenly there was a commotion near the throne dais. Asta looked up, and her world collapsed. The King was lying on the ground. He was horribly, terribly still; and she saw the Lord Chamberlain shake his head, search the crowd, and through the whirling white noise in her head, as Fin held her up, heard the words she had thought would be years away:
She hid her face for a moment against Fin's chest, then straightened up and walked towards her people.
She did not see the look of malevolence and triumph on Ondska's face.
In the Queen's rooms meanwhile, a maidservant ran in fear as the mirror spoke. Unfortunately, she tripped and broke her neck, which of course everyone dismissed as clumsiness, so she was never able to say whose voice she had heard.
Or, of course, what it had said.
In the days that followed, everyone said with what dignity the young Queen comported herself. Or, it should be said, the Queen to be, for she was yet to be crowned. Asta insisted on the correct mourning period being observed for her father before any kind of celebration be held, and that included her own coronation. This only added to how dearly her people loved her, for it showed her grief and respect.
Fin did not leave her side. Asta found herself reaching for him without thinking, and it was only his steadiness which saved her from retreating to her room and staying there. But this she couldn't do, for she had seen the way Ondska was watching.
Watching... and waiting.
The Queen claimed to be staying 'for Asta's solace'. And her standing was too great, her own country too powerful for Asta to say 'please leave'. But the servants were growing ever more nervous, to the point where after dark they would not go to her quarters, claiming there were voices coming from the mirror.
Finally, the day of the coronation approached. Asta realised that for the sake of her people, she had to see it as a happy occasion. If she was brutally honest with herself, in some ways she was happy, for she knew she would rule well and wisely - and of course there was Fin.
He was nervous. Petrified in fact, because today was the day he was going to ask Asta to marry him - and he had to do it before she was crowned, so that she understood it was for her that he asked, not her country. He took a deep breath, and got ready to see her. Just as he was about to set off to her rooms, Queen Ondska called out to him.
'Prince Fin. If I may? I would very much appreciate your counsel.'
Fin turned. He had no desire whatsoever to be anywhere near the Queen, but as he looked at her, she snapped her fingers in front of his face, and he felt his will being drained. She smiled.
It was not a nice smile.
'If you will, Prince Fin... just stand in front of the mirror. Just for a moment.'
With the last of his strength, he tried to avert his gaze. But the mirror pulled at him, and with mounting horror he looked into its depths.
And saw the King, and hundreds of others behind him, sorrow in their eyes.
And he felt his own death upon him.
Asta had expected Fin to escort her to the throne room, and when he didn't appear, decided to find him. She had felt an uneasy tickling in the back of her mind for a while, and it seemed to be growing the closer she got - why, it was the closer she got to Queen Ondska's rooms! She knocked at the door. There was no answer, but she heard a low cry - and she pushed on the latch. It opened, and she ran inside.
She saw Fin lying still and white on the floor in front of the mirror, and the Queen looking as though she had just finished a wonderful meal.
'What... what has happened here?' she whispered.
Ondska looked at her, her eyes glazed with power and evil.
'Oh my dear. I am afraid there has been a tragic accident. Your dear Prince has died. There was nothing to be done. I am so very sorry for you!'
'Fin - no! It can't - '
'But yes. As you can see, he is clearly not coming back. I think it is best you immediately call off the coronation and go into mourning. Perhaps you should consider appointing a regent? Someone older, more capable. Trustworthy.'
Ondska's voice had taken on a hypnotic hissing quality. For a moment, Asta was mesmerised.
And then she looked in the mirror.
And saw Fin and her father looking back, shaking their heads.
The clouds in her mind dissolved.
Asta screamed. It came from deep - so deep - inside her, and sounded like the agonised cry of a seabird. It was a scream of agony, and loss, and love, and a breaking heart.
The mirror shattered, the pieces flying, whirling outwards in a glittering, lethal diamond cloud - towards Ondska. There was a sudden blur, a snarling roar of defeat, a babble of triumphant voices - and then, like a shining tornado, the source of the Queen's power and her death headed for the skies.
And all that was left of Ondska was a pool of puddled velvet... and a rapidly blackening crown.
There was a low whisper.
She whirled around, the colour coming back to her face.
It was Fin. He was back... and beside him, her father.
The joy in the castle was overwhelming.
That night, a strange phenomenon was observed in the sky. Glittering points of light had started to shine - faintly, it was true, but they shone nevertheless. Over the course of the next few decades, they grew stronger and stronger, until people could not remember a time when there were not shimmering ribbons of unreality above.
And what did they call them?
In the common tongue, they called them 'stars'... but those who knew and loved her best remembered who they were named after.
Once there was a princess. Her name was Amelia.
She lived in a not so far off land with her father and mother, the King and Queen, who were generally beloved by the populace - mainly because they were fairly ordinary, and did things like take budget flights instead of the Royal Jet to make sure they didn't squeeze the economy. People tend to appreciate value for money I have found, and these two were right on top of budgeting.
Her three older sisters on the other hand...
Let's just say that if you combined Elizabeth Taylor's love of very large rocks with Imelda Marcos' shoe habit - you wouldn't even touch the sides. As far as they were concerned, Princess equalled PRINCESS in bold and with flashing lights in case someone missed the point. They were not interested in anything much besides shopping, more shopping and waiting for a prince with a black AmEx to whisk them away to a larger castle with better closet space.
Amelia though - well, Amelia was a little bit...
She didn't look peculiar. She didn't sound peculiar. Everyone thought she was a lovely girl - certainly much nicer than the Shopaholics - uh, I mean her siblings. She just didn't seem to quite fit in, and nobody could really put their finger on it - even her parents, much as they loved her, found it easier to deal with large credit card bills, and getting the royal carpenters in to put up new shoe racks, rather than address what was going on with Princess Number 4.
Amelia herself though - she knew exactly what the issue was. And she was finding it harder and harder to hide her 'totally bizarre weirdness' as her delightful eldest sister Prunella called it.
Princess A had very vivid dreams. This wasn't the totally bizarre weird part however - many people have startlingly 'real' dreams and are none the worse for it, other than a tendency to grin stupidly during the day if it was a particularly enjoyable one. No - the TBW was this;
Amelia's dreams were starting to come true.
It began when she turned twenty-one. The night before her birthday, she dreamt that the next day, Morcilla (she got off lightly with Amelia, didn't she?), sister number two, was going to throw an enormous tanty when she saw Amelia's birthday present and insist that it be given to her. As it was a vintage Mercedes convertible, Amelia wasn't too keen on this idea (hey, she may not have been a shopping addict, but the girl was only human) and told Morcilla if she touched a finger to the paintwork, her hand would be permanently stuck to it until she promised to never, ever go near it again.
And this is exactly what happened. Morcilla went berkers, Amelia said her piece - and suddenly an errant finger was attached to the bonnet. Shrieks, tears and a grudging promise later - the finger was removed and Amelia was sitting in a corner glugging champagne out of terror (and quiet enjoyment) at what had just happened.
A few more similar incidents occurred, mostly involving her sisters and their love of shiny objects. Amelia would dream a scenario, and within a few days - hey presto, it happened. Whilst this had a certain good side effect of making her sisters leave her (and her possessions) alone, Amelia was petrified that one night, she would dream something which ended up hurting someone badly - and so she stopped sleeping.
No person, let alone a princess who spent most of her time in surrounding kingdoms on diplomatic duties, can go without sleep. Things go wrong when there's tiredness involved, such as promising the next door country the profits from the year's beet crop (big bucks - they loved their beets in that part of the world). And eventually, as she was strap-hanging on the Fly Cheap, Fly Standing! flight home after the Beet Incident of '03... her eyes closed.
And she started to dream.
This one wasn't about shoes, or cars, or grabby sisters. This one - well, this one was a nightmare. The land was on fire. Her parents were held by very large men with very large weapons - her father had been hit and was bleeding. Her sisters were also in the same situation, but even nightmares have some moments of levity. And there was a man with a cruel, hard face, in a very ostentatious uniform, who said to Amelia 'this is all your doing - after all, you dreamt it, didn't you?'
She woke up on the floor of the plane, with her bodyguards trying frantically to work out why she was screaming.
And so it was back to insomnia. Until two weeks later.
When the kingdom was attacked.
They came from nowhere - moving swiftly and silently. The cities were surrounded by tanks and insanely complicated weaponry. Amelia's family were dragged from the palace in the middle of the night, and it was all just as she had dreamed it would be. She struggled, and fought (and took quite a few men out - just saying) - but eventually she was face to face with General Despicable from her dream. He slapped her, which was totally unnecessary but showed the kind of ratbrain he was.
'Tell your parents to send out a notice of surrender, or I will kill your entire family - and it will be your fault, Princess Amelia' he said, with a faint smile.
'What did you do to me?' she asked very bravely.
'Oh, the standard evil fairy thing - when you were born, got her to put a curse on you, yada yada yada' he replied, yawning and examining his seriously long nails (yuck). 'She guaranteed that eventually you would dream something which would allow me to take over - and I am delighted to say, she didn't lie. I killed her anyway, but I do like value for money'.
'And by the way', he added 'apparently the curse is unbreakable - you will always dream the truth. Bad luck there.'
Amelia looked around at her parents, her sobbing sisters, and listened to the gunfire and terror surrounding them. And she realised there was only one thing to do.
She put all of her love for her family and her country into her thoughts - and fell asleep. She vaguely heard and felt the General screaming at her to wake up and shaking her, but she was determined to sleep, perchance to dream.
And dream she did. She dreamt of her parents. She dreamt of the beet crops (I told you she was weird). She even dreamt of her sisters, who for once hugged and kissed her instead of stealing her shoes. She dreamt of every good thing she could... and finally, she dreamt a dead General and a defeated army.
And she opened her eyes and smiled, because she had dreamed her own truth.
The army was gone. The General was a cloud of dust at her feet. And the kingdom and her family were safe. It may have been a curse, but who exactly had the curse been on? Those evil fairies sometimes aren't quite as evil as they look, you know.
The country rejoiced. Her parents were back in fiduciary charge. Amelia went back to dreaming of - well, just normal dreams - there may have been a prince somewhere in there, but that's her business. And her sisters...
Let's just say they developed a healthy respect for not touching other princesses' property.
Dream a little dream.
There was once, in a far away kingdom, a prince of the blood royal.
By the way, why are they always far away kingdoms? I wonder if there are any nearby kingdoms; obviously not, or the story would begin 'in a nearby kingdom' wouldn't it? I suppose it wouldn't be anywhere near as mysterious if you were to say 'there was once, in the kingdom down the road, next to the service station and across from the fish and chip shop, a prince'.
As I was saying.
There was a prince.
His name, fairly unfortunately, was Milksop. Why would his parents do that to him? Well, they didn't really want to; they weren't nasty, or unkind, and he didn't have enormous buck teeth and look like he deserved a name like Milksop - it was just the name that was given to the firstborn boy and thus one day he would be crowned Milksop XXVI and his son would be Milksop XXVII and so on and so forth.
Tradition. Sometimes it really blows chunks.
Luckily, because he had nice parents, and because he was generally speaking a delightful child who grew into a pretty good kind of adult, he was given a second name that people actually used, rather than calling him 'Soppy' or anything like that.
This name was Jon.
Much better, yes?
So, Prince Jon, as he was commonly known, by the commoners, was, as I said, a pretty good prince. He was firm, but fair; he could swing a sword, had an excellent seat on a horse, was able to shoot lots of stuff with a crossbow without shooting the person next to him by accident, excelled at falconry and was also not a complete thickie when it came to things like astronomy and history and subjects that some of his prince-y friends found a gigantic yawn. In short, he was shaping up to be an excellent King Milksop XXVI, on the sad occasion when Milksop XXV popped off the twig.
With one small problem.
Prince Jon had been cursed at birth (and not just by being named Milksop).
He just didn't know it yet.
Oh, his parents had been meaning to tell him for ages, but you know how it is - the years go by, time rolls on, and the moment to say 'By the way my dear boy, at your christening, an evil fairy put a curse on you which will take effect on your twenty-first birthday. Oh well, chin up, back to the archery range' seemed to sort of... drift. And eventually, his parents forgot about the curse, because nothing seemed to be happening, the evil fairy hadn't put in any guest appearances, and young Jon was - well, normal.
Until suddenly it was the eve of said birthday.
There was a massive ball. The whole kingdom was invited. There were roast hogs, and gallons of mead and ale, and basically everyone was dressed in their best and having a really stupendously (and fairly drunken) good time.
Jon it must be said was not entirely sober himself. He was busily flirting with four or five giggling ladies of the court when, at the stroke of midnight (evil is so predictable don't you think?), the doors to the castle ballroom flew open with a bang!
There, in a cloud of smoke, stood one of the most beautiful and terrifying women Jon had ever seen. And the King and Queen knew fear beyond words as they realised that all of their years of willful ignorance were about to come back at them with a vengeance.
'Prince Jon' she purred, weaving her way towards him, her emerald green eyes never leaving his.
'I come to collect my debt.'
'Debt, my lady?' said Prince Jon, who was both repulsed and enchanted by this - well, he wasn't sure what she was exactly.
'Your parents did not tell you? Your mother the Queen was so desperate for a child that she promised you in marriage at the age of twenty-one to the one who could provide her with her fiercest desire. I shall become your bride, and rule your kingdom by your side - or perhaps I shall just rule it myself, if you displease me.'
Jon looked at his parents, who could not meet his eyes, and realised what this - well, this witch, or enchantress, or fairy, said was true. Then he saw the tears falling from his mother's eyes and felt no anger at her promise, only sadness at her need for him. And then Jon showed why he was indeed no Milksop.
'And if I refuse? What then?'
Suddenly the beauty was gone, and she who stood before him was simply terrible.
'You would refuse? Refuse me? Then in that case you would suffer the consequences immediately! You will be reduced to a form which will make you less than the lowest peasant!'
Jon straightened his spine, and looked at her glowing eyes.
'Do what you must; but I will make a bargain with you as you bargained with my parents. Curse me, do whatever you will; but you will not harm my mother and father. And if I find someone to love me in the form in which you place me - truly love me - you must reverse the form and then - then I will hunt you down and chop off your head'.
The fairy laughed, because nobody, in her two hundred years, had ever bested her.
'Done - and so it shall be - become the lowest of the low - a mewling beast' she said, and the next thing Jon felt was absolute agony, as his bones contracted and snapped, he heard people screaming... and then...
The next thing he knew, he was curled in a ball and lifting his left leg to casually lick his...
He untwisted himself, and realised he could not only untwist himself, he could really, really untwist himself. In lots of directions. His spine didn't seem to have - well, a spine. And he was furry. Really, really furry. And he had four legs.
And a tail.
He half fell, half walked over to what turned out to be a puddle, because it appeared he was asleep in the grass beside a road.
He was a bloody cat.
He hated cats. Superior little know-it-alls, always looking as if they ruled the world, waiting for the day they got opposable thumbs...
He wasn't even an attractive cat. He was a great big, moth-eaten black moggy, with a torn ear and a scar across his eye which he thought made him look vaguely piratical but also gave him the feeling that on the cat cuteness scale made him sinister as hell and likely to get thrown out of the finer establishments of the kingdom.
How on earth was he going to find someone to love him - truly love him? He was a cat! Cats can't talk, or write sonnets, or sing love songs with a lute; they can't fight tournaments in honour of a beautiful princess, or indeed rescue beautiful princesses from towers and dragons.
He was a dead feline walking.
Tail drooping, he started to pad along the side of the road towards what he recognised as a small village not too far from the kingdom's capital. Naturally it started raining, because well, it wouldn't be much of a curse if things weren't truly miserable, would it? Cats don't like rain. And he was now a cat, so he didn't think this was much chop at all. He was wet, and cold, and miserable, and his paws hurt.
Heeventually reached the courtyard of an inn, coincidentally called The Prince's Arms. He was just hovering hopefully next to the kitchen door with a few other cats (who didn't have a problem with him; scars and being the size of a small rogue elephant spoke multitudes in cat talk) and thinking 'I can't believe I am waiting for scraps at a kitchen door', when through said door came the most wonderful sight he had ever laid eyes on.
A girl. A girl with hazel eyes, and long coppery hair, and a swift step, and a look about her that suggested mischief and mayhem and merriment all wrapped up in one.
She was dazzling.
Jon the cat nearly swooned (the big girl's blouse). Who was she? Why hadn't he met her when he was human? And how the hell was he going to get her to fall in love with a plug ugly big black scruffy cat? Even if he did look - to himself at least - like a cool pirate puss? Hmmmmmm...
He rolled on his back and attempted to look as adorable as possible. Four paws up in the air. If the other cats could have rolled their eyes, they would.
She looked at him, and laughed. It was the sweetest sound he had ever heard.
'Well, who have we here? You're new, aren't you? Not a pretty sight (Jon's heart sank), but there's something about you that makes me think of... pirates?' (Jon's heart lifted in his furry chest). She shook her head and laughed again. 'A piratical cat! Next thing you know I will start talking to you and expecting an answer!'
Jon rolled over and nodded his head furiously.
She looked very hard at him for a moment. He could have sworn he saw a spark of - what - confusion? - behind her crystal gaze, but then she shook her head, and said 'well come on all of you, I have your supper waiting', and all of the cats rushed forward to a corner of the stableyard where she doled out milk and leftovers equitably to each of them.
Mind you... she did give Jon an extra piece of fish.
This went on for weeks, with Sophie (he heard her name being screeched by the owner of the inn constantly) doing exactly what she thought she would - ending up talking to him. She wasn't sure why, but she couldn't seem to help it. She told him all about her life; about being an orphan, and being taken in by the kindly innkeeper and his wife, and now that the innkeeper was dead, having his shrew of a widow making her work all hours of the day and night until she was nearly dropping with exhaustion. She did not say this to complain, but merely as a statement of fact. And all the while she would stroke him and pet his torn ears, until Jon wanted to scream out loud who he really was and tell her not to worry, that when she was his princess her life would be very, very different indeed.
Three years passed. Jon became Sophie's best friend. This didn't make her a weird cat lady; it's hard to make friends when you are a slavey in an inn. You reach out to any comfort you can get.
And then one day Sophie told Jon (whom she had named 'Cutlass', which he far preferred to Milksop, and felt was far more manly - uh - catly) that she was to be wed. The innkeeper's widow had, to be blunt, sold her. To a fat, balding widower who owned the local smithy and wanted not just a wife, but a housekeeper and unpaid governess to his tribe of unruly children.
'And the worst part, dear Cutlass, is that I do not dare take you, for the Smith would surely chop off your tail as soon as look at a cat. He is known as one of the meanest men in the kingdom.' And she laid her head on his fur and sobbed until he thought that he could not stand it anymore.
He laid a paw on her face. And tried to speak. One. Last. Time.
All that came out of course, was a meowly yowl. But Sophie hugged him even harder, then ran inside as the screechy voice of the widow commanded her to come and serve customers, and to stop wasting time with that damn ugly brute of a cat.
That night, as he slept in his corner of the inn's barn, Jon realised he could hear Sophie crying again. He padded outside and leaped up to her window, and onto her bed. She was asleep, but obviously dreaming (nightmaring?) of her life to come. He tucked himself under her arm and purred as loudly as he could to comfort her. She stopped crying, and smiled through her tears. Even in her sleep, and with a very snotty nose, he thought how beautiful she was.
'My Cutlass' she whispered. 'I do love you so.'
And with that, the curse was lifted. Miles away, the evil fairy felt it as a stabbing of steel though her cold black heart, and for the first time in her long existence knew true fear. In Sophie's bedroom meanwhile, there was a hell of a lot of explaining to do, because cats don't generally wear a lot of clothes, and Jon went through the reversal process on the spot.
If you get my meaning.
This is a fairy tale, so after Sophie got over her initial shock (and Jon came round from being hit with a poker), she realised that she did in fact think that Prince Jon was pretty damn handsome, and yes, it's much nicer to have a conversation with someone who can answer you back, and you don't have to feel like a crazy cat lady, and yes, she could probably see her way clear to thinking about marrying him and becoming a princess.
Jon found some clothes and swept Sophie off to the palace and his parents, where there was great rejoicing, and then toodled off to kill the evil fairy, which he did fairly easily, mainly because he had a gang of cats who took out her evil minions and helped enormously. He cut off her head as promised, which is gruesome but was quite frankly well-deserved. Don't feel sorry for her dear reader; she wasn't a nice person at all. Who turns people into cats for heaven's sakes?
Jon and Sophie had a whirlwind courtship, got married and were blissfully happy. He was smart enough to realise she would always be the one with the opposable thumbs in the relationship, irrespective of whether he was a man or a moggy. They had ten children, who all loved cats. She refused outright to call any of the children, male or female, Milksop. They named their eldest boy Cutlass.
And just occasionally, Jon may or may not have worn an eye patch. For old times' sake. Who can tell?
The moral of the story? I know that fairy tales are supposed to have one, so here it is.
Parents, don't make wishes to evil fairies, no matter what; and people - always - ALWAYS - be nice to cats.
You never know when they may be a prince - or a pirate for that matter - in disguise.
Frogs don't have the monopoly on fairy tales you know.
Once upon a time there was a princess.
It would be wonderful to say that she was a particularly beautiful princess, or that she was amazingly charming, or had some special skill such as being able to play the piano with her feet or speak eleven languages including something very obscure - but no. As far as she and everybody else around her was aware, she was extremely ordinary indeed.
In fact, if it wasn't for the fact that she was of royal birth, probably nobody would have paid much attention to her at all.
This isn't to say that she wasn't a nice girl - she was a very nice girl. She was kind, and considerate, and thoughtful. She was intelligent and well-read and good to her servants. She was always doing lovely things for other people. But she was just - average. Which in fairy tale parlance is unusual. Normally princesses have a defining characteristic. They are either especially beautiful, tragically kept in a tower, under some kind of curse - well, you know the drill.
But not young Persephone (that was our sort of heroine's name). She just toodled along, being herself - which was quite frankly, as un-princessy as possible, because she didn't much like fuss, and hoping desperately that her father, the King lived forever, not just because she loved him very much... but also because she never, ever wanted to be Queen.
She knew she would suck at it. Who wants an ordinary Queen?
People either want a benevolent, bluebirds singing on the shoulder kind of ruler; or in a pinch (because at least it's interesting) a cruel, stone cold fox with the whole blood red lips and jet black hair thing going on.
Magic mirror optional.
Persephone knew that neither of these were an option because she couldn't sing for quids and freckles and straight brown hair don't really lend themselves to Chanel Rouge Allure; also she wasn't very good at the whole mirthless 'mwah ha ha' cackle. So she was really very pleased that her dear Papa seemed in very good health and didn't look like popping off the twig any time soon. She also wasn't overly enamoured with the whole having to find a handsome prince as her consort notion, mainly because no handsome princes were really showing a hell of a lot of interest in a very average princess without a tragic storyline or Miss America looks to fall back on.
And then one day, things changed very rapidly for dear Persephone.
First of all, her parents decided that she really did have to get married. Not because they were mean or nasty, but because that's the way things were done in those days. So they organised a great tournament and all of the knights and lords and princes from the lands around were going to attend - because whilst Persephone was not a huge drawcard, getting half of a kingdom if you were an impoverished young noble wasn't such a bad dealio.
And then - ugh - her cousin came to stay. And she most definitely was of the 'have an apple - it might be poisoned, but you won't really care, because I am just so damn hot' variety of princess. Think Angelina Jolie with a basket full of Granny Smiths and you wouldn't be far off. And with her - probably coincidentally, let's be charitable here - came a strange blight on the land. The crops started dying; animals sickened. And worst of all...
Worst of all, the King became very ill.
Persephone and her mother, the Queen, were besides themselves with worry. Her cousin, Princess Whatsherface, seemed less concerned. And the King insisted that the tourney go ahead, as did Angie. 'It will be good for morale' she declared. 'It will make the people see that everything is as it should be.'
It possibly would have been less sinister if she hadn't been stroking a black evil looking cat as she said this, but never mind.
So the tournament day dawned, and Persephone - in her ordinary way - sat front and centre representing her father, with the witch queen in training beside her looking radiantly lovely (and smug) as the competitors came forth to win her hand. The jousts began. They seemed to be more than usually violent, and cousin Angie was staring very hard at certain sinister looking knights who seemed to do remarkably well. Persephone began to feel very uneasy, for she was not as we have said, a stupid girl, and wondered what her cousin was actually capable of.
She soon found out when a knight in jet black armour veered away from the lists and charged straight at her, lance aimed directly at her heart.
Vaguely she heard the crowd screaming (despite her ordinariness - or perhaps because of it - she was actually very much loved) and the only thing she could think to do was to say 'please...
She heard a strange roaring and then - silence.
And realised something quite miraculous.
Everything had stopped.
The lance was but a few centimetres from her body. Her cousin was frozen with a look of malicious pleasure on her face, which was revealed to be not beautiful but dark and twisted and evil. Persephone carefully moved from her throne and went to the knight and removed his helmet. His face was - well, it was very handsome (so sue her, she was human) and twisted in agony. He was obviously trying to fight the command that her cousin had put on him.
Princess P didn't know how or why she, the most ordinary girl in the world, had been blessed with this very unusual ability. But she knew what she had to do. She carefully moved the lance a few inches to the right. She put the knight's helmet back on. And then she sat back on her throne, took a deep breath...
And the lance went straight through the very black heart of her velvet clad cousin, who didn't even have time to look surprised before disappearing in a cloud of fairly greasy black smoke, leaving behind scorch marks and strangely, a tube of expensive lipstick.
The rest of the story is fairly predictable. The King and the land recovered, the young knight fell wildly in love with Persephone - and she with him (he was pretty damn hot, people, and yes, yes, intelligent and kind and good) and they lived a long and happy life together. She was handily able to freeze time whenever she felt like it after that first occurrence, so if he had something like the last piece of chocolate and wouldn't give it up - well, you can see where I am going.
Persephone never could understand why she, the most average of princesses, would be given this extraordinary gift of being able to stop time. But perhaps I can answer that for her.
One doesn't necessarily have to look extraordinary on the outside to be extraordinary on the inside.
Bear that in mind next time you see someone who may look like a frog - or even just an everyday girl.
They could be a princess in disguise.