(Usual disclaimers apply.. with a pinch of disbelief and a lot of fairy dust. Warning: The Grimm brothers have a lot to answer for.)
Once upon a time (fairy tales always have to begin with those words), in a small town in a green and pleasant land, there lived a beautiful young girl. She was so beautiful in fact, that everyone called her Princess, but although her parents made her sleep on a pile of mattresses on top of a single pea, and did all the other things that are supposed to reveal that she was a real princess, she remained a normal but beautiful young girl.
You know the sort. Long blonde hair, huge blue eyes. She lived with her parents in a small house, well, not that small really, four bedrooms and three bathrooms, two reception rooms with, as an estate agent might say, extensive landscaped gardens.
But I digress. Suffice it to say the young girl was much loved and cherished by her parents. She was their only daughter, their only child in fact, and they accorded her every luxury that she might possibly want. The cynical among you might think she would have grown up to be selfish, spoilt and precocious but, in truth, she was a loving and devoted child, always eager to please her parents and follow their advice in all matters. She played with her dolls like other girls, went to school like other children, and as she grew up, she liked nothing better than to walk in her garden in the evenings, in summer watching the flowers growing and, in winter, staring in wonder at the twinkling stars high above her in the night sky.
The years passed, as years have a tendency to do, one day at a time, until her teens were behind her and she was a young woman; but still she walked in the gardens every evening and stared at the uncounted stars, wondering if the man of her dreams would ever come. She spent her days occupied with frivolous things: sewing, reading, studying art history and planning how she might decorate her house when Prince Charming finally arrived to sweep her off her feet.
She did not wish to spend her days in idle and playful activities, but she had been taught that princesses had responsibilities and although the princess did not have a kingdom to rule, her Prince would need cherishing and loving and looking after. So she practised her skills, and learned how to make fairy cakes and how to sew a buttonhole, and how to run a household. And she waited and she walked in the garden in the evenings, listening for the footsteps of her prince.
One day, a soldier from a distant land came to stay in the town where the princess lived. He was an ordinary soldier, the youngest son of three as so often happens in these sorts of stories, but his elder brothers have no part to play in this tale. He was no one especially brave or courageous; he had no medals for valour but he had a shy and lovely smile and he spent his days talking to people and reading and learning about the wicked dragons that were the enemies of these lands. He was a kind and gentle soldier but he was also lonely, here in this strange country. He, too, liked looking at the stars and, one evening he was wandering down a quiet path that ran alongside a garden when he caught sight of the beautiful princess. She was so lovely that the sight of her took his breath away and he stood there, leaning on the fence, and watching as she walked along the gravel path in the soft blue-grey dusk.
Suddenly she tripped over a stone, or perhaps a stray toad, or perhaps even a shadow. It does not matter. What is important is that she tripped and fell, quite elegantly though, as Princesses are taught to fall. The simple soldier did not hesitate. With one bound, he had vaulted the fence and hurried to her side to lift her in his arms and carry her to the wooden bench that was waiting there as if it had been anticipating this very event. He lowered her gently, brushing her blonde hair away from her face. The stars shone in her eyes and he thought that she looked as lovely as a princess, if not even more so.
She thanked him and asked why he was walking along the path beside her garden and he pointed to the sky and smiled and told her that he liked to look at the stars. And shyly, the Princess asked him if he knew what some of them were called. She sat there and listened as he told her the names, his accent strange yet lovely. She would have listened to him speak all night, though she had to remember that he was merely a simple soldier and she was a Princess. But she noticed that his eyes shone like stars also.
The soldier returned the next night, and the following one, each night teaching her a new star or constellation and she showed him the unusual flowers that grew along the borders of the gravel path and told him their names. So the evenings passed, one by one, until the simple soldier realised that he was in deeply in love with the princess. But he knew that she wanted a Prince as her husband, a man who was brave and courageous and renowned for his deeds, not a scholarly soldier such as he was, and his heart ached every time he pointed out a star or talked about the Moon, or walked on the gravel path alongside her, or brushed a long blonde hair out of her eyes.
The days went by until the soldier could bear it no more and, summoning up his courage, he went to visit the wise old man whose task it was to help protect the land from the fearsome peril of the strange dragons that plagued the known worlds.
The wise old man sat there, furrowing his bushy eyebrows as he listened, saying nothing as the poor soldier stuttered and stammered his way through his request.
‘Very well,’ said the wise old man when the simple soldier had finished. ‘I can help you, but there will be a price to pay.’
‘Anything,’ said the soldier without hesitating, knowing that the wise old man was also a magician as well as a great warrior. ‘I promise to give you whatever you want, if the princess will love me and become my wife.’
‘Are you sure?’ the wise old man asked. ‘It may be a high price to pay for such a simple request.’
The soldier stood up and saluted. ‘Yes. I am sure. I give you my word.’
‘Done then.’ The wise old man, or perhaps he was the magician now, or even the warrior, stood up. ‘You must meet your princess this evening and as the first star becomes visible in the sky, bend down and pick up a handful of pebbles from the path on which you are standing.’
‘Pebbles?’ The simple soldier was puzzled.
‘Pebbles. Then, when a shooting star appears, you must kiss the princess. At that moment she will fall in love with you.’
‘What about the pebbles?’ the soldier asked, even as he was wanting to run to the garden where the princess would be waiting to learn more star names and to teach him more about the flowers in her garden.
‘Ah, yes. The pebbles,’ said the wise old man. ‘Take them home with you, and put them into a glass jar. Seal it tightly and as long as there is one pebble left in that jar, your princess will love you. But once they have all gone, then so the love in her heart will go as well.’
‘I will never let the pebbles go,’ said the soldier. ‘I will keep the jar sealed tightly, and locked in my safe so that no one can ever steal them.’
‘Ah,’ sighed the wise old man. ‘If only it was as simple as that. I must warn you, soldier, that every time you break your word to your princess, or every time you make her cry, then one pebble will disappear from the jar, even if you put it in the strongest safe in the world, in the deepest cellar with the best guards to watch over it.’
‘I will never make her cry,’ the soldier said, ‘I love her too much. But...’ he paused. ‘Your payment. What is it? And when do I pay it?’
‘I cannot tell you what the payment is. That is for others, who are more powerful than I am, to decide. Once you are married you will be called upon to repay the debt. Now go and meet your princess. But first, a word of advice from one who knows ....’ the wise old man smiled a sad smile. ‘Pick up as many pebbles as you can hold in your hands.’
The soldier hurried away and came to the gravelled path where his princess was waiting. He looked up and there, in the night sky, he saw the first bright star peering at him and he bent down to scoop up a handful of pebbles. He could feel some of them trickling between his fingers as he walked towards her, but he was not worried. There were more than enough pebbles in his fingers and he slipped them into his pockets and dusted his fingers clean.
He taught her the names of more new stars and she giggled at the strangeness of the words, and then, as he was pointing out a small blurry nebula, a silver streak of light darted across the night sky. The soldier heard his princess gasp with delight as she saw the shooting star, and he wrapped one arm around her and, daringly, kissed her. He could feel the pebbles, a heavy load, enough for a lifetime. Surely.
The wise old man, watching from the outer path, gave a look of envy, and also anguish, before he turned away and went back to his empty house, leaving the lovers together.
And this is where the reader says… ah yes, but what about payment? Are we talking Rumpelstiltskin? Or something even more heinous? Fear not gentle reader, I promise you the payment is not in blood or lives or even in coin. Read on and all shall be revealed.
The simple soldier walked home, his heart singing, his world filled with joy and delight and the promise of a lifetime of kisses such as they had shared. His Princess. His. She loved him, and he had knelt there on the gravel path and asked her to be his wife and she had taken his hand and accepted. It seemed like a dream. Perhaps it was. But his hand strayed to the pockets of his uniform and felt the pebbles therein, and his heart soared within his breast.
And so they were married. The soldier, garbed in his armour and accompanied by his faithful squire, waited in the church for his bride to arrive and the Princess walked to meet him in a beautiful white gown, although in her soldier’s eyes she would have been just as lovely in jeans and a t-shirt. Her soldier, thanks to the work of the wise old man (who was also a magician and a great warrior), was now a man of importance and influence, as shown by the winged emblem of greatness that was displayed on his armour. Although why a man of such significance should keep a sealed glass jar of mismatched pebbles in his safe would have been beyond the understanding of most people.
The couple said their vows and the wise old man, in his role as the soldier’s commanding officer; although he was not able to be there in person, recalled his own vows that he had said so many years ago. He remembered the feel of pebbles in his own hand, remembered counting them and then watching helplessly as, one by one they disappeared from the sealed container until all that was left was the jar, mocking him with its emptiness.
The wise old man, his sad eyes hiding behind dark glasses, sighed and wondered what the future would bring for the young soldier. The payment had still to be collected, but he was a kind old man, for all his stern ways and bushy eyebrows, and he would give the young couple one night of happiness.
That night the lights in the dark sky went ignored and unnamed by the soldier and his princess, but the stars did not mind, just this once. They knew that the soldier would still know their names in the morning. And so the soldier eventually fell asleep, forgetting that he still had to pay the wise old man. But he was happy and content and the jar of pebbles was as full as the day he had sealed it up and locked it carefully away in his safe, a few short months ago, and every day he took it out and looked at it and smiled.
The soldier had promised his princess that once they were married he would take her to see the stars and the flowers in other lands, and so they packed their bags and said farewell to their friends and families, although the soldier had no family here in this strange country and his only true friend was his faithful squire. But he had his princess, and that was the more important than anything else to him.
Together they set off on their journey but, before they had gone very far along the road, the soldier and his princess were stopped by a stranger.
Good morning soldier,’ the stranger said. ‘The wise old man, who is also a magician and a great warrior, requests that you go to see him in his castle.’
‘But I am on my travels,’ said the soldier waving his hand at his princess, who was standing there watching and wondering, ‘and my princess and I have a long journey to make. Surely the wise old man can wait until we get back from seeing the stars in other skies and smelling the flowers in other gardens?’
The stranger looked at the soldier and shook his head. ‘The wise old man said that you owed a debt and that you must come now to repay it.’
The soldier remembered the words of the wise old man. “Once you are married I will call upon you to pay the debt,” and he knew that he could not refuse. So, sadly, he kissed his princess and asked her to forgive him and told her that he had to go and then he walked away with the stranger and left her, alone.
And behind the locked door of the soldiers safe a tightly sealed glass jar that was filled to its brim with shingle, rattled for a moment and then one of the small pebbles disappeared without a trace.
The soldier was sad as he went to meet the wise old man, but he knew that he had to pay the debt that he owed and, although he was sure that one of the pebbles would have gone from the jar, there were plenty more. Hundreds more. A lifetime of pebbles.
The wise old man smiled at the soldier. ‘Welcome brave soldier. I have a task for you.’
The soldier gave a shy and diffident smile. ‘I am not a brave soldier, just a man who must do his duty and pay his debts. What is it that you want me to do, wise old man?’
The wise old man held out a paper. ‘You must take this message to the Great Wizards in a far away land. It will be a hard journey, but you must be brave and face the leaders when they test you. They are great and powerful wizards, far more powerful than I am and they can do great and terrible things. You must answer their questions with an honest voice and tell the truth for they will see into your heart and will know if you lie.’
‘Will this repay my debt?’ asked the soldier as he took the paper in a trembling hand.
‘Once the paper has been given to my friends they will choose what payment has to be made. It is their decision, and has nothing to do with me.’ The wise old man sighed, and rubbed his sad eyes that were hidden behind dark glasses. ‘You are a brave and hard-working soldier. You will not be given a task that is impossible, although it may be ... difficult.’
‘I will do as you ask,’ said the soldier although his heart was aching when he thought of his lovely princess who he had left behind, and he folded the paper carefully and set off on the long journey to meet the friends of the wise old man.
It was a long and difficult journey. The soldier had to leave his faithful squire behind, and had many trials to overcome on his travels, but he faced them all with as much courage as he could muster. He had clothed himself once more in his suit of blue armour, with the winged emblem that was supposed to shield him from danger, but even with that to protect him the journey was arduous.
First he had to endure the terrible passage across the wide ocean, where Stewards watched over him, and then he had to face the fearsome questioning of the doorkeepers guarding the entrance to the strange world. At last he was taken to see the Great Wizards who lived in their dark and dreadful castle, with its huge turrets and pinnacles that seemed to touch the very sky. And all the time he thought of his princess and hoped that she was not crying. Not because he was worried about the pebbles that were in the sealed glass jar in his safe, but because he could not bear to think of his beautiful princess being upset.
The soldier approached the Room of Power where the wizards were waiting for him. The wise old man had taught him the secret words of magic that would let him pass unharmed through the spells of protection that had been laid around the Room of Power and he took off his helmet and spoke the words and waited, his head bowed. The huge door slid open and he walked into the presence of the wizards.
‘The wise old man has sent me to give you a message.’ he said in a soft voice as he looked at the wizards, sitting there in silence.
One of the wizards gestured with his hand and asked to see what the soldier had brought with him, and the soldier took the paper from his pocket and unfolded it. It was covered in lines and shapes and strange symbols and he gave it to the wizard and stood there waiting for them to question him about what he had learned in his studies of the dragons.
They asked him many hard questions and the soldier had to think carefully about each answer, as the wise old man had warned him to do. He knew that they were testing him and he was scared, and shy, as any sensible soldier might be in the presence of such mighty magicians. But he told the truth as he sat there, and, even though his voice faltered, he tried to be brave, but he remembered his beautiful princess who was waiting for him, and he was comforted.
The Great Wizards looked at each other and then at the soldier, and they nodded. ‘Thank you soldier. You have performed your duty well, and we are pleased with you. Now you must return home while we decide on the debt you should pay us.’
The soldier stood up and bowed, and walked out of the Room of Power in silence. He could feel the powerful spells of protection wrap round the room behind him once again, shielding the Great Wizards from any harm that might befall them from the evil forces that abounded in the sky.
He journeyed home, his heart rejoicing as he thought of his Princess, and this time he did not mind the obsequious Stewards who travelled with him on the long trail to the land where his Princess was, or the chattering peasant who allowed him to ride with him back to where she was waiting. He was home, and although the soldier knew that one pebble would have disappeared, there were many, many more, and he loved his Princess too much to break his promise ever again or make her cry even the smallest single tear.
And so the soldier came home to his Princess, and he kissed her and she wept, but this time no pebbles disappeared from the sealed glass jar, because her tears were tears of happiness.
Then, before even one day had passed, the wise old man called the soldier to come to him again and the soldier knew that the Great Wizards would have decided upon his payment. He set off, smiling as he recalled the last kiss that his Princess had bestowed on his lips, and he was still smiling when he reached the castle where the wise old man lived.
‘Welcome brave soldier,’ said the wise old man. ‘You have returned a hero, and I am well pleased with you. The Great Wizards have spoken to me and asked me to give you their judgement.’
The soldier waited, wondering what the debt would be and his fingers began twisting themselves together like the knots of worry in his stomach.
‘Soldier. The debt has been decided. You will, henceforth, work for the Great Wizards. You will remain here in this land, and you will still be a soldier, but you will do the bidding of the Wizards, as I do, and you will dedicate your life to helping the Wizards protect all their lands from the fearsome and evil dragons that threaten us. Your first task is to prepare an army to fight the enemy, but it will be a long and arduous task, and take many years before your forces will be ready.’
‘But what about my Princess?’ the soldier asked, in a voice that trembled.
‘Fear not, your Princess will still love you, as long as there is but a single pebble in the jar; however, you must never tell her that you are now a servant of the Great Wizards,’ said the wise old man. ‘It would put her in terrible danger. So, soldier, do you accept the debt? Are you willing to pay the price? If you refuse then your jar of pebbles will become as empty as if you had never filled it, and your Princess’s heart will become empty of love as well.’
‘I accept,’ said the soldier, bowing his head.’ I will do my best to help the Great Wizards protect their lands, although I do not think I will be very good.’
The wise old man laughed and shook his head. ‘Soldier. You are the bravest and truest soldier I have ever met, and you are loyal and honest and hard working. You will be a good and dutiful servant to the Wizards, and you will protect their lands from evil, although the task will be gruelling. Go home to your Princess and begin your work.’
So the soldier went home and began the task that the Great Wizards had set him.
The weeks went by, and the soldier and his Princess were happy. The Princess had their small palace to spend her days in, and she was happy. The soldier had his new work and, although he was often tired and although he wanted to tell his Princess that he was a servant of the Great Wizards, he knew that it was not possible. But he strove to do his best and came home every night to his new home, and every night he opened his safe and took out the jar of pebbles to make sure that his Princess had not been crying or that he had not broken any of his promises to her.
The weeks turned into months and the delights of exploring their palace began to fade like the petals of a peony in the hot summer sunshine. The princess still made her fairy cakes and sewed her buttonholes and made their home warm and welcoming, but the poor soldier was often weary after working all day for the Great Wizards, and sometimes he could do little more than kiss her when he came home late, or tired, or hungry. And sometimes he was too weary to even look at the jar of pebbles.
Or perhaps he was too fearful.
The months slowly turned into a year and the Princess – shall we give her a name now, instead of calling her Princess all the time? Cinderella? No. Perhaps Ariel or Belle? No? Well then - Mary. Yes, we will call her Mary. And what about her soldier? A simple and strong name, nothing modern like Luc, or Max, or Tyrone. Edward will do. Very nicely indeed. Mary and Edward. Royal names, as befits a Princess and her soldier.
Now back to our story.
Mary spent her days roaming her beautiful house. It was not a very big palace, but it was her own home and she loved it and made it welcoming with pictures and drapes and vases full of the flowers that she grew in her garden. Edward could not spend his days in the house with Mary, much as he wished to do. He was busy working for the Great Wizards, in a secret cavern hidden deep in the ground so that evil dragons would not be able to find him.
The work was hard and difficult and got harder and more difficult as the months went by and Edward often felt bitter as he thought of the debt that he had had to pay. He grew weary with the drudgery of his work, worthwhile though it was and supported though he was by his faithful squire. But when he went home to Mary he smiled because he knew that she was worth the price, and sometimes, when he was not too weary, and he was not too worried, he would take Mary out into their garden and he would show her the stars in the sky and remind her of their names.
Now that Mary had her Prince and her beautiful palace, there was one more thing that she wanted above all else. A son. And Edward wanted a son as well and they waited and hoped and Mary learned how to knit and Edward learned the secrets of the deepest oceans and studied the mysteries of the Moon that shone down on them. He was determined to do his best for the Great Wizards, and to protect all the lands from the cunning and evil dragons. But no son arrived to fill their days with laughter and gurgles and all those delicious things that a baby brings with it to fill a home.
And so the first year passed, and Mary and Edward were still, as is to be expected, very much in love. On the first anniversary of their marriage, Edward reached into his safe and, with trembling hands, picked up the jar from where he had hidden it out of sight. More pebbles were missing than he had thought, but although he was saddened that he had caused his beautiful princess to cry so often, or that he had broken his promise to her so many times, there were still hundreds in the jar and surely his work would get easier. He promised himself that he would try harder next year. And maybe they would be blessed with a son.
But the work grew harder and more onerous, and the cavern where Edward worked grew deeper and bigger and the Great Wizards demanded more and more from him while Mary sat at home and learned how to make profiteroles and how to knit socks, although she could never turn a heel properly. Sometimes, in the dark evenings when she was alone in their palace, she would look out into the garden and see the stars, and she would wonder what Edward was doing, at work so late, but although she had asked him, he would not tell her. And the pebbles slowly disappeared, one by one fading into thin air every time Edward broke his promise to be home before midnight, or forgot to send her a message when he was trapped in his cavern deep underground, working on the secrets of the dragons.
Year followed year followed year and, somehow, Edward forgot about the pebbles tucked away in the darkest corner of his safe in their sealed jar. His work became harder and the dragons became even more dangerous. His eyes grew lined with more than the passage of time, and his broad shoulders stooped under the burden, for, after all, he was only mortal blood and bones, not a great and powerful wizard.
Half a decade passed by, and no child was born to Edward and Mary, and she cried her secret tears when he broke his promises to be home in time to show her stars, or to walk with her in her gardens. The jar of pebbles grew dusty and was hidden now behind papers and books, and Edward’s hands had not touched it for longer than he could remember.
Now, in fairy stories such as this, there should be a fairy godmother who arrives to help our poor and woe-begotten princess. And so we shall have one. Not perhaps a fairy godmother as you might want, for remember, this is not a traditional fairy story and you are probably already aware that this will not end with those magical words ‘and they lived happily ever after’, but a fairy story needs either a witch, or a wicked step-mother or a fairy god-mother, and so we will have the kindest of the three.
This fairy god-mother was well-meaning and loving and had watched over the beautiful girl since Mary’s birth. Perhaps she was too well-meaning, for she meddled in Mary’s life in little ways or perchance, if the truth were to be told, she resented the simple soldier who had stolen Mary’s heart and she was jealous of their love. But perhaps also, it was the fairy god-mother’s words of wisdom that made Mary and Edward’s dearest wish come true. We will never know.
One evening, Edward left his cavern late at night and came out into the warmth of the summer night. He made his way home along quiet paths, until he came to his own house where Mary was waiting for him, smiling and laughing as she had not smiled or laughed for a long, long time. And that night, after his Princess had fallen asleep, and after he had stood in wonderment and joy and looked at the nursery which he would paint blue and where his son would sleep next Spring, Edward remembered the jar of pebbles and he opened his safe and lifted it out.
There had been hundreds of the tiny stones, maybe even thousands at first, but now there was only a goodly handful of tiny pebbles that rattled in the sealed glass jar. Edward held the jar up to the light and tried to count the stones, but they rolled about and he could not tally them, and he feared to open the jar in case he lost a single one of the precious pebbles. But there were enough left, surely. So he held Mary and fell asleep, as content as he could be, and somewhat reassured. And in the morning he took the jar with him and put it on the wide glass table in his cavern, so that he could look at it as he worked as a reminder that he must keep his promises to his beautiful Princess if he was not to lose her.
The winter months passed and Mary learned to knit small bootees and shawls and matinee jackets, all in blue, to match Edward’s eyes, she told him. But on those nights when Edward was trapped helplessly in his cavern, readying his forces for the long battle against the dragons, and unable to leave until his work was done for that night, Mary would sit at home and silently weep for her simple soldier who she thought no longer loved her.
The fairy godmother, who was a meddlesome woman and should have know better than to interfere, foolishly tried to persuade Mary that the father of her unborn child was untrue and faithless, and she asked Mary to go and live with her and not cry any more. There were still pebbles in the jar though, and Mary still loved her Edward and she refused to listen to the fairy godmother at first. She was very sad though and wept many tears and Edward watched the pebbles disappear before his eyes and he wept too, with anger and despair, for he was helpless until he had completed his task and his army was ready.
Not long after there came a day in early spring, one of those beautiful bright days when the world casts off its winter shroud for good and the naked blossom emerges, blushing with shyness, when Edward looked at the jar on his table, and saw that there were just two pebbles left. Two. Where had they all gone? He rubbed his eyes and stared at them. Perhaps, he thought to himself, perhaps he might be able to refill the jar before it was too late.
So he hurried out, and left his work behind, and went back to the house where his beautiful princess had lived with her loving mother and father, and where he had walked along the path with her in the evenings. He climbed over the fence and bent down to pick up a double handful of pebbles, and he remembered the words of the wise old man who had said, ‘Pick up as many pebbles as you can hold in your hands.’ And he recalled the pebbles that had let slip through his fingers. Edward filled his pockets, every one, with pebbles, and carried even more in his hands, but when he returned to the deep dark grotto where his jar of pebbles waited, he found that he could not open the sealed jar however hard he tried. In the end, he threw the useless pebbles away and carried on with his work.
Early the next morning he stood in his cavern and saw that his task was nearly finished. He knew that his army was now ready to fight the dragons and that the Great Wizards would be pleased with what he had done, and he went home to his Princess, carrying a gift of rare and beautiful flowers that he knew she would love. But unbeknown to Edward, while he had been working, the fairy godmother had been plotting, and had poisoned his Princess’s mind, and although there were still two pebbles left in the jar, her thoughts had turned against him, despite her love.
The Princess had gathered her belongings together and was preparing to flee from her beautiful home, with its elegant drapes and lovely ornaments, before Edward could appear and imprison her as she feared he might do. The fairy godmother’s word’s had filled her mind, and she was weary of being alone in the dark evenings while her soldier was absent and she thought that he no longer loved her or cherished her and their unborn son.
She looked around the empty turret room where she had learned to knit, and the quiet and empty nursery which Edward had painted blue, and she sighed with such utter sadness, yet she did not cry. For despite the whisperings of the fairy godmother in her ear, she still loved her simple soldier as much as she had always loved him. For what did it matter whether it was two pebbles or two hundred thousand? Love is love, however you look at it.
Edward laid his gift down as he saw Mary standing at the top of the spiral stairs, her long blonde hair falling around her face, her eyes sad as she looked at him, but she did not cry. ‘My soldier,’ she said in a voice that broke his heart, ‘I can no longer stay here, alone in this palace, waiting for you to return. The fairy godmother has told me that you are false and not to be trusted, and that the work that you do is evil.’
The soldier put his hand on her arm and held her. ‘My princess, I am an honest soldier and I love you. I cannot tell you what my work is, but it is good and honourable. Stay with me, my princess, please.’
But Mary refused, and she pulled her arm away from the soldier and said that she could not trust him, and the soldier was angry and scared and frightened that his princess would leave and never return to him. And in his fear and despair he forgot that there were only two pebbles remaining.
In traditional fairy tales the hero is always handsome, always gentle, always perfect, but, reader, this is no traditional fairy tale, and our hero, although handsome and gentle, was just a mortal man. Flesh and blood and bone can only bear so much before something breaks and so it was that our simple soldier, lined and bent with weariness from serving the Great Wizards for three score months and ten, made his princess cry once more, not from sadness, or loneliness, but from pain.
And as his beautiful Princess fell to the floor he knew that there was now only one pebble left in the jar.
You would think that the soldier would have stayed with his Princess and been there by her side when, like Sleeping Beauty, she awoke from her enchanted sleep. But he was not. His faithful squire had called him to the cavern and Edward knew that he must do the work that the Great Wizards had ordered. So he had kissed his sleeping Princess one last time, and had wiped away his tears that had fallen onto her cheek, and waved a welcome to his son and then he had gone back to the dark cavern where he was needed. He did not look at the glass jar on his desk, for he knew that it would be empty, and he asked his faithful squire to take it and put it safely away.
Edward did not return home to his palace, for it was empty now, empty of love and laughter and the gurgles of his newborn son who was with Mary and her fairy godmother. The soldier battled on, his heart aching with the loss of his Princess, until one day he opened his safe and saw, at the back, the empty jar. He pulled it out, and held it in his hands and wept. And as his tears fell on the jar, he wiped them away and saw, inside, not pebbles - that would have been too much to hope for, even in a fairy tale - but a few grains of sand that sparkled and shone. And Edward hoped that his princess still loved him just a tiny amount, and so he took the jar to a craftsman who was skilled in working with glass.
The soldier asked the craftsman if he knew of any way to fill the jar with pebbles again, and the craftsman shook his head, for he too knew the magic behind the pebbles and he too had an empty jar in his own humble abode. ‘But,’ he said kindly to the soldier, ‘glass is nothing more than sand, and I can change those grains of sand into glass and maybe keep them safe forever. Leave your jar with me, soldier and return tomorrow.’
The next day the soldier went back to the craftsman and collected his jar, but it was no longer a glass jar containing a few grains of sand. The craftsman’s skill had transformed it into a perfect sphere of crystal clear glass and the soldier took it back to his dark cavern. He placed it on his table as a reminder that, even though he had lost all the pebbles, those few grains of sand that were now trapped within the glass ball might just be enough to win back the love of his Mary.
And sometimes, even years later, when he held it in his fingers, he still hoped that he might see the sparkle from a single grain of sand.