THE DOVE PRINCE
Copyright 1979, 1999, Sarah Hartwell
I was about 14 when I when I originally wrote this fairy tale after a dream inspired by the willow pattern on a plate; it's been tidied up several since then but I've left it as a fairy tale since dreams aren't always logical!
The events in this story happened a long time ago and so far away that few people even remember it. There are so many miles and so many years between us and the fabled land of Lhorin that few have ever heard of land, let alone its tales. But, my friends, here is the story of The Dove Prince; an old fairy tale from the forgotten land of Lhorin.
The ancient Realm of Lhorin was a dazzlingly beautiful land. Glittering rivers carved the lush green hills. Innumerable flowers decorated the meadows and scented the gentle breezes which played tunes in the graceful cherry and almond trees for which the land was famed. Every spring, the land was smothered in the scented blossoms of its trees and travellers came from miles around to marvel at the spectacle.
The people of Lhorin lived amidst beauty and in harmony with the natural powers which shaped their land. Small villages of whitewashed bricks and timber were strung out on the few thoroughfares which crossed the land. Large estates of land were entrusted to the Wisefolk who guarded the beauty of Lhorin against those very few, Lhorini who were given to practising the dark magics and who were shunned by all men.
Yet, as in all places, all was not beauty and as well as the fragrant woods of cherry and almond trees, whose blossom scented the whole realm, there were brooding twisted forests and murky, stagnating swamps inhabited only by the outcast sorcerers and whatever creatures they had lured into their foetid depths. This then was the dark side of Lhorin and a side which people treated with caution though they would far rather pretend it did not exist.
Several times each year, the Lhorini made sacrifice to the gods - sacrifices of flowers and fruit to the kind gods who gave them beauty and sacrifices of blood to appease the dark gods of the swamps and twisted forests. The flower and fruit festivals were occasions of great jollity. The occasions of blood sacrifice were solemn and secret affairs in the depths of the swamps or forests; the rites known only to the high priests. The Lhorini were ashamed of the blood sacrifices, but they were a necessary evil to hold a greater evil at bay. But this is not a tale of festival or sacrifice, it is a tale of two lovers.
Enwin was one of the Wisefolk of Lhorin and to him was entrusted a huge estate, far to the west of the realm. The estate was tended by the whole village who benefited from its produce: the rushes for paper and mats, the willow for baskets and the vegetables, fruit and meat for their tables. The crowning glory of the huge estate was its lake, clear and still, where lilies floated like jewels stitched on a blue cloak and graceful stilt-legged white birds waded in the sweet waters. At its edge grew whispering rushes and trembling willow trees, and the plentiful sweet water quenched the thirst of the meadows and orchards while golden fish grew large and succulent in its limpid depths.
Aged Enwin had long since lost his wife and his only real company was his only child, a beautiful daughter named Willow. Like the willow trees at the water’s edge, she was tall and slender and her voice was like the singing of the wind in branches, but unlike the willow, which trembles in the slightest breeze, she was as strong in spirit as she was beautiful in body. Often father and daughter would stand at the water’s edge to watch the summer sun sink red across the lake, its rippling reflection stretching out towards them like a patterned red carpet to eternity. For a long time Enwin had borne a great sadness in his heart for he knew that a stranger from the lands of the sun would one day come to woo - and win - his daughter.
One summer evening as the sun began its slow descent to the worlds below, a small dark speck appeared at the very heart of the sinking orb. The speck grew larger until at last their eyes could make out the shape of a bird flying towards them at great speed. Nearer and nearer it hurtled, faster than any bird alive in the land, until its gleaming silvery white plumage dazzled them far more than the sun behind it. Amid a flurry and a flutter of soft silver wings a white dove, the bird of peace, settled at Willow’s sandaled feet, yet as soon as it had landed, the dove was gone and in its place stood a stranger with corn-gold hair and sparkling water-blue eyes full of hidden knowledge.
The old man was then both sad and pleased for although he would lose his daughter he knew she would be happy with the flaxen-haired stranger for he was known as the Dove Prince and the ancient legends spoke of his unseen kingdom behind the sun.
For many days the Dove Prince stayed in the old man’s house while Willow prepared for the journey to his own land where they would be wed. Enwin was saddened that he would not see the wedding, but he knew that the match would bring the land of Lhorin good fortune. The young pair walked in the fragrant fields or sat in the shade beneath the almond trees talking of their life ahead.
Far from their thoughts was the festering jealousy of an outcast sorcerer who coveted Willow for his own. He dwelt in a mire of his own making, a forest become a swamp by dint of his own twisted magic, where the trees grew huge and high, blotting out the bright sun and turning the little light that pierced the ever swirling mists. It was a green and gloomy place where moisture dripped constantly and fungi shed intoxicating spores. The air was still and damp, reeking of dead wood and rotting trees, and water dripped eternally from the contorted trees festooned with sour garlands of dank moss. Here lived the ancient magician in a hut green with age and lichen, his vile mind brooding over the past and full of jealousy for he too wished to change shape at will as did the Dove Prince.
Though the forest was far from their thoughts, it was on the border of Enwin's estate and the magician knew that the lovers would come close to his domain as Willow said farewell to the only world she had ever known. On a day when the couple wandered close, the magician planned to mimic Willow’s golden voice and lure the Dove Prince deep into the foul swamp where he would be lost forever, his magicks powerless against the enchantments which twisted the land to the magician's will.
One day, a little before the Dove Prince worked the spell which would transport Willow back to his own land, the magician had his chance. The Dove Prince wandered close to the border of Enwin's land and the ensorcelled forest and Willow was out of his sight.
"My Prince, my Prince, help me," the magician called in the soft trilling tones of Willow, "I saw a flower just inside the forest and a spell has trapped me!"
The Dove Prince was concerned. Willow had told him that the forest was a dangerous place and thought she had been lured into it. Without thinking, he crossed Enwin's border and passed under the twisted branches at the edge of the forest.
Deeper and deeper Willow's cries led him until he became lost in the labyrinth of paths between the giant trees. Stinking mud clung to the Prince as he followed what he believed to be the voice of his beloved who had become lost in the maze of fallen trunks and eerie creepers. Trees clutched at him with gnarled and crooked branches, their roots tripping him, their trunks veiled in skeins of qreen filth. The flitting light cast menacing shadows to trick his eyes as he blundered further into the swamp from which no man had been known to escape.
Too late he realised that he had been tricked into entering the grim forest, by then he had been led far into the murky depths lost in the spell woven by the false Willow’s voice. None of his own magicks worked and he vainly stumbled on through the thickly growing vegetation, their forms corrupted by ancient evil. The ground underfoot was boggy and treacherous and he tried desperately to keep to firm land since he was now too exhausted and too firmly enmeshed in evil spells to change form. But even in the form of a dove he could only have fluttered feebly in the green shadow world of the swamp, unable to find a clear way through the trees to the sunlit world outside and prey to the flying creatures which loved among the trees.
The twisted forest resembled an undersea world - green and murky. It was then, when his prey was tired and demoralised that the sorcerer chose to reveal himself. The Prince stood knee deep in thick mud, his head lowered in exhaustion. His face was streaked with green from the tattered veils of green moss he had thrust aside and in the heavy, moist air, his breath came in thick heavy gasps. As he stood helpless and trapped in filth, the sorcerer stole his own magic from him and turned the Dove Prince into a forest pig.
"Dirty you are and so shall you remain" said the magician as he took a length of heavy iron chain and chained the unfortunate creature to a dead tree stump near to his small hut.
His spirit broken and his magic stolen, the Dove Prince was powerless to break the spell and felt doomed to live out his life imprisoned in the body of a pig in the misty murky world in which he had become lost.
"But you shall have your love - if she will still have you," the sorcerer laughed, believing that Willow would forsake her love.
The magician found Willow gathering sweet flowers from beside the river which flowed out from the swamp while she waited for her prince to return from his wandering.
"Willow, Willow my beloved, tell me what is this herb I have found?" called the magician in the voice of the Dove Prince.
Willow dropped the flowers she had gathered and stood at the fringe of the forest, still on her father's land.
"Where are you?" the maiden asked in worriment, trying to peer into the dim green depths of the forest.
"I'm here, just beyond this tree."
"Come out of there! The forest is a dangerous place full of wild beasts and eveil spells," Willow called, afraid to go further.
"It's all right, this part is safe - it's not too far in. But I don't want to pluck this herb - I've not seen it's like anywhere on your father's land," the magician called.
"Come out, come out - even if that part of the wood is safe, the herb might be poisonous," Willow cried in agitation.
But the pleading voice broke down her resolve and using his imitation of the Dove Prince’s voice, the magician lured Willow deeper and deeper into the swamp where she too became entangled in the crooked clutching branches of the swamp-living trees. Spellbound by the voice of her lover she all-to-soon found herself deep within the swamp and unable to find her way out. There the sorcerer revealed his hate-filled self and led her to the tethered swine which had once been the gentle Dove Prince.
Willow did not despair at the sight and would not denounce her love for the Dove Prince so the jealously enraged sorcerer changed himself into marsh mist intending to leave her there until she finally agreed to be his. Despite his great powers, his mastery over the mist-magic was incomplete and the real mists absorbed him into the greenness which bathed the swamp and made it look like some underwater forest. But such is the natural law of Lhorin that evil spirits find no rest and the sorcerer was doomed to spend the rest of eternity as shifting mist, unable to escape the dim swamp and unable to resume his own shape.
Willow was left heartbroken with the Dove Prince, finding him succulent fungi to eat since his chain allowed him little freedom, singing and often silently weeping with secret despair for the swamp was not a pleasant place after the open meadows she had known all her life. The ground was not solid beneath her feet and the light was suffused with green as it shone through the hanging veils. The mud and the dead trees choked her with the stench of decay and the ever-moving mists cast strange and frightening shapes as they drifted and danced between the trees. Strange unseen creatures called eerily through the perpetual dampness and huge pallid flowers hung like empty skulls from the trailing vines, filling the air with a sickly sweet smell which lured insects to their death inside the sticky blooms.
The transformation of the wizard into mist had freed the magic although the Dove Prince knew it not, until one day when Willow, his Willow, kissed his swine’s head and he longed to hold her in his human arms again. True love is a magic of itself and he was restored to his own form, regaining his powers of transformation. As a man his clothes were still torn and dirty from blundering through the forest, but as a dove his plumage shone white and iridescent silver even in the green twilight of the swamp.
In the swamp, from which no man had ever returned, was a spring of clear sweet water, bubbling freely to the surface now the sorcerer was no longer there to pervert its pure nature. With nothing else to guide their steps, Willow and the Dove Prince followed it as it trickled through the swamp towards the daylight, a silver ribbon in the green gloom. On the outskirts of the swamp the unnatural gnarled and crooked trees at last gave way to trees which grew in many forests, their trunks rising proud and straight towards the sunlight. Here the stream widened out to become a shallow rush-lined river before it plunged out of the shadows and into full daylight.
Nestling among the reeds was a fabulous feather, shining red, orange and yellow glittering and changing hue, with a sheen of blues and greens where sunlight touched it. The sun itself would have been proud to display the splendour of this object which shone with some inner light like a flame in the shadows.
Willow gasped at the beauty of the thing "What bird outshines the sun with feathers like that?" she asked, "Surely only the phoenix dare flaunt such splendour!
Besotted with the maiden and wanting to satisfy her every desire, the Dove Prince immediately changed into a dove to retrieve the shining feather which lay among the reeds. The feather would adorn Willow's hair at their wedding. The dove alighted on a stout looking reed to pluck it from the crystal clear water. But the small weight of the dove as it reached out towards the feather was enough to snap the reed and the dove tumbled into the water. The laughing water swirled the small bird which panicked as it tried to stay afloat. Fighting the current, the Dove Prince was unable to summon enough energy to quickly change form. Both he and the coveted feather were washed out of sight by the strong current.
Distraught, Willow ran along the bank but the small form was soon lost to her view in the ripples and eddies of the river. Maddened with grief, Willow refused to give up hope and followed the river out of the swamp on its far side; many miles now from home. She traveled for many days alongside the sparkling waters which had robbed her of her love, eating nothing and drinking little while she searched, hoping to find the Dove Prince alive. Perhaps, perhaps he had climbed out of the water further downstream where it flowed more slowly, or been washed to the riverbank. The longer she searched the more she loved the young man with the strange powers and the more she refused to give up hope, her love sustaining her as food could not.
This my friends is where the story becomes a little confused for the days of Lhorin have long since passed and time and distance tend to confuse such details. It is said by some that the Dove Prince did indeed climb out of the icy swirl and that he searched upstream for Willow. Others say that it was his spirit that met her because it was unable to rest until, as was the custom of those faraway lands, the person had done a good deed. I leave you, my friends, to decide which is more likely according to your own customs.
It was weeks later when they met again, now far from the swamp and even further from the lake where the Dove Prince had found Willow. Both were much changed by their journeys. Willow had been given food by the villagers she met as she wandered the riverbank, tearing at her hair and clothes. As for the Dove Prince, who can say what had happened to him between the time of their last parting and the time they met again at a bend in the river. Willow simply came upon him one day, sitting among weeping willow trees, believing that she was dead of hunger or madness or was once more lost among the trees.
They were overjoyed at their reunion. They decided at once to send word to Willow’s father that she was not dead as he surely believed. They hastened to a nearby farm for inks and a parchment. The farmer told them that being unable to read or write he did not keep such things. There was, he told them, a school in the nearby village where they would find scribes and messengers and all that they would need to send news to the old man.
The kindly farmer gave them a hearty meal and fresh clothes which had belonged to his own daughter and son. They ate and bathed and thanked the farmer for his generosity.
"It is nothing, generosity is its own reward," the farmer told them as he pressed a parcel of food into Willows hands.
Willow knew that the kind gods of Lhorin would reward the farmer for his kindly deed towards strangers, perhaps with an extraordinary good harvest or he would find something of value when next he ploughed his fields. She and her betrothed left the farm and headed toward the village, which was in truth no more than a few houses and a school where students went to live and learn. As they approached the village they saw a pall of smoke and a breathless messenger met them.
"The school is on fire! The school is on fire!" he shouted, "and no-one dare go inside though there are masters trapped!"
The messenger ran on with his burden of news, hoping to call out farmers and craftsmen to help save the school and the trapped schoolmasters.
Knowing that he might be the only person able to help the trapped teachers, the Dove Prince raced towards the smoke with Willow following in his wake. The school was a tall whitewashed building, built like a tower, with an observatory at the top. It was in the room below the observatory that the masters of astronomy were trapped. The Dove Prince paused only to order Willow to wait in safety in the village square. Finding himself unable to fly in through a window because of the heat which would incinerate his dove-form, the Dove Prince unflinchingly plunged through the door and into the blazing building. The girl obeyed although she feared to lose him once again, but respecting his concern for her safety she watched the drama from the square as her one love vanished from sight.
Flames licked up the white walls of the building, both inside and out as the fair-haired prince ran up the spiralling steps inside the school to the upper levels. He plunged through the swirling grey smoke and the oppressive heat of the flames which painted the white building orange and yellow and licked upwards after him, their forked tongues cackling and crackling as they leapt up the stair like demons, dancing about his feet as he ran while embers from above rained down on him. The main body of the fire advanced slowly, malevolently like a threatening army sending its fiery scouts on ahead of it.
In the room at the top the Dove Prince found one of the teachers slumped on the floor, overcome by the smoke and fumes. Carrying the teacher across his shoulders, he walked through the walls of living fire, down the stairs and out into the fresh air and safety. Pausing only to put the man down on the ground and not even noticing the villagers’ tumultuous applause, he rushed back inside to see if there were others in the blazing building. As he climbed the flaming, burning stairs for the second time, the upper part of the building began to collapse with an cacophony of sound as the scorching hot splintering timbers and crashing masonry fell around him. Shielding his face with his arms he plunged undaunted through the ever thickening smoke, dodging the falling debris and choking on the fumes as he climbed the rickety fire-eaten stairs.
Seeing the upper part of the school collapse was too much for Willow to bear, having seen him come out of the building once to great applause and then return into the heart of the inferno she knew that there was now no hope of him escaping alive even if he tried to use his dove-form and, ignoring the villagers who tried to restrain her, she rushed towards the building. Knowing that the valiant stranger was doomed the villagers began wailing and crying out, impotent to help.
Willow ignored the cries which rang in her ears as she ran through the blazing doorway. Above her the tower began to fall but now her only thought was for the Dove Prince. The heat scorched her face and flames spat through the door like the breath of a monster, trying to keep her at bay. Before she even reached the first stair the blackened and burning timbers and bricks fell like rain, burying her hopes and her with them.
As the dust and ashes settled and the smoke cleared from above the debris, the horrorstruck villagers saw two gleaming white doves flying side by side upwards into the twilight, higher and higher until they were no bigger than specks of dust and twinkled like stars in the gloom. As they flew shining, the villagers below could hear what sounded like a sigh of contentment in the evening breeze and they knew that no power in the known world could separate Willow and the Dove Prince now.
And that my friends is the tale of the Dove Prince. Think of it what you will for it happened far away and long, long ago in a forgotten land and very few remember the Tale of The Dove Prince.