Flash Fiction Month 2015, Day 1
Once upon a time, there lived a king in a marble tower. Around the tower there lay a city, and around the city there lay a wilderness, which the king tended as though it were a garden. No beasts stalked its hills, and no brigands lurked beside its roads, though the king’s domain stretched on for many miles and the members of his watch were few.
One evening, a sorcerer passing through these wild lands stopped to seek shelter in the tower. In exchange for a meal and a night’s rest, the sorcerer offered the king an enchanted rose: one that would never wither, and would never lose its scent.
But the king had many roses. Beyond the walls of his city, they sprang from the ground like wheat, and his tower was never without them. It was customary for his subjects to leave roses as gifts, the king explained, but surely a powerful sorcerer—a noble visitor from a foreign land—could afford to leave a more substantial offering?
A dark look passed over the face of the sorcerer, but still he conceded that the king’s words were true. “Bring me milk and honey, and a single pearl,” said the sorcerer, “and I shall conjure a gift like none that you have seen.”
The king bade his footman to bring these things, and the sorcerer accepted them. Into the cup of milk and honey, he placed the rose, and into its petals he placed the pearl. By magic, the cut flower began to grow, and in mere moments it had swelled to a monstrous size. Something stirred within the folded petals, and out stepped the pearl, now transformed into a graceful white bird with a long neck. As it shook the dew from its back, the king saw how each of its feathers was traced with gold, as though inlaid by the hand of a master craftsman.
“Is this gift suitable?” asked the sorcerer.
The king agreed readily that it was, and showed the sorcerer to a hearty meal and a fine bed.
At dawn the next morning, when the sorcerer was no more than a vanishing speck on the horizon, the head servant approached the king in a state of great agitation. The gilded swan had laid a golden egg!
Even having seen the creature’s miraculous creation with his own eyes, the king could hardly believe that this was true: yet true it was. In the swan’s chamber there lay a golden egg of great size and weight. And every day at dawn from then on, the servant found another egg, and another, so that soon the king’s coffers were full to bursting, and the treasury overflowed.
For many moons this continued, and to the nobles in the tower and the people in the city, it became quite commonplace. But one day, once again, the head servant came to the king almost in a frenzy. The gilded swan had grown a second head!
This the king thought exceedingly strange, and could scarcely believe it: yet this too was true. The swan now had two heads, each upon a slender neck of white and gold. When the sun was highest in the sky, the right head would spit out a ruby, and when the sun sank below the horizon, the left would spit a sapphire. More miraculous still, the stones fell from the swan’s mouths cut and polished, and with such skill that no jeweller could match.
As with the golden eggs, which grew so numerous as to be used in place of cobblestones, the gems became no more than a curiosity. Before long the king’s crown, throne, sceptre and even slippers glittered with gleams of blue and red. But then once more the head servant called out for the king. This time his face was pale, and he had no words to describe what the gilded swan had become.
Trusting well his faithful servant, the king struck the rust from his sword and approached the swan’s chamber. But he never saw the swan. Hearing the hissing of its voice, and the rattling of stones in its fearsome crop, he could draw no closer. Seeing the shadow it cast on the wall, he could not face it. The king ordered the swan’s chamber sealed, and the tower besides, while he rode out to consult the sorcerer.
In his many moons hard travel through the wilderness, the king cast away his heavy sceptre, and exchanged his crown for bread. When he finally came to climb the jet tower of the sorcerer, it was as a beggar.
“It is customary for visitors to bring a rose,” sneered the sorcerer. But his country was a wasteland and its soil was barren.
“You must help me,” pleaded the king. “Your gift is a plague. You must take back your swan.”
The sorcerer smiled, and it was worse than a frown. “I promised you a gift like none you had seen. Whoever said it would be a swan?”
And so the king left in despair, returning to his city to find it empty. Eyes of blue and red stared down from every window, and golden eggshells crunched beneath his feet.
The king’s wilderness is a garden still, for atop the tower the eyes of the swan can see for many miles, and on the hills and by the roads its servants are without number.