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The Man Who Chased the Setting Sun

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I

 

A long time ago, in a kingdom far away, where pink roses bloomed in abundance and villagers still whistled while they worked, there lived a king, a queen, and their son. The king was caring and generous, and always had time for his subjects. The queen was kind and beautiful, and never had a harsh word for anyone. The two were beloved by all. Their son the prince, on the other hand, was an only child, indulged by his loving parents and was, unfortunately, quite spoiled and vain.

The prince was so vain that if he was not brushing his shiny blonde hair in front of a mirror, he was admiring his perfectly blue eyes in the delicately wrought silver spoons upon the dinner table. Mirrors hung from every palace wall, and he never wore a single outfit twice. The king and queen catered to his every whim and refused him nothing as a child, a fact they later came to regret.

When he was ten years old, the prince had asked for a horse for his birthday. This wasn't just any horse, however, but a black stallion who towered above all the other horses. The prince gave him the best stall in the stables, first pick from the oats, and required that the stable boys comb and rub down his horse before any other. But when the prince rode his prized stallion for the first time, he slapped the reins too aggressively, and the stallion bucked, throwing the young prince to the ground. He refused to ride that horse ever again.

When the prince turned fifteen, he demanded a sword, one that would make his enemies cower in fear at the sight of it. The double-edged blade was long and razor-sharp, enough to cut through even silk. The hilt glittered with emeralds and sapphires and came with a matching sheath. When the prince swung the sword for the first time, the weight was too much for him and he nearly dropped it on his foot. From then on, the sword hung on the wall, collecting dust.

The previous year, the prince had become enchanted with the animals belonging to a traveling carnival troupe. They had bears that danced, dogs that juggled, and even hawks that flew through rings of fire. The prince commanded that his own animal menagerie be built to entertain him once the troupe had gone. Great care had been taken in clearing a section of the palace's garden, and metal cages had been erected for the animals' homes. By the time everything was in place, the prince had moved on to his next interest, and the cages still sit empty to this day.

Being the vain creature that he was, the prince took great care to always stay indoors. He was determined to keep his skin pale and free of imperfection ever since he saw as a child how dirty and freckled the villagers became from working in the sun. "I am a prince and should look like a prince," he declared. "Why shouldn't I take care in my appearance?"

But the king began to grumble. His son would not be a good king if he did not go out among his people. A king should be aware of everything in his kingdom, not just the happenings of the castle. And the queen began to worry. Her son would never find a princess to marry if he paid more attention to himself than to her. A prince should be charming and courteous and complimentary to others, not just expectant of others' compliments.

But the prince did not care about their concerns and ignored their entreaties. He was handsome and rich. What did he care about being a king? He was not king yet. And why should it matter that he was not married? There would be time enough later to find a princess to wed.

One day, after spending most of the afternoon avoiding his mother and her pleadings, the prince was walking through the palace when he happened to pass one of the many ceiling-high windows. This particular window caught his attention due to the fact that its curtains had been left open. The prince despised open curtains because it meant the sun could sneak in. And because the prince was careful never to let anything mar his perfect skin, he had never truly cared for or paid attention to the sun. In fact, he took great care to avoid it. But as he strolled past the giant windows that overlooked the castle's sprawling gardens, the mirror on the wall opposite reflected a rainbow of colors whose dazzling light stopped the prince in his tracks.

Stumbling out onto a nearby balcony that overlooked the kingdom, the prince found himself watching the sunset for the first time in his life. The sky blazed with light, launching a profusion of pinks, corals, reds, oranges, peaches, yellows, indigos, and purples into the sky: like a portrait stained by water, its colors running one into the other. Entranced, the prince stood frozen as the sun's amber rays spread across the land like a warm, golden blanket, the light sparkling off a distant lake like diamonds in his mother's crown.

The sun was beautiful, plain and simple. The prince could not believe he had lived his entire life ignoring something this majestic. As he continued to watch the sun sink below the far-off mountains, the muted yellows and oranges coalescing into one last flash of gold, the prince realized that never before had he seen anything as gorgeous as the sun--save for himself, of course.

The prince, enchanted, could not help but call out to the sun. "Oh, Sun!" The prince exclaimed. "How are you so beautiful? I must have you as my own for only something as beautiful as you can belong to someone as handsome as me."

The sun, hovering just above the mountain peaks, stopped her descent and scoffed. "You cannot have me, you fickle prince. You did not care for me until you saw how beautiful I was! How can I let you have me when you do not know me?" And with that, the sun set for the night. The prince frowned but for a moment. The sun had rejected him but he was not one to take no for answer. The prince had lived his entire life wanting for nothing, and now he wanted the sun. The prince would have the sun.

Upon deciding this, the prince immediately rushed to his parents and announced his desire. "I want the sun," the prince announced. "Something that dazzling should be watched over, cared for. Something as magnificent as the sun should be protected by someone powerful, like the royal family. I must have it," he declared.

The king and queen were understandably confused. The king began to criticize. He could not take the sun away from the villagers. They need it to grow their crops. The queen began to complain. He could not catch the sun. It is there for everyone to enjoy. But the prince did not care about their concerns. "Moreover," he continued, "if I am to marry as you wish me to, I will only marry someone worthy of the sun. The girl I marry will bear the sun as her crown. Her gown will be as golden as the fields bathed in sunset. Her eyes will sparkle like the lake under the sun's gentle rays. The girl I marry will wear the sun."

Without delay, he set about preparing for his task of capturing the sun. The first thing the prince needed to do was figure out how to catch the sun. The sun was so large, so infinite, that he decided the best way to seize the sun was to outwit her. He would discover the sun's secrets and trap her before she knew what was happening. But how to find her secrets? And where? Who would know most about the sun? And then the prince thought, perhaps my bride-to-be will know the answer to catching the sun, for only one worthy of such an object should know its secrets.

The prince's heart thrummed in excitement. He had a plan! He would search for a princess who knew about the sun. He would discover the sun's secrets and capture it. He would present the sun to the princess, and they would marry immediately. After all, what princess wouldn't want to help a handsome man like him on his quest? And what princess wouldn't want to marry the prince who had captured the sun?

 

II

 

The next day, the prince set out on his journey. Though the sun played coy and hid behind clouds, the air was cool and the road soft on his feet. The way out of his castle led straight through the heart of the kingdom's large village, and everywhere he went, he saw his subjects outside. They tilled the fields, they raised their cattle, and they even hung their clothes outside to dry. The prince found it very odd indeed to see so much of their lives spent outdoors when he himself spent so much time inside.

After passing by many little cottages, observing as he did so their patched roofs and tilted chimneys--nothing like he had imagined the people of his rich kingdom living in, the prince found himself at a crossroads at the end of the farmers' fields. Many of village's men, and even some of their women, were out tending their crops and animals. One peasant girl stood closest to him by the road. She held a small tool that had a wooden handle and curved blade and was using it to chop down stalks of wheat. Curls of dark hair clung to her forehead from the heat of exertion.

The prince stood there for a moment, considering his situation. There were many princesses out there but since he was unaccustomed to the world, he was unsure of where to start. Perhaps one of the villagers knew of a princess worthy of the sun.

He approached the peasant girl who had stopped at that moment to rest. "Excuse me," he said, and explained the reason for his journey. "The girl I marry will bear the sun as her crown. Her gown will be as golden as the fields bathed in sunset. Her eyes will sparkle like the lake under the sun's gentle rays. The girl I marry will wear the sun," he said.

The peasant girl laughed. "I am truly sorry, Your Highness," she said, covering her smile, "but you cannot catch the sun. No one can catch the sun. I fear your journey will be for naught."

The prince shook his head in stubbornness. "I will catch the sun," he insisted, "and I will give it to my bride, for only someone worthy of the sun will I marry."

The peasant girl continued to smile at him, but considered his plight. "Perhaps you should take this road north then. There lives a Snow Queen in the northern mountains. It is said she can spin straw into gold, which she uses to weave into gowns and cloaks. Perhaps she knows something of the sun." The peasant girl picked up an armful of wheat stalks. "If you help me gather this wheat, I can take you to her ice castle."

It was the prince's turn to laugh. "I do not bundle wheat," he told her. "I have servants for that. I will find the Snow Queen myself."

The peasant girl shrugged. "As you say, but do not expect the sun to be kind on your journey. She does not favor those who have spurned her in the past." She bound the wheat together with a piece of twine and tossed the bundle into a nearby cart.

The prince smirked. "I do not fear the sun. Indeed, I welcome the challenge, for I will have her whether she wills it or no." With another laugh, the prince set out on the road to the north.

His travels went fine at first. Fields of wildflowers grew as far as the eye could see. Their fragrance hung heavily in the air while bees buzzed by at random, drunk off their pollen. After awhile, the flowers disappeared, giving way to towering forests of evergreen. Pine, spruce, cedar--all soared above him in a canopy of jade. Though the sun was still refusing to show herself, little pieces of light managed to slash their way through the leafy ceiling, illuminating a small dirt path.

"Oh, Sun," he yelled. "Why do you try to hide from me? You are beautiful! Let me take you home with me for I will appreciate your beauty far more than any mere villager."

"Oh, you greedy prince!" the sun replied. "You only want me for my beauty! How can I let you have me when you do not know me?"

The prince only smirked. "You are worried that I will discover your secrets." He shook his finger at the darkening sky. "I will catch you yet!"

As the prince fought his way through the dense forest, he noticed the ground growing firmer beneath his feet, the singing of the birds growing fainter in the forest's ever diminishing light. Struggling to make his way through the trees in the dark, the prince was forced to watch his feet as large roots and other debris threatened to trip him. At last, he pushed aside the branches of a fallen tree and found himself looking down on a small winter village.

Little wooden cabins huddled together under the watchful eyes of colossal snow-covered mountains. Everything was snow-covered, in fact. If not for the chimneys growing out of the cottages' roofs like determined weeds, the prince might have mistaken it for another empty vale and moved on. Indeed, there were certainly no people to be found walking around, though the prince could not blame them. He did not know it could be so cold and so dark, and his fingers and nose felt the wind most bitterly.

With no one around and the village dark, the prince had no one to ask about the Snow Queen's whereabouts. Surely this was her kingdom, small though it was, for who else would live this far north? He trudged past each cabin, hoping for some sign of life but saw none. At the end of the village, all he could see was mountain.

The prince sighed, confused. How could a kingdom exist without a king, or in this case, a Snow Queen? Perhaps he was, after all, in the wrong place. Before turning to leave, though, the prince took a moment to stare up at the craggy edifice that loomed above him, having only ever seen mountains from a distance. Snow drifts covered every peak and ridge, and icicles hung from every shelf and crag. But the more the prince stared at the largest mountain, the more it seemed to differ from the others.

Then the prince realized why he could not find the castle. The mountain was the castle! Now that he knew what to look for, he was able to see the short drawbridge carved from ice that opened out over a frozen moat. Above it, blending in with the snow, he saw turrets chiseled from the mountain itself. They were connected by a frozen wall walk where soldiers would patrol, though the castle seemed just as empty of life as the village.

The prince tred carefully across the icy drawbridge, moving slow for fear of falling, and approached the only door. It was cut from mountain stone and stood slightly ajar. The prince, concerned that he had yet to see any guard or servant, knocked loudly. When no answer came, he took it upon himself to step inside and find the Snow Queen. Just as he pushed open the door, an old stoop-shouldered man suddenly and silently appeared before him.

The prince was startled but composed himself quickly. How dare this servant sneak up on him so! The prince introduced himself and demanded that the servant lead him to his mistress. Without a word, the old man turned and retreated back down the dark hallway from which he came. The prince was more than a little angry at such a chilly reception, for the man seemed to resemble the mountain itself with his cold manner and hard expression.

But the old servant soon took second place in the prince's mind as he began to notice his surroundings. For the Snow Queen's castle did not just employ snow on the outside but the inside as well. The hallways seemed alive with cold air, though there were no windows, and the walls and floor were encased in ice. Sconces lit their way down the gloomy corridor, but the candles did not burn yellow like normal flames. Their eerie blue light flickered and pulsated, the two men's shadows entwining in some strange, macabre dance.

After some time, in which the prince was sure they had walked the entire length of the mountain, the old man stopped at a door and opened it. During their passage, the prince had not once come across another servant or courtier; the castle's emptiness and the servant's silence unnerved him, and he wondered if visiting the Snow Queen had been a good idea. He stepped through the door and stopped short, confused.

The prince had been expecting the servant to take him to the throne room, the usual place of reception for royalty. Instead, he found himself in a small room with the same icy blue walls as in the hallway. A chandelier hung from the ceiling, the eerie blue-flamed candles quivering from on high despite the lack of windows. The room itself was sparse, containing only a tall floor mirror, a chair, and a spinning wheel. In the chair, feeding straw into the wheel from a pile beside her, sat a woman he knew must be the Snow Queen.

Her hair hung in folds around her waist and was so light in color that it almost matched the snow outside. She wore a simple white dress with a diamond-studded belt, and a tiara topped with another diamond circled her head. Her foot pumped at the wheel's pedal, tapping a rhythmic beat, while her long pale fingers worked at creating golden thread. She smiled curiously when the prince entered the room but did not stand up.

The prince bowed and introduced himself, explaining his quest. "I seek the sun," he said, "for the girl I marry will bear the sun as her crown. Her gown will be as golden as the fields bathed in sunset. Her eyes will sparkle like the lake under the sun's gentle rays. The girl I marry will wear the sun,” he said.

The whirring of the spinning wheel slowed as the Snow Queen paused to speak. "I am sorry you have undertaken this futile search, good sir, but we have not lived under the sun for some time. Indeed, it has been so long that I believe she has forgotten about us. I am afraid I cannot help you."

The prince frowned. "But you possess the ability of spinning straw into gold, which they say you weave into cloaks. How can you do that if not with the aid of the sun?"

The Snow Queen laughed gently. "My mother was a witch," she informed him. "When she departed this world, she left me the castle and this curious gift. I use it how I can, spinning straw into golden thread from which I create cloaks and other warm clothes for my people. If this was a gift from the sun, then surely she does not want it known." She smiled sadly at the prince. "I am sorry I cannot help you further."

The prince bowed again and thanked the Snow Queen for her time. It was a disappointment, to be sure, but the prince knew he could not marry someone who was content to live without the sun. The Snow Queen was beautiful but not nearly enough so as to tempt him into living in her cold and dark kingdom. He would have to look elsewhere.

The old man who had led him to the Snow Queen appeared in the doorway once more, though the Snow Queen had not called him. He led the prince back to the drawbridge, and the prince was only too glad to return to his kingdom.

 

III

 

As the prince entered his kingdom, his shoulders slightly lower but his head still high, he found himself at the same crossroads as before. There were hardly any villagers in sight, however, and the wheat field was completely clear. Just ahead of him, pulling the same little handcart she had had before, stood the peasant girl. Her cart held several large brown sacks.

"Did you find the sun, Your Highness?" she called to him. "For surely we have not seen it since you left on your quest." The prince looked up and found the sky was indeed gray and cloudy.

"No, I have not," he answered, frowning. "They do not care for the sun in the north, choosing instead to live in the darkness like fools. I must seek the sun in other directions."

"Forgive me, Your Highness, but you must not, truly you cannot, catch the sun," the peasant girl pleaded with him. "No one can catch the sun. I fear your journey is for naught."

The prince narrowed his eyes. No one could tell him what to do! "I will catch the sun," he insisted, "and I will give it to my bride, for only someone worthy of the sun will I marry. She will bear the sun as her crown. Her gown will be as golden as the fields bathed in sunset. Her eyes will sparkle like the lake under the sun's gentle rays. The girl I marry will wear the sun," he told her.

The peasant girl smiled at him with a look of pity. "You might try the road south then. The kingdom there is run a by Sultana, whose prize possession is a golden ball which she never lets out of her sight. Some say the ball is a gift from the sun. Others say the ball is a teardrop, shed by the sun when confronted by the Sultana's beauty for the first time." The peasant girl shrugged. "Perhaps she knows the sun's secrets."

"And what do people here think of the golden ball?" the prince asked her, guessing already at her answer. "What do you think it is?"

"I think it is just a golden ball, Your Highness," she said, "but if you are intent on this quest, I can show you the way south if you help me bake this flour into bread." She motioned to the large bags on the cart behind her.

The prince chuckled. "I do not make bread," he told her. "I have servants for that." Upon saying so, however, he was suddenly struck by the memory of his discussion with the Snow Queen, who helped make clothes to warm her people. "But perhaps another time then," the prince added awkwardly.

The peasant girl raised an eyebrow. “As you say, but do not expect the sun to be gentle during your travels. She is not kind to those who have ignored her in the past." She picked up the handles of her cart and began to pull it down the road.

The prince smirked. “I am not afraid of the sun. In fact, I welcome the challenge, for her capture is not a matter of if but when." With another laugh, the prince set out on the road to the south.

As before, his journey began well. The fields to the south held sunflowers taller even than himself. Their long leafy stems swayed together in unison under the weight of their heavy yellow petals. But the flowers did not keep him company for long, soon giving way to empty land populated here and there by scraggly bushes and stunted trees.

Wooden poles lined the dirt road as if someone had thought to build a fence there but had long since given up. Nut sedge clustered in long thin stalks around the posts in tiny clumps, preventing any possibility of another fence or border. Sawgrass, on the other hand, spread itself in large grassy patches, spilling out into the road without any regard for posts or princes. Hot air radiated from the ground despite the sun's absence, and the prince's feet began to drag with fatigue.

But he would not give up. "Oh, Sun!" he cried to his invisible temptress. "You may think to keep me away by warming me so, but that will not stop me! I will find you!"

"Oh, selfish prince!" the sun called from her hiding place. "You did not care for me until you saw how beautiful I was! How can I let you have me when you do not know me?"

"You may try to hide from me," the prince said, "but I will catch you yet!" He grinned with determination, straightened his shoulders, and picked up his step.

The earth remained hard and dusty through his travels, and what little breeze there was blew dirt and grit into his eyes, blinding him. His skin burned in the heat, and the prince remembered with each step why he preferred to stay indoors. Though the way was rough-going, he mustered on through the arid land of the Sultana's kingdom just as he had through the Snow Queen's icy realm.

Her city lay before him, vast and sprawling in the desert haze. A maze of houses piled on houses piled on more houses covered most of the land. Ladders connected the various floors of the clay buildings while full laundry lines joined their windows. The city's occupants were everywhere, a stark contrast to the emptiness of the northern village. As he entered the city walls, the sound of loud voices--laughing, shouting, yelling--seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere all at once. Walking further through the close, clay-red streets, the prince soon discovered the source of the city's noise.

A marketplace, which made up a majority of the city center, seemed to be the residents' main source of income and entertainment. The heavy scent of spices and perfumes clung to the air and, soon after, his clothes. Cardamom, cinnamon, freesia--all tempted him, pulling him in every direction at once. Though it seemed a roiling, chaotic mess, the marketplace had a sense of order to it that surprised the prince. Food stalls with sizzling beef and roast pork ran down one row, while brightly colored silks and cloths were found on another. Merchants called from every booth, their cries mingling with the brays of their donkeys and the mewling of the many cats that ran through the streets.

But the prince had eyes for only one thing: the Sultana's palace. It sat slightly above and away from the marketplace, which pleased the prince. While there were many things to smell and touch, the crowds began to wear on his nerves. Surely the Sultana did not mingle with these loud, pushy merchants. The prince soldiered on, pushing himself through the crowd and past their loaded carts, and headed for the palace.

Blue, white, and rust-colored mosaic tiles decorated the entire facade. Minarets of every size topped the palace's many towers, with a large dome covered the center of the building. A short bridge, arched over a shallow moat, led to a large pointed doorway. Calligraphic swirls curled above the door, while several soldiers carrying large, curved blades stood in front. After introducing himself, one of them led him inside to a small courtyard where many servants rushed to and fro. A large fountain was the centerpiece of this small area. Though many men and women sat on its edge and chatted around it, no water could found inside. The soldier grabbed one of these women and ordered her to escort the prince to the Sultana.

The servant nodded. "Our Sultana is in the gardens this morning," she told him. Those were the only words she spoke to the prince, leading him silently to her kingdom's leader. The prince did not mind, however, as he was once again distracted by the sights and sounds around him. The palace itself was enormous. Stepping through another set of tall doors, he saw a very long main hall which stretched off into the distance, and the ceilings seemed twice as high as the ones in his castle.

Small metal braziers hung on from the ceiling but seemed to be more decoration than anything else. No fire burned in them that day, and indeed, it was too hot to be using them. The floors were covered in blue and white mosaic that matched the front of the palace. Flowers and all other manner of plant life could be found carved above all doorways. Large, arched windows sat open, their thick curtain tied back with string. Servants stood in every corner waving wicker fans, trying to encourage the barely discernible breeze. Other servants scurried by on various errands and the slapping of their sandals against the tiles echoed through the hall.

As the prince was led down the hall, he was struck by how different the Sultana's palace was from that of the Snow Queen. The amount of people present, for one thing, astonished him. They passed many rooms on their way through the palace, some with closed doors though many with them open, and those open showed a variety of scenes. In one, men and women alike lounged on silk pillows and blankets while musicians played stringed instruments quietly off to the side. Plates of sweets and cold drinks were passed around, and though most occupants seemed inclined to whisper, every so often a laugh would erupt from some corner. In another room, old men with long, gray beards sat at short tables and loudly argued over this debate and that. Their voices were sharp, and they sucked on long pipes whose smoke billowed forth, spilling out into the hallway.

Finally, they came to a great set of tall doors which two servants stationed on either side opened for them. The heat from the outside hit him once again, and he felt his throat dry up almost immediately. Stepping out onto the terrace, the prince found himself staring at gardens whose beauty rivaled only his gardens at home. Palm trees lined the main path leading away from the platform on which they stood. Small trimmed bushes framed the shorter paths that branched off to the right and left at various intervals. Centered within the sand-covered walkways were squares of grass which contained an assortment of greenery and decorations. In many of them were citrus trees, lemon and orange and lime, and their heavy scent was present throughout the entire garden. Every so often, the prince saw tall marble fountains, though no water sprung from their spouts.

The female servant looked back every now and then to make sure he was following. Their journey through the garden continued as she led him past the main cultivated garden to the very back of the palace grounds where a natural pond sat nested within the shade of a cypress grove. The Sultana, a dark-skinned woman with long black hair, sat reclining on a marble bench. She wore a blue silk robe and had small brown sandals, which she had kicked off to the side. A small circlet whose golden adornments curved around beads of amber rested on her brow. One male servant stood beside her, cooling her with a large fan made of palm fronds, while another waited off to the side with a platter of fruit and carafe of lemonade. The servant who had led him there stepped forward with a slight curtsy and announced her guest. The Sultana sat up slowly and smiled at him, her large brown eyes looking him up and down with interest.

The prince stepped forward, bowed, and explained his quest. "The girl I marry will bear the sun as her crown. Her gown will be as golden as the fields bathed in sunset. Her eyes will sparkle like the lake under the sun's gentle rays. The girl I marry will wear the sun," he concluded.

"Your visit honors me, my prince," she said to him. "But I do not know who told you that I hold the secrets of the sun for they are wrong. Do you not see how horrible the sun is to us here, smothering us with her oppressive heat?" She gestured all around her. "The sun has no love for us here, and I tell you we have no love for it."

The prince laughed. "Surely your prized golden ball is a gift from the sun. Does not everyone say so?" He looked around as if for confirmation, but the servants remained silent.

"You mean my little golden ball?" The Sultana knelt down and picked up the small object from underneath her bench. It fit comfortably in the palm of her hand, and she tossed it up and down several times. "My father gave this to me as a sign of love and affection for his only daughter. But it is just a toy, not a child of the sun." She laughed loudly at the joke.

The prince narrowed his eyes. This was no trifling matter. Surely the Sultana did not truly hate the sun. He had been misled by the Snow Queen; the Sultana would not play him for a fool too.

Sensing his discomfort, the Sultana placed her hand on the prince's arm in apology. "I am sorry to disappoint you if that is the reason you have journeyed here, but we do not care for your golden goddess here. She leaves us in drought and kills our crops. What choice do we have but to spend our days indoors and under shade? I would not--Oh!"

When the Sultana moved toward the prince, the golden ball, which she had placed on the bench next to her, rolled down the folds of her robe. It rolled through the grass and fell right into the little pond. "Not again!" she cried. The ball bobbed in the water for a moment before resting in the mud just under the surface.

"Do not worry, my lady." The prince stepped forward before either of the servants could. "I will rescue your golden ball." He reached into the water but before he could grab the ball, a small frog from a nearby lily pad jumped forward, landing on the golden object.

"Pah!" The Sultana cried in disgust. "Leave it be! I will not have a ball that has touched such a revolting creature. I shall simply have a new one made."

The prince waved the frog away and scooped the ball out of the water. Examining it up close, he saw that it was indeed just a small golden ball. It was slightly heavy for its size but a regular golden ball nonetheless. How could he have believed that this toy had come from the sun?

"Come," the Sultana announced to her servants. "I want to go inside. This pond bores me." She turned to the prince. "You may stay for dinner if you like. We eat after sundown when the air has cooled." Without waiting for an answer, she left for the palace, her silk robes whispering in her departure.

The prince left the golden ball by the bench but did not stay for dinner. If the secrets of the sun could not be found here, he must look elsewhere. He found a servant to lead him out and immediately returned to his own kingdom with a heavy heart.

 

IV

 

Upon arriving back in his kingdom, the prince was once again able to relax. An inviting breeze ran through the grass and over his face, cooling his sun-burnt cheeks. As beautiful as the sun was, he had not realized how powerful and hot-tempered she was. Strolling past the fields, he came to the same crossroads for a third time. The villagers were out once more, bent over the dirt as they planted new crops.

One individual, dressed in a bright red cloak, was walking towards him on the road. As they approached each other, the prince saw it was the peasant girl. She carried two large baskets that made her passage slow. When she saw the empty-handed prince, she stopped. "Did you not have any luck in the south, Your Highness?"

The prince shook his head in disgust and embarrassment. "It pains me to say it, but no. They do not care for the sun there. Indeed, they despise her, and she them!" He turned around and scanned the sky, though the sun had gone back into hiding as soon as he had touched foot in his kingdom. "I must travel again. Someone somewhere will know how to help me trap the sun."

The peasant girl set down her baskets. "Perhaps you should take this road west then. It is said that there is a princess there who lives in a tower. Perhaps she knows the sun, living so close to it as she does. Though I must warn you: many say her presence in the tower is but a rumor."

"It does not matter," he told her. "I must see it for myself if I am to find a way to capture the sun. And if this princess knows the sun's secrets, then I will give her the sun as my wedding gift, for only someone worthy of the sun will I marry. She will bear the sun as her crown. Her gown will be as golden as the fields bathed in sunset. Her eyes will sparkle like the lake under the sun's gentle rays. The girl I marry will wear the sun," he told her.

"You ask a lot of your future bride," the peasant girl said with a smile. "But if you must visit this princess, I am on my way to visit my grandmother. Her cottage lies just beyond the tower. I will take you there if you help me carry this food." She gestured to her baskets.

He, a prince, carry a basket for a peasant girl? He opened his mouth to laugh at her, but then stopped. They would be traveling in the same direction regardless, and it really was not a difficult request. He agreed and took one of the baskets from her.

Their way out of the kingdom, the peasant girl explained, would take them to a river which they would have to cross before passing through a dense wooded forest. After that, it was but a short journey through a valley to the base of the mountains that were visible in the distance. "I have heard that the tower rests in the shade of the mountains," the peasant girl told the prince.

And so they left behind the prince's kingdom, the peasant girl to visit her grandmother and the prince to finally capture the sun. They traveled past fields of corn, shoulder high and ripe for picking. A crude man of straw stood guarding the precious stalks from crows and other thieves of flight. As they journeyed down the road, the sun was forever in front of them, tempting them from just above the horizon.

"Oh, Sun!" the prince called out. "Do not taunt me so with your beautiful colors of sunset! You think you can run but I will find you!"

"Oh, persistent prince!" the sun answered back. "You still only care for my beauty alone! You will never catch me if you continue on this way."

"You are just worried that I now travel in the right direction," the prince said, "but I will catch you yet!" He grinned with a sense of assurance. By the end of his journey, he would have the sun.

At the edge of the kingdom, they found the river just as the peasant girl said they would. The river was wide enough that if one were to toss a pebble across it, it would not reach the other side. Despite its width, the river was calm that day, its light waves gently splashing against the cattails growing by the shore. The prince marveled at the sky blue color of the water. Before this quest, he had not even known there was a river here. A few fish could be spotted in the shallows, and on the opposite bank, a young deer nibbled grass.

They followed the river for a long time, keeping the horizon to their left as they looked for the bridge. The ground was soft under their feet, and birds sang in the distant trees. The sun persisted in her game of hide-and-seek, but the clouds were soft and white without a hint of rain to come. The fair weather and progress of his journey put the prince in a fine mood.

"Oh, Sun!" the prince exclaimed again. "Why do you insist on hiding so? Let me take you to my castle where your beauty will be appreciated. Do not run for I will find you!

"Oh, obstinate prince!" the sun retorted. "You still only care for my beauty alone! You will never catch me if you continue on this way."

"You are just worried that I now travel in the right direction," the prince said, "but I will catch you yet!" He smiled with confidence. Once he finished talking to the princess, he would have the sun.

After some time, the peasant girl spotted the bridge and pointed it out to the prince. He stared at it for a moment before he hesitantly placed his boot upon it. The fact that the half-rotted posts still held the lengthy bridge up was a testament to its maker but did nothing to assuage the fears the prince had of falling in.

The peasant girl laughed. "I have visited my grandmother many times and have never had trouble." She stepped lightly on the wooden planks and began her passage with ease. Several of the planks were so rotten with age that they seemed more hole than wood, but if a peasant girl could cross this bridge, then so could a prince. Holding on to the railing with his free hand, the prince kept his eyes on the opposite shore and began his crossing.

There were a few tense moments when the prince thought he might trip over a loose board, but he kept his hand steady and his eyes forward. Once he had successfully stepped off the bridge, his heart beating faster than he thought possible, he found the peasant girl waiting with a grin on her face. "Why do you smile so?" he asked her.

She shrugged. "I have never met a prince afraid of heights before."

The prince narrowed his eyes, but he found himself fighting back a smile of his own. "And have you met many princes in your time?"

The peasant girl began to walk away, but smiled over her shoulder. "None like you, I daresay."

On the other side of the bridge was a small copse of trees. Passing through it, the prince and peasant girl came face to face with an immense sight: the snow-capped mountain of the west. This mountain range was much larger than the one backing the Snow Queen's castle, and the prince could not help but stare open-mouthed at the enormity of it all.

The peasant girl laughed. "And have you never seen mountains before either?" She shook her head in disbelief.

"Until my recent travels, I have not," the prince answered truthfully.

This quieted the peasant girl, and they continued on their journey. They were but a valley away from the mountains and very close to where word of mouth had placed the tower. Though she was in unfamiliar territory, the peasant girl led the way through more trees and past a small stream. At one point, the trees thickened considerably, not only in number but also in size. Their red bark stood out in their lush green surroundings and distracted the two to the point that they almost missed their destination entirely.

The stone tower stood in the middle of a clearing surrounded by the large trees and nearly dwarfing them all. Moss covered the majority of the tower's base while vines worked their way to the very top. After circling the tower several times and doing their best to clear away the foliage, neither the prince nor the peasant girl could find a way in. With no door to offer entrance and but one window located just under the roof, the prince was at a loss. How would he gain access to the princess?

The prince walked in circles around the building a few more times while the peasant girl stood in place, studying the tower.

"Call to her," she suddenly said. The prince looked up in confusion. "Call to the princess," the peasant girl replied. "If there is indeed a princess up there, perhaps she knows a way up."

The prince looked up at the window for a moment. It was worth a try. Certainly he did not want to scare the princess by suddenly appearing in her room. He stepped back a few paces and put his hands to his mouth.

"Princess! Oh, Princess!" he shouted. He received no answer. Looking to the side, the peasant girl gave him an encouraging nod, and so he tried again.

"Princess!" he called. "Oh, Princess, please step to the window so that I might gaze upon your face!" When another moment went by with still no response, the prince was about to give up and think of another solution. That was when the peasant girl gave a cry. "There! A shadow at the sill!"

The prince saw it too. "Please, Princess, I mean you no harm. I am a prince. Please do me the honor of letting me speak with you."

A shadow emerged. Then, slowly, the princess. Though she was high up, there was no doubt about her beauty. Long blonde hair framed her face as she hesitantly looked down on the prince.

"Good evening, princess," he called up to her. "I wish to speak with you about important matters but cannot find a way up. Truly, it would be a pleasure to speak with such a fair maiden."

The princess smiled shyly. "There is but one way to enter the tower," she said. "I hope you are a strong prince, for the only way in is to climb."

The prince frowned. Did the princess perhaps own a magical rope? "I would climb a thousand mountains if I could just share a moment of your time."

"All right then," she giggled. "Stand back!" The princess's face disappeared and soon a starburst of what looked like straw exploded from the tower window. Once it hung still, they saw it was not straw but hair! Her hair was so long that its tips just brushed the top of the ground. The prince jumped back, startled, and the peasant girl was just as shocked at the sight as he was. She turned to him with a raised eyebrow as if to ask, "Do you think you can climb that?"

"I must," the prince answered simply. He squared his shoulders, grabbed a chunk of hair in each hand, and began to climb.

It was slow-going and tough for the prince to find niches in which to place his feet. The princess's hair was softer than most rope, but his hands chafed all the same. It seemed like time stood still as he placed on foot after another on the stone blocks, one hand on top of the other while holding the hair. The peasant girl occasionally called out words of encouragement or advice about where to place his feet in-between the vines. He did not look down. After awhile, though, it became hard for the prince to listen and concentrate at the same time. But, just when he feared he might lose his grip, the top of the windowsill was in sight.

He placed his hands on the edge and hauled himself into the room. It was a very unregal entrance, and the prince stood up as quickly as he could, brushing off the bits of moss and dirt that had fallen on him as he climbed.

The princess giggled as she slowly pulled her hair back into the room. "So you are indeed a prince, then?" she asked him.

The prince bowed and introduced himself and the reason for his visit. "I seek to capture the sun," he explained to her. "And if the princess I find knows the sun's secrets, then I will give her the sun as my wedding gift, for only someone worthy of the sun will I marry. She will bear the sun as her crown. Her gown will be as golden as the fields bathed in sunset. Her eyes will sparkle like the lake under the sun's gentle rays. The girl I marry will wear the sun," he finished.

The princess's pink lips formed a perfect O as she gasped out loud. "Oh, dear," she said. "Have you not come to rescue me? I thought. . ." She let go of her hair and clutched his arm, looking up at him through long eyelashes. "But you must rescue me! A wicked witch kidnapped me long ago as revenge against my father, whose hunters accidentally trampled the greens in her garden."

The prince felt a lump settle in the pit of his stomach. "So you are not here because you love living close to the sun? Surely your eyes must sparkle in the light of the setting sun as you gaze upon the world from your window."

The princess stepped back, surprised. "The sun? Goodness, no! The sun would cook me alive in this stone tower! I try to stay away from the window unless I hear the witch approaching. Only," and two perfectly shaped teardrops rolled down her face, "she has not come to visit in such a long time that I fear she is dead." She clutched at his shirt once again. "Please say you will rescue me!"

The prince took a deep breath. This princess had been his last chance at trying to capture the sun, and to hear that she did not care for it cut him deep. But he could not leave the princess alone in the tower. What if the witch never came back? What if she did? His main concern, though, lay in finding a way for both of them to escape. She could not climb down her own hair unless--the prince paused. Unless it was a rope!

"I believe I can help you, princess," he told her. "But you will have to assist me."

With the help of a small dagger he kept in his pouch, the prince cut off the princess's hair. They tied the rope of hair to her bedpost and climbed down, princess first. If the peasant girl was surprised at their new traveling companion, she did not say anything, and they let the princess lead the way in finding her kingdom. It took longer than expected, since the princess had not been home for some time, and they ventured past a forest and through another valley before they found it.

Upon returning with the princess to her castle, her father the king summoned them to the throne room. Heraldic banners comprised of all sigils and colors hung from the rafters, lining the length of the room on both sides. Candles burned on the walls and in the crystal chandeliers above them. A red carpet covered the stone floor, running from the door to the steps before the throne.

The princess ran crying into her father's arms, the king laughing and crying all at once. "Oh, my daughter," he cried, and hugged her once more. Turning to the prince and peasant girl with his arm curved protectively around his daughter, the king beamed with happiness. "I thank you for returning my only daughter to me," he said. "A witch stole her from us as an act of revenge, and cursed us in turn, preventing anyone in our kingdom from rescuing her. We could not even ask for aid but were instead forced to sit helplessly by until an outsider happened past."

The prince bowed. "I am honored to be the one who has rescued your daughter, Your Majesty, and to have saved your family further sadness."

"Please," the king beckoned him forward, "you may have anything you ask of me. It is only right that you receive a reward. Surely you are a true prince and deserve my daughter's hand in marriage." The king beamed.

The prince smiled sadly at the king and princess. "If I could but ask you for what I truly want," he said, "but I do not think you have the answers I seek. I search to capture the sun," he explained to their questioning faces, "and to catch her I must discover her secrets." The prince bowed to the royal family. "I appreciate what you have offered, but I fear I cannot marry the princess."

The king nodded his head, a sad expression on his face. "I understand," he said, "and I confess you are correct. We do not know the sun here nor do we know her secrets for our castle resides in the shadow of the mountains. " The king shook hands with the prince, and the princess kissed his cheek in farewell.

A servant escorted the prince and peasant girl from the castle. Once outside in the courtyard, the prince stopped. He could not move. The Snow Queen had not been able to help him. The Sultana would not give him guidance. And now, at the last, the princess could not assist him either. He felt lost and his boots heavy, his thoughts and body both weary and listless.

"I have failed," he said. The thought that he had not accomplished his goal both shocked and saddened him, and seemed more real when stated out loud. "I cannot do anything right. I have spent my whole caring for nothing by myself and my looks! How could I ever have expected to capture the sun?" The prince shook his head and tore at his hair in anger. "I do not--I cannot--what am I supposed to do now?" His shoulders drooped, his rage leaving him as quickly as it had come. "What can I do?" he asked again. He spread his arms out in despair but found himself standing alone.

"But wait! Where are you going?" He had turned and found that the peasant girl was not next to him anymore. He raced over to her position on the steps leading down to the road.

"My grandmother is not as far from here as I thought. Her cottage lies just down the length of this forest," she said, pointing. "I must get these baskets of food to her." The peasant girl stared at him for a moment, but when the prince merely blinked at her, she picked up both baskets and turned her back on him. The prince stood there and watched her red cloak slowly grow smaller and smaller as she walked down the line of trees.

A feeling of uselessness stole over him and thoughts of returning home ran through his mind, though he did not know how to explain his failure to his parents. But the prince did not know the way home from this kingdom as the peasant girl had been the one to show him the way. As he thought, it occurred to him that the peasant girl had helped him quite a bit in his travels. It certainly was not her fault that no one knew how to capture the sun. As she continued walking toward her grandmother's house, the sight of her carrying both of the heavy baskets shook him out of his reverie.

He hurried after the peasant girl. "Wait," he cried, nearly out of breath. "I will escort you." Catching up to her, he tried to wrestle one of the food-laden baskets out of her hands.

The peasant girl shook her head stubbornly. "You do not need to do that," she told him. "Truly, I can find the way myself."

The prince shook his head in return. "Please," he said for the first time in his life. "Perhaps I cannot do as much as I thought I could, like catch the sun, but I can keep my promise of taking you to your grandmother."

She took a minute to consider this. After a long pause, she gave him a small smile. "I thank you," she said. She handed him the basket he had grabbed, and the two of them began their walk to the grandmother's cottage together.

 

V

 

The prince and the peasant girl traveled along the forest's edge in silence. It took some time before the peasant girl was able to find her grandmother's cottage, for it was night and the moon but a mere sliver in the sky. When they did come upon the cottage, the sight of it was distressing.

"Oh, Granny," the peasant girl whispered as they looked around the little cabin. Small holes created a patchwork design on the thatched roof, and the prince could have sworn that the yellow eyes of some small animal peeked out from one of them. Several of the windows' shutters hung at odd angles. What first looked like another patch of dirt was soon revealed to be the grandmother's neglected garden. Animals had dug through the plants until only weeds remained.

The worst part, however, was the yard. Small logs and other pieces of debris were scattered here and there as if the forest itself had exploded. Long gouges scored the side of a tree stump that sat in the middle of the mess. A small axe sat unused nearby, leaning against a stone well, but the blade was too thick to have made those marks.

"My brother has not been here in a very long time." The peasant girl's face became a hardened mask as she examined the marks in the wood. "He was supposed to check in on her. Come. Let us go inside." She glanced toward the interior of the forest. It was unusually silent for that time of night. "There are bears and wolves out there, and other dangers besides."

Without looking back at the prince, the peasant girl strode to the cottage's front door and turned the handle, pausing only a moment when they saw it was unlocked.

Once inside the cottage, the peasant girl hurried to the far right corner where there sat a large bed piled high with quilts. A rocking chair occupied the space next to it, which she sat down in, though it wasn't until she began to speak that the prince realized there was a person hiding underneath those blankets.

The cottage itself was small and dark. On the end opposite the best was the fireplace with a small cast-iron pot hanging above it. The fire looked to have run out hours ago, and only a small piece of charred wood remained. A wooden table and two chairs sat next to the fire. A tiny glass vase holding two slightly wilted wildflowers sat on a piece of lace in the middle of the table. A small pile of red yarn had been left on one of the chairs, and the prince realized where the peasant girl had received her cloak.

"Granny," she was saying, "why did you not write me when my brother left? I could have come and helped you."

"Truly it is not that bad, dear," her grandmother replied. "I did not want to make a fuss."

The prince looked around for something with which he could occupy himself. Should he sit down? Or did the peasant girl wish him to leave during such a personal visit? Feeling awkward, he chose instead to step back outside, but his movement caught the grandmother's eye.

He immediately stepped forward and introduced himself as befit a prince of the realm. Upon hearing his royal background, the grandmother requested he approach her bed so that she might see him better. "I have never seen a prince up close before," she told him. "Please, would you step closer so that my poor eyes might gaze upon your face?"

The peasant girl stepped aside, and the prince took her place in the rocking chair. The grandmother wore a blue nightgown and a matching cap which framed her face though a few stray white curls had escaped. Grabbing his hands like she had her granddaughter's, the old woman stared at him through thick glasses. She smiled. "My, what flyaway hair you have," she said.

The prince took one hand and ran it through his hair, attempting to control it. "The better to prove I am a prince," he replied, "for only a prince would brave the cold northern winds to learn the secrets of the sun."

The old woman cocked her head to the side. "My, what red cheeks you have."

"The better to prove I am a prince," he said, "for only a prince would travel through the southern deserts to learn the secrets of the sun." The old woman examined his hands as she held them. "My, what rough hands you have."

"The better to prove I am a prince," he told her, "for only a prince would climb up a tower to learn the secrets of the sun."

To the prince's surprise, the old woman reached up and patted his cheek. "My," she whispered, "what sad eyes you have."

The prince yanked his hands away, startling both the old woman and the peasant girl. He strode quickly to the door. "Your fire has been out for some time," he said a little too loudly. "I will bring you more logs."

The peasant girl started forward, looking genuinely concerned. "Have you ever chopped wood before, Your Highness? It may be too hard on you. You do not have to if you do not want to."

The prince had reached the door. With his hand on the knob, he looked down at the floor. "No," he said quietly. "I have failed in my quest. I must find something I can do right."

Unfortunately, the peasant girl had been correct, for the prince found that chopping wood was indeed hard. After just a short time, his back ached and his legs were sore and his fingers were blistered. He felt a strange sort of pride in knowing that he was perhaps the only prince in the world who had ever blistered his hands.

The prince continued chopping up the old woman's supply of wood until the yard was cleared of her grandson's mess. He stacked the logs neatly against the cottage near the door. Just as he was leaning the ax against the pile of logs, the peasant girl came outside. "I did not think you would be out here for so long," she said.

The prince wiped his forehead, secretly bemoaning the state of his hands and clothes. "I did not think I would be this upset," he finally answered.

For the prince was upset. He had set out to capture the sun--he! a prince! Of course he would succeed! He had never been denied anything in his life. Why should this have gone any differently?

"The sun avoids me, and no one knows her secrets." He sat down on a nearby tree stump. "I do not know what I will do now."

The peasant girl was silent for a moment before leaning against the well next to him. "With all due respect, Your Highness, the sun is not something anyone can capture. The sun is a thing unto herself and has her own feelings and thoughts. Take, for example, the Snow Queen and her people of the north," she told him. "You say they live in the dark and do not need the sun. They do not know what it is like to live with her. Perhaps they have forgotten the sun for so long that the sun has forgotten them.

"Then there is the Sultana and her people in the south. You tell me they hate the sun and her harsh rays. They despise the sun and so the sun despises them.

"Here, in the west, they run away from the sun. They build their castle in the shade of the mountains and," she gestured to the cottage behind them, "their homes under the cover of trees. They avoid the sun and so she in turn avoids them." The peasant girl looked up at the prince. "If you must learn something from this, Your Highness, it is that you cannot capture the sun because she does not want you to."

The prince frowned, concentrating on all the peasant girl had told him. Had he known anything, he would have realized that anyone who had forgotten, despised, or avoided the sun would not have the answers he sought.

But he was a prince! It should have been an easy quest, but it was not due to his ignorance of the world and people around him. He truly did not know as much as he thought he did. But the peasant girl knew. How did she know so much about everything?

The prince jumped to his feet and pointed his finger at her angrily. "Why did you not tell me this before? You, who do know the secrets of the sun, why did you not share this and save me the trouble of my journeys?"

The peasant girl smiled and stood up slowly, brushing the dirt off her dress. "I beg your pardon, Your Highness, but I only learned that information from what you said. I did tell you that you could not catch the sun. Perhaps you needed the journey to help you understand that."

"But I--" and then the prince stopped. She had told him he could not do it, but he had not listened. Just as he had not listened to the sun herself, who had told him that he did not understand her because he only sought her for her beauty and nothing more. "I failed because I should not have tried in the first place," he finished. "I guess I do not know the sun after all, and that is why she stays away. You do not think I have run her off, do you?"

The peasant girl paused for a moment, looking off at the sky. Suddenly, she grinned. "No," she said. "No, I do not think you have run her off." She reached out her hand to him. "Come. You need to see this."

After a moment's hesitation, the prince took the peasant girl's hand and followed her a short way through the forest. It was dark, and he stumbled several times on tree roots though the peasant girl seemed to know exactly where she was going. After a few minutes, he noticed the ground begin to rise and the trees begin to thin out. Eventually they came to the top of a short hill that overlooked a small part of the forest.

It was quiet this time of night, and the trees below them covered the land like a leafy blanket under the night sky. What had the peasant girl wanted to show him all the way up here? When he put that question to her, she told him all he needed to do was wait and watch. "Maybe you were not able to capture the sun but coming to understand her goes a long way."

As she spoke, the sky in the distance began to lighten, a slow glow of red invading the black night. The red was in turn chased by a dark orange, which was soon followed by pink and yellow. The colors melted into each other, one by one, until all that was left was pure gold: the sunrise.

The peasant girl gestured as the sun rose majestically. "The sun grows our crops, dries our clothes, and warms our faces in its light. To see the sun is to know you have another day in which you can accomplish anything," she told the prince.

He watched in amazement as the sun continued its ascent. It banished the darkness with its bright rays, illuminating the world before him. Its light spread across the entire land, turning everything in its path gold, including the prince and the peasant girl.

The prince fell to his knees, so overwhelmed was he by the beauty but more so the power of the great force before him. "Oh, Sun," he whispered, "why do you show yourself to me when I have only tried to take you for my own selfish reasons?"

"Oh, prince," the sun replied gently, "I forgive your ignorance because you have come to see and learn much in your travels. You owe a great deal to your companion for helping you."

The prince glanced over at the peasant girl to find her transformed in the sunlight. From his place on the ground, the light hit her at just the right angle so as to turn her red cloak yellow from the glare. The glow of the sun's rays framed her hair as a halo or crown, and her eyes sparkled in the morning light.

The prince stood up and joined her on the edge of the hill overlooking the trees in their valley. Turning to look at him, the peasant girl frowned. "Are you all right?" she asked. "You look very strange." For indeed the prince was staring at her, but before he could answer, she spoke again. "And you wanted to take this from the rest of the world?" She spread her arms out, gesturing at the sun and everything its light touched. "You are not the only one who loves the sun."

The last of the purples and pinks were just fading in the west, and little tendrils of smoke could be seen rising from chimneys on the far-off edge of the forest.

"Yes," the prince said slowly, continuing to watch the girl who wore the sun, "it seems I still have much to learn about many things."

The two continued to watch the horizon for some time in silence.