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The Silver Ship, or, The Wolf's Quest

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Once upon a time, when the Earth was still solid beneath our feet and the stars were distant and strange, there was a king whose lands were rich and lush, and whose citadel comprised many gardens. One summer a great drought came, and the fields and the forests suffered, but there were still the king's gardens, which were beautiful and fed many people.

But the drought would not stop, and the people said a wicked wizard had cast a curse upon the land. The king's knights looked wherever they could think to look, but could not find an answer. The land grew parched, and the air itself grew dry, and the king grew weary. His three daughters could not cheer him, and he looked at the gardens with despair, for he knew they were doomed as well.

In the third year of the drought, one morning a great silver ship was visible far out from the shore, glinting in the light of dawn. All the King's subjects flocked to the waters to stare at it in the distance. But it came no closer, and they didn't dare approach.

Then a wolf came from the forests, big and ferocious, with his fur singed and one ear missing, and he walked straight into the king's citadel, and pounced upon the king's chickens in the garden, and tore one of them to pieces and ate it. For in the forests they didn't grow their own food, but caught and killed what they could find. The king's guards had to hold him away with their spears.

The wolf said, "I am hungry. Your gardens will not last much longer, O king."

The king, who was not afraid of very many things, replied, "The land is cursed, but many of my knights are searching for a cure."

The wolf said, "I had heard it said that the sun might know the answer, for he sees everything upon the earth, so I sought him out. I have spoken to the sun. He who sees everything has burnt me. But he has given me an answer, and sent me to his sister, who has power to break any curse. That is what the silver ship is for."

The king puzzled over this for a moment, then asked: "Why are you not on the ship then, O wolf?"

The wolf lolled his tongue, and lifted a great clawed paw. "I am a wolf, O king. I have no hands to row a boat, or to rig a sail. Will you not send sailors to go with me?"

And then he sat and licked his muzzle, which was still bloody from the chicken he had eaten.

The king looked at the blood, and at the great jaws and claws. He thought to himself, "He is a wolf and comes from the forests, where they don't grow their own food. He's as likely to eat the sailors as our chickens. I can't trust his words." And he sent the wolf away.

But he told his daughters of the strange conversation, and the eldest said to him: "Father, it may be that the wolf has spoken at least part of a truth. Let me go and look at the silver ship."

The king agreed, for truly, what harm could it do?

The king's eldest daughter went down from the citadel to the shore and looked out over the vast grey waters stretching into the distance, to where the silver ship lay. She found a fisherman with a boat and climbed inside, her sword and her shield by her side. The fisherman rowed her out toward the silver ship.

After a while, the princess said, "Should we not have arrived yet? The ship is not so far out."

The fisherman looked at the shore, and at the ship, and judged the distance again. "We should have arrived two times over," he said, and laid his oars down for a minute to rest his muscles.

"Go on," the princess said, and clenched her hand around her sword.

And he did, but they could not reach the ship; they never came any closer. Finally they had to give up and returned to the shore.

The princess stood for a long time at the beach, looking out at the ship in the distance, and finally said: "It is as well. The salt water would rot my leathers and rust my sword, and what good could I be on a quest without them? I will do as my father's other knights do, and search for an answer elsewhere. Surely I will find my enemy somewhere, and there must be someone other than the sun who has seen."

She told the fisherman to give her father that message and strode on, sword in hand, setting out on her search. And if she has not found anything, she may still be searching to this day.

 


 

The king's remaining two daughters tended the dying gardens, and waited for the knights to return, but they did not. And every night when the sun set, the wolf would come down to the shore, tear down a chicken and eat it, and then howl at the ship in the distance.

After a few days, the king's second daughter said, "Father, it may be that a boat can reach the ship if the wolf is aboard. I'm not adept with a sword as my sister, but I know many kinds of magic, and I can bind him. Let me go and look."

And again, the king agreed, for truly, what harm could it do?

The second princess went down to the shore in the evening, and when the wolf appeared, she cast a spell on him. The old fisherman helped her carry the wolf into the boat as he lay sleeping, and rowed them out towards the ship.

"How can the ship be between us and the shore?" the princess asked eventually. "We were rowing straight toward it."

The fisherman agreed, but could not understand it either. The truth was, they were going in circles, and could not approach the ship at all. All the princess's magic would not help her find a way.

Finally they, too, had to return to the shore.

The princess looked out at the wide, wide sea, and then at the still-sleeping wolf who was to have been her unwilling companion, and then she went to her father and said, "Perhaps it is as well. The wolf has large teeth, and he comes from the forests, where they don't grow their own food. I can't watch over him all the hours of all the days, and eventually he would eat me, just like he ate the chickens. Let me go like your knights and search for an answer elsewhere. There must be other places to find help."

The king, tired and sad - for that day, again, they had not had enough water for all the gardens - nodded at her, so she set out on her quest.

And if she has found nothing, she may still be searching to this day.

 


 

So the days went on. And the silver ship was always gleaming in the distance, and the days grew drier, and the gardens began finally to wilt, just like the fields and the forests. And every night, the wolf ate a chicken and howled at the ship in the distance.

The king's youngest daughter thought for a long time. Then she took a large basket and filled it with food from the kitchens, which were not yet quite empty, and went down to the shore. When the wolf appeared, she held out the basket and said, "If I share my meal with you, will you leave the chickens?"

The wolf eyed her. His fur was singed, and he looked ferocious. But he nodded and sat, and let her feed him from her basket, and did not slay a chicken that night.

She went to him again the following day, and brought him food again. They looked out at the silver ship in the distance, and she could see the longing in his gaze.

On the third day, she went down without a basket.

"I am hungry," said the wolf. "You have brought no food, and you have sent away the chickens. What then shall I eat?" And he eyed her hungrily.

"The world is hungry," said the princess. "And maybe the ship out there can save us. Will you go with me out to look at it, and promise not to eat me? I will bring food again tomorrow."

The wolf promised, and without telling her father, the princess took the wolf into a boat and rowed towards the silver ship herself.

When they reached it, the wolf jumped aboard, and she climbed after him, and they found it ready to sail. A great map was showing the course they would have to take across the seas and the skies, to reach the sun's far sister. But the ship would need a crew. The princess could not sail it on her own.

The wolf eyed her. "King's daughter, will you help me? Will you quest with me?"

She thought of the long drought and the wilting gardens, of the growing hunger and her father's despair. "Will you promise not to eat us when there are no more rations and no more chickens?"

The wolf growled, but he agreed, and lifted his paw. When the princess shook it, the ship began to sail on its own into the harbour.

The princess said to her father, "Give us sailors. The sea is very wide, and the air will rot our leathers, and I do not know what we shall wear when we arrive, but we will clothe ourselves in moonlight if we must. And the wolf comes from the forest, but it is his quest as much as ours, so he will be steadfast by our side. And he has large teeth, but if the salt air should rust our swords, they shall stand us in good stead."

But the king could not bring himself to trust the wolf, and so he hesitated.

"I can't sail the ship on my own," the princess said. "But I will try it if I must, even if we may all drown. But better that than sit here and wait while the curse kills our lands. The very air is dry to the bone, and the gardens will soon come to an end. What then shall we live on? Shall we become like the wild ones in the forest, and slay whatever we may find?"

From that the king recoiled, and with a heavy heart he finally agreed. The princess hugged her father, and said good-bye. And the king cried for a long time. But he knew that daughters must travel and seek adventure, for that was how he had met his queen, long ago. (But that is another story, which shall be told on another day.)

And the wolf and the princess and the sailors went aboard the silver ship, and sailed out into the vast grey ocean. The sun watched over them as they sailed, and the wind blew to their aid, and they travelled far and long.

Finally the rations ran out, and all they had to live on was fish and weed from the ocean. When one of the sailors fell from the mast and broke his neck, the wolf ate him. The princess looked at him with sadness, but could not bring herself to deny him.

The next day, the wolf came to the princess. "I am hungry," he said to her. "May I not eat another one of the sailors?"

"No," said the princess, and gave him part of her share of the meagre food.

The next day, the wolf came to her again. "I am hungry. And one more of the sailors we can spare."

"No," said the princess, and gave him part of her share again.

On the third day, the wolf asked again. And the princess was hungry too, and she knew they would not last. They must finish their quest and reach the sister; almost anything was worth it if it guaranteed that. But still she could not let him eat the sailors.

"You can eat me," she finally said. "If you will give your word that you will never touch the sailors."

And the wolf, who had come to like her, looked at her sadly, and said, "I don't want to eat you, princess. But none of us have enough food, and if we do not eat none of us will arrive. I would much rather eat the sailors, but I will accept your will. "

And he ate her, swallowing her whole.

But she lay heavy in his stomach, and the meal did not satisfy him. He paced the cabin up and down and up, and finally he opened his great big jaws and clenched his stomach, and out she came tumbling, still alive and none the worse for wear. And he licked her clean and said, "The journey is long, and one meal will change nothing. If we cannot survive together, we cannot survive at all."

And from that day on, the wolf never asked to eat anyone again.

When they reached the sun's sister's home far away in the sky, their leathers had rotted, and their swords had rusted, and even the silver ship was close to falling apart. They were all half-naked and hungry. Only the wolf looked sleek and elegant, for his fur had grown back, silky soft and silver, and the princess often took refuge in its softness. Only his missing ear remained to tell of his first burning, but now they must step before the sun's sister, who was no less radiant.

"Sun Sister," said the princess, her skin nearly blistering in the heat, "we have come a long way. There is a dreadful curse on our home, and if nothing is done no one can live there any more."

"Your brother our sun told me of your wisdom and your skill," said the wolf, his fur beginning to steam, "and we beg you to break the curse, so our people at home may live."

The sister, who was powerful indeed, drew signs in the skies, and lit it brightly with her magic, and promised them the curse was broken.

They could not return to see it, for their ship was falling apart, but they had accomplished their task.

They retreated from the sister, just far enough to be warm, and found a small barren island, where they made a new home. And they clothed themselves in moonlight and built new gardens, and after a while they stopped being hungry. They captured a comet, and the wolf guarded them with his teeth until they had forged new swords from it. And so they made their home with the Sun Sister.

The wolf and the princess were inseparable, and when they had enough food to dare, they swore vows to each other and had children, and the little island grew full of life.

And although they remembered their loved ones far away for all their days, they never felt lonely. None of the princess' and the wolf's children heard more than tales of their parents' old home, but if back there they have not died, they must still live there after all, and will one day greet their children's children when they set out on a journey of their own across the sea and the sky and the emptiness between the stars.