The King and the Spirit
In a time long, long ago, there lived a beautiful king who reigned over millions of subjects with grace, glamour, and great confidence in his own practicality. His subjects lived everywhere, in most kingdoms; he himself lived between kingdoms, on the borders where air and water and land met.
He was King of the Fireflies, and his reputation for knowledge and cleverness was rivaled only by the reports of his incandescent beauty. He had legions of bedmates and armies of lovers, but he grew tired of them all in short order, no matter their wit or provenance.
One day, the beautiful king tossed his flame-bright hair over his shoulder and set out to find someone worthy of his undivided attention. He walked near and far, over hills and fields, under bridges and bowers, through tall grass and thick fog, and he saw no soul within his kingdom or without that met his exacting criteria. Not pretty enough, he'd think to himself. Looks like a dullard. Moves too slowly. Moves too quickly. Doesn't laugh. Laughs too much. Has a false smile. Isn't clever enough.
Finally, he stopped and sat by a well on a hill to recover. A well, being as liminal as his kingdom, was a comfortable place for him to linger. He decided he would drink from it when less wearied by his fruitless search.
"Traveller," came a sweet voice, "are you here to pay respect, to make a wish, or to drink of the healing waters?"
A beautiful maiden with a dark translucent body sat on the edge of the well, one leg in and one leg out. She wore not a thread of clothing and her hair was cut short; it curled delicately up under her ears toward her elfin face. The trees around them moved in the breeze, shuffling the sunshine about in a chaotic dance of shadows and light. A bright ray pierced through her and lit up the stones of the well beneath her. Suddenly her appearance made sense: she looked like the water at the bottom of a well if one were to shine a lantern into its depths.
The corner of the spirit's mouth quirked up when the King of the Fireflies only stared at her, struck dumb by her grace and loveliness. "Are you here to visit the holy well and pay respect? Or to ask a boon of the holy well? Or are you or your kin injured or sick, and require a draught of the healing waters within?" She leaned forward, and her blue eyes sought the shape of the king's soul. "Or are you only thirsty, and here by chance?"
The King of the Fireflies did not think before he spoke. He'd relied on charm, beauty, and strangeness for so long that truth was never a concern of his: tell it, don't tell it, it'll all be the same in the end. "You are both beautiful and inhuman, you laugh but not too much, your face is clever, your motions quick, and your amusement real but not unkind. You fit my criteria for a perfect bride, worthy of my undivided attention, so you ought to marry me. And I am very thirsty."
All of a sudden, the beautiful king was drenched, head to toe. The spirit of the well gripped its edge and leaned toward him, smiling, and this time the smile was not kind. "Then fortunately, you will be able to suck on your hair and clothing to quench that thirst. You do not impress me, little king. You had not even the respect to answer my questions or admit you had no knowledge that this well was holy. Get away with you."
She lost her shape all at once, splashing down into the well like water from a bucket, and the king sprang to his feet and started forward, furiously indignant--
--but she had taken the bucket with her. He knew the rules. Anything he threw in there would belong to her thereafter, even words, and could be used against him. So he took his fury and swept away back to his usual haunts. As angry as he was, it was the first honest reaction anyone had prompted in him in his life, and he became determined to win her approval and her hand.
He walked back through thick fog and tall grass, under bowers and bridges, over fields and hills, and finally came from far into near. As dusk fell, his subjects gathered around him, trailing him through the dying light and shining their lanterns before and behind him. They were always silent, but this night, their silence held a different quality, breathless and waiting. He'd returned alone. Had he failed?
"I have not failed," he told them once he was no longer damp, and therefore in better spirits. "I have only been set back. I have found the perfect bride, in form and ability and wit and grace, and I need only to find that which impresses her, as my person is not enough. This is a reasonable thing: someone worthy of my attention should not be immediately won by my reputation or my beauty, and she knew of my kingship, and she saw me with her own eyes. Of all the people in all the countries, she alone is worth my time, so I shall embark on a quest to gain her approval and win her hand! This cannot go poorly."
The fireflies signaled myriad responses to this statement, and because there were so many, the king could not properly interpret their collective wisdom. He fell asleep unworried, assured that his plan held not even the smallest of flaws.
The Giant of the Earth
When the sun rose above the green hills and misty valleys, burning the morning dew off every verdant leaf one by one, the beautiful King of the Fireflies rose with it and busied himself with preparations for his trip. He packed his golden combs and his mirror, his kohl and his golden jewelry and perfumes, his gem-encrusted sword and his sparkling armor; he slung across his chest one flagon of water and one of beer; into his pack he piled dried meats and sweetmeats, apples and cheese and the softest bread and the richest butter.
As the day reached midmorning, the beautiful king finally decided he was ready, and set off to fulfill his self-imposed quest. He walked near and far, over hills and fields, under bridges and bowers, through tall grass and thick fog, and he spoke with no soul but those within his kingdom until he came upon a marvelously handsome giant, sitting in an enormous stone chair on the mountainside.
"Ho, Giant!" the tiny king cried in his loudest voice, "I have come to slay you and bring your head-- or perhaps an ear, or the smallest joint of your little finger-- to the Holy Well as proof I am interesting and accomplished to the spirit that dwells there, as she is impressed by neither beauty nor wit!"
The giant bent his massive raven-haired head, frowning and squinting, and leaned forward to cup his hand around his ear and hear the tiny king better. As he moved, he dislodged trees and rocks, birds and beasts, and a small landslide of earth and pebbles from his shoulders and arms. "WHAT'S THAT YOU SAY, SMALL KING? I COULD NOT HEAR YOU," he boomed, and the earth shook with the sound of his voice.
"HO, GIANT!" the now-exasperated King of the Fireflies repeated, "I HAVE COME TO SLAY YOU AND BRING THE SMALLEST JOINT OF YOUR LITTLE FINGER TO THE HOLY WELL TO IMPRESS ITS SAINTED SPIRIT, WHO IS IMPRESSED BY NEITHER BEAUTY NOR WIT!"
The giant began to shake with thunderous laughter, which echoed from distant peaks and welled in distant valleys, made soft places hard and hard places soft, and revived the driest rushes in the driest of ponds in the far reaches of the land. The tiny king had to step quickly, so to avoid being swallowed by the earth as it split apart from the power of the giant's mirth.
Eventually, the giant's laughter subsided to a brilliant twinkle in his ocean-blue eyes, and he told the King of the Fireflies, "IT SOUNDS TO ME THAT THOUGH YOU LACK NOTHING IN BEAUTY, AND YOUR INTELLIGENCE IS PRAISED THROUGHOUT THE GOLDEN VALLEYS OF THIS LAND, YOUR WIT MAY LEAVE SOMETHING TO BE DESIRED."
"HOW DARE YOU!" shrieked the King of the Fireflies in furious indignation, his sword still in one hand, and the other in a fist shaking at the heavens.
"DO NOT THINK I IMPLY THAT YOU ARE NOT LEARNED OR CLEVER, AS YOU ARE BOTH OF THESE THINGS. I SUGGEST ONLY THAT THERE ARE THINGS YOU MAY NOT HAVE CONSIDERED WHEN YOU WERE ASSIGNED THIS TASK BY THE SAINTED SPIRIT OF THE HOLY WELL. YOU... *WERE* ASSIGNED, WERE YOU NOT?"
"NO," shouted the little king, and then coughed and took a swig from his flagon of beer, because his throat had grown raw from the yelling. He clambered up onto the giant's knee, and then up onto his hand, because although he had stated his intent to kill the giant, he could not fathom that anyone could wish to destroy his beauty.
The giant raised his hand with the little king on it, so they could speak more or less face to face, and he tried his best to speak quietly. "No?" he asked.
"No," the King of the Fireflies said, irritated and faintly abashed. "I took on this task to impress her, because she was unimpressed. If she does not care for beauty, perhaps she cares for bravery."
"Did you not ask her what she would prefer?" the giant asked, bewildered.
"Of course not! She splashed me and dove into the well when I told her she fit all my criteria for the perfect bride and was worthy of being with me," said the king, his faint rue transforming into sullenness.
The giant was so taken aback that he had no response for the little king's statement. Finally, he chuffed out the tiniest laugh, which nearly blew the king off his hand, and he said, "It should be very unwise of you to slay me, for I am the earth upon which you stand, and should I die, this beautiful world would die with me. I daresay there isn't a thing in this land that could help your case now, but I shall allow you to cut off the tip of my little finger from the smallest joint, that you may bring it to the Sainted Spirit of the Holy Well."
"You shall? May I, then?" asked the King of the Fireflies, brightening. He held up his sword expectantly.
"I should not miss it," said the Giant of the Earth, his great countenance wry. "If she should consume it, it will grant her the ability to take on a fleshly aspect, as that of the people of the towns and fields. She knows my power's other uses, if she does not wish a human appearance. Take it with my blessing, and do you ask her what it is she actually desires." He held his other hand out, just above the one on which the king stood, within reach of the shining blade.
It was then that the King of the Fireflies hesitated, sword raised above the smallest knuckle of the giant's little finger. "She might approve of the gift of disguise, or these other uses of which you speak, and it might win me her favor, but I find that I do not wish to harm you off the field of battle. Are you certain you will not fight me?"
"I have no wish to kill you," said the giant, voice filled with amusement and affection in equal parts. "Your hesitation is wisdom shining through your desire, and your case may yet be salvaged." He set the little king upon his knee and moved carefully to put his hand into the purse on his belt, then took from it a gold-colored gem, which he pinched. A shard fell off into his free hand, and this he offered to the King of the Fireflies. "Do you take this instead, and give it to the Sainted Spirit of the Holy Well, as it shall do the same for her as a taste of my flesh. Then you must tell her of both your plan and your hesitation. She will look kindly upon you for it."
The King of the Fireflies took the shard that was as big as his own hand and placed it in his pack, and so left the Giant of the Earth to return to the Holy Well and offer the gift to the Sainted Spirit. He travelled day and night, walking near and far, over hills and fields, under bridges and bowers, through tall grass and thick fog, and he spoke with no soul but those within his kingdom, journeying for three days.