This tale was told by the seal people and carried by salt winds…
The Lord-by-the-Sea came to the home of the pilgrim woman on a cool, damp evening. A cart followed behind with a chair lashed to it. The carter came and placed the chair beside the stairs to the garret. He added a fat cushion and the Lord-by-the-Sea sat down.
‘Another story,’ said he. ‘One without vagabonds, gypsies or low achievers.’
The woman gazed out through a lancet window until the terns called out three times, then folded her arms. Her face matched the Mixon stonework.
‘If you make extra terms then so can I. I agreed one tale a week – not who cannot be in it.’
The Lord-by-the-Sea scowled. Her eyes remained bright and hard as sea-glass, her lips closed.
‘Very well,’ he said. ‘One request.’
‘Let the carter stay and listen.’
The Lord-by-the-Sea nodded. He sent the lad stand by the door, but the pilgrim woman tossed him a bolt of cloth to perch on, patterned with salt-lines.
This is her tale:
‘Once there was a small, clever and elegant Queen. She ruled over a tiny country with orderliness and vigour. Her compact palaces were precisely how they ought to be and she herself was work of art. Kings and princes, ambassadors and emissaries came to wonder at her and her small but lovely country.
Inside the Royal Palaces, all was clean, polished and selected with good taste. Among the people, there was little in the way of dispute for her laws were just and her taxes low. Of course people grumbled – but only in the way of conversation over a glass of something cool and beaded.
As for her person, she worked hard at keeping her appearance of youth and beauty. Her one true extravagance was spending on lotions and potions, creams and unguents. Gymnasia featured in all her castles and she kept to a diet so dull that only the strong-willed could endure it whilst all around guests quaffed, and crunched delicacies.
The people thought her immortal.
But for all her exercise and self-care, the time came for her to die. The Angel of Death came to her room and led her reluctant spirit up amongst the chimney pots of the Palace. All around her, the souls of the dying streamed upwards like the bubbles in prosseco.
‘O Queen, come the way that is set apart for you,’ said the Angel and took her by the hand to the Courts of Heaven. Together they entered the small and gilded Hall of Ancestors. She wondered at their statues, so dishevelled and inelegant. She should have no difficulty joining their ranks if such as those were admitted.
‘Wait here – you have a test to pass,’ the Angel said and left.
No-one came. She waited, uncertain and irritated. Such a lack of protocol unnerved her. What should she do? She moved down the aisle. The cold and empty hall echoed to the tapping of her heels.
Some seven flagstones ahead, a curtain hung upon a wall. She went and pulled the cloth aside. The corner of a mirror gleamed. Letters carved deep into the frame spelled out ‘True Beauty.’ She stood in front, then shook her head. This was not a mirror – but a most unflattering portrait of herself.
She shrugged and let the curtain fall. Who had had the audacity to show her rumpled and cleaning up?
On the opposite side of the hall, a niche stood in darkness. She took a candle from a scone and peered into the gloom. Granite gave off little sparks of reflected light. She stepped closer. A statue glimmered back at her. ‘ Good Order’ it said.
Not again. How ugly, she thought. It showed herself at a messy desk, surrounded by papers and cradling her head. Loose strands of hair spoiled any semblance of dignity.
She moved away from the hateful shape and turned her back on it. She must have failed – but how? Her proud head drooped and she trend to leave the Hall of the Ancestors.
A lovely voice rang out across the chamber. ‘Do you not recall those times, daughter?’
She searched but no speaker was visible. The curtain pulled back from the portrait, though there was neither hand no rope.
‘That was after you cleaned the house of your friend worn out by childbirth. You have never been more beautiful. The turned-back sleeves, the damp knees, the tousled locks, all speak of love.’
‘But that was in secret!’
‘Not to us,’ said another sweet and bodiless voice.
Candles flared up in the alcove. The statue shone. The second voice went on. ‘And that was when you solved the feud between the two Archdukes – and stopped a war. Those bleary eyes and ink-stained fingers are the marks of a true leader.’
‘Come and join our feast, sister-daughter,’ the beautiful voices said together. ‘You have earned your place.’
At the far end of the hall, doors swung open to show a gilded banqueting chamber. Music and chatter spilled out in a most unorganised and joyous manner. The Queen picked up her skirts. She skipped all the way to the one empty chair, then stopped; hands together head bowed.
It was time to give thanks.’
The pilgrim woman placed her hands on her lap to show the tale was done. The carter’s lad began to clap until his master frowned.
‘I never promised to please you,’ the woman said, only to tell you one of my tales each week. Till the next time…’
The lord swept out and she climbed up the mast of a staircase to her garret, smiling.