The Cursed Princess
“Da, who lives up there?”
The woodcutter split another block of wood with his ax before looking from beneath his straw hat at where his son was pointing.
“Ah,” the woodcutter said, his smile grim. “Up there, son, lives the cursed princess.” He lowered his voice at the two significant words.
“The cursed princess?” The woodcutter’s son perched on a log and looked up at the woodcutter with wide eyes. “Who is she?”
“She is the princess who cannot marry, or she will die. It is the curse put on her many a year ago.”
“Who put it on her, da?” The woodcutter’s son frowned in intense curiosity.
“No one know, son , just that she was cursed and has lived alone in that tower since. People avoid it like a lion’s den. Even I don’t chop wood too near it, which is why you have not noticed it until now.”
They were gazing up at the distant treetops on a forest hill. In their midst was the top of a narrow tower made of shining emerald bricks. A thin wisp of smoke curled from its point.
“People ought to go see her sometimes,” said the woodcutter’s son stoutly.
“They daren’t. It is said that the princess must have done a wicked deed to deserve such a curse. Best left alone, I expect. Take a load, son,” said the woodcutter.
They piled wood into their arms and carried it to their hut in a clearing of the forest. The woodcutter’s son looked back at the tower several times as they went.
Later, at the darkest hour of night, the woodcutter’s son lay awake in bed, staring up at the low ceiling of the hut. The only sound to be heard was the woodcutter’s loud snoring.
The woodcutter’s son could not stop thinking about the cursed princess in her tower. She must be lonely up there, and terribly bored with nothing to think of but the curse that kept her there.
Perhaps the princess was locked in the tower against her will. Whatever the reason for her isolation, she should be out, out in the open air and living in a splendid castle among others. There was no reason to be hidden just because she could not marry; no reason, unless she really had done a wicked deed.
These wonderings whirled around and around the woodcutter’s son’s head until all drowsiness fled and there was no chance of sleeping.
“I shall go to see her. I shall go to see the cursed princess,” he whispered aloud. Then he threw his blankets aside, wrapped a ragged cloak around himself, and slipped from the hut into the dark clearing.
There was no moonlight to guide him, but the woodcutter’s son thought he could find the place where he and the woodcutter had been earlier that day. He walked eastward straight through the trees. Their branches brushed against him and rustled as he passed between them.
The woodcutter’s son held his breath and listened for any sounds in the forest. All was unnaturally still, so that he felt that his presence was not unknown. He had never been out alone in the forest by night, for the woodcutter had forbidden him, warning many times of the beasts that prowled its wild reaches. But he must get to the tower!
The woodcutter’s son met nothing on his long way. At last he reached the hill where the tower stood. He climbed up to it and paused at its tall door.
What would the cursed princess look like? Lovely, most likely, despite the curse. But suppose she was wicked, as people said? He might never get back to the hut if he entered the tower. The woodcutter’s son shivered and drew the cloak tighter around him as he looked up at it. Suddenly he smiled. It had such a friendly glow about it.
The door opened easily when he pushed it. Fear of the curse kept unwanted visitors away better than a lock, it seemed.
Inside the door was a single curving staircase that led up out of sight. The woodcutter’s son began to climb it, his bare feet making no noise. “I want to surprise her,” he said to himself. “And if she is asleep, I shall just peep in at her face.”
The cursed princess was not asleep, however. The woodcutter’s son reached the top of the tower and stopped. He was in a small cozy room with a low fire burning in the hearth. Above it on the mantle was a silver vase decorated with purple jewels. The bed opposite the hearth had an embroidered satin quilt, but it was empty. At the arched window, through which could be seen a twinkling star in an amber patch of sky, sat the princess.
She would not have known anyone was there behind her had it not been for the cat. Long and golden-haired, he lay stretched across the window sill. When the woodcutter’s son appeared in the doorway the cat opened his eyes and blinked them coolly at him. At this signal the princess turned.
She was lovely, as the woodcutter’s son had expected. Her chestnut hair touched the floor over her magenta gown, and her eyes were as emerald as the tower walls that surrounded her. They had a very wistful expression.
The cursed princess gazed at the woodcutter’s son for a moment before speaking. “Perhaps I have been married to my prince all this time, and you are my son,” she mused.
The woodcutter’s son looked down at himself: at the torn, dusty breeches and calloused toes. “I’m only a woodcutter’s son,” he said. He stepped forward and bowed low to the princess. It was such a clumsy bow that it sent him rolling over onto the hearth-rug.
The princess laughed and bent to help him into a sitting position. The woodcutter’s son caught his breath at the merriment in her voice and eyes. She was meant to look this way instead of sad, he thought. He was sure that she could never be wicked.
The princess became sober again. “You are my only visitor in the four years that this tower has been my lonely home.”
“Is it true that you are cursed?” asked the woodcutter’s son.
“Yes,” said the cursed princess. “If you care to hear it I shall tell you the whole tale.”
The woodcutter’s on nodded fervently.
“The castle where I was born lies on the eastern end of this forest,” the princess began. “One day when I was a little girl, I slipped away from my waiting maids to go exploring in the trees. I came to a large standing stone. Hidden in a side of it was the entrance to a tunnel. I followed the tunnel, passing great caves full of gleaming treasures. In one of them I saw a vase.” She pointed to the one on the mantel. “That very one. Its beauty so drew me that I took it down from its shelf to examine it.
“Immediately, a dwarf appeared beside me. He saw that I held the precious vase. He raised his hand and said, “By all the dwarfs I lay a curse on you, for you have stolen from their treasure. The curse I lay on you is this: if you ever marry, you shall die. Take your plunder and go.’
“I tried to give back the vase, but he would not take it,” said the princess ruefully.
“Well, he ought to have!” said the woodcutter’s son indignantly. “It would only have been just. You were only looking at the vase.”
The cursed princess shook her head. “Underground dwarfs are very stubborn and protective of their fine possessions, woodcutter’s son, as I discovered to my disadvantage. The only justice they know is to punish those who meddle with their treasure. To touch it is to steal it in their eyes.”
The princess turned her head to the window. The golden cat leaped lightly from the sill to her lap, purring as she stroked his fur.
“What happened next?” asked the woodcutter’s son a little impatiently.
The princess returned her eyes to his. “I left the caverns by the tunnel, carrying the vase. When I was in the forest again I saw that my hand had an X on it, marking the dwarf’s curse.” She held up her palm to show the large X inscribed upon it.
“I went home to my parents, the King and Queen, and told them what had happened. I expected them to be sympathetic, but they were so angry that they banished me in disgrace from the castle. Since I could not marry, they would have no heir, since I was and remain their only child.”
“They don’t deserve an heir!” said the woodcutter’s son, striking the rug with his fist. The cursed princess’s sad smile and gentle manner had entirely won him over. He was deeply moved by her story, as much as if it was his own.
“I must confess that I felt the same way when I left their house,” said the princess. “I hoped to find work in the village and start a new life. But the news of my curse spread. Everyone I approached recognized the sign of it on my hand and turned me away, afraid that my presence would harm them, too.
“Finally I came back to this forest to live. It wasn’t long before I found the tower and used it to sleep in. But during the day I roamed beneath the trees.”
“And that was how you met your prince,” guessed the woodcutter’s son.
The cursed princess nodded. “Yes, I met him here, in a clearing. He and his father the king were visiting my parents’ castle. The prince was alone in these woods when he came upon me. He had heard of me and my plight and guessed who I was right away. Word had spread that I was living in the forest.”
The cursed princess twisted her thin white fingers together in remorse. “I should have sent him away at once, but I couldn’t—I liked him too well. He was so sympathetic, never speaking of what I had done as a girl unless I did. We loved one another from the first, and we met in the clearing nearly every day.”
“But you couldn’t marry,” said the woodcutter’s son quietly.
“No, we could not,” affirmed the princess. “My prince was desperate to find a way around the curse. He went to the dwarfs and reasoned with them, but they would not break it. They told him that the only thing to gain their favor would be a piece of treasure equal to the vase on my mantel, untouched by human hands.” The princess smiled grimly. Her emerald eyes turned cold and hard. “Such treasure can only be found in the underground caverns, and it is not given willingly. There is no hope of relief.”
“Yes there is,” nodded the woodcutter’s son with grave certainty. “But what happened to your prince?”
The cursed princess sighed. “His visit at my parents’ castle ended, and he had to depart with his father the king. But the two of us had already decided that, since we could not wed, it would be best to say farewell. So, my prince left, after giving me gifts—this gown and my golden cat. In four years’ time I have met no human, though each day when I wake there is food, drink, and firewood laid for me in my room. I rarely leave the tower in daylight and think often of my prince and the life I have lost. And that, dear woodcutter’s son, is my tale.”
“I wish none of it were true,” said the woodcutter’s son. “I wish you were happily married to your prince.”
“So do I,” said the cursed princess, looking out the window again. “Perhaps I should have married him, though it would bring my death. But perhaps it is not so bad. At least I have the knowledge that I was loved by him.” She stood and looked down at the woodcutter’s son with a brave smile. How many different smiles she had! “I thank you for hearing my tale. It does me good to speak of it to such a willing ear.”
The woodcutter’s son stood, too, and gripped the cursed princess’ hands in his. “I will find the way to break the dwarf’s curse,” he told her, each word ringing with determination. “I will free you and your prince from it!”
“Do not trouble yourself with it, though your valorous offer is well taken,” said the princess gently.
“I must go now, before my da wakes,” said the woodcutter’s son. “But I will free you.” He swung his cloak around his shoulders.
“My golden cat will light you down the stairs,” said the princess. “Goodbye, dear woodcutter’s son. Fare thee well.”
At her words, the golden cat curled himself around the legs of the woodcutter’s son and led the way from the room. The woodcutter’s son followed. He looked back at the cursed princess. She stood bathed in the warm light of the fire. In her face mingled despair and resignation.
As the woodcutter’s son descended the stairs, his steps were lit by the glow from the golden cat’s fur. The cat waited until the woodcutter’s son left through the door at the bottom before returning to his mistress.
A soft wind had crept into the retreating night, ruffling the boy’s hair and cloak.
“I must go to the dwarfs,” he said to himself. “I must free the cursed-”
He stopped. While he stood there, the wind had carried a sound to him, a sound that was unmistakably human. It was a sigh.
The woodcutter’s son went a little way into the trees and saw the silhouette of a man sitting on a stone. His head was bowed, and he sighed again.
A delighted tingle ran through the woodcutter’s son. The man was the cursed princess’ prince! He had come back to her from his far country.
But the woodcutter’s son did not reveal his conviction. “Sir?” he said, stepping closer to him.
The man turned in surprise. He had a high, noble brow and a royal emblem in the shape of a swan on his scarlet tunic. “Greetings, lad of the forest. Dawn approaches. Have you just risen?”
“No. I’ve been awake all night,” said the woodcutter’s son. “Why are you here?”
“Visiting the tower of my lady,” answered the man frankly.
“The cursed princess,” said the woodcutter’s son.
“Yes. Everyone knows of her curse in these parts. But none regret it as I do, for I am her prince. But we cannot wed.”
“I regret it. Can nothing be done for her?”
The prince shook his head. “Nothing. I have tried every way I could think of, but each was futile. Only the dwarfs have the power to remove the curse.”
“I’m sure the princess would like to see you anyway,” said the woodcutter’s son.
The prince smiled. “Staunch lad, how you cling to hope! I cannot show myself to her. It would only cause her deep pain. But I shall be the one to leave wood and food at her door tonight, whilst she sleeps. Lad, you had best go home.”
The woodcutter’s son nodded and yawned. He was suddenly very weary. But he smiled to himself as he thought of the joy the prince would have when he, a little woodcutter’s son, lifted the curse so he could be wed to the cursed princess. “I shall go to the dwarfs today, after I help da,” he thought, leaving the prince on his stone.
But the woodcutter’s son was not to close his eyes in sleep that night. On his way home he passed a spring just in time to see a domed hat sink beneath its surface. Without hesitating the woodcutter’s son flung his cloak away and dived into the water. His groping hands found a small stout body. A moment later both lay gasping on the grassy bank.
“You didn’t trouble yourself to save my hat, I see,” said a creaky voice.
The woodcutter’ son looked at the little man beside him. He was a dwarf! The woodcutter’ son had saved a dwarf! His face lit up. Here was his chance.
“I’ve never seen a dwarf from the underground caves,” he said.
“That is because they usually do not leave them. And I am not an underland dwarf, I’m an overland dwarf,” snapped the little man, grumpily wringing out his beard. “You are very impertinent to suggest that I am a part of that bibbling, black-bearded race.”
Disappointment filled the woodcutter’s son. “Then you aren’t related to the dwarf who cursed the princess in the tower.”
The dwarf glared at him with his beady yellow eyes. “Not all dwarfs have the power to lay curses on people, and not all use it. It’s only the cave ones who hoard treasure. Why, do you know how many kinds of dwarfs there are, ignorant boy? There are tree dwarfs, sea dwarfs, field dwarfs, meadow dwarfs, garden dwarfs, kitchen dwarfs, weaving dwarfs, spinning dwarfs, menagerie dwarfs—and, of course, under and overland.” The dwarf paused, quite out of breath.
“Are they all grumpy, like you?” asked the woodcutter’s son. “With no gratitude? I did save your life, overland dwarf.”
The dwarf’s glance was shrewd. “Sorry you saved me, eh? Since I’m not a treasure dwarf and know nothing of curses?”
The woodcutter’s son hung his head. “Then you really can’t help me free the princess.”
“Your ears must be full of water,” grunted the dwarf. “I did not say I could not help you. Let it be known the gracious gratitude of overland dwarfs aided by humans—even when their hats are lost.” The dwarf hesitated. “I may as well tell you that I am rather prone to accidents, not frequent ones, but they are always close to fatal. You pulled me from the water just after I slipped into it while taking a drink. I was terribly thirsty after my walk to the tower.”
The woodcutter’s on widened his eyes.
“Yes, boy, I take supplies to the princess every night before dawn. Her prince arranged it before he returned home, after freeing me from a hunter’s trap I had stepped into. So I’ve been doing it since, without a single accident until this moment. Now then, what is your price for saving my life? What service can I offer you? Only one thing I shall not do under any circumstances: reason with the underland dwarfs on behalf of the cursed princess. They wouldn’t listen to me—probably set my beard on fire.” He tugged at the white hair that reached his belt.
“Do you have anything I could give them to make up for the vase the cursed princess touched?” asked the woodcutter’s son hopefully.
“I told you we overlanders care nothing for treasure. Name your price, boy! I don’t have all day to wait for it!” The dwarf made to stand. The folds of his cloak shifted, and something from inside it glinted in the light of the rising sun.
“What do you have there?” The woodcutter’s son darted forward and seized it. The dwarf tried desperately to grasp it, but he was too late.
The woodcutter’s son held up the object to the light. It was a vase, a golden one set with emeralds.
“You’ll spoil it!” shrieked the dwarf in dismay.
But the woodcutter’s son had pulled the dwarf’s cloak off with the vase, and the cloth kept his skin from touching the vase.
“It’s the twin of the one on the princess’s mantle,” breathed the woodcutter’s son. He lowered the vase to frown at the shrinking dwarf. “You’ve had it all along! Why didn’t you give it to the prince? He and the princess could have been married years ago! She told me that to lift the curse the underland dwarfs wanted an equal to the vase she touched.”
“The prince did not ask for an object,” blustered the dwarf, his face going a blotchy red. “He only asked that I see to the princess’s needs. Besides, I didn’t have the vase with me then. It is only recently that I started carrying it around.”
“I believe you are as greedy and tight-fisted as the underland dwarfs,” said the woodcutter’s son sternly.
“It’s a family heirloom!” exploded the dwarf, his eyes popping. “Did you expect me to willingly hand it over to help a princess who put her grubby little fingers on its twin? The vase you have seized from me was a wedding gift from my father to my mother. He brought it from the caves for her when they–”
“Aha,” said the woodcutter’s son. “So you are only part overlander. Your father was an underland dwarf. And here you have been pretending to be better than they.”
The dwarf hopped on the spot in fury. “I wish you had left me to drown in the stream! I wish you had never come along! I wish–”
“I can easily arrange to have you thrown back in for all the trouble you’ve caused by your selfishness,” interrupted the woodcutter’s son. Then he laughed at the dwarf’s terrified expression and silent open mouth. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t do such a thing,” he added. “But my price for saving you is this: you will give this vase to me, and I shall give it to the princess. She shall take it to the underland dwarfs and they will lift the curse, and she can at last wed her prince.” He joyfully wrapped up the golden vase in the cloak, slung the protesting dwarf onto his shoulders, and ran back to the tower of the cursed princess.
She was alarmed when he breathlessly emerged from the staircase, dragging the dwarf. Evidently she had not slept that night, either, but the dwarf had managed to leave firewood and food without alerting her notice.
“Take this!” The woodcutter’s son thrust the bundle into her hands. “But don’t let it touch your skin or it won’t work. It matches the vase on your mantel. You must take it down to the caves so the dwafs will free you!”
“But where did you get it?” asked the astonished princess.
“This dwarf gave it to me after I saved him from drowning,” explained the woodcutter’s son.
“I didn’t give-” spluttered the dwarf. The cursed princess’ glance silenced him, but he refused to look her.
“I can hardly dare believe it will appease them at last, but I must try!” the princess cried.
The woodcutter’s son nodded eagerly. “Yes, try, and hurry, before your prince leaves!”
The princess stopped in the doorway. “My prince!” she exclaimed.
“Never mind—go, go!” urged the woodcutter’s son. She shook her head in wonder and vanished with a swish of her magenta gown.
“You have no trouble ordering royalty about as well as poor hardworking dwarfs, I see,” said the dwarf in a sour tone.
“On my shoulders again,” the woodcutter’s son told him. “We must find the prince!”
The prince was now pacing around the stone he had been sitting on earlier. He looked up.
“Dwarf Dunkin—forest lad!”
“Sir, the princess!” gasped the woodcutter’s son as the disgruntled dwarf clambered down from his shoulders. “The cursed princess! She has gone to the underland dwarfs with a vase to trade for her freedom from the curse!”
“Please, sir. Don’t ask me to explain. Just come!”
The prince nodded and brought his great horse from behind a tree.
“If sir and boy will kindly allow me to return home,” began the dwarf.
“No, you will come with us,” said the woodcutter’s son. “We may need you.”
The three of them climbed onto the horse, the dwarf very grudgingly, and galloped for the rock that held the entrance to the treasure caverns. They dismounted and gathered around it. After a while, during which the dawn steadily grew and they heard not a sound, the prince became restless.
“I will follow my princess into the tunnel,” he said, grasping his sword hilt. “They may have seized and harmed her, in which case I shall slay every one of them.”
“No sir, wait.” The woodcutter’s son held the prince’s arm. “Wait for her to come. He looked up at the prince. He looked terribly strong and grim. “You wouldn’t really kill them, would you?”
The prince’s anxious face relaxed a little as he looked down at the woodcutter’s son. “I spoke in haste, forest lad. I take no pleasure in bloodshed. If not with their lives, they shall be punished if they harm my princess.”
“I suppose I will be included in the punishment,” grumbled the dwarf. He tried to sit on a nearby stone without looking at it, overbalancing and landing upon his back with a grunt on the other side.
There was another long wait. For the first time the woodcutter’s son doubted that the cursed princess really would be freed. Suppose the underland dwarfs hadn’t accepted the twin vase after all? Maybe they did not consider it a fair trade for the original silver one. The woodcutter’s son himself liked the silver one better.
At that moment, when they were despairing that the cursed princess would return, there was a rush of air and someone came flying out through the tunnel entrance, hair and gown billowing. It was the cursed princess. She was laughing and holding her hand to her eyes, her hand that had been wiped clean of the X on its palm. She was cursed no more.
She saw the woodcutter’s son first. She knelt down before him and took his hands. “Dear woodcutter’s son, it is you who have freed me! No words of mind can ever express the enormity of what you have done for me. The dwarfs accepted the gold vase and lifted the curse from me at last.” Her eyes shone in emerald radiance.
The woodcutter’s son grinned, then stepped aside so the prince could take his place. The prince gazed into the eyes of the princess.
“My princess!” he said, and drew her up to him. They embraced, reunited just as the dawn turned rosy.
“I’ve done it—I’ve done it!” the woodcutter’s son said to himself in triumph. “I have freed the cursed princess. But I couldn’t have done it without da and the dwarf.”
Dunkin the overland dwarf was peering over the stone at the happy lovers. Remorseful tears poured down his cheeks and into his beard.
“I ought to be decapitated and hurled into the depths of the sea!” he said. “But it has all come right after all.”
The woodcutter’s son said nothing. Exhausted, he had collapsed onto the grass and was sound asleep with his head pillowed on his cloak. The princess and her prince stood close together, framed by the golden sky. All around their feet bloomed flowers of spring.
The prince and princess were married the very next day. As soon as the woodcutter’s son woke the next morning after a well-earned good sleep, they all met at the emerald tower and departed for the castle at the forest’s eastern edge. The prince and princess rode on the prince’s mighty horse while the woodcutter’s son, the woodcutter, Dunkin the dwarf, and the golden cat walked on the ground beside them. They took their time, enjoying the morning forest and talking with one another. The whole story was told to the woodcutter, and he readily joined the small procession, glad that he had had a part in the happy ending, however small.
The princess’s parents received their daughter and her prince when they arrived at the castle and related how the curse was lifted. The prince and princess insisted that it was due to the woodcutter’s son, and the woodcutter’s son insisted that his da the woodcutter and Dunkin the overland dwarf had as much to do with it as he did. The king and queen were rather sheepish at the return of their daughter whom they had cruelly banished, but she gave them her forgiveness at once.
Then the prince and princess were married by the great glistening fountain behind the castle. There wasn’t enough time to invite a lot of guests, but it did not matter overmuch. Everyone was too happy to care. And so the woodcutter’s son, the woodcutter, Dunkin the overland dwarf, and the golden cat were the only witnesses of the royal marriage. The woodcutter and his son beamed through the whole ceremony, while Dunkin cleared his throat many times to hid his emotion. The king and queen smiled at each other and sighed. The prince’s gaze barely left that of the princess. The golden cat purred.
It was soon made known in the land that the princess was no longer cursed, and that those who had once turned her away would not be punished. The princess and her prince stayed at the castle and had many children and before long were king and queen. The emerald tower was left deserted and locked up except for their vacation retreats, during which they stayed there. The royal emblem became a golden ax, and Dunkin the overland dwarf was made prime minister. His first action as such was to close up the forest entrance to the underland dwarf caverns. Never, he declared, should anyone wander into it again and be cursed for touching an alluring piece of treasure. If the underland dwarfs wanted to come up, well, they would just have to fight their way through, the scoundrels.
As for the woodcutter and the woodcutter’s son, after the wedding of the princess and her prince, they were given richly embroidered clothes and named royal counselors. The woodcutter and his son, however, requested that they might work in the castle gardens. And so they did until the end of their days, remaining very good friends with the prince and his once-cursed princess.
Laura Chitlon has always loved to write, particularly stories inspired by sentimental fiction and fairy tales.