The Veiled Princess
In a time long ago there lived a benevolent king and his beautiful queen. As generous and gentle-natured as she was fair of face, the queen was beloved by all in the kingdom, but especially by her husband, the king. Her smile was to him like the sun, and her every word, a song. The queen bore him six daughters, favored by fortune with comely looks and cheerful dispositions, but never did she bear a son. Many years passed. Their daughters thrived and each in her turn married and left her childhood home. The king missed his daughters, but still he was glad, for the presence of his beloved wife sustained him.
Now it came to pass that the queen in her fortieth year conceived a child, and there was great rejoicing. The king dared hope that at long last they would be blessed with a son. Ever attentive, he remained always by her side. Never was a wife so pampered and coddled, but even the king’s fervent ministrations could not change the fact that the child within her grew while the queen herself faded with each passing day. The hour of her delivery approached and the midwife’s placid countenance soon grew pinched with worry.
“Your Highness, you must leave the bedchamber,” she declared grimly, one hand on each side of the queen’s distended belly. “The labor is hard; the babe struggles to leave the womb but I fear Her Majesty lacks the strength to birth this child. A man has no place here – your presence distracts her from the task. Go now, for time is pressing.”
The king held tight to the hand of his wife. “I will not leave her,” he whispered furiously. “I will not leave her even though she bade me go. Could I labor for her, I would. Her every breath is my breath; her life is my life. We are as one. I will not go.”
“Send him away,” the midwife urged the fading queen. “You must focus on the child. The child, Highness!”
The queen squeezed her husband’s hand weakly. “Stay…”
The midwife hummed with displeasure, but it was not her place to correct the royal pair. “So be it,” she snapped, turning back to her charge and the baby fighting to enter the world.
The queen struggled to draw breath as the pains overtook her, her cries dissolving into muted whimpers; the king hovered anxiously at her side. “Hold on my love, hold on.” A shudder convulsed her and a great gasp escaped. Her eyes fluttered shut and did not open, even as the angry squall of the newborn babe echoed through the chamber.
An anguished plea from the king burst forth -– “Do not leave me! You cannot leave me!” Alas, it was too late, for the queen breathed no more.
The midwife whispered a prayer and turned away, continuing her duties in silence. When the child had been washed and swaddled, she approached the king with caution. He had a crazed look about him, tearing at his hair and mumbling to himself as he clutched the queen to his breast in despair. “Sire, I would present the babe to you. I am sorely grieved by the loss of its mother, yet must you look upon the infant forthwith and call it a name, thereby to ward off the spirits that would claim it, unnamed.”
Raising his eyes reluctantly, the king looked upon the face of the child. His features twisted and with a primal cry, he turned violently away. “Remove it from my presence! I will tear out mine own eyes ere I look upon it again!”
“Sire,” the midwife persisted. “You must give it a name!”
“Ask its sisters,” the king replied dully. “They are come to tend their mother and must mourn her instead. Let them look upon it, if they will, and its name shall be what they call it.”
The midwife withdrew at once in search of the king’s daughters and finding them assembled all six together, she approached the eldest and offered the infant up. “My Lady, I am grieved to impart the ill tidings that Her Majesty did not survive the birth. The king has commanded me to present the child to you, and I beg of you to call it a name.”
The princess looked upon the infant and turned away with a pained cry. “I shall not look upon it,” she declared tearfully.
The midwife next approached the second, repeating her plea. Peering at the swaddled babe, the princess shuddered and turned away. “Neither shall I look upon it.”
The third, fourth, and fifth daughters rebuffed her in turn, and in quiet desperation the midwife turned to the youngest, herself a new mother with a babe at the breast. “My Lady, please, do you have it in your heart to look upon this child, your own kin, and call it a name? Surely you can bear no malice towards this helpless infant.”
Having seen her sisters renounce the child one after another, it was with some trepidation that the youngest looked upon the slumbering infant. “Oh my,” she breathed, biting her lip and averting her eyes. “Oh my.”
“Please, Highness, a name?”
And the princess took pity on the child, with trembling voice pronouncing “It shall be called Zillah, for it is a shadow, and has cast a shadow over us.”
The midwife bowed her head in relief. “May you be blessed, Highness, truly you are beneficent. Will you now take this child called Zillah? I fear the king is lost in his grief and unable to provide for its care.” Indeed, the king’s keening echoed through the castle and his daughters hastened towards the door.
The young princess shook her head, moving to join her sisters. “A name I have given it; I can do no more. Our father is unwell and we must harken to him.”
“But Princess –”
“I cannot,” she repeated, casting anxious glances at her sisters. “You must take it to Dame Fronia in the Dark Wood, she who once was mistress of our schoolroom. Her years are advanced and her eyes dim; she will be not dismayed by the babe’s visage. Only there can Zillah grow in peace, for I know my father; his heart has been torn from his breast and there is no room for the love of this one.” Scurrying after her elder siblings, the young princess clutched her own child tightly and did not look back.
Kenning that protest was futile, the midwife did not linger, but made her way directly to the modest cottage of the elderly schoolmarm. “Dame Fronia,” she called out loudly, knocking briskly upon the door. “Dame Fronia, I come from the king!” Now this was not strictly true, but still and all, a fair statement. Zillah stirred in her arms and she knocked again, louder still.
“Patience, patience,” a reedy voice called. “I cannot move as quickly as once I did.” The door opened and the midwife entered, anxious to discharge her burden.
Squinting myopically, Dame Fronia greeted her courteously, “Goodwife, what brings you so far from the village?”
“Good e’en, Dame Fronia. I have this day delivered the queen of a healthy infant; alas, Her Majesty did not live to see it draw breath. The queen’s passing has dealt the king a near mortal blow, and he has declared that he will not look upon the child, which is called Zillah. His daughters have likewise renounced it, and indeed as I traveled here, the crier read forth a proclamation decreeing that all in the kingdom are forbidden to look upon it. Of its sisters, only the youngest had pity for it and bade me seek you out, that you might provide such nurture and care as it requires.”
“Ah, for shame! No more good-hearted woman was to be found than our queen, and for the wee one to be shunned? How it would grieve her! Aye, it shall remain here, and in time I shall instruct it in the manner of princesses. Mayhap the king will outlive his grief and call his child home.”
The women nodded deferentially to each other as the child was passed between them, and the midwife disappeared into the night.
The years passed and Zillah grew in the solitude of the Dark Wood. Hidden behind a veil and confined to the small cottage where visitors were few, she passed much time in the garden studying such things as it was deemed important for princesses to know, and many things that were not. A clever and curious child, Zillah yearned to know more about the working of the world. She watched the flying birds and wondered about the places they had been, and as they chirped and twittered, cawed and hooted one to another, she listened. Day in and day out she listened, and she trilled back to them. In time, as you — immersed, might learn a foreign tongue, so did Zillah come to speak the language of the birds.
Always Zillah listened to the birds, and one day it came to pass that a great commotion erupted amongst them. Following them to a place where the brush was trampled and evidence of a struggle lay all about, she found there a gentleman weeping bitter tears. Across his lap lay a brindled hound; its breathing labored, it gazed at its master with pain-filled eyes. Although the man bled from a great gash in his arm, he paid it no mind, so intent was he upon the wounded beast.
“Good Sir, what has happened here?”
The stranger startled in surprise. “Young Miss, this place is not safe! I have only just been set upon by brigands. In the melee my fine mare stepped into a pitfall and broke its leg; I have had to put it down. Having unhorsed me, the villains made off with all my possessions, all but my signet ring – this here that they would wrest from my finger were they not well thwarted by my loyal hound, lying here sore wounded. Indeed, I must escort you at once away from this place, ere they return. Have you a home nearby?”
Zillah gazed upon the suffering hound and her eyes filled with tears. “Nay, Good Sir, the brigands are well away. The birds of the forest espy all that happens here and most certain are they that the evil men have departed. Please, return with me to my Godmother’s cottage and I will tend you both.”
“You are most kind, Young Miss, yet I have no way to repay you and will not presume upon your hospitality. If you will point me towards the nearest village, I shall make my way there and –“ The words died upon his lips as the hound whimpered softly. Zillah reached for it at once, patting it gently and crooning a simple tune. Thumping its tail weakly, the hound licked her hand and she dashed away a tear.
“Truly Sir, the poor beast is in a bad way, and that arm wants tending ere ill humors take hold. Come, rest awhile, for I cannot idle knowing that I left you suffer.”
Zillah flung her arms wide and trilled a melodic tune. Soon three rooks came to rest upon her shoulders. One cocked its head and stared at the stranger, unblinking, before breaking into an excited chatter of clicks and wheezes. All three took wing and disappeared into the depths of the wood. “I have told them of your plight and they have agreed to help you.”
The stranger viewed her curiously. “The birds have told you this? How is it that their chattering is within your ken?”
“Does not every soul understand them?” Zillah asked in puzzlement. “I listen to them as I listen to you. The birds are my sole companions; I care for them, and they tell me tales of far places they have seen.”
“How came you to be in this forsaken place all alone? Have you no mother? No father?” the stranger asked curiously, struggling to his feet, the hound cradled tenderly in his arms.
“Nay, Good Sir, I am quite alone, my dear Godmother having departed this life some six months past,” Zillah began sadly. “My mother likewise is gone to the angels, and my father I have never seen, for as I have heard it told, my countenance so repulsed him that he did threaten to tear out his eyes ere looking upon me again. “ She turned away and set a path through the ancient trees.
“What father could renounce his daughter such?” he wondered, limping behind her.
“Surely that cannot be so, for true beauty comes from within, and it shines about you brightly. Why then do you hide your face behind a veil?”
“For my father has decreed that none shall look upon me.”
“Forgive me Miss, but that is madness! Madness to suggest that a daughter hide herself from the world, and madness to believe a mere man could constrain such a thing!”
They walked some ways in silence before she answered, standing upon the threshold of a tidy cottage. “No mere man is my father,” she declared quietly, ushering him in, “but king of this land.”
He gazed upon her with astonishment. “King of this land? Then My Lady, you must forgive me, for ne’er did I think to find a princess in the forest, and I have surely forgotten my manners.” He took her hand, bowing low over it, and her eyes fastened upon his ring. “Pray tell me, what is your name?”
“Perhaps My Lord, you should tell me yours, for though I have never seen it, Godmother instructed me well in the ways of the court, and that is surely the mark of a noble born.”
“Your eye is sharp, Highness. I am called Conroy, fourth son of Malcolm the Just. I left my father’s court to find my own way in the world, for I have three brothers before me and shall never be king.”
“Prince Conroy, you are welcome here. I am called Zillah.”
There came a sharp tapping at the window, and Zillah rushed to open it. There stood the rooks, each clasping in its beak a sprig of something green and pungent. Warbling thanks, she paused to listen to their clicking response. She nodded her head and moved to hang a pot upon the fire. “So Princess, what say the rooks? Can you save my faithful hound?”
“Far they have traveled, and their kith farther still, to places where the healing arts are prized above all others. From one to another the question was passed, how best to tend your wound, and those of your loyal hound. These have come back with an answer, and I shall begin at once, lest the ill humors overcome you.” For indeed the prince had begun to flush with fever, and his arm to swell alarmingly.
For four days she tended them, man and beast, and on the fifth day the prince rose from the sickbed, restored. He called at once for the hound, anxious lest it had passed while he slept, unawares. Zillah sighed with relief. “At last you wake! Fear not, for the hound has been your constant companion and sleeps peacefully now by the fire. It will be some days before it is recovered, but it will live.” Hearing its master’s voice, the beast awoke and barked with some energy, wagging its tail with joy. The prince laid his hand upon its head with a smile. “Be well, my faithful friend!”
“Princess, what you have done cannot be repaid, for this beast has traveled many miles with me and is my dearest friend. Truly are you generous of spirit and kind of heart; never have I met a maiden such, noble born but also of the world, and not above it.” Dropping to one knee he clasped her hand and asked most earnestly, “If you will have me, I would be your husband.”
With trembling voice she answered him, “A great honor is bestowed upon me, and my heart longs to accept you, yet I could not bear it were we to wed, then to find you could not abide the sight of me. For though none have looked upon my face since I lay swaddled in the midwife’s arms, mine own father and six royal sisters did turn painfully away. I ken thereby that I am loathsome, and not fit to be a wife.”
“Princess, I have had my fill of those whose beauty is skin deep, who care only for what a title brings, or look with ill will upon my brothers, praying that some misfortune shall befall them. Such qualities a wife should have, you have in abundance, and we could make our own way in the world together. What say you, dearest Zillah? Will you have me?”
With tears in her eyes, Zillah whispered, “I will.”
Joyfully Conroy embraced her, declaring, “I would give you for a wedding gift, that which you most desire.”
“Oh no, my dearest,” she demurred, “there is nothing that I require, for your love will sustain me.”
“Surely, darling Zillah, there is something? For you are deserving of more than I can ever give.”
“There is nothing,” she affirmed, “other than your presence by my side.”
“Ah, yet I think there is one thing…” he mused, “So let us make ready. Be it in my power, you shall have it. I will hasten now to the village to inquire after it.”
“Travel safely beloved; I shall send the hawk to guide your path.”
And so Conroy made his way to the village and beyond, reaching the castle of the king. Approaching the gates, he announced himself and was led inside. Ushering him into the king’s presence, the squire withdrew and Conroy bowed respectfully.
“Good morrow, young prince,” the aging king pronounced. “You are come far from your father’s court. Be welcome here.”
“With gratitude I accept your hospitality, good king. I am come to bid you grant me one favor ere I depart this fair kingdom.”
“Be it in my power, you shall have it. What might you require?”
“Majesty, I am humbled to have earned the love of a most worthy maiden, who this day has honored me by agreeing to be my wife. Alas, this maiden is alone in the world and it would please her greatly if you would look upon her and bless our union.”
The king nodded graciously. “I shall be happy to grant you this favor. Fetch the maiden at your leisure, and my blessing you shall have.”
“I thank you, Majesty.” The prince withdrew, returning on winged feet to the Dark Wood.
Some days later, the pair traveled the path together, the hound trotting happily between them. As they drew near the castle, Zillah stopped in dismay. “Beloved, surely you know this is the home of my father, the king?”
“Aye, ‘tis fitting that a visiting prince pays his respects. Fret not, my love; we shall soon enough be on our way.”
Reaching the gates, Conroy announced himself and the two were led before the king. Zillah trembled beside him and did not speak as she dipped into a low curtsey.
“Good king, I have returned with my intended bride, a young lady of your kingdom. Being all alone in the world, it is her greatest wish that you look upon her and bless our union. This you have promised to do.”
“Aye,” the king agreed amiably. “Come hither young prince, and bring the lass forth.”
Zillah moved as in a trance, kneeling beside Conroy at the feet of her father.
“Dearest,” Conroy whispered, “no longer must you wear the veil; with your own ears you have heard it.”
Her hands trembled as she lifted the veil away, and a collective gasp rippled through the chamber. In tears, Zillah turned her head away, burying her face in the fur of the whimpering hound.
The king rose creakily from his seat, taking an uncertain step. “Look at me child,” he commanded in a quavering voice. “Tell me, what name are you called?”
She raised her head slowly, choking back sobs. Conroy gazed at her in wonder, looking first upon her face, and then upon the portrait of the departed queen that hung in a place of honor upon the wall.
“Majesty,” the prince interjected, “her name is called Zillah, and aptly so, for in her shade I have found rest.” Whispers raced through the gallery, and some called her a ghost.
The king took another tottering step, almost collapsing before reaching her. “Zillah…” rheumy-eyed, he gestured towards the portrait behind him. “For one moment I thought you my wife, gone these sixteen years. You so resemble her… When first I looked upon you, a swaddled babe, indeed I thought you a ghost come to haunt me, that I let her go.” The king shook his head. “Gentle folk, no ghosts linger here, but those we conjure in our minds. My dear child, what wrong I have done you…” And tears flowed down his wrinkled cheeks as he raised her up and at long last clasped her in his arms. “Would that you could find it in your heart to forgive a broken old man, I would die content.”
“Father,” Zillah’s tears mingled with the king’s as she clutched him tightly. “My heart sings, and I can do naught but forgive you, for the love of my mother made you blind, while Conroy’s love for me has made you see. He vowed to give me that which I most desired, and though I myself knew it not, so he has done.”
The elderly king placed his hands upon the heads of Zillah and Conroy, and blessed them. “Gentle folk, ‘tis true that my years are advanced and I am weary. As I have no heir, let it be known that on the occasion of their marriage, the kingdom shall pass to my daughter Zillah, and her husband Conroy, fourth son of King Malcolm the Just. May they reign in peace and prosperity ever after.”
And on that day there was much rejoicing, for the new queen’s smile was like the sun, and her every word, a song. As generous and gentle-natured as she was fair of face, the queen was beloved by all in the kingdom, but especially by her husband, the king, and a faithful brindled hound.
Xanthe Elliott is the alter-ego of a mild-mannered Maryland accountant. After counting beans by day, she seeks the meaning of life in the written word. Xanthe crafts tales of romance and self-reflection; “The Veiled Princess” is her first fairy tale submission.