The story begins with a prince.
There’s a prince because there’s always a prince. Besides, princes were commoner than raindrops in the old days, when every tiny fiefdom and dukedom and earldom and principality had its own set of squabbling royals, and the neighbouring province usually started over the brow of the next hill.
So. Our prince. Let’s call him Tertius: it’s descriptive, at least, for he’s the third of three brothers. Tertius is in the somewhat redundant position of being neither heir nor spare, but something else, something not of his own choosing. Of the three, he is the adventurer, our youngest princeling, for in the cruel and crude light of practicality, he is the son most dispensable, the least likely to be missed. (The king his father is perfectly benevolent, but not particularly observant).
If this is a fairy tale (and who’s to say it’s not?) it follows that where there’s a prince, there’s also a princess. And if she doesn’t start out as one, but as a beggar-maid or a neglected slavey, she’ll end up one by the end: would-be Cinderellas take note. A princess is essential. As is a quest.
Tertius’s quest is to get the hell out of this boring kingdom. He tells his father he’s heard tell of a princess of fabulous beauty, imprisoned in a tower of black glass, in a land to the east (cunningly, he doesn’t specify which), and seeks permission to ride off and rescue her as soon as possible.
It’s a lie, of course, but it’s a pretty good one, because his father lets him go with the best horse in the stable and a fond mistiness in his eye. For a day and a night, over dale and hill Tertius rides, exulting in the wind in his hair and the sun on his back, whooping with the delight of freedom.
Naturally, by nightfall the next day, Tertius has absolutely no idea where he is. The moon is cloud-shrouded, and the thin linen shirt that shows off his muscles is no match for the bitter cold stealing through the dark forest. For, naturally, he’s in a forest. Where better to lose, and be lost?
The only light in the darkness is twinkling through the trees before him, a tiny beacon in the surrounding black. He spurs on his weary horse till he finds a single candle burning in the window of a lonely inn. He bangs on the door and shouts, until the heavy oak door creaks open and a pale face pokes around it.
“Yeah?” says the face, which is extremely pretty.
“Have you any rooms?” demands Tertius, peremptorily (for he’s a prince, and unused to discourtesy).
“Some,” she says.
“Let me in, then! I’m lost and weary and it’s freezing cold.”
She looks surprised. “All right.”
The door opens and Tertius steps through into the hallway. It’s the filthiest, most cluttered place he’s ever seen. Cobwebs drape from the corners; soot blackens the grate. The creaking floorboards are unswept, and littered with mouse-droppings, dirt and dust. No wonder they don’t get many guests, thinks Tertius.
“Are you here alone?” he asks the maid.
“No,” she says. “The Landlord’s asleep upstairs. I’ll show you your room.”
She takes his travel-soiled things, promising to clean them for tomorrow, and shows him up the groaning stairs. His room’s just as bad as the rest of the inn, but Tertius is so tired he could sleep in a ditch, so he says nothing, and crawls between the grimy sheets.
Next morning, Tertius comes down to breakfast in the filthy kitchen, and is presented with a platter of things that look as though they’ve been tortured to death. Twisted, blackened sausages nudge bacon as gristly and stringy as a hangman’s rope. Eggs like burst eyeballs tremble on the plate, and the less said about the porridge, the better. Even the tea tastes of straw and sweepings. It’s the worst meal he’s ever had, but, as the Landlord’s watching him silently from the end of the table, he behaves like the polite, well-bred young gentleman he is, and thanks the maid politely.
However, when she returns his coat, boots and hat, he can’t restrain himself. His boots are muddier than before, and one sole flaps loose. His coat has clearly been washed, because it’s now soaking wet and a size too small, and both sleeves have developed large stains. His hat’s been brushed so hard it’s squashed flat, the feather broken and drooping.
“What have you done to them?” he cries, horrified, and the serving-maid bursts into tears.
“I’m so sorry, sir!” she weeps. “I try ever so hard, but I can’t seem to do anything right! I don’t know what’s wrong with me!”
The prince looks at her beautiful face, wet with tears; at her soft white hands which have surely never mended a stocking or wielded a broom – and the penny drops.
“You’re a princess, aren’t you?”
She stops crying and stares. “What?”
“You can’t fool me, you’re a princess. Are you under a curse or something, is that it? Is the Landlord an ogre who’s kidnapped you? Is he forcing you to work as a maid until someone comes along and breaks the spell?”
Her rosepetal lips part hesitantly. She seems to be calculating something. “Um … maybe …”
He winks at her. “I knew it! Now, how do I break the spell?”
She blinks, swallows, stammers: “I … the place has to be cleaned top-to-bottom so people come and stay here again. And – and you have to help me.”
The Prince is clearly mad, but is he mad enough to help with her chores? There’s only one way to find out.
Tertius grins. “Say no more.”
All that day and night, with broom and soap and duster, Tertius scrubs every inch of the inn until it sparkles. By the next week, it’s full of customers again; so busy that the maid (whose name is Sarah) must work full-time behind the bar. Barmaiding is the only service-role for which she has any talent, but she’s very, very good at it. The Landlord turns out not to be an ogre after all, but actually quite a genial fellow when he isn’t gloomsunk by the fortunes of the hostelry.
Obviously, though Tertius is pretty sure he must’ve broken the spell by now, he can’t leave the Landlord short-staffed by skipping off home Princes Sarah, so he stays a few months, which turn into years. Sarah and he marry and have a two fine children, a boy and a girl; and though they often talk of going back to his kingdom and castle, in their heart of hearts, they know they would probably be in the way more than anything. And when the Landlord finally dies, leaving them with a prosperous little inn to run, of course they can’t go. And so, by days and weeks, and months and years, they live, and go on living, happily ever after.
And as for Tertius’s family at home? How does the story end for them?
Well, they wait for a while, every day expecting to see him crest the horizon with his princess-bride slung across his horse, but eventually they assume he must’ve been eaten by a dragon or a pack of wolves, and give him up for dead. They don’t miss him much, and he doesn’t miss them. He was only a third son, after all.