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The quest began in a country of rushing streams. It began with a prince, a princess and a dwarf.

The dwarf was a wise dwarf, a very experienced dwarf. He’d been recommended to the prince by many friends, friends he trusted. The dwarf had been on several quests, acting as guide and helper. He was tough, loyal and completely honest.

This was the prince’s second quest. His first had been the rescue of the princess. She’d been guarded by a dragon, a dragon of impeccable background and credentials in all that related to evil and ferociousness. But the prince had vanquished him, using a secret told him by a mouse.

The princess had never been on a quest before. The idea both frightened and attracted her. She was a dreamy, gentle princess, with a head full of secrets and visions, a heart full of sympathy. She was beautiful, with black hair down to her toes, which she braided and twisted round her head. Only the prince had seen her hair loose and flowing.

You may ask, why set out on a quest at all? Why not start a family instead? The prince had a splendid castle with a moat and turrets and a hundred, high-ceilinged rooms. The rooms were full of treasures: tapestries and paintings, crystal chandeliers, china vases and delicate figurines. His servants were cheerful and efficient. He had a magnificent cook and the best pastry chef in the hundred kingdoms.

The answer lay in the past. Not so many years before, barbaric tribes from the north had invaded the prince’s country. A million people had lived there, ruled by the prince’s grandfather, a wise king. They had lived and worked in peace – some more contented, some less, some more successful, some less, some healthy and some sick. They had lived as people live all over the world.

The barbarians had murdered them. They’d killed the old without a shred of mercy. They’d killed the young, laughing as they did so. They’d torn infants from their mothers’ arms. They’d slaughtered the wise, the gifted and the gentle. Only a handful of children, the prince’s father among them, had hidden deep in the forest and survived.

The invaders hadn’t enjoyed their victory for long. One night, a terrible earthquake shook the country. Vast chasms opened. New mountains and new valleys were created. The barbarians were swallowed by the earth, or drowned by great gushes of water from below. A few escaped, fleeing by night, and were never seen again.

The children emerged and rebuilt their kingdom. After some years, the country had returned to normal life. Its people thrived. There were good schools bursting with pupils and a fine university. But beneath this prosperous exterior lay apathy and grief. For no one had forgotten, could forget, and the memories sapped their joy.

And so the prince and princess had set off, determined to find a source of consolation, determined to find some meaning in it all.

First, they decided to visit neighbouring kingdoms. Perhaps those not involved could see more clearly. But responses to their questions were familiar:

“You mustn’t dwell on past sorrow.”

“You two are healthy and good looking. Enjoy. Have a few children.”

“We all have our share of suffering. Life goes on.”

After some weeks of this, the prince’s resolve was shaken. “Perhaps we should go home and have a child?” But the princess stood firm. “We must go forward,” she said, “until we have an answer, a real answer.”

Someone suggested their next stop might be a kingdom where a war was raging. Perhaps, with such fresh knowledge of suffering, its citizens would understand their quest.

They crossed the border into that wretched country. Bodies lay littered in the streets and fields. The tender-hearted princess could hardly bear it. They stopped many soldiers and spoke to them:

“What is the point of all this violence?” asked the prince.

“They will destroy us if we don’t fight,” said one soldier.

“I hate them. They murdered my children,” said two soldiers, one from either side.

“My commander sent me to fight,” said a young man with half a face.

“But why did you go?” asked the princess gently.

“All my friends went,” replied the soldier. “Besides, what’s an army without discipline?”

“Oh, I am more confused than when I started,” said the princess. “No one here can offer what we seek. They are locked in the language of their nightmares. Let us leave this terrible place.”

And so the three searchers traveled on. It was then the dwarf proposed that they ask a supernatural agency, The Oracle of the Hill. The Oracle had been very powerful once. Some even thought he had created the world. In recent years, his power had declined, but his wisdom was still respected by many people.

They turned their horses in that direction. After crossing a vast desert and a sea, they came to the country of The Oracle. But where his temple had stood there was only a crater. The prince asked farmers tilling the fields nearby where The Oracle was. “Haven’t you heard,” they shrugged, “He’s disappeared. No one has seen Him or heard from Him for ages.”

Disappointed, the princess began to cry. They were all exhausted and fell asleep.

They slept for many hours, a dreamless sleep. The princess was awakened by a tiny bird pecking her nose with its beak. It was a fledgling, with pinfeathers stuck to its body every which way. The princess sheltered it and fed it crumbs of cake.

The princess asked the little bird if he had suffered.

”We don’t worry about such things,” cheeped the bird. “We are not like men. I don’t think I know what suffering is, or happiness. Could you explain them to me?”

The princess shook her head. Having finished the last of its crumbs the bird hopped away.

The prince had an idea. He approached the dwarf.

“I have heard that you dwarfs revere an old sage who lives among you. Perhaps you could take us to him? Dwarfs are known for their fortitude and courage. The source of these qualities in your people could be the answer we are seeking.”

“Very well,” said the dwarf, “we can try. He sees very few people, and those only by special appointment. But I am one of his godsons, and that may help.”

The country of the dwarfs was mountainous, riddled with caves and hollows where the dwarfs lived. The little group was received with sober politeness, given food and clean, hard beds to sleep in. The sage agreed to see them. He lived a hermit-like existence in a small cave a day’s journey away.

He was indeed a wise old creature and treated them with courtesy and respect. But when they explained their mission, he sighed deeply.

“We dwarfs expect hardship,” he explained, “we do not fear sorrow or question it. We are a sad race, but a sturdy one. Our world has never been destroyed, as yours has been. But I imagine that, for us, it would be a reinforcement of our beliefs, rather than a devastating trauma.”

And so they travelled on. Once, they dared to question a group of bandits, and barely escaped alive. Once, the princess spoke to a small boy, hoping that innocence might understand what experience had long ago forgotten. But the child only chattered about school and friends and games, and asked the princess if she had some candy. The princess gave him a lump of chocolate and stroked his hair. He ran away holding his treat tightly, shouting with pleasure.

In the evening, the prince and princess sat around the fire while the dwarf played the flute. The prince was moody. His first quest, when he had slain the dragon and won the princess, had pleased him more. This quest held no excitement. It was long, monotonous and hard.

One night, the princess dreamed about the tiny bird she had befriended. But it wasn’t small and frail any longer. It was enormous. It was larger than the world, with feathers of smoke and moonlight, and on its head was a crown of gold. Its beak was encrusted with hundreds of tiny pearls, but its eyes were human eyes, and they looked so kind. The princess woke feeling peaceful and safe, though she couldn’t say why.

Not long after, the travelers passed through a landscape dotted with flowers. The princess decided to stop and gather some. As she walked to and fro, selecting and arranging her bouquet, she noticed a tall woman dressed in green.

“Welcome to my fields,” the woman said, moving towards the princess, arms outstretched.

“Are we acquainted?” asked the princess.

“In a sense,” replied the woman. She reached down to brush some pollen from her skirt. “I have heard of your quest. It is a noble one. But I wonder if you are asking the right question.”

“What do you mean?” asked the princess.

“Well, perhaps instead of asking why your people suffered, you might ask what their suffering can teach mankind.”

The princess considered.

“Future changes won’t bring back even one child,” she concluded sadly.

“No, agreed the woman. But they could help all the children yet unborn.”

“I would like to help those children,” said the princess, feeling a flicker of hope.

The woman smiled approvingly, then vanished.

The princess stood wrapped in thought. Could this be the answer they were seeking? She saw before her the teeming faces of children, faces streaked with tears. I never had a child, said one small girl. I never wrote my poems, said another. I never saw a sunset or a flower, said a baby, or felt my mother’s arms. I never became a doctor, said a boy. It hurts, because I wanted so much to help.

The princess began to cry. She wept so hard, she thought she would never stop. And then she knew this answer was not enough. She returned to the prince with a heavy, aching heart.

The prince was growing ever more impatient.

“We must return home,” he told the princess. “I want to settle down and have a family. I want to learn to be an effective king.”

“We promised our subjects an answer,” protested the princess. “We must lighten their despair and give them hope.”

“They are managing as they are. Our kingdom prospers.”

“That is not enough,” said the princess.

“We can offer no more,” insisted the prince. “We have tried our best.”

“What will we teach our children?” asked the princess.

“Let them search for answers by themselves.”

“But we ought to have wisdom to guide them.”

“Perhaps there is no wisdom,” said the prince. “Perhaps there is only life.”

Finally, the prince and princess made a bargain. He would return home. She would go on with the dwarf for one more year. If, at the end of that time, she had no answer, she would rejoin the prince. And so they parted.

The princess felt lonely when the prince had gone. Evenings, traveling through darkness, she couldn’t help wondering if he was right. Perhaps there was no answer; perhaps there was only life with its joy and sorrow, security and terror. But something within her said: though that is true, it is only part of the truth. I want to know all of it.

The dwarf was kind to the princess in her trouble. He helped her over difficult terrain, provided food and shelter, soothed her spirit with his music. He didn’t seem surprised that she persisted. He didn’t mock her. He listened gravely to her complaints and questions. The princess felt it would be pleasant to live forever in the forest, to be lulled by the dwarf’s stories and his songs. Her people and their suffering seemed far away.

Then, one morning, she woke to find herself alone. While she slept, the dwarf had gathered his belongings and crept away. Now she felt truly lost.

She began to drift aimlessly through the forest. Near evening, she met an aging woman who offered her food and rest. The princess followed the woman to her hut, where a rough wooden table was set for two. “Sit and eat your fill,” coaxed the woman, but, strangely enough, the dishes and the soup tureen were empty. Even the water jug was dry as bone. The princess sat bewildered, eyes cast down. “Good appetite,” said the woman cheerfully. After a moment, the tender-hearted princess pretended to heap her plate and fill her cup. She chewed and sipped and smiled as if she were enjoying every bite.

When she was done, the woman sat beside her and took her hand.

“You have given me the gift of your compassion. Now I will tell you something that may help you: What was never hurt cannot be healed. What was never lost cannot be found. What was never broken cannot be whole.”

The princess sighed. “I wish I were more clever,” she said sadly. “I don’t understand anything you’ve told me. No doubt I’ll soon forget it, every word.”

“One’s fate is not so easily forgotten,” the woman said. “I wish you well.”

The princess left the old woman’s house and roamed the forest. She stopped by a blossoming tree and picked a flower. Its pure white petals were etched with purple veins, so many she could never hope to count them.

“I wonder,” she thought, “I wonder.”

As she walked, she stepped on rotting berries that gave off a strange, chokingly sweet odour. Flies buzzed noisily among the bushes, their fat bodies shimmering with iridescence. A troupe of ants marched across a leaf, carrying a decaying beetle’s carcass.

The princess came to a stream and drank from it, splashing water over her face and arms. Suddenly, she sank down and began to cry. “We have spoiled it all,” she sobbed, “we have spoiled it all.”

“What have you spoiled?” asked a tiny voice nearby.

Startled, the princess turned.

“Over here, on your shoulder,” said the voice.

The princess looked. Sitting on her shoulder was a fly, the most beautiful fly the princess had ever seen. His body shone as if burnished, green and gold. He had enormous terra cotta eyes rimmed with white, and his wings were as delicate as fine black lace.

The princess hurriedly dried her eyes. She blew her nose.

“What is it you have spoiled?” the fly repeated.

“I don’t exactly know,” confessed the princess. “I suppose I feel that nature is so perfect, so complete. And men have spoiled it with their cruelty and greed.”

The fly buzzed thoughtfully.

“A very natural feeling,” he concluded. “But remember the old woman’s words.”

The princess frowned. “Nothing people say makes any sense.”

“Have you been to see The Oracle of the Hill?”

“Yes. Ages ago. He wasn’t there.”

“What about the ancient dwarf?”

“He didn’t have the answers to my questions.”

“I see,” hummed the fly.

“I feel totally defeated,” said the princess.

“That’s a good place to begin,” suggested the fly.

Suddenly the princess felt angry. She felt enraged. It seemed that all of nature was tormenting her, leading her on with mirages and riddles and games. She seized the fly, crushed him between her fingers and threw him into the air like so much dust. Then, shocked at the brutality of her action, she began to sob more wildly than before.

“I will not move from here,” she thought. “This quest has made me bitter and vindictive. I have just destroyed one of nature’s most beautiful creatures.”

Suddenly, she heard buzzing. The air was tinted orange, green and gold.

“You didn’t destroy me,” said the fly, “you freed me from that shell I was encased in.”

“But it was so beautiful,” cried the princess.

“I am much more beautiful now,” preened the fly.

“I like beauty that I can see,” the princess frowned.

“A prejudice,” buzzed the voice. “A strange notion. You have many strange notions in your mind. But now you will begin to strip them off as you stripped off my garish colours.”

The buzzing grew fainter, then disappeared.

Scowling, the princess sat. She was still determined never to move again. For many days, the princess slept and woke, not stirring from that spot. She drank from the stream, ate nuts and berries that birds and insects brought her. It was better than wandering with no end in sight.

One evening, a large black bird perched on a branch nearby. Malevolently, he stared down at the princess.

“Aren’t you getting bored?” said the bird.

“I’m quite all right,” said the princess. “This life is soothing.”

“But all the same, a little entertainment might be helpful in whiling away the hours till you die. I know what brought you on your quest. I am well informed about the terrible fate that befell your people. Haven’t you wondered what it was like? I can show you.”

The princess was horrified. “No, you mustn’t! I don’t think I could bear it!”

“That we shall see,” chuckled the bird. “I have the power of bringing it all back, more real than dream or vision, as if you lived it.”

Before the princess could protest or flee, he uttered a hoarse command. A great dark cloud descended. Within that cloud the princess endured it all. It was worse than she had imagined, even she with her vivid fancy and sensitive heart.

Finally, the cloud lifted.

“I hate this world,” screamed the princess. “I cannot bear to be part of it at all.”

She determined to starve herself to death.

When birds came and offered fruit, she refused it. She would not drink from the stream though it sparkled and flashed as enticingly as it could. Days passed and she grew weak.

“No doubt I will be dead soon,” thought the princess.

She lay in the grass, for she was too weak to sit, contemplating the nobility of her protest.

Suddenly, she felt something on her hand. With great effort, she opened her eyes and looked. It was a tiny bird, much like the one she had met some time before. Only it was even smaller, even more frail.

“Can you help me?” cheeped the bird. “I think I’m dying.”

“What a coincidence,” whispered the princess. “So am I.”

“Oh, no,” chirped the bird, “you mustn’t die. I was told you can keep me alive, and I want to live.”

“Why do you want to live?” asked the princess.

“I want to sing,” said the bird, “I want to fly. I want to feel the sun. I want to crunch up insects with my beak. I want to build a nest at the top of that tall tree and bring up my little ones in its leafy branches.”

The bird cheeped out a few faltering notes. He was really very talented at singing.

At that moment, the princess saw the faces of the children. She sensed their anguish, heard their plaintive questions. “Oh no,” she gasped, “oh no! What spell did that evil bird cast over me? I am just as bad as those barbarians!”

She asked the nestling to bring a little water and splash it on her mouth, and then to find her a berry or two to eat. He gladly did so. Very slowly, the princess regained her health. She and the bird grew in strength together.

The princess saw what a beautiful bird she had raised. It had feathers the colour of grass and a coral beak. And it sang like a bird in a dream. No one who heard it could forget its singing. One day, the princess saw it flitting about with an attractive friend, and very soon a nest was being built.

The princess felt satisfied and proud. She wept when she remembered what had been. But, weeks later, when she saw the newborn birds, she couldn’t help laughing. They were so clumsy and so sweet. Sometimes, she lifted them, and as she stroked their feathers, longings stirred her. She wanted to have children of her own. But how could she return? She hadn’t found an answer. She had barely even managed to survive.

The bird was flying nearby. He and the princess were so close that he could read her thoughts.

“You saved my life,” sang the bird, “and I saved yours. I believe that gives me the right to voice an opinion?”

“Certainly,” smiled the princess.

“I have flown over your kingdom. Your people need you.”

“But I have failed,” protested the princess. “All I have to share is my confusion.”

“Nonsense. You have chosen to return. That will give them hope. Besides,” chided the bird, “a year has passed.”

The next day, the bird led the princess back. When they reached the borders of her kingdom, he plucked a feather from his wing and gave it to her as a token of their bond, then wheeled skyward. The princess made her way to the palace, where the prince was waiting.


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