Once, in a far-off kingdom that existed in someone’s imagination, a mythical garden that had never been seen, but spoken of throughout the land, flaunted a magical flower. A flower that was the emblem of the beautiful but wicked Queen Mariella, the black rose. Aromatic and potent, the scent of the black rose hovered in the air above the bushes like a petrified cloud, afraid to float out into the atmosphere. Its medicinal properties were said to be able to cure any ailment and the rose was possibly the most sought-after flower in all the land.
High grey stone walls encrusted with moss surrounded the castle. Stillness surrounded the property and from the exterior, one could be mistaken for thinking the castle vacant. According to legend, a crystal throne was the preferred seat of the beautiful Queen Mariella, ruler of the realm and the keeper of the black roses. Nobody could penetrate the castle unless invited and rarely did she send out an invitation.
Shielded by a host of majestic oak trees coated with the bark of ages, the castle sat in the centre of the valley. Slopes of bluebells glistened with the morning dew as the mist evaporated to make way for the sun that edged its way into the cloudless sky. Creatures scurried through scrub and undergrowth hunting or running for their lives. Twittering birds joined in chorus creating the anthem of the forest, and it all went undisturbed.
In another part of the kingdom sat a thriving coastal community. Hustle and bustle greeted those who wandered into the village and the small houses and markets fringed another castle. This particular castle was honest and open and there were no secret flowers growing within its boundaries. Home to the honourable King Aram and his virtuous Queen Cliona, and the gracious Princess Heather, admired by townsfolk for their courteous nature.
Within the walls of a modest bakery in the centre of the market place, an impatient boy sat waiting for the bread to bake. Morning after morning he sat waiting for the same thing, but Darcio, the son of the baker, had another ambition. Singing was his true passion, not baking bread. The heat from the oven made him drowsy and he longed for excitement, for the adventure that seemed to pass him by daily. Knights on their mounts with shiny armor and glistening swords rode by the bakery on their way to quests outside the walls of the city. He yearned to wander throughout the kingdom playing his mandolin and singing his songs to anybody who might wish to listen. But no, his father wanted him to stay true to the family tradition and bake bread – for ever. Finally, after waiting for ages and nodding off a few times, the warm bread was ready for delivery, another one of Darcio’s daily tasks. This was one he didn’t mind though. Out in the streets with the basket of warm bread for the palace, he hummed a tune he had created in his head earlier. Perhaps someone would hear him and hire him as a minstrel to accompany them on a quest. But the occasion never arose and daily he continued with the dull routine bestowed upon him by his father.
The castle drawbridge was always down and although it was easy to cross, there were knights on either side that scrutinized everybody who tried to enter through the gates. Many a quest had been thwarted by those who stood for the king and their bodies lay at the bottom of the deep moat. Darcio was never stopped, some of the knights even gave him a wink as he carried the bread into the castle. A vast entrance hall with a floor of shining porcelain welcomed him and the staff who attended the royal family smiled as he made his way to the kitchen, always through the front entrance, like royalty.
After delivering the bread, Darcio left by a door which led out into a garden and picked an apple from the tree. Reaching up as always, he grabbed at the fruit until he secured his prize, plucking it from the branch and wiping it with the dark bakers apron he wore.
“Who are you?” a voice asked.
Turning, Darcio saw her and immediately knew her face. “I’m Darcio, the son of the village baker,” he replied bowing low and averting his eyes.
“Rise baker’s son and look at me,” she urged.
Princess Heather had a kind face and Darcio smiled at her. He noticed she looked at the apple in his hand and quickly he hid it behind his back.
“Don’t hide it. I like apples too. Come and sit by the well with me,” she invited.
Darcio sat with the princess by the well and took a bite of his apple. He offered it to Heather who politely declined.
“What are you doing here? Did you come to steal our fruit?” she asked him.
Suddenly he felt nervous, but Darcio knew he hadn’t done anything wrong. “I bring the bread up from the bakery each day. They let me have an apple in return,” he explained.
“I didn’t know you visited the palace every day. If I had I would have spent more time out here in the garden. Is it the same time each day?” she asked him.
“Mostly. We bake the bread at the same time every morning and I always bring it while it’s warm. So, I suppose you could say I’m here at the same time each day.”
“Well, maybe I’ll be in the garden tomorrow,” she said smiling.
She had a pretty smile and as Darcio walked from the garden that day he sang a new song to himself.
Life is good to those who are good, and Princess Heather was in the garden waiting for Darcio the following day when he picked his apple. A friendship was born and as it grew, the two learned more about each other. Heather knew Darcio loved to sing and Darcio knew Heather loved to listen to him sing and so he sang to her on every visit and they grew fonder of each other as the days finished and began again. Until one day when she didn’t show. Confused, Darcio picked his apple and left thinking the princess may have had some sort of prior engagement, but when she didn’t show again the following day, he started to worry.
That afternoon a proclamation was made. The princess had been taken ill and there was no cure for what ailed her. Whispers went from person to person in the village. Nobody knew exactly what the illness was and how she had contracted it.
“Fetch the apothecary,” the king insisted. Feeling helpless as his daughter slept, the king paced the room feverishly, frantic over the mystery ailment.
In the four-poster bed with fluffed pillows and covered with thick luxurious quilts, lay the princess. Her beautiful long hair flowed like a river of gold against the blue satin of the soft furnishings that adorned the bed.
The apothecary completed a thorough examination. “I have some bad news your majesty,” he said gravely. “Princess Heather has contracted a disease common with teenagers. It keeps them in bed and they spend most of the time sleeping. However, there is a cure.”
King Aram was beside himself with grief. “Anything, I’ll spare no expense for my beautiful daughter.”
The apothecary braced himself for the king’s wrath. “The first cure is one that is not very successful, but if she perhaps found some part-time employment within the village, it would encourage her to get up out of bed and she may overcome the illness.”
“Out of the question,” the king shouted, red in the face from anger at the thought of the princess working. “Next.”
“I can make her a potion to help her get well again, but I need the black rose and the paw of the beaverick,” the apothecary said.
“So, it shall be. Gather the villagers. I need a volunteer to ride to the castle of Queen Mariella for the rose and there must be a hunt for the beaverick,” the king announced.
The villagers were gathered in front of the steps of the castle and waited for the king’s announcement. Murmurs arose from the crowds as they were anxious to know what the king was about to say.
“Attention,” bellowed King Aram. Queen Cliona stood beside him sniffing into a handkerchief. “For goodness sake will you stop your snivelling,” he insisted, looking at his wife. “You’re an embarrassment.”
Cliona looked at the king and burst into tears running into castle.
“As you all may know, my daughter is unable to get out of bed,” Aram announced ignoring his wife. “I’m looking for volunteers. Firstly, to hunt the beaverick and secondly to secure a black rose from Queen Mariella’s garden.”
A gasp went up from the crowd.
A brave knight stepped forward. “I’ll hunt the beaverick.”
“I’ll hunt the beaverick too,” said another knight joining his brother.
Before too long a large posse had gathered to hunt the beaverick, but there were no volunteers to fetch the black rose from the castle of the wicked queen. The king looked perplexed, the potion wouldn’t work without the black rose and it looked as though nobody was willing to take on the quest.
Noticing the king’s look of despair, Darcio stepped forward. “I will fetch the black rose from the castle of the wicked Queen Mariella.”
Laughter erupted from the crowd.
“Silence,” shouted the king.
“If it please your majesty, I would be honoured to bring back the black rose.”
“Maybe it’s the princess’s heaving bosom that makes the baker’s son so eager to help,” said one of the knights.
“Your majesty, I know nothing of your daughter’s heaving bosom. I’m just a boy with a friend who needs his help,” Darcio told the king.
“I admire your valour,” the King said. “If you fulfil your obligation, I will grant you one request. You shall go forth with my finest horse and some bread and cheese.”
The baker – a widower, was so proud of his son, but running the bakery alone would be quite difficult. “Now, I want you to listen to me son. The Queen Mariella has magic. She wears a petrified black rose around her neck for protection. Be careful Darcio, the wicked queen can transform into any creature she likes. Be brave and don’t show fear, if you do, you will surely perish.”
Thanking his father, he took one last look around the bakery that been his prison until now and headed for the palace to choose his mount. Darcio agreed, and on a fine palomino with the gold crest of the palace emblazoned on his new tunic, he set off on his quest to fetch the black rose. The sun set twice before Darcio arrived at the valley of no return. The bread and cheese he was given to eat along the way was tasty, but it was an apple he craved the most. Drinking from a stream he wished for a tree with the shiny red fruit he ate daily.
As he approached the castle of the black rose an eeriness came over him and Darcio suddenly thought carefully about what he was doing. The stories of wicked Queen Mariella stuck in his head. Sitting just in sight of the castle walls, he ran over his options in his mind. She had magic, he had none. She could transform into anything, he was just a boy. But a boy with the gift of a singsong voice and the knowledge of how to use it. Perhaps he could defeat her after all. Once on his way again, Darcio began to sing.
Behind the walls of the castle the queen sat gazing upon her beauty in the surface of a pond. Floating through the air came the voice of a minstrel. It reached her ears with a melodious kiss and drew her from the reflection that she admired so readily. Approaching the gate to her grounds her long purple gown flowed behind her like a river of grape juice as she walked quickly along the pathways eager to know the owner of the angelic voice.
His voice did not waiver as Darcio approached the large entrance to the castle and he stayed strong thinking of Princess Heather. By the side of the iron gates a rope hung limply from a bell suspended on an iron holder. Pulling the rope tinkled the bell which rang out louder than he expected. Darcio waited and then he saw her. A vision of exquisiteness she approached as if floating on a cloud and he knew instantly that this beauty was his foe.
The gates opened as if by magic and the queen spoke to him. “Are you the owner of the song I heard?”
“Yes, your majesty,” Darcio said. He remembered his father’s words and reached inside searching for the courage he hoped was hiding somewhere.
“What brings you to the castle of the black rose minstrel?” she asked him, curious that a boy would be wandering through the forest singing.
“If it pleases your majesty, I just need shelter for the night,” Darcio managed, hoping she didn’t cast some sort of hex on him. Up close her beauty far outshone any flower and even the black rose would pale in comparison, but his heart belonged to his friend and nothing would sway him from the path he had chosen.
“Very well, you can stay for one night if you sing for me minstrel.” The queen stepped aside to let him pass.
It felt as though he moved through the entrance to the grounds without even trying. Darcio wondered what sort of magic it was that made a horse move as if it were floating. The gates closed behind him and he felt as though he was trapped, but it was for a good reason and her name was Heather. At that moment, he remembered the advice he had been given about the queen and he could use it to his advantage, all he had to do was trick her, but it clearly wasn’t going to be easy.
“Follow me minstrel. Your horse can stay in my stable and you will be my guest in the castle for the evening and sing to me. I will show you where you will sleep tonight, and you will dine with me before you sing. Rest that beautiful voice for now, you will need it later,” the queen said as they walked along past the pond where she had looked at her reflection, and past the garden of the rows of bushes that flowered with the black rose.
The chamber Darcio was offered for the night was more luxurious than he had ever imagined a bedroom to be. A large warm comfortable bed that was almost cloudlike took up just a fraction of the room. A table with chairs stood by the window and on the table, a bowl of apples. He wondered if she knew more about him than he thought, but apples are apples and these apples were so sweet and juicy he couldn’t imagine why he’d ever liked any other. First one, then another and another and as he ate apple after apple, the bowl refilled itself. Feeling a little full, he lay on the soft bed and thought about his quest. Two nights sleeping rough to be rewarded with a bed like he had never known. But he remembered the real reward, the health of the princess he had grown close to.
Dining in the large castle was a daunting quest of its own for Darcio, as the room was enormous and the long table the length of the hall. Two places were set at one end. A small feast was laid before them both. Roast chicken with potatoes and beans, dressed with a thick succulent gravy far different than the sauce his father made from a packet. Queen Mariella sliced at the chicken with a touch so delicate that Darcio was unsure how the knife went through the flesh. Keenly, she surveyed it with her dark eyes that were likened to coal. Around her neck hung the necklace Darcio had heard about. The petrified black rose that supposedly gave her the power she used to keep her realm intact. If he could just get that necklace, but how?
After the meal, he stood before Mariella and sang. His voice carried through the castle reaching the far most turret where it escaped through the arched windows into the evening. Song after song was performed for the queen and her delight was apparent.
Exhausted, Darcio returned to his room just before midnight. He slept until the light flooded in through the windows. His mind turned instantly to the job at hand as he opened his eyes. A tray had been brought into the room and left. Under the cloche a plate of bacon and beans waited, and he tucked in eagerly. There was no bread, but what did it matter, the food was ample, and the bowl of apples was proof of that.
A tour of the grounds filled the morning. The staff were almost invisible, but they were definitely present. Darcio wondered how many there were and how loyal they were to the queen. She seemed very nice, but there was a slight uneasiness about the situation, and he knew to trust his instincts. From the horses in the stables to the cat that smooched up against his legs, the animals were well looked after. He walked with her until they came to the garden with the rows of bushes that hosted the flower he sought. The scent filled the air and nothing sweeter was known. That was the trophy he contested for and as they walked in the sunshine, he conjured a picture in his mind, a picture of the strategy to secure the rose and return to his home.
Another evening passed and Darcio was once more the queen’s guest. Again, they dined together, and he sang for her as payment for his bed. This went on for quite some time and days turned to weeks, weeks to months and months to years. As time passed, Darcio the baker’s son forgot the reason he was in the castle and spent his days enjoying life.
“Do you like my garden,” Queen Mariella asked one afternoon when they were appreciating the sunshine and the fragrant black rose.
“Your garden in wondrous and the black rose more fragrant than any I have ever known,” Darcio told her. “They seem to bloom all year round though.”
“It’s a spell,” the queen said. “An enchantment to make sure I have roses for ever.”
He adjourned to his suite and thought about the roses. What had she said? Roses for ever. Something stirred in his memory, the reason he was there. Something about roses for ever, for ever, for Heather. Roses for Heather. The Princess Heather, his friend. How could he have forgotten her? The black rose and what was the other thing? The paw of the beaverick. Darcio searched his mind for a way to get both and before the evening meal was served, he had come up with a plot.
Roast chicken and potatoes filled the dining hall with a delicious aroma and Darcio sat at the table with the confidence he required to gain possession of both the beaverick and the rose.
Before singing for the queen, Darcio cleared his throat and set his plan in action. “I’ve always wondered about your magical ability.”
“Go on,” she said, intrigued by his sudden urge for conversation.
“Is it true you can change into anything you wish?” he asked her, trying to sound as casual as he could.
“Yes, would you like to see?” she asked him. Darcio had never been interested in her magic before and she was eager to show off her power.
“Can you turn into a beaverick?” he asked her.
She stood before him and muttered some sort of incantation that instantly began to change her shape. The small animal sat on the floor before him. Quickly he snatched the necklace from the beaverick and stabbed the beast with the carving knife. Lifting the creature by the tail, he stuffed it into a sack and ran to the stable. Jumping on his horse he galloped though the grounds to the garden of the black rose. Darcio didn’t even stop, reaching down he grabbed at a bush and pulled it from the ground, roots and all. Out of the castle yard and through the gates he went. The horse didn’t give up and Darcio didn’t want it to. He rode until he could see the village with the small bakery he had known all his life. Through the streets to the gates of the castle. Across the drawbridge and into the yard he went, not stopping until he had reached the entrance he was more than familiar with. Alighting from his mount, he leapt up the steps and strode proudly into the majestic building, up the stairs and into the room where the princess lay fast asleep.
The apothecary prepared the medicine required to bring the princess out of her stupor, I mean slumber. She opened her eyes and there was her father and beside him, her friend. Darcio took her hand thankful she was going to be all right now, and maybe a little more active.
A ball was held in Darcio’s honour and everybody from the small village was invited. There was music and dancing, but best of all, his best friend was smiling and laughing.
The king clapped his hands together and a hush fell over the crowd. “Darcio, step forward,” he boomed.
Quietly, Darcio stepped forward and stood before the king. The gruff look on his face told the boy there was something serious about to be addressed, he hoped it had nothing to do with the apples he had been granted by the kitchen staff years before.
“Darcio, you travelled through the kingdom to the realm of Queen Mariella and brought back the beaverick and the black rose to save my daughter. It took you a long time, but you succeeded. You are without doubt, the bravest in the land. I will grant you anything your heart desires,” the king announced.
“If it pleases your majesty, all I want to do is sing,” Darcio told the king.
A look of surprise crossed the kings face. “You mean you don’t want to marry my daughter and become a knight?”
Darcio was gobsmacked, Heather was his friend and he’d never even thought about her in that way before. “No, your majesty, I’ve only ever wanted to sing.”
“Well, I’m surprised by your answer, but if all you want to do is sing then your wish is granted,” the king said smiling. “Perhaps you could start tonight.”
Darcio jumped at the chance. He sang well into the morning as one by one his audience chose sleep over an all-night party. Only when the last of the villagers retired did his singing cease.
I wish I could tell you they all lived happily ever after, but I can’t. The baker, not having anybody to help him with the bread deliveries worked himself into an early grave. Princess Heather recovered from her illness but was quite upset that Darcio didn’t want to marry her. She ran off with one of her father’s knights and they now live in a small run-down caravan with their three children. Apparently being a knight doesn’t pay very well and God forbid the princess should work. The king and queen were stricken with grief when their daughter ran off, with one of the more witless knights I might add, and they sold their castle, moved to the Caribbean, and haven’t been heard of since. The castle of Queen Mariella was taken over by travellers who converted it to a bed and breakfast for those who enjoy pottery, candle making and tie-dyed clothing. Seemingly, the rooms are quite cheap, and the food is all organic. As for Darcio, he remained single which was the sensible thing to do, sold the bakery for a considerable amount, moved to the city where he started his own record label, and of course, lived happily ever after.