King Friedrich was a good king and ruled for many years over a prosperous kingdom. But he grew sad with age as he had failed to have any children. He and Queen Wilomena had discussed the issue many times, remembering how Wilomena’s father had been in a similar state and cursed himself by saying “I want to have a child, even if it’s the Devil himself!” And so King Friedrich and Queen Wilomena were careful in their thoughts and hoped one day they would be blessed with a child.
While out for a stroll King Friedrich came across an Old Man, the same one who had told him what to do to lift the curse off Wilomena many years ago.
“Where are you going, Your Highness?” said the Old Man.
“I am merely taking a walk,” said King Friedrich.
“Ah, but we both know that isn’t true, for I know you have come looking for me to tell you what you must do.”
“It had been so many years I scarcely thought you were still alive, Old Man. I see it wasn’t wrong for me to hold out such hopes.”
“True, there are many thoughts you have tried to keep hidden, and now you will find they have been heard and answered.”
Friedrich paused to consider what the Old Man said and then his blood ran cold. All along on his walk he had been wondering what would happen if, unlike his former father-in-law, he simply wished for a child that was nothing less than an angel from on high. Surely it couldn’t be a curse to wish such a thing upon a child, but in meeting the Old Man he remembered what had happened before. Wilomena had been wished into the world as a child of the devil and was released from her curse only by the devout actions of Friedrich when they were both young. Now King Friedrich had wished a child of the angels into his life and would have to fear the day she revealed herself to be evil.
Rushing home he was startled to find Wilomena pregnant.
“It’s a miracle!” she said. Friedrich was so afraid of what he had wrought that he dared not admit to the queen what he feared. In time they gave birth to a beautiful boy who looked like nothing less than th cherubim painted on the ceilings of the church.
And they named him Kilgore. “Just like my father,” Wilomena beamed.
He was a beautiful child, with ringlets of hair and golden eyes that would shine like suns even in the dark. He had a perfect disposition and anyone who saw him immediately fell in love with him. There was no one in the kingdom who wouldn’t willingly give their life for Prince Kilgore and they were fond of saying so.
Which naturally worried King Friedrich.
Friedrich knew it was only a matter of time before Kilgore would reveal himself to be a demon child and take all the devoted lives he could with him. But what could he do? He couldn’t tell his wife the queen what he had done, nor could he successfully convince his subjects that his own son was not to be trusted, for who would believe that Friedrich could be so unloving a father as that? At last, when Kilgore was about to turn fourteen, Friedrich went looking for the Old Man to tell him what to do.
“You have come looking for me again,” said the Old Man.
“I marvel at your ability to still be alive, but am grateful just the same,” said Friedrich.
“You are here to hear me tell you what must be done?”
“If that is possible, yes.”
“There is nothing to be done. Which is to say, you must do absolutely nothing and must not interfere even when your instincts tell you otherwise. You son Kilgore will three times try your patience but if you do not ignore him you will be done for and he will kill everyone in he kingdom.”
“There is nothing I can do to stop him?”
“There is plenty you could do to stop him, but you must not no matter what.”
Confused, Friedrich left and returned to the castle to find that Kilgore was organizing a small army of kings men.
“Father, we have found a massive treasure in a cave not far from here! I have collected these men to come help me retrieve it. We shouldn’t be gone more than a fortnight.”
“Where is this treasure cave you’ve found?”
“Along the shore, above the cliffs.”
In his youth Friedrich had heard of such a treasure in the cliffs, and that it was guarded by a dragon who would happily devour any who would attempt to claim it. Rumor was that the cliff walls were white with calcium from the decaying bones of those who have attempted to get inside. He looked at his son’s face, and the faces of the men about to ride off, and felt a horrible pang in his heart that they were headed to their death.
“Godspeed, my son,” said Friedrich. “Ride off and make me proud.”
For the next two weeks King Friedrich worried in secret about what was happening. He had prayed that the Old Man was wrong and that Kilgore and his men would return unscathed, but those prayers were not answered. Out of a gray morning fog Kilgore returned alone and without any gold. He told a collected audience of their battle with the dragon and how the men fought valiantly to the end and that it was a miracle that he managed to survive.
“I would have given my own life to continue the fight but I owed it to the families of the fallen men to return home and tell them what had happened myself. And I intend to do what I can to make it up to each of them for their loss.”
Which he did. Prince Kilgore visited each family personally and delivered a sack of coins from the royal treasury while promising to help each family in any way he could. To the families of farmers he helped plant and reap the harvest. To the families of smiths and coopers he would help forge irons and make barrels. It seemed impossible that he could manage it, but young Kilgore worked twenty hours a a day around the village for a full year before the families released him of his obligation. If any had harbored hatred or bitterness toward the Prince before the kingdom had seen the seriousness of commitment to helping them as a sign of sincerity and they loved him anew.
Then one day a traveling troupe of performers came to the kingdom, among them an acrobat named Miranda. No one would deny that Miranda was the fairest young woman any of them had ever seen, and there were even rumors that she Kilgore was meeting in secret with Miranda with plans to run off and be married. These rumors made Friedrich nervous and once again he sought the counsel of the Old Man.
“You are right to question this union, but you must encourage it with all your heart,” said the Old Man.
“I don’t understand,” said the king.
“You will. Trust me. Welcome your son’s decision and be sure that he be the one to announce it to your subjects.”
King Friedrich, having no reason to doubt the Old Man, returned home an immediately confronted his son with the rumors.
“It is true, father. I have fallen in love with Miranda and intend to bring her into the family. I was afraid you would not understand, otherwise I would have told you myself. Please, do not be angry.”
“Angry? I’m overjoyed! We must announce your wedding at once!”
And so they did. Heralds were sent and the entire kingdom gathered to hear the official proclamation.
“Loyal subjects,” the king began, “I have joyous news concerning the Prince. Here, I’ll let him tell you in his own words.”
Prince Kilgore blanched. He hadn’t expected he would be the one to make the announcement. At the king’s urging he stepped forward and addressed the gathered crowd.
“I have decided upon a wife…” here the prince searched the crowd until he found Miranda “And there she is.”
There was an audible gasp from the crowd, and then weeping. Soon all the young girls of marrying age ran off to their homes while there was a short round of polite applause.
“I do not understand this,” said the queen.
“I shall get to the bottom of this,” said the king.
Friedrich sent several of his men throughout the villages of his kingdom to learn what had happened and was shocked by what he’d heard when they returned. Throughout the land Prince Kilgore had promised himself to many a maiden, allowing that he could not marry them until he turned sixteen. With some it was said he had fathered children, and for all he was paying them from the royal treasury to keep their affairs secret. Following the announcement many of these maidens returned home to poison or hang themselves, some poisoning or drowning their children was well. The result of Prince Kilgore’s announcement was a public humiliation that many could not bear. All told, hundreds of young women and children died.
It became unsafe for Miranda and Kilgore to remain in the kingdom and, with Friedrich’s blessings, they stole away in the middle of the night with a promise to return only when it was safe. Friedrich had become enraged by all that had happened and went in search of the Old Man.
“Had I ignored you, Old Man, I could have warned my armies of a dragon or prevented mass suicides and murders. I have followed your advice and nothing but bad has happened as a result.”
“You forget, as a boy, I saved you thrice from a demon who turned out to be the woman you now call queen.”
“Yes, and you warned me that three times the prince would test me and I was to not intervene. But I need to know, I need your assurance that this is all for the good.”
“If you follow my advice this one final time, then yes, it is all for the good.”
So the king listened to the Old Man one more time and hoped he was as good as his word.
Months went by and the kingdom had returned to, well, not normal so much as a state of calm. The king and queen devoted much of their time and treasure to their subjects, consoling families that had lost daughters and grandchildren, and seeing to the happiness of everyone. One day word came form a messenger that an army was on the march to seize the land and resources of King Friedrich’s kingdom. Under most circumstance a king, any king, would mount an army and meet the intruders head on, and Friedrich and Wilomena could count on the love of their subjects to support their decision. Instead, Friedrich instructed his people to ignore the visitors no matter what they did, no matter what they said, and to trust him that everything would work out for the best.
Finally the invading army arrived and was surprised to find no resistance as they entered the kingdom. As they approached farmers it was as if the army were invisible, they would ask questions and receive no answers. Even when they threatened people with the point of a sword they did not respond. This infuriated the army leader who charged toward the castle demanding to speak with the king. When told the king refused to give him an audience the army leader threatened to kill everyone in the kingdom until he gained the king’s audience. The king remained in the castle, and the army slaughtered every man, woman, and child they could find, which wasn’t difficult because they did not resist.
Finally, King Friedrich and Queen Wilomena appeared and demanded the army leader remove his helmet. Of course they knew it was their own son, Prince Kilgore, even before he revealed himself.
“You’ve cursed me!” Kilgore shouted. “I was not one day out of the kingdom before Miranda met up with her cronies. They stripped me of my valuables and rode off. There was no way I could return to the kingdom and face what had happened.”
“Why have you come home with an army?” said Queen Wilomena. “Why have you killed all of our people?”
“Why do you not stop me from doing horrible things?! Father, you knew there was a dragon guarding the treasure but you did not warn me. You knew what would happen when I declared my love for Miranda in public and yet again you did not warn me. And now you stand by and let my army take the lives of an entire kingdom, father, why?”
“I was given a choice once,” King Freidrich said, “And I chose to come to this kingdom and release your mother, the queen, from an evil spell. I have lived with that and many other choices my whole life.”
Both Queen Wilomena and Prince Kilgore looked to Friedrich with confusion.
“That is not an answer,” said Kilgore, who promptly drew his sword and ran it through his father repeatedly. To their astonishment, though he bled, the king did not die.
“I have survived much worse than this,” the king said.
Then Wilomena and Kilgore began to lighten like ash in a fireplace, and papery layers of their skin began to peel away and take flight in the wind.
“You have undone us!” Wilomena screamed to her son.
From the forests and the fields the bodies of the dead came and watched as Wilomena and Kilgore crumbled like dust and then blew away into the sky. Friedrich’s wounds healed themselves. As he looked around at the faces of his subjects he regarded each one, as if committing every one to memory has he did.
“It would be better this never happened,” said Friedrich. “Not by my doing.”
Friedrich closed his eyes and the world vanished. The kingdom, his people, the entire history of the previous decades erased. When he opened his eyes Friedrich was sitting by the fire in the house of the Old Man. He was once again a boy of fifteen.
“You have brought me back!” said Friedrich.
“You never left,” said the Old Man.
Out of the fog of his thinking Friedrich remembered. He was on the road when a king offered him a position guarding a coffin in a church. The coffin contained a demon child. If Friedrich followed the Old Man’s advice he would lift the curse and reveal the demon to be Wilomena. They would marry and have a son who was equally cursed and it would fall to Friedrich to once again stop the curse. Before undertaking these duties Friedrich had asked the Old Man what would happen if he did as he was told, and so the Old Man prepared a soup that gave him the gift of visions. He had seen it all as if he had lived it and came back to this place by the fire.
“Now you know what you must do,” said the Old Man.
“Yes,” said Friedrich. “I must stop doing what you and the king and others tell me to do and make decisions for myself.”
The Old Man nodded in agreement.
Friedrich left that kingdom, and never released Wilomena from the curse as the demon child, and they never became king and queen, never had their own demon child. The Old Man stayed on the edge of the kingdom warning away other travelers like Friedrich and in time the kingdom and the demon child vanished from the earth. The Old Man lived long enough to see this through.
Which is why we are here today and able to tell such stories.
Unlike the other Grimm stories I’ve been playing with, this one picks up where the original left off. I have never liked the ‘happily ever after’ aspect of some fairy tales, especially where death and dark doings are so easily erased by magic. In the original, “The Princess in the Coffin and the Sentry,” it didn’t seem right the Friedrich’s blind duty (and an undercurrent of faith) could take care of a problem not of his own making (a father’s curse) and return a kingdom to normal, not without some sort of consequences.
Plus, I never liked that Friedrich was first bullied into taking the sentry position, then bullied by the Old Man into enduring a horrible series of tribulations. I thought that he should have at least been given some choice in the matter, or had a better sense of the outcome. To that end, I guess this is fairy tale revisionist history.
And since I was playing with history, I thought it might be fun to suggest that things would have been different for us, the reader, had the original fairy tale played itself out.