The False Prince and True – Pre-Intermediate Level
The king had just woken up from his afternoon sleep. It was summer and, as they do in other hot countries, everyone got up early in the morning but rested from twelve to three in the afternoon. He had dressed himself in cool white clothes, and was passing through the palace on his way to a meeting with his Council. Suddenly a number of young nobles appeared before him. Two of them were holding another man by the arms. One of the others bowed before the king and spoke.
‘Your Highness, this morning we were all playing tennis on the royal courts. Your son the prince and this man were playing together and started to argue about something. The prince became very angry and said many bad words to him. Finally he could take no more and hit the prince, which caused blood to run from his mouth and nose.’
‘We were about to kill him for daring to hit the prince. However, his grandfather was near and told us that we must bring the matter before you. As his grandfather was one of the most important people in you father’s court, we did as he asked.’
The king had listened to the story carefully. ‘Am I right in thinking that my son the prince had no weapon with him?’ he asked.
‘No, Your Highness, the prince did have a weapon. He always carries a dagger in his belt. But when he saw the blood coming from his face, he went to a corner of the court and began to cry. We thought this very strange.’
On hearing this the king walked to a window and stood for a few minutes with his back to the room. The group of young men said nothing. Then the king came back, his face looking serious.
‘I will be honest with you,’ he said. ‘Although the prince is my only son, I would be happier if you had told me he was dead than to hear that he would let someone hit him without fighting back. As for this man, put him under guard and bring him before my Council in fifteen days to explain his actions. However, I do not think he can escape death after attacking one of the royal family.’
The young man who was being held lifted his head as if to say something. However, the king did not wait and walked away. Later, he sent word that the prisoner was to be allowed to visit any part of the city, under heavy guard, in order to find people who would speak for him.
The young man was taken away by soldiers. He had many friends who spent the next fourteen days going about the city with him. They asked many wise men how he might escape death. However, none could help him find a good enough reason for hitting the prince.
The fourteenth night had come. Having lost all hope, the young man went out to take a last walk through the city. He walked around not knowing where he went. His face was so white and sad looking that none of his friends spoke as they walked. The silent group passed some hours in this way. Suddenly, near the gate of a church, an old woman appeared and stood before them. Her back was bent, and there were so many lines on her face that she looked at least ninety. But her eyes were as bright and quick as those of someone much younger.
‘Sir,’ she said, ‘I know all that has happened to you, and how you have been looking for a wise man who can save your life. I must tell you that there is no one that can do this but me. But first, you must promise to do what I ask.’
At her words the young man felt as if a great load had all at once been taken from him. ‘Please, save me, and I will do anything!’ he cried. ‘It is so hard to leave the world as young as I am and go out into the darkness.’
‘You will not need to do that,’ answered the old woman. ‘You have only to marry me, and you will be free.’
He answered without thinking. ‘Marry you? But I am not yet twenty and you… why, you must be at least a hundred! Oh, no, that is quite impossible.’
The look of anger which came into her eyes made him feel a little worried. ‘As you wish,’ she said. ‘And since you will not marry me, let the king feed your body to his dogs.’ She then walked quickly away down the street.
As she left, the young man came to understand the full horror of what he had done. He saw that he had thrown away his only way of staying alive. ‘Well, if I must, I must,’ he said to himself, and began to run as fast as he could after the old woman. By this time she was so far away that it was hard to see her in the moonlight. Who would have believed that a woman past ninety could walk so fast? It seemed more like flying! At last, he reached her side.
‘Old woman, I am sorry for speaking unkindly just now. I was wrong and will thankfully accept the offer you made me.’
‘Ah, I thought you might change your mind,’ she answered in a voice that seemed a little strange. ‘We have no time to lose. Follow me at once.’
She led him through the city until they stopped at the door of a small house in which a priest lived. Before the priest, the old woman and the young man agreed to be married. After this, she asked the priest and guards to leave them alone for a short time. Then she told the young man what he was to say the next morning when he was brought before the king and his Council.
The Council room was full of people when the prisoner was brought in. All were surprised at the brightness of his face. The king spoke loudly so that everyone in the room could hear.
‘Young man, you have been brought here because you attacked a member of the royal family. Under the law, the punishment for this is death. Do you have anything to say for yourself before we pass judgement? If so, be quick in answering.’
With a low bow the young man spoke in a clear voice.
‘My great and just king, and you, nobles and wise men of the land, I happily leave my life in your hands. I know that you will listen and judge rightly, and ask only that you will allow me to speak to the end before you give judgment.
‘For four years, great king, you had been married to the queen and yet she had no children. This made you very sad. The queen saw this, and also that your love was going from her. She thought night and day of some plan that might put an end to this. Finally, when you were far away fighting in a war, the queen came up with a plan. She took as her own the baby of a poor man from outside the city, and sent a message to tell you that you had a son. A few weeks later, the queen fell ill and died. The baby, of course, was brought up as the prince. Now, if your highness will allow me, I will speak of myself.’
‘I find what you have said so far impossible to believe,’ answered the king. ‘I can’t see how you could have anything more to say that will help you. However, as you are facing death, you may go on with your story.’
The young man continued.
‘One day, some time after the death of the queen, you went hunting with the nobles of the court. You all rode after a deer, but your horse was so fast that none of the others could keep up with you. You found yourself alone in a part of the country which you did not know.’
‘You saw a field of apple trees in which a girl was playing with a ball. You went up to her to ask the way back to the palace. When she turned to talk you, you were so taken with her beauty that all else left your mind. Again and again you rode back to see her. At last she agreed to marry you, not knowing that you were the king. She also agreed to live in a small house you had built for her in the forest, and not to tell any of her family or friends that she was married. The day you were married, you gave her three rings and a necklace with a cross on it.’
‘For some months you visited her every week. However, fighting broke out in a distant part of the kingdom and you had to leave for a time. When you returned and next went to the house, it was empty. No one could tell you where your wife had gone. That, Your Highness, I will now tell you.’
The young man stopped and looked at the king, whose face had turned red. Then he went on with his story.
‘She was carrying your child. She went back to the house of her father, who was once of your father’s closest friends. The cross she was wearing told him at once who you were. He was very angry when he heard her story. He told her that she must stay with him until the day when you would say publicly that she was your queen.’
‘My mother died shortly after I was born. I was brought up by my grandfather in one of his great houses. Here are the rings you gave to my mother, and here is the cross. They will show that I am your true son.’
As he spoke the young man laid these at the feet of the king. The nobles came closer to examine them. The king was the only one who did not move from his seat. He had forgotten the Council room and all the people about him. He saw only the apple field as it was twenty years before, and the beautiful girl playing with a ball. A sudden silence made him look up. He found the eyes of every person in the room fixed on him.
‘It is true,’ he said with tears in his eyes. ‘He must be my true son and not the other. Let every man here promise to make this man king after my death.’
One by one, all the nobles in the room knelt before the young man and promised him their loyalty. A message was sent to the false prince, telling him never again to appear at court. However, as he had no way of knowing before this that he was not the true son, he was given enough money to live well for the rest of his life.
When it was all over, the king made a sign for his newly found son to follow him. They got up and went into another room. ‘Tell me how you knew all this,’ he said.
The prince told the king of his meeting with the old woman who had brought him the rings and cross from his mother. He told how he had promised in front of a priest to marry her, and explained how he did not want to do this because of the difference in their ages. He then asked the if the king could choose another woman for him to marry.
The king looked at him unhappily. ‘You promised to marry her if she saved your life. Whatever happens, the son of a king must always keep his promises.’
The king then rang a bell that hung close by. ‘Go and look for the priest who lives near the door of the prison,’ he said to the servant who appeared. ‘Ask him where you can find the old woman who visited him last night. When you have found her, bring her to the palace.’
It took some time to find the old woman, but at last it was done. As was usual for important visitors, the royal guards were lined up to welcome her. The guards looked at each other in surprise as an old woman, bent with age, passed between them. But they were even more surprised at the lightness of her step as she went up the steps to the palace door where the king was standing with prince at his side. If the king was surprised at the appearance of the aged woman, he did not show it. He said some kind words, thanking her for giving him back his true son. He then took her hand and led her to the palace church where a priest was waiting to marry them.
For the next few weeks little was seen of the prince. He spent all of his days hunting and trying to forget the old woman he had married. As for the princess, no one troubled themselves about her. She passed the days alone in her rooms, for she did not want the services of the many servants the king had sent for her.
One night the prince returned after a longer hunt than usual. He was so tired that he went straight up to his room to sleep. During the night he was woken by a strange noise. Thinking that it might be a robber, he jumped out of bed and picked up his sword which lay next to the bed. Then he saw that the noise came from the next room. This was the room of the princess, his wife. Walking softly to the door, he looked in.
There was a lamp burning in the room, and he saw her lying quietly on the bed. She had a golden crown upon her head, and the lines on her face were all gone. It was now whiter than snow, and as smooth as that of a girl of fourteen. Could this really be his wife. This beautiful, beautiful woman? The prince was still looking at her when she opened her eyes and smiled at him.
‘Yes, I really am your wife,’ she said, as if she had guessed his thoughts. ‘The spell is ended. Now I can tell you who I am, and what happened to cause me to take the shape of an old woman.’
‘My father is the king of Granada. I was only a few months old when a fairy, who did not like my parents, put a spell on me. This bent my back and made my skin look as if I was a hundred years old. I was so ugly that at last the king ordered my nurse to take me away from the palace. After that, she was the only person who cared about me. We lived together in this city on a small amount of money sent for me each year by my father.’
‘When I was about three, an old man arrived at our house. He asked my nurse to let him come in and rest, as he could walk no longer. She saw that he was very ill, and put him to bed. She took such good care of him that soon he was as strong as ever. In thanking her for her kindness, he told her that he was a wizard and could give her anything she chose to ask for, except life or death. She answered that what she wished for most in the world was that my old skin should disappear, and that I should again have the beauty with which I was born. He answered that as my bad luck was because of the spell of a fairy, his magic could not help. He said that the only way I could be freed from the spell was if a man would agree to marry me, as I was, before my fifteenth birthday. He knew that this would be difficult, but said that he would do his best to help.’
‘As you would expect, finding someone who would agree to marry me was not easy. I looked so old and ugly that no men were interested in talking to me. My nurse and I had almost given up hope. My fifteenth birthday was coming close, and I had never so much as spoken to a man.’
At last the wizard visited us again. He told us what had happened here, and your story. He said that I should put myself in your way when you had lost all hope and offer to save you if you would agree to marry me.’
‘That is my history. Now you must ask the king to send a message to Granada to inform my father of our marriage. I think,’ she added with a smile, ‘that he will be happy.’