Once, three sons of a king consented to travel together. They wanted to pursue rumors of a magnificent land of fruit and wine and beauty fed by a waterfall of purest gold; gossips even added that if one unfolded the riddle, he could claim that land as his own. Rather than share their glory with others, they had agreed to travel with only one squire to serve the three of them and to speak of their destination to no one else.
This servant was the son of a penniless noble who labored beside his own farmers and had no pretensions about his own position. Since the castle dwellers sneered at the father’s “lack of pride,” the son was always saddled with the most unpleasant tasks of the castle rather than training with the other squires to be a knight. Most days, he was little better than a scullion.
“Jack, the stables need mucking out, and the grooms are busy. It’ll build muscle for jousting.”
“Jack, these pots need a strong arm. Clean them as your practice for the sword.”
“Jack, the princes want someone to attend them on a journey, but only one among the three. You’ll do, lad.”
And so Jack found himself trailing behind the royalty with a string of pack horses, one for each prince and two more for general provisions. Not only that, but he was responsible for the four riding horses, cooking, cleaning, setting up the camp and tent, and helping their highnesses dress and bathe. He found himself grateful that the princes had deigned to share a tent.
The first night was a fair sample of how the camp was to be run. Upon coming into a pretty forest glade, Prince Leonard the eldest lifted a hand to halt the company and called, “Squire, we’re making camp here. Be so good as to erect the tent immediately.”
Jack creaked as much as his saddle when he dismounted, but he made his way to the pack animal with the tent and began tugging at the straps securing it. The other three also dismounted (somewhat stiffly, Jack noted with glee) and dropped the reins to make themselves as comfortable as possible in the open space.
Prince Edward plopped next to a fallen log to watch Jack as he wrestled with the tent poles.
“Page, never mind that now. You need to fetch the water and firewood, or else we won’t eat until long after sundown.”
Jack heard his father’s voice in his head, “Never insist on one noble’s rights above another. Follow orders, and let them sort out who has precedent.”
The boy set the tangle of poles on the ground and fetched the soup pot from the luggage. He was hunched down, watching it slowly filling in the stream when the youngest Prince George approached him surreptitiously.
“Jack, my boy, wouldn’t fresh meat for the pot suit all our hearty appetites better than travel rations? Fetch us some, and I’ll make sure that you are well-rewarded.”
Jack recognized a command, so he was obliged to leave the half-filled pot on the shore and take up his sling in order to hunt rabbits in the meadow. Prince Edward saw him pass and inquired into the fire and state of dinner. With hands clasped behind his broad back, His Highness Leonard stared down the heap of canvas and rope that was supposed to be a tent and courteously queried as to why it was not standing as he requested. Prince George crossed the camp in two strides, shoving his book in his pocket, to begin a whispered discourse to his oldest brother, complete with many gestures and a few hearty smacks on the back. Prince Edward looked up idly from his cards to wink at Jack and pantomime a striking motion and blowing in cupped hands.
With a sigh, Jack stumped off to find game and bring back firewood if nothing else. His father had always said to find the easiest task to complete first, since the satisfaction would make the harder work that much sweeter. With only a little trouble, he brought down a grouse and gathered up a stash of dry wood. Laying these in the midst of the clearing, he turned his attention to the tent, which went up with only minor trouble in his deft hands. Truly, it was too large a tent for one man to erect efficiently, but he had used every trick he knew and was content. Prince Leonard looked up from trimming his beard in a propped mirror and nodded in satisfaction.
The little squire built the fire next, hauled the kettle, plucked and cleaned the grouse, and soon had a vegetable soup simmering and a bird roasting to show for his industry. He unsaddled and picketed the riding horses, removing the burdens from the others, and attempted to groom them. But the princes were impatient for their dinner, and he had to leave his work undone in order to pile the wood higher so the blaze would speed the soup. He also thoughtfully moved back the scorching grouse and added a few potatoes to the coals.
Prince Edward requested some of the wine from his own pack horse, “not the swill that Jack brought.” He filled a cup and was returning the skin as Prince Leonard emerged from the tent, demanding his trunk of clothes be brought in as well as his bed. Jack managed to haul the chest into the tent but had the unfortunate duty to inform his lordship that, in fact, with no wagons, there were no beds, only bed rolls. Prince Leonard swallowed this news with a little difficulty but managed not to choke entirely. Jack returned to find dinner a hair away from burning and in fact only saved the potatoes by deft thinking and even defter boots.
He served soup and bird from the fire, bread and wine from the supplies, and even a few honey cakes cajoled out of Cook that morning. (“A bribe of kindness never hurts one’s standing, eh, Father?”) The princes ate and drank each according to his custom, but no matter how delicately Prince Leonard used his utensils or how much Prince George nudged his brothers and laughed, they all ate with equal appetites and even Prince Edward was hard put to keep up with them. Upon finishing their meal (not without Prince Edward sending him for a few delectables squirreled away in the private stash first), Prince Leonard announced that they wished to retire to their tent for the night. And so poor Jack had to go from footman to valet, setting out their bedrolls and fresh shirts, a basin for wash water, and a lantern for light.
All alone, he ate his cold potato and the bite of soup left in the pot with a swig from a water skin to wash it down. After he had scoured the burned bits from the pot’s bottom in the sand of the stream and refilled the skins, he returned to water and groom the grazing horses before tumbling into his own cloak by the fire. In a moment, he was asleep.
The days of their journey passed much as that first day, although Jack became adept at finding and killing game from the saddle and gathering kindling when they halted for a brief repast. But a few weeks venturing into unexplored mountains and forests ran their supplies low, and even the princes had to rely on water to quench their thirst. Prince Edward no longer sent Jack to fetch things from his pack horse’s panniers but would casually find himself nearest them when his brothers were farthest away.
Prince Leonard was heard to comment, “It is such a pity that we are reduced to wearing the same travel stained clothes day in and day out; people will mistake us for vagabonds rather than princes.”
Prince George joked with Jack that a nice stag about now would raise him to the seat of hero in this camp. Jack was just thankful the packs were becoming less heavy to lift and the saddle more soft to sit.
After days and days of travel, they had been following the winding path through a particularly dense forest over a mountain when a turn abruptly revealed the tree line ended and the sun making long shadows on the sides of mountains.
His highness Prince Leonard brought the string of riders to a halt with an imperiously raised hand.
“This is perhaps an excellent location to hold a consultation; we should ponder a new direction in our quest. In fact, I propose we set up camp.”
But none of the party was paying the least attention to him, staring off into the distance with intent gazes, and Jack’s jaw had even dropped a little.
His handsome mouth set in a pouting line, Prince Leonard turned to see what drew their attention rather than descend into an unbecoming quarrel. The strained pucker of his mouth relaxed under the sight that met his eyes.
They finally had stumbled upon their destination, hidden far from their father’s kingdom. A color drenched valley filled a cup between the wooded mountain they had just left and the next one in the chain. The most arresting sight was the waterfall that fed this magical place. Falling from the steep sides of a mountain, the liquid gold tumbled down a series of rocks until it finally contained its joy in a deep pool. In turn, it fed a brilliant stream with crystal fish, and emerald plants stirred the shining waters. Trees with silver leaves and jeweled fruit sprang from those sparkling shores, and even the grass seem more lush green silk than a turf to be trod upon.
Still in a daze, Jack wanted to stand and gaze without ceasing on this unearthly place, but fear tugged at him too. “This is no place for mortal man,” he thought.
Before he had a chance to ask the young lords their pleasure, they had each set spurs to their horses and were riding recklessly down the sloped path. He followed at a more sedate pace, finding the pack horses needed to be persuaded to risk their necks on the descent more than the princes’ chargers. After navigating the animals into the meadow, he drew them along to the place where the princes had paused near the falls themselves.
Prince George seemed to voice Jack’s thoughts when he asked, “What is this place?” but he continued, “What is the riddle?” Then Jack realized that impatience and not wonder was goading the questions.
“My lords,” called a quicksilver voice, all melodies and mirth. Even the horses turned with interest to look as a maid approached them from the foot of the falls. Her lustrous skin was filled with the rich color of life. Her hair drank in the sunlight until it glowed with health. Her eyes made the stars seem pale and wan, and humor chased elegance through her face until the watcher was dazzled. Hastily, Jack dismounted and knelt to her with bowed head, knowing his place before royalty. The princes were slower to follow, and their courtly bows seemed clumsy in the light of her grace.
“Fair maiden,” Prince Leonard began to say, but Prince George pushed forward in great eagerness.
“My lady, I have come to claim these lands.”
The elegance did not fade from the woman’s face, but something came to replace the mirth, earnestness or concern, though worry seemed foreign to such a face.
“I am keeper to these lands. All may enter freely and choose one thing. But,” and here her earnestness deepened to a severe gravity, “be warned. Your choice will reveal if you are worthy of this place, for your choice will reveal your heart. Many have entered,” and with sorrow touching her deep eyes, she added, “but few have left alive. This land will judge you with exactness.”
All three brothers stirred and opened their mouths, each ready to call out his claim to preferment, but Prince George sprang to the side of his packhorse and began to drag it toward the falls. Jack hastily released its lead from the other horses, so that only one followed the prince and not the whole string.
“I have chosen,” he called above his brothers’ squabble. “I choose the golden falls themselves.”
Prince Edward began to laugh. “Don’t be an ass,” he said. “You can’t take anything so wet home with you, whatever it may be made of.”
“That,” panted Prince George as he wrestled a large basket off the side of the horse, “is where you’re wrong. I have planned for this and many other possibilities ever since I first heard the rumors.” He began to pull and lay out a series of bladders from the basket, until he had over a dozen in a neat row. “The falls will themselves never run dry, so even if I only have the one choice, it will last forever. And I will be recognized for my cleverness,” he added, with a nod and wink toward the lady.
Jack felt his heart sink into his boots. “This is no place for cleverness, your highness,” he thought.
The maiden stood with inscrutable face and spoke softly, “You have chosen. Collect your prize.”
With a smirk, Prince George seized the largest bladder and advanced to the foot of the cataract. He opened the bladder to its widest, thrust it into the surging liquid, and watched the humble container fill with the wealth of nations. It was quickly filling, and Jack hastened to his prince’s side with a second bladder. Prince George lingered with eyes only for the golden mouth not quite complete. The bladder sagged under the weight of its contents, causing the prince to teeter at the edge of the falls. Without releasing his prize, the prince could not recover his balance, and so, with a cry and soft plash, he fell into the foaming current and was sucked under the weight of the falls themselves.
After a few moments of horror-stricken silence, while Jack fumbled with his boots and jacket, the maid raised a gentle hand to stop Jack’s dash into the river. “You will be lost too, if you follow him. Stay and live.”
Turning to the other princes, she swept a searching gaze into their faces and said, “Do not share your brother’s fate. While you may choose freely and I am sworn to hinder no man’s choice, think carefully. This land did not look kindly on the heart that longed for unfailing riches.”
The remaining princes moved their lips in silent incantations, but Prince Edward shook off his stupor first.
“Fair maiden, I know my choice. I do not seek to steal the riches of this land, but truly, I would wish to taste them.”
“What is it you choose?”
“I choose the fruit of the land: anything that grows in this enchanted valley, the dishes made from its produce, and the wine shaped from the rich berries and wondrous stream. Of these things, I would like to partake.”
With an inclined head and extended arm, she said, “Come,” and led him to a seat and table close to the falls.
A flagon of wine sat there, surrounded by dishes of ivory cheese, delicate cakes, shining bread, and a basket of the jeweled fruit. Upon closer inspection, the fruit sparkled with color but the skin was ready to burst with tenderness rather than the polished cut of gems. With his back to them, the prince fell to eating immediately, and even Jack’s mouth watered as the rich aromas washed over him. Bite after bite, faster and faster, barely pausing to take a draught from the flagon, Prince Edward consumed the dazzling feast. But he faltered during a bite and then halted; Jack wondered if he was satiated.
The table rattled as Prince Edward slapped his hands down before turning towards the others. His eyes were bulging, face red, and his hands were grasping at the air. Even as understanding dawned on Jack, the prince’s lips turned fully blue, and he fell heavily to the ground. Jack bent over him, prying at his mouth, until he drew back in fear as a vine began to uncurl from inside the prince, opening flowers and unwrapping feelers.
“His heart is revealed,” she murmured. “These pleasures are meant to be taken in reverence and measure, shared and tasted rather than devoured alone. He has consumed in these few minutes what was meant to be enjoyed for a thousand years.”
The maiden turned to face the crown prince and asked in compassionate tones, “Will you still choose, knowing your brothers’ fates?”
Prince Leonard stood licking his lips and breathing heavily, casting his eyes first at the falls and then at his brother’s still form now shrouded in vines and flowers.
Jack felt compelled to dissuade him from rash actions. “My lord, let us leave. None of this is worth your life.”
Prince Leonard continued to cast about him, swinging his arms, muttering of tricks, until his gaze fell on the woman before him. It lingered admiringly as he pushed his squire away.
“Fell enchantress,” he began. “Tell me. Is there any choice that will not lead to my death?”
Her face was calm as she replied, “Yes. All choices have consequences, but not all those consequences lead to death. Will you choose?”
He frowned. “I think I see your ruse now, sorceress. I will make a worthy choice, and that choice is you.”
He took a sharp step toward her until they almost touched, locking eyes with her, and seizing her hand.
“If you are mine, your spells will not work against me,” he said as he bent to claim a kiss from her lips.
She stood still beneath his advance and then stepped back; he stood frozen in his position. Already, a sheen was spreading over his features, and as he stood locked in a lonely kiss, the gilding spread deeper into his skin until only a statue remained.
Her face was full of pity as she said, “To seize what is not yours without even the humility to ask is the height of vanity. I am sorry, but these are not my enchantments. I am only the gatekeeper.”
Jack felt his heart begin to sink as he realized that he was left to return to the king and try to explain why his sons would not come home. “You’ll be headfirst in a pot of boiling oil before the words are out of your mouth,” he thought sadly.
“You, young squire,” the maiden addressed him. “Do you wish to choose anything?”
“Me, your highness? It’s not for the likes of me. But…” And he faltered as he looked at his charges, foam hanging from bits and heads drooping, even as the sun began its own droop towards the horizon.
“Yes, young squire?”
“Water, your highness. The horses badly need it, if I’m to return them hale and whole to the castle.”
“You intend to return with your masters dead?”
“Yes, highness. I may not survive my news, but I’ll not skulk away like a thief and murderer.”
“Then come. There is water close at hand.”
Past the gilded statue of a man, past the laden table and the mound of rich vegetation that marked a prince’s grave, past the foaming gold plunging into its basin, she led him to an outcrop of rock from which a trickle of water flowed. A simple clay bowl lay in a niche, and a stone trough rested on the ground. Grasping the bowl, he patiently filled it and poured its contents into the trough. Again and again, he let the water rise to the brim and empty into the trough. The horses wandered over to him and plunged their noses into the draught. He only stopped filling after all the horses had quenched their thirst and began grazing in the twilight. With almost no thought for what he did, he put the bowl to his lips and emptied it in one satisfied gulp.
Only when he lowered the brim and saw the lady’s sparkling eyes and wide smile on her face did he realize that he had made his choice. The eagerness on the lady’s face almost ate up every other passion, but mirth (was it mirth?) tugged at her mouth.
“Your heart is revealed,” she said in exultant tones and took his hand with no modesty. He stared, dumbfounded, at his hand in hers. It began to glow with a luster to match that lady’s.
“You have chosen the greatest treasure of all, for that is the water of life. You have chosen it in modesty and industry, with no selfish thought or greedy desire.”
He stood, marveling at his own hand as it flushed in the dim twilight, and she continued.
“The king of this land has long waited for a worthy heir. Come, let us meet your new father, and claim all that you see as your own.”