“The Gryphon Cup” -- a literary wonder tale I wrote on commission, back in 2003:
The inspiration for this story came from a few Grimms’ tales: most notably “The Water of Life” and “The Goose Girl at the Spring.”
(psst: @endreal: I thought you might like this one)
Once upon a time, there lived a mighty king who flew a gryphon banner. As a prince, before he took the crown, he himself carried that banner at the head of his father’s army, leading his soldiers to many victories in foreign lands. He was proud of that gryphon, and the power and might it represented, and he was proud of the gold and jewels foreign kings would pay in tribute.
But most of all, he loved the tales of the gryphons themselves. He dreamt that one day, gold and jewels from the gryphons’ own aeries would lie in his treasure house, and that he would drink his wine from a cup carved from a gryphon’s talon – for if an enemy (and he had acquired many enemies) tried to poison him, the wine would change color, and the assassination attempt would be foiled. The astronomers, clerics, and other learned people of the court tried to tell him that gryphons did not exist in the flesh – they were merely symbolic, they said, a picture to show the might of King and God. So the prince learned to keep silent on the matter.
Then, his father died, and he was crowned king. After that, affairs of state kept him close to his throne, and he no longer journeyed across the world with his armies, or heard the tales spoken by foreign tongues. He made his counselors take an oath that they would never speak of his youthful ambition to hunt gryphons, for he understood that ridicule could weaken his kingdom no matter how strong his army. He took a gracious and well-born woman as his queen, and grew to love her dearly. In time, she bore him a son, and another the following year. Each grew into strong and handsome young men – jovial companions in the hunt, eager combatants at swordplay, and quiet horsemen in the saddle.
Over the years, the king became known as a wise ruler, because of the might and size of his kingdom, and because he never spoke in haste or in frivolity. The ministers who guided him through his youth had long since died of old age, and so no one knew of his dream to drink from a gryphon cup. Indeed, with his queen at his side, and sons to raise, the king almost forgot the dream, himself.
And then, several years after anyone thought it possible, the queen became pregnant a third time. All joy at this miracle turned to grief, however, when the queen died in her birthing bed. The babe, unlike his two older brothers, was sickly, and weak.
The king could barely stand to look at him. That night, while the midwife slept, he stole the babe from the golden cradle and silken sheets. He wrapped him in swaddling clothes of ragged wool, and left him by the kitchen door, to be nursed by the servants. When the midwife woke, he told her the babe had died in the night, as he thought the boy would soon do.
The child did not die, however, but grew into a thin, pale child. The servants named him Ashenbrow, and taught him to sweep the hearth.
The king continued to rule wisely, or so it seemed. But thoughts of mortality now weighed on his mind, and he remembered his youthful ambition to journey into distant lands, and hunt for the gryphons. Now, he nursed that memory as one would nurse a grudge, for he knew that he would never again leave his kingdom. He let his desire for a gryphon cup grow in his mind, until, like a blackberry thicket, it grew and spread, gradually crowding out all other thought. Still, he kept silent.
His courtiers assumed that the growing darkness in his eyes was caused by simple grief over his wife’s death, and they urged him to marry again. The fury of the king’s response sent them running from the throne room as though from a storm of hail and lightning.
Seven years passed, The king’s secret desire grew within him until its darkness blinded him, and made him feeble long before his time, and he was forced to take to his bed. The greatest physicians from far and wide were brought in, but none could discover the cure. Priests, cardinals, and bishops were called, but even the most learned could not find the right prayer to lift the darkness.
The entire royal household was in mourning, and began the long preparations for the king’s funeral. And then, one day, an old peasant woman arrived at the gate, and demanded an audience with the royal ministers. The guards were about to show her the sharp ends of their pikes, to drive her off, but she told them that she could discover what secret evil was harming the king. And so they led her in.
She called for the king’s sons to be brought before her, and the two elder brothers stepped forward, and stood at attention before her, dressed in their finest military uniforms.
She called for a tallow candle and a bowl of black ink, saying that the bowl must be of the roughest wood, and brought by the lowliest servant in the household. They all protested that such a one was too dirty and ragged to enter the council chamber, and that his eyes were unfit to see the royal splendor there. But she refused to either speak another word or to leave until Ashenbrow was brought forward to hold the bowl for her.
When the candle was lit, she stared at its reflection in the bowl for a long time without saying a word. The two elder sons had a hard time hiding their snickers behind their hands, and even the more solemn ministers shuffled their feet impatiently. Only the kitchen boy was silent and attentive, for he had heard the servants speak of such rituals, when the truth of a matter needed to be brought to light, and he was curious to see what would happen.
Then, just as the church tower clock struck noon, a mighty of wind arose, and blew through the council chamber, so strong that the heavy gryphon banner hanging from the rafters rattled with it. An eagle feather, carried by that wind, landed at the feet of the eldest prince. Then, the air was still again.
The old woman nodded in satisfaction. "The signs are clear,“ she said. "The wind has shown us. His Royal Highness will find the cure to the king’s illness in the land of the gryphons. A gryphon’s feather will cure blindness, and a drink from a gryphon’s talon will restore the king’s strength.”
The ministers thanked her, and the guards escorted her to the gate.
The eldest prince thought it was all a great joke. But the king’s marshal told him to prepare for a journey. "It may indeed be a fool’s errand,“ he said. "But if the commoners believe that a quest can save His Majesty, and they see you taking your ease at home, it can only plant the seed of rebellion, later.”
The prince scoffed. "I’d pluck out such a rebellion as easily as a blade of grass,“ he said.
"Indeed. But why create trouble when none exists? Go. See the wide world. Find a princess to take as your bride.”
And so, at dawn, the prince set out. That night, the king slept peacefully for the first time in months, and the next morning, was able to take a little meat with his gruel. From that time on, although he did not grow better, he at least grew no worse, and the fears of his imminent death abated.
The prince, meanwhile, spent his days traveling from inn to inn, feasting, gambling and boasting. Then, one night, a year to the day after he se out, a strange old man approached the gaming table, a bundle of brooms slung across his back. At first, he appeared to be the poorest of beggars, for his skin hung on him like a coat on a scarecrow. But the glint of gold and diamonds shone out from the shadows of the old man’s sleeves. And so, when the old man suggested a game of cards, the prince quickly agreed.
“What shall our wager be?” the prince asked.
“If you win,” the old man said, “I shall give you all the gold and jewels from off my fingers. But if I win, you must carry my brooms home for me.
The prince laughed. The wager was so weighted in his favor, he was sure that the man had given leave of his senses, and would be easily beat. "Then let the game begin!” he said. But, this night, the prince’s skill and cleverness at cards were not enough, for luck was against him, and with the coming dawn, there was nothing left for him to do but admit defeat.
Still, he thought, the loss was not so great, for his only forfeit was to carry a bundle of brooms for a weak old man. If he grumbled over that, than he would be the laughing stock of the people. And so he stooped down and let the man strap the bundle to his back.
When he stood up again, it felt as if the brooms were carved from stone or lead, and the straps dug so heavily into his shoulders that he could hardly breathe. Still, he knew better than to complain, but merely asked, in as polite a tone as he could muster under strain: “How far to your home, Grandfather?”
“Oh, not far at all,” the old man said. "It’s just over the crest of yonder hill, down the road a ways.“
And so, the two set out. The prince tried to put a brave face on the matter, for he was a proud young man, but it didn’t take long before he was groaning from the pain in his legs, as streams of sweat ran down his face and back in the chill night air. The old man mocked him at every step, saying how the rich folk’s boasting is only matched by their weakness and their greed. The ground beneath the prince’s feet also seemed to mock him, for it grew steeper and more rocky with every step, until the ‘hill’ they were climbing was a steep cliff, and the prince had to reach above him for the next handhold, as he would reach for the rung of a ladder.
But no journey, no matter how arduous, can last forever, and as the sun rose, they reached the old man’s hut.
"Daughter!” the old man called. "Come out and meet our guest. Take the burden from his back, for he has done me a great service.“
The prince’s heart rose at these words – and fell to the pit of his stomach when he saw her.
She looked as old and ugly as the man himself. Eyes as gray and cold as ice peered out from either side of a beak better suited to a raven than a human being. Her hair was as stiff and ragged as broom straw. And the fingers of her hands seemed to have been fashioned from the bones of a bat’s wings.
The prince could barely stand to have her near him, but was so tired after his ordeal that he did not have the strength to remove the bundle of brooms from his own back, and so he had to allow the hag to do it for him.
As soon as she had done this, the prince’s strength returned and he felt as refreshed as if he had just woken from a night in his own bed. He was about to take his leave, when the old man put a hand on his shoulder and restrained him.
"Now, now,” he said, “you have paid your wager admirably, even though the price was more than you bargained for. For that, you deserve a rich reward. My daughter, here, is an excellent guide, and she can get you to the land of the gryphons by day’s end.”
The hag gave a smile that would make a stone shiver, and held out her hand to prince.
But he turned away, and spat at the ground. "There is no 'land of the gryphons,’“ he said, "and besides, I would not travel one step with her at my side.”
“Very well,” the old man said. "But still, you shall have some payment for your labors. At least, take one of the apples from my apple tree, to sustain you on your journey.“
The prince looked at the tree. Most of the apples were withered and small, but growing on the topmost branch was an apple of pure gold.
"Aha!” he thought to himself. "One of these small apples wouldn’t fill my belly from now till noon. But with that gold, I could buy enough provisions for a month!“ And so he made ready to climb the tree.
But no sooner had he placed his hand upon the first branch, than the trunk opened up and enclosed him inside.
In that instant, back at the castle, the old king cried out. When his servants came in to see what was wrong, they found a fresh wound in the king’s breast, as if someone had stabbed him.
"Something has happened to my brother,” the second prince said, as soon as he was told, “for I, myself, felt a pain in my heart. Grant me leave to go and search for him, that I might at least learn of his fate.”
The royal ministers agreed. And so the second prince set out at once. No sooner than his foot was upon the road outside the castle gate than the king’s wound healed, and a bit of his strength returned.
The younger prince followed in his brother’s footsteps, asking every merchant and innkeeper if he had passed that way. For six months, he carried himself with a sober demeanor and a sadness of mind. But then the jingle of gold coin and the sweet forgetfulness of wine lured him from his purpose, and he began to follow his brother in habit as well as along the road.
A year to the day after he set out, the same old broom maker appeared at his gaming table, and challenged him to a game. He promised the gold and jewels off his fingers if he should lose, and demanded that the prince carry his bundle if he should win. The second prince, like his brother before him, accepted the wager at once, thinking the old man a fool. But luck was against him, as well, and before the night was out, there was nothing he could do but admit defeat.
The second journey was no easier than the first, and by the time dawn found them at the old man’s hut, the younger prince was so exhausted, he could barely stand.
“Daughter!” the old man called. "Come out and meet our guest. Take the bundle from his back, for he has done me a great service.“
The daughter came, still as frightful as she was before, with a smile that would make stones shiver. But the prince was too weak to pull away from her touch, and so had to allow her to lift the bundle from his back.
As soon as she did, his strength returned, and he felt as rested as though he had woken from a night in his own bed. He turned to leave with a doff of his hat, when the old man placed a hand on his shoulder.
"Now, now,” he said, “you have paid your wager admirably, even though the price was more than you bargained for. For that, you deserve a rich reward. My daughter, here, is an excellent guide, and she can get you to the land of the gryphons by day’s end.”
But the prince shook his head. "It chills my blood just to look at her,“ he said. "I could not, in truth, bear to travel with her as far as a mile.”
“Very well, the old man said, "But you shall have some payment for your labors. At least take one of the apples from my apple tree, to sustain you on your journey.”
The second prince thanked him, for he was indeed hungry. He searched the tree until he found an apple that didn’t seem as small or withered as the others. He was about to pick it when he caught sight of the golden apple growing from the topmost branch.
“Aha!” he thought to himself. "That must be the one apple he meant for me to have.“ So he made ready to climb the tree.
But no sooner had he placed his hand on the lowest branch than the trunk opened up and enclosed him inside.
Once more, from his sick bed, the king cried out. And when the servants ran in to see what was the matter, they found another fresh wound in his breast, as though someone had stabbed him.
Now, the whole royal household went into turmoil, for all were certain the king would die. When Ashenbrow learned what was wrong, he knew in his heart that the two princes had failed in their quests.
He did not ask leave to go but simply took a small loaf of bread and a jar of water, and set out. As soon as his foot was on the path beyond the castle gates, the king’s wound healed as before, and he was able to rest.
Ashenbrow did not follow the road his brothers had taken, for had no money to spend in the towns, and had never learned of the pleasure of gambling or wine. Instead, he followed the legends he’d heard sitting at the kitchen hearth, heading east, far beyond the rivers of Babylon. He’d stop in towns along the way, and hire himself out to craftsmen or farmers, doing a day’s labor for a day’s food, and moving on.
A year to the day after he set out, he met the strange old broom maker at the crossroads, shuffling his deck of cards.
"Greetings, child,” the old man said.
“Greetings, Grandfather,” Ashenbrow answered.
“It’s a long way from the last town, and a long way to the next. Would you care to take your rest, and ease your mind with a game?”
Ashenbrow shook his head. "I do not know how to play, he said, “and though I thank you for the your kind offer, I am on a quest for my king, and I fear time is against me.”
“For what are you questing, child?” the old man asked.
“For a gryphon’s talon and feather,” Ashenbrow answered, “for a wise woman has told us that these things alone will save the king.”
“Well,” the old man said, “you are in luck. My house stands beside the road to the land of the gryphons, and if you’ll but carry my brooms for me, I will help you.”
“Oh,” Ashenbrow said, “I don’t need to bargain for an honest day’s work, especially since my back is young, and yours is old.”
And so the old broom maker strapped his bundle onto the boy’s back, and led the way down the road with a merry step.
The kitchen boy regretted at once the ease with which he accepted his task, and remembered the words of Old Cook: “Beware a burden that seems too light.” Still, whenever he felt sure he could not take another step, he turned his mind to thoughts of the king, lingering at Death’s door, and of the princes, who were lost, and thought his fate a hundred times better.
They came over the ridge to the old man’s hut just as the sun was rising.
And the old man called: “Daughter! Come out and meet our guest. Take the burden from his back, for he has done me a great service.”
Even though the boy’s heart faltered at the sight of her, he did his best to answer her smile with one of his own, for he knew too well the pain of people averting their gaze.
“And now,” the old man said, “it is time for me to give you the reward I have promised. My daughter, here, is an excellent guide, and she can get you to the land of the gryphons by day’s end.”
Ashenbrow felt his cheeks grow hot. "Thank you, Grandfather. Such a payment is worth more to me than all the world. My labors surely do not count as fair.“
The old man tutted. "It is too early for thanks, yet,” he said. "Save that for when your quest is done.“ He smiled, and handed one of his brooms to his daughter. "Go now,” he said, before more of the day is spent.“
The crone straddled the broom, with its bristles before, and called the kitchen boy to ride behind. Then, she called to it:
"Arise my steed, take to the air
Before day’s end, we wish to be there.”
The broom jumped and skittered like a young colt, and before Ashenbrow could catch his breath again, they were riding over the tops of the trees, faster than the wind itself.
“Are you afraid?” the strange woman asked.
“Yes,” the boy admitted, “for I cannot but wonder: if one gryphon’s talon can make a drinking horn for a king, how great must the beast itself be?”
“One stroke of its wings causes a gale to rise, and when the gryphon flies, its shadow blocks out the sun.”
“Then how can I, small as I am, succeed?”
“No one can take what a gryphon does not wish to give. But if one who is free of motive and desire should heal a gryphon’s wounds, the things you seek shall be given in payment.”
After that, not one word more passed between them until they arrived at a narrow valley between two steep mountains, blazing red in the light of the setting sun.
Then, the strange woman chanted again:
“Go down to Earth, my trusty steed.
The end of our journey is here, indeed.”
The broom settled down to earth as calmly as an old cart horse, and Ashenbrow dismounted.
“Here is where I must leave you,” the strange woman said, “for the way ahead is barred by a gate I cannot pass through, and guarded by beasts that would devour me.” She took a straw from the head of her broom and handed it to him. "But if you strike the lock thrice with this, the gate shall open for you – use it to strike the jaws of the beasts, and they shall do you no harm. But no matter the wonder you see, be back through the gate before the next sundown, or you will be lost to the world of men forever.“
Ashenbrow thanked her for all her help, and then asked leave to know her name.
Her complexion seemed to grow white beneath her leathery cheeks. "I have no name,” she said. "Names belong to temporal things, and Time no longer holds me.“ She sat crossed-legged on the ground, and became so still that she seemed to have turned to stone. "Go,” she said.
Ashenbrow went into the valley as boldly as his courage would allow. Soon the mountains impinged so closely on either side that he had to place one foot in front of the other, heel to toe. And after the sun had set, he had only starlight to guide him.
With each step he took, time and memory slipped away, until it seemed to him that he was alone with the world. He forgot the king, and he forgot the princes, and only the lure of Fate pulled him forward. He walked on until he reached a gate blacker than the night itself, with a lock as large as a human skull. He struck that lock three times with the broom straw, and the gate swung open silently.
No sooner had he stepped through, however, than great, shadowy beasts poured down upon him from the cliffs above. They were as big as draft horses, with the gaping jaws of crocodiles, and crocodiles’ claws upon their front feet. Leathery wings sprouted from their shoulders, and scales of iron rattled along their flanks. In place of tails, three-headed asps hissed, dripping venom from their fangs. But when he struck their jaws with the broom straw, the monsters melted into smoke and drifted away, and soon his path was clear again.
The valley widened, and there before him stood a castle, as if the mountains had grown up around it. Ashenbrow struck the portcullis with the broom straw, and it rose, silently. He entered, and found all in perfect stillness. Even though the rooms were bright with the light of candles and torches, not a flame flickered. Guards slept at their posts. Lords and ladies in the banquet hall slept at the tables, the food untouched and unspoiled.
His eyes saw these things, but his mind did not perceive them, and he walked through the castle as though through a dream. The rear gate opened for him of its own accord and he stepped through just as the first rays of the morning sun struck his face.
Soon, the valley opened into a wide expanse, as though it were formed when some giant set his bowl down in the wet earth. Gold and jewels shone from ledges high in the cliffs above his head, and the ground at his feet was littered with skeletons bleached white with time. They reminded him of the skeleton of a song bird he’d found in the kitchen garden, once, except several of the bones were as big as he was.
As he made his way down toward the valley floor, a great wind arose that blew him hard against the steep canyon wall, and the sun seemed to go out as if it were a candle caught in the draft. Before he could dodge out of the way, he found himself caught in the grip of a great claw, and carried high into the air. The ground below him seemed bathed in twilight, so great was the shadow of the beast that held him.
As his abductor circled closer to the earth, he saw it, recognizing the beast from the pictures on the king’s good china. The gryphon lay prostrate on the ground, thin with hunger and panting like a wounded dog.
The claw opened, and Ashenbrow fell, tumbling through the air until he landed between the front feet of the gryphon below. A massive head descended, the great hooked beak ready to close upon him and swallow him in a single mouthful.
But this gryphon, wounded as he was, was not as swift as his mate, and Ashenbrow was able to get out of the way, and clamber up his side like a mouse. The fur beneath his hands was stiff with blood, and when he had climbed up onto the beast’s back, he found the cause: an old spear, lodged beneath one shoulder blade. The shaft had been broken off, but the head was stuck.
Ashenbrow gripped what was left of the shaft, and pulled with all his might.
The gryphon roared, and tried to pluck him from its back, but couldn’t reach.
Then the broom straw, which Ashenbrow had tucked into a buttonhole, brushed against the spear. The ancient weapon melted into a puff of smoke. The wound closed as if it had never been, and Ashenbrow knew that it had been formed of the same dark magic as the monstrous beasts that had guarded the castle.
The gryphon spread its wings, and rose up on its haunches, sending Ashenbrow tumbling to the ground. It gazed down at him with eagle’s eyes as large as dinner plates. Then, without a sound, it went to the canyon wall and scratched, as a cat would scratch a tree. One of its talon’s sheaths came loose, and the gryphon rolled it toward Ashenbrow’s feet. Then, it plucked a feather from its breast, and dropped it, too. Then it beat its wings once, leapt into the air, and flew off with its mate farther down the canyon.
Ashenbrow quickly wrapped the talon into his traveling bundle and slipped the feather into his belt as though it were a sword. Then he hurried back up the canyon, for he remembered the strange woman’s warning to be back through the gate by sunset, and the day was already wearing on.
He neither paused nor looked around him until he came to the royal banquet hall. There, hunger at last overcame him, and he took a bite of bread and a sip of wine.
“Who disturbs my royal hall?” a voice roared, seemingly from the air itself. Out of a cloud of purple smoke, a wizard appeared, his robes as black as tar, and face as white as a bleached skull.
Ashenbrow ran. The wizard ran after him – like hare and hound, one just managing to slip the jaws of the other. Through the castle’s halls, they ran, and down the long narrow valley, which the monstrous beasts had so recently haunted. The sun blazed red on the horizon before him, and the great black gates ahead began to close. Sprinting forward with all of his speed, Ashenbrow slipped through nearly in time. The gates caught his trailing left heel, and clipped it off. He turned and threw the broom straw behind him. It pierced the wizard’s heart, and he dissolved into a heap of ashes. The castle vanished in a blaze of light, as if it had never been there.
The valley before him widened. A gentle stream came forth from the ground, and new blades of grass softened the ground before him.
He emerged from the canyon expecting to see the old woman waiting for him, but instead there stood a noble king with a golden scepter, and a princess, with a staff of silver, stood beside him.
Ashenbrow went down on one knee and bowed. "Greetings, Your Majesty,“ he said. "I feel I should know you.”
“Indeed you do,” the king answered. "You have supped from my table and drank from my wine. I was once king in the castle that stood in this valley until this night. Long ago, a wizard came to my court, and demanded the use of my army to raid the gryphons’ aeries. When I refused, he placed the grievous spell upon my people, which you have seen, and transported the castle to this place.“
Here, the princess took up the tale: "He bound me by the magic of my mother-given name, forcing me to serve him in his black arts. But I, in secret, learned a bit of his skill, and was able to slip those bonds, hiding my father and myself in the forms of the broom maker and the hag. Now that the wizard is dead, his magic is broken. Our castle is returned to its proper place, and we are free.”
The king spoke again. "It has been foretold,“ he said, "that whoever freed us from the wizard’s spell would wed my daughter, and be my heir.”
“All you say is beyond my understanding,” Ashenbrow said, “for I am but the lowest servant in my king’s household. And now I must return there.”
The king raised his scepter, the princess, her staff. Together, they struck the earth. A wondrous bridge of silver and gold rose from that point, disappearing into the sky.
“Follow this bridge,” the king told him, “and it will lead you back to your road home.”
Ashenbrow thanked them both, and then he asked: “But tell me, did two princes, alike in nobility, come upon that road before me?”
“They were locked in the trunk of my apple tree for their greed,” the king said, “though they, too, were freed with the wizard’s death. They are now wandering the wilderness there. Heed my warning, and pass them by, for they have jealous hearts, and mean to do you harm.”
But Ashenbrow, whose own heart was innocent, could not bear to return to the castle without the king’s beloved sons. He followed the bridge into the cold night sky, where the stars drifted like snowflakes around him, and when it touched the earth again, he sought them out, and they went home together.
In his eagerness, the kitchen boy showed them the talon and feather, and told them how he had flown through the air, and lost a piece of his heel, and how the broom maker was really a king, and all the bits in between.
The princes smiled to his face, slapped his back and called him a great hero. But their hearts were filled with jealousy, and while the boy slept, they plotted against him.
“Let us kill him,” the eldest said, “and take the prizes for ourselves. He is but a worm of the ashes, and would be no more missed than any other thing that crawls on the ground.”
But his brother pleaded mercy. "He has done us no harm,“ he said, "and to kill him in his sleep would surely turn Fate against us. Besides, who would believe his wild tales against our word?”
Nonetheless, in the morning before dawn, it was the second prince woke him with the tip of his sword. "You mere worm,“ he said, "are not fit to carry the emblems of your king. It is my brother who shall inherit the throne. It is he who shall touch that feather to our father’s brow, and it is he who shall bring that gryphon cup to his lips to drink. If you so much as speak one word against us in this matter, we shall kill you for treason.”
Ashenbrow had no choice but to agree. And while the princes were led into the king’s bedchamber as returning heroes, he was led back to the kitchens, where he was beaten for running away.
The eldest prince approached the king’s bedside. "I have brought you a gryphon’s talon, Sire,“ he said, "and a gryphon’s feather, for it has been foretold to us that these things would restore your strength and your sight.”
“This indeed gladdens my heart,” the king said, “more than you can know. But first, tell me the story again – where lies the country of the gryphons?”
Now, the prince, whose heart had been so full of jealousy that he had not heard what Ashenbrow told him, said what he thought sounded best: “To the south, Sire, where the sun burns the hottest.”
“You lie!” the king said. "You stand here, usurping your bother’s glory – he who loves you so dearly.“
And so the second son was brought forward.
Again, the king asked: "Where lies the country of the gryphons?”
“To the east, Sire,” he answered, for he remembered better, “beyond the rivers of Babylon.”
The king smiled. "Yes, yes,“ he said. "And tell me – where do they build their aeries?”
But here, the second prince’s memory faltered as well. "In the tallest trees,“ he said, as the eagles do.”
“Lies, all lies!” the king wailed. "My heart bled for each of you,“ he said, "and you return my love with falsehoods. Is there no one who has journeyed to the land of the gryphons for my sake?”
An uncomfortable silence filled the king’s bedchamber. Then, the nursemaid, who brought the king his gruel, spoke up: “There is the kitchen boy,” she said, timidly. "He ran away two years ago, and just returned this morning, with the princes. Perhaps it was he.“
The ministers snickered at the thought of one so weak and small could have succeeded in so great a quest. And the princes laughed loudest of all.
But the king ordered the kitchen boy to be brought before him.
And so Ashenbrow, his back still red from the lash, was brought to the king’s bedside.
"Was it you,” the king asked, “who journeyed to the land of the gryphons? Speak the truth.”
Ashenbrow’s eye strayed to the point of the younger prince’s sword. But the order of the king was sharper. "Yes, Your Majesty,“ he said, "it was I.”
“Tell me – where lies the land of the gryphons?”
“To the east, beyond the rivers of Babylon.”
“And where do they build their aeries?”
“High in the cliffs of a deep, wide canyon.”
“And how do they line those aeries?”
“With gold and rubies and emeralds.”
And so, in this manner, the whole adventure was recounted, and the king knew the boy spoke the truth. When the telling was complete, the king asked for the feather to be touched to his brow, that he may see the face of his champion. For a moment, as the veil of blindness lifted from the king’s eyes, it seemed to him that it was his beloved wife, alive again. Then, his mind cleared, and he recognized his third born son, whom he had thought long dead. He embraced the boy, and called for a drink of water from the gryphon cup, that he may regain his strength, and return to his place on the throne.
From that day forward, the youngest prince sat at the king’s right hand, and nightly brought him wine in the gryphon cup, while the elder princes sat at the foot of the table.
“See what your mercy has brought us?” the eldest complained to the other one day. "That little worm has usurped our place in our father’s heart. But I have a plan that will defeat him at last.“
That day, he rode into the forest and gathered the blackest of berries from the vines. And that evening, while Ashenbrow turned away for just a moment to decant the wine, he poured a bit of those berries’ juices into the gryphon cup.
At dinner, the wine Ashenbrow poured out was as red as the brightest rubies. But the drink that the king brought to his lips was as black as ink.
When the king saw this, he thought it was the magic of the gryphon cup, revealing poison in the wine. He hid his anger well, and only put the cup aside. But his heart seethed, so convinced was he that his last son had turned against him. In the morning, he convinced his council of ministers that the boy should be killed in secret, and that his royal huntsman should do the deed.
The next day, the huntsman led Ashenbrow, who suspected nothing wrong, into the forest. But he looked so sad and troubled that Ashenbrow asked him what the matter was, and would not stop asking until the huntsman admitted the truth. "To think,” he said, tears coming to his eyes, “that this is the same child who plucked the feathers of the game birds I brought to the kitchen. I cannot believe it is you who would harm the king. Now, you are condemned to die, and I am condemned to slay you, as I would a beast.”
“I know my pleas of innocence must sound like lies,” Ashenbrow said. "But as I am about to die, I have no reason to fear the truth any longer.“ And he told of how the younger prince once threatened his life and sworn him to silence.
"Leave this place at once,” the huntsman said, “and pray the truth comes to light. I shall kill a suckling boar in your stead, and tell the king its heart is your own.”
And so the boy rode off toward lands where his face was not known, working for his bread, as he was accustomed to, and riding on in the morning. Years passed, and in this way, he grew from a boy to a young man.
In the kingdom of his birth, meanwhile, the loyal huntsman kept his mouth shut and his eyes open, watching for the chink through which the truth would shine.
He spoke often to the king of his younger days, when he and his sons would hunt together. "Perhaps you should do so again, Your Majesty. Perhaps that would lift the melancholy from your shoulders.“
And when the hunt was at last arranged, the huntsman asked for wine in the princes’ flasks, to make it a merrier outing, he said, though he also hoped it would loose their tongues in the king’s hearing.
They were riding through a part of the forest where the wild berries grew thick and dark on the vine. The king sighed when he saw them and said: "Those berries are as black as the wine, when I last brought the gryphon cup to my lips.”
“Oh, no, Sire,” his eldest son said quickly, eager to show off his knowledge, “not quite so dark. In a month’s time, they will be fully ripe.”
“How can you,” the king asked him, “who were seated at the foot of the table, know the color of my wine? Could Ashenbrow have been innocent?”
Now, at last, the huntsman spoke. "You may have sworn the kitchen boy to silence,“ he told the princes, "But I took no such oath.” And he related to the king all the boy had told him. "Ease your mind, Your Majesty,“ he said, "for I did not have the heart to kill him. I sent him into the wide world until the truth came to light.”
When next the council of ministers gathered, they condemned the elder sons to the life of common sailors upon the high seas. And a proclamation went out declaring Ashenbrow’s innocence and pardon.
But the world is a wide, wide place, and the proclamations of kings rarely reach into farmers’ fields, so Ashenbrow knew nothing of this. One day, as he went along the road, after several days of traveling alone, he saw the silhouette of a castle high on a hill. The longer he gazed at it, the more familiar it seemed, as if he had seen it in another place and time, long ago. Then his mind turned the fair princess, who was brave enough to slip the bonds of her name and time, and who gave him the means to defeat the wizard. And he thought, perhaps, his farewell to her had been hasty, and impolite.
He turned his horse, and rode through the city gates. People paused in their evening chores to watch him pass, and whispers spread ahead of him, like a breeze before a storm.
Ashenbrow, who had lived so long in secret, felt the blood rush to his cheeks, and his heart beat against his ribs. He would have turned back, and ridden away, but the people had closed in behind him, and on all sides.
He was met at the castle with a flourish of trumpets, and the king himself came to help him from the saddle.
“How else,” the king asked, when he saw the look of astonishment on Ashenbrow’s face, “should I greet my people’s champion, and my heir? Or have you forgotten the prophecy?”
Three days of celebration followed, and each evening, the prince regaled them with tales of his adventures in the gryphons’ canyon, and of his travels through foreign lands, though he was silent on the matter of his brothers’ treachery.
And when the feasting was over, the princess was pleased to give him her hand in marriage, as he was pleased to give her his. Just as the wedding vows were completed, a messenger arrived, bearing news of Ashenbrow’s innocence and pardon.
In due time, Ashenbrow’s father, the old king, died in his turn, and Ashenbrow was made king. He returned home, granted the loyal huntsman a dukedom, and made him regent over his father’s land in his stead. Then, he returned to the castle on the hill, and with his queen at his side, ruled over the country that prophecy had foretold.