The Princess, The Donkey and a Crystal Bell
A Children’s Story to Read Aloud
Chapter 1 – An Auspicious Beginning
It was a chilly, icy Christmas morning that brought Isabella, daughter of King Frederick of Beltria, kicking and crying into the world. Unfortunately, that bit of noisy activity would be her last for some time to come. Isabella, all six pounds and twenty inches of her, was born with a strong will, a sharp mind, and a somewhat inadequate immune system. She caught a cold her first hour of life, and over the next few weeks grew weaker and weaker to the point that most in the kingdom believed the child could not possibly survive to see her first birthday.
The King, who already had seven sons, was helpless; his best doctors could only keep Isabella comfortable; none could make her well.
Her first year of life, the child ran the gamut of illnesses, each one extracting a higher and higher toll on her frail body. When she contracted pneumonia the month before her first birthday, the King lost hope. All his doctors had failed, all the folk remedies sent from throughout the kingdom failed, all his prayers had failed. It seemed inevitable that this sickness would run its course and finally take the child. The whole kingdom spent the Advent season in a kind of dread.
On Christmas Eve, the castle lacked its usual bustle of joyful activity. Gloom enveloped the whole household, for the child’s last hours were come. Christmas gifts lay under the giant tree in the great hall, ignored and forgotten. Great bowls of Christmas wassail sat untasted in the kitchen, a fire burned down unattended in the fireplace. The king and queen and their sons gathered in the dark chapel to offer their final, desperate pleas for Isabella’s life.
Outside the castle, the kingdom celebrated Christmas Eve in various degrees of joy. Some were unmoved by the plight of the king’s only daughter. Many, however, offered their very first prayers on her behalf that night. All were shut up in their houses, protected against the cold by roaring fires, warm fellowship and hot grog. All, that is, save one lone traveler who hurried through the deserted streets toward the castle at the top of the hill. The midnight hour was fast approaching, and cottage after cottage darkened as he passed by.
The traveler had the look of a man possessed, or at least obsessed. He had a mad fire in his dark eyes, his bushy eyebrows and red, wind-burned cheeks were scrunched up against the cold. He had a long, scruffy beard that looked to be home to no less than one mouse. But his face was by the far the least shocking aspect of his appearance. The man was easily seven feet tall, and upon his head was a black, cone-shaped hat. From under the hat – decorated with moons and stars and all variety of strange signs – flowed a long mane of unkempt gray hair. He wore a large silver ring on his left hand, carried a giant staff in his right hand and was clothed head to toe in a long black robe and cape. As he rushed toward the castle, robes flapping behind him, he muttered all manner of strange epitaphs under his breath. Just as the giant clock in the church tower struck midnight, he reached the front gate of the castle.
Over the sound of the midnight chimes and the howling of the wind, the traveler pounded on the castle gate, bellowing in a voice fitting a man of his stature, “Open up, I have the princess’s gift! Open the gate!” He waited a moment and then banged again. “I have the princess’s gift! Open the gate!”
After a moment, a light came on in the gatekeeper’s room. A short while and the door in the gate cracked open. The tall man seized the opportunity and burst through the opening, knocking the sleepy gatekeeper to the ground. He ran across the great courtyard to the door of the castle, threw it open and plunged into the great room, bellowing his message at the top of his lungs, “I have the princess’s gift!” At once, a red-eyed maid appeared, rubbing her eyes. Before she could say a word, the man grabbed her by the shoulders, peered in to her eyes and whispered his command, “I have the princess’s gift. Take me to her now!”
The girl started to reply, but something inside her suggested she obey. She turned without a word and started for the room where the baby lay. Up a winding staircase they climbed, passing torches and swords and pictures of past kings and counts and dukes. The man gave notice to none of these, but pressed the frightened girl to move faster. Down a hallway they hurried, past the chapel, up more stairs, and finally to the room where the dying child struggled for her last breath.
The man’s demeanor changed the instant he entered the room; he became calm, quiet and in complete control of the situation. The defeated doctors and crimson-robed priests gazed on him in stunned silence. The child’s mother started to speak, then stopped as if she recognized the man.
“I have the princess’s gift”, he rumbled quietly, nodding his head first one way towards Isabella and then the other way to her mother. His words made little sense, but his aura of authority calmed the fears of all in the room.
Reaching under his robes, the man took out a beautiful, hand-carved wooden box, and strode to the side of the crib. He opened the box and took out a small crystal bell. It was nice, but not what you would call beautiful. Certainly you would never pick out that particular bell as the very pinnacle of the glass-cutter’s craft. It was – in point of fact – rather a plain crystal bell. No doubt, the castle contained hundreds of pieces of crystal more lovely than this. But the giant handled the bell as if it were the rarest treasure on earth.
He raised the bell before his face, closed his eyes and paused for just a moment. Everyone held their breath as they watched him. With his empty hand, he carved strange shapes in the air, then uttering a simple blessing over the child, he raised the bell above his head and rang it one time.
The sound it made was that which we hear today only in our loveliest dreams. Pure and clear it rang through the air, caressing each confused person in the room like a warm breeze and refreshing like an icy mountain stream. The sound seemed to multiply upon itself until it filled the room with a choir of a thousand crystal bells, ringing in symphony a chorus of delight. Up and down the halls of the castle the sound rang, beckoning everyone to the sickroom; down into the streets of the city and throughout the kingdom it rang, drawing smiles to the faces of each sleeping parent and each sleeping child; up to the sky it rang and the stars burned a little brighter and the light of the moon shone a little softer and the night air crackled with crispness; up into the heavens it rang, giving voice to the prayer that – till that very moment – had been locked deep in the heart of Isabella’s father, the king.
At long last, the sound died out; softly, easily it rang away.
Everyone stood in mesmerized silence as the giant tenderly placed the bell back in its box, set the box on the pillow by Isabella, turned on his heel and walked out of the room.
Against all odds, Isabella survived the night and awoke on Christmas morning decidedly improved. The next week, the whole kingdom spent happily feting Isabella’s first birthday. Isabella for her part celebrated by eating two handfuls of cake and sleeping through most of the festivities.
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