“If they weren't solidly real dragons... it wouldn't have been worth doing.”
Jo Walton

author: Nicole J. LeBoeuf

actually writing blog

Notes from the author:

For fairy tales to work, everyone has to be remarkably stupid. Most fairy tales depend on everyone failing to talk to one another, and the rest of them depend on people failing to do what they're told.

Put it this way: Imagine if, in the folk tale "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," the White Bear had actually talked to the lovely lassie. Imagine if, when he crept into her bedroom all man-shaped that first night, he'd said, “So, bee-tee-dubs, I'm actually prince, but I'm under a spell that transforms me into a White Bear by day. To break the spell, you have to be patient and not look at me at night, not once, for a whole year. And also, maybe we can hang out together during the day? We could play chess if you don't mind moving the pieces for me."

Also, there are better uses for candles than ruining princes' nightgowns.

Now, when they had gone a little bit of the way, the White Bear asked whether the lassie’s visit home hadn’t happened as he’d said. Had her mother indeed taken her aside to talk all alone when nobody was by to hear?

Well, she couldn’t say that she hadn’t. It had been too hard in the end to refuse her mother such a little thing, especially after being away from her in a strange place for so long.

“That’s bad,” said the Bear, “but as long as you didn’t heed her advice, then we might still have luck.”

No, she said, she hadn’t listened to her mother’s advice. But she gripped her bundle tighter as she said this.

It was a much larger bundle than the tiny one she’d carried when they’d first set out, for her parents were as rich now as they had been poor then, and nothing would do but that they load her down with gifts to thank her. She had protested that the castle of the White Bear provided her with everything she could ask for, let her only ring a little silver bell. “Oh, that’s well and good,” her mother had said, “but let us have the pleasure of giving you a few small things anyway, that we never had a chance to give you before.” The lassie wept a little for joy then, to see her parents so well off and to know them still so fond of her, but she struggled a little now to shift her great big bundle onto a sturdier part of the Bear’s back. I can tell you that the Bear didn’t suffer about it.

So they rode on through the morning and most of the afternoon until they came to the steep hill that concealed the castle of the White Bear. It didn’t seem nearly as long a distance as it had that first time. And the lassie washed the dust of the road off her pretty self, and rang the little silver bell, and was dressed for dinner in a lovely silken gown, silver and green with silver fringes and green lace. Another lively peal of the silver bell brought a parade of covered trays to the table, and when the lids came off, there was what she most desired to eat in the world at that very moment: no grand meal at all, but one that was close to her heart, boiled potatoes and mushrooms that were stewed in a broth made from the bones of the scrawniest deer in the forest. That was the best of what her parents were able to put on the table in the days when they’d still been poor. She ate and drank her fill of this humble meal, wishing only to have her mother and father and sisters beside her to share it. The dish needed no salt at all, for her homesick tears had fallen all over it.

The evening waned into night-time, and the lassie felt sleepy from her travels. She rang the silver bell and was instantly transported to her bed chamber, together with her great big bundle of gifts from home. She gave it a long look, and she thought some long thoughts, and she opened up her bundle and took certain things out of it. She arranged those things carefully on the little table beside the bed, just so, that she might get at them easily in the dark.

She rang the bell again, and on the instant she was changed from her dinner clothes to her nightgown. She put out the light and lay down to sleep, and sleep wasn’t long in coming.

Nor was it long in staying, for that night it was the same old story over again: a man entered her chamber in the dark—the White Bear, having put aside his beast shape—and laid himself down alongside her. And the lassie still hadn’t once clapped eyes on him.

Among the things she’d set out on the little table beside the bed was a tall tallow candle in a silver candlestick. This was one of the gifts the lassie’s mother had given her, saying, “Just you light this while he’s asleep and take a good look. But whatever you do, make sure you don’t drop any of the tallow on him.”

And no, she didn’t drop any tallow on him, not a drop, for the candle in its candlestick stayed right where the lassie put it on the table. Still, the light was so lovely and bright, and it reflected so off the gold and silver fixtures of that room, that presently the man beside her came awake. “What have you done?” he said, and the lassie had never heard his voice before, so much less gruff it was than the Bear’s. “Have you made us unlucky?”

The lassie said she hoped to heaven she hadn’t, not by just the lighting of a candle. This she said with her back firm toward him, so that she caught no more of a glimpse than when it had been dark.

“Did you heed the advice your mother gave you after all?” he wanted to know.

Why, she had said she hadn’t, hadn’t she? And indeed, she surely hadn’t, for, homesick as she was, she didn’t think much of her mother’s advice. She minded how she’d never been ill-treated in that castle, but had been given all good things and a husband of sorts besides. And she minded how the Bear had kept his promise to make her parents rich. So if it only fell to her to put aside her curiosity for a while, that she could do, with a will.

“It’s a wise lassie I got in that bargain,” said the man who was a White Bear by day. “But tell me, why did you light a candle?”

Why, so she could read, of course. There was a book of fairy tales her father used to read them, back when they were poor and hunger kept everyone awake late into the night. She’d loved those stories, but then one terrible winter they’d run low on firewood and the book had to be burned for fuel. Since the White Bear had made her family rich, they’d made a trip into the city and bought many nice things, including a new copy of that beloved book of fairy tales. Knowing how sad and homesick a lassie far from home could get, they’d sent it along with her back to the castle under the hill, to keep her company.

“And if you like,” said the lassie, “seeing as how we’re both awake, I’ll happily read it to you.”

“I’d like that very much,” said the Prince.

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