The Princess languished in the tower year after lonely year. She had almost given up peering through its only window to see the clouds pass by, just as life was passing her by, and the birds making nests in the treetops below, just as she would never have a family or home of her own.
Why she had been locked in the cylinder of stone since birth she couldn’t say. She suspected jealousy on the part of the old woman who was her gaoler and her only contact with the human race. The Princess would idle away the hours imagining stories: the old woman had stolen her as a baby and things had got out of hand and now she couldn’t possibly return her to her real, royal family… The old woman had entered into a pact with an enchantress and the price of having a baby had been her youth and beauty, and now she kept her daughter imprisoned in a place so secret no enchantress could ever find her…
Now, as her eighteenth birthday approached, she yearned more than ever to leave the tower, to feel the green grass, so distant and unknowable, tickle her feet; to paddle in the silver stream she could see glistening in the distance; to meet people – her subjects! – and talk with them and actually at long, long last live in the world that had been denied her for a lifetime.
She had concocted a plan years ago, when the old woman had become too frail to climb the hundreds of steps to the top of the tower. Nowadays, the old woman would put provisions in a bucket on a long, long rope and the Princess had to haul it all the way up to the window or go without her supper.
The Princess planned to climb down the rope and run and run and run, she cared not in which direction; she just had to get away. But she bided her time. She waited and waited. And waited.
One day the old woman didn’t come. Or the next day. Or the next. The rumbles in the Princess’s belly echoed through the tower. But she continued to wait. Perhaps the old woman was sick. She would get better and then she would return…
Perhaps – the Princess’s blood ran cold to think of it – perhaps the old woman was dead.
A week passed. The old woman was dead, to be sure, and the Princess would surely starve.
The time had come at last to climb down the rope and flee to freedom.
The Princess sat on the windowsill. A wave of vertigo nauseated her and she almost swooned. She put one foot in the bucket and held onto the rope with both hands, clutching it tight so that the bucket did not plummet to the ground and take her with it to certain death on the stony ground below.
Gradually, she lowered herself, moving hand over hand, until the window was a speck above her and the shadow of the trees fell across her, and the smell of the grass and the flowers rose up to her nose as though in greeting.
The bottom of the bucket hit the ground. The Princess held her breath and stepped out. She was free at last.
“Who goes there?” said a voice, a deep voice, quite startling the Princess. She gazed at the man who had spoken with wonder and admiration on her face. His armour was glinting in the sunlight and so was the tip of the pikestaff he was pointing at her chest.
“Why,” said the Princess. “Do you not know who I am?”
“Oh, we know who you are all right.” The man nodded to his confederates who were strolling around the base of the tower. “Here, lads. We’ve got her at last. This is Old Sal’s girl. For years, the old boot’s been robbing the palace kitchens blind and this one here’s been scoffing the lot. Eating the evidence.”
“She wants locking up,” said another.
“No!” cried the Princess. “That’s the last thing I want.”
But her words fell on deaf ears. The men marched her off to the castle where she was locked in a dungeon, deep under the ground, and left there to rot.