THE MAIDEN WHO WORE THE SKY by Belle Perkins

So maiden, you would become queen?
Bring us the sky and lay it at our feet,
and the crown is yours...
In the time before steel and wire, when forests blanketed this land and my grandmother’s grandmother still had all her teeth, the rulers of a starving empire lived in a glass palace on the edge of a frozen river. Like a creeping infection, the people’s hunger turned to anger, and their anger turned to revolution. A would-be monarch had promised to open the granaries and throw coins to the poorest peasants, if only they would put him on the throne. Finally, one grey morning, the people marched on the palace, shattering the walls and slaying the king and queen. They seized the young princess from her cradle and took her before the new king for judgement. 

One argued that she be killed like her parents, another claimed she should be raised in the palace as the new king’s heir.

“She cannot remain here,” he said, and the disputers fell silent. “Take the child far away, beyond our borders, and leave her for fate to follow its path.”

And so it was done. The princess was swaddled in fine blankets, fastened with the gold crest of her dead father’s house, and taken by her nursemaid past what had once been thrice-nine kingdoms, beyond the edge of the empire to the middle of a deep, dark wood. 

By and by, a woodcutter walking in those parts heard the plaintive wail of a child in distress. Upon discovering the princess, he brought her back to his village and took her to the house of a woman whose own baby had recently died. She agreed to raise the foundling, naming her Oriana for the gold crest she wore. 

Oriana grew into an honorable maiden: neither tall nor short, neither fair nor plain, but respected by all who knew her for her honesty, cleverness, and skill at any task she put her hands to. Only her foster-mother noticed the sad tunes Oriana would hum, and the wistful way she would glance at the woods when she thought herself alone.

“What ails you, that you sound so mournful?” her foster-mother asked. 

“I know not where I come from,” Oriana replied. “You have been a good mother to me, but I mourn for the history I have lost.”

The foster-mother and the woodcutter had cobbled together the truth from what news reached their small village, and now she told Oriana what they knew. “You are a princess by birth, but you may never return to that land.” 

“Then, with your blessing, I will leave for the capital city,” the maiden replied. “There is still some good in the world I can do without a crown.” 

And so with her foster-mother’s blessing, Oriana left the village, her dead father’s crest carried always in her pocket. She traveled for three days before reaching the next town. As she passed the tailor’s shop, a cry of despair sounded from inside, and she ran to investigate.

“Oh, curses on this dress!” An old seamstress sat on the floor, tears in her eyes and yards of silk piled around her knees. 

“What’s your trouble, Grandmother?” Oriana asked.

“The prince must have a bride, and I’m to make her dress,” the seamstress wailed. “It would be easy, but no one knows who she’ll be yet, so I haven’t got the measurements! I’ve tried nine and ninety times and it still won’t turn out right!”

“I will help, if you let me,” Oriana replied. “We’ll make a gown to fit a queen, and if she’s the right sort for the job she won’t mind a few last-minute alterations.”

All through the day and night, until dawn blushed the horizon, the two worked at seams and sleeves until they had sewn a gown that would fit any who wore it as though tailor-made. 

“Blessings on you, child,” the seamstress said. She handed Oriana a cushion stuck with golden needles. “Take this for your troubles, and may it help you on your path.”

Oriana travelled for three more days before she found herself in the midst of a forest. She had paused for a drink of water when she heard she barking cry of an animal in pain. Venturing further into the trees, she discovered the source: a fox with silver claws had its hindmost leg stuck fast in the jaws of a trap, and its foremost leg stuck deep in a pool of tar. 

“What’s your trouble, brother Reynard?” Oriana asked. 

“I am going to the prince’s wedding,” the fox yelped, “for though we know not to whom it will be, he is my sworn brother and I must attend. But I’ve been mired in this pit and caught in this old trap, and though I’ve tried nine and ninety ways I can’t get free.”

“I will help, if you let me,” Oriana replied. “What is impossible alone is sometimes easily done with another set of hands.” She freed the fox’s paw from the tar, but the trap was locked shut. Remembering the seamstress’s gift, she drew a needle, and immediately it turned into a key which unlocked the trap. The fox sprang free, unharmed but for the loss of a single silver claw. 

“Take this as thanks,” he said, handing her his claw. “May it help you on your path.”

Oriana walked for three more days until she was on the main thoroughfare to the capital. She came to a waystation and there found a man grooming his horse. Diamond spurs sparkled on his boots, but his head hung low with sorrow. 

“What’s your trouble, kind sir?” Oriana asked.

“Have you not heard?” the youth sighed. “The prince must have a bride, but he has no say in who she’ll be. Nine and ninety maidens have been tested by his councilors, but none have yet been found worthy.”

Oriana was puzzled. “Why should you lament the prince’s strife?”

“I… know him well,” the youth said, hesitating. “Since birth we’ve been inseparable. His troubles are my troubles and his joys are my joys. These last nine days he’s sought the solution to his problem, but none will give an honest answer to a prince.”

“I will, if you will carry the answer to him,” Oriana said. “For he should know that the only tests a queen must pass are those that win her the love of her husband and the hearts of her people. She can do no good without them.”

“The prince’s ears are my ears,” the youth replied, smiling now. “You are a wise maiden. Take my diamond spurs as thanks for your troubles,” he added, handing them to her. “My horse never much liked them, and they may help you on your path.”

“You have my thanks,” Oriana said. “I am headed for the capital city.”

The youth exclaimed, “What luck, so am I! Climb on my horse, I will take you as far as the gates.”

Though the path to the city took three hours to travel, it seemed no time passed at all. The conversation flowed freely between them and Oriana found herself smiling for the first time since leaving home. When they reached the city, they parted ways as old friends.

“Everyone I meet speaks of the prince,” Oriana mused, once more alone. “What test for his hand could be so difficult that nine and ninety maidens have failed? There is no harm in seeing what they want of a queen.”

So saying she made her way to the palace and was shown to the meeting-hall of the prince’s councillors. She noted with some surprise that the youth she had met on the road stood in the back, now wearing a fine suit of clothes, but before she could puzzle it, the head councillor spoke.

“So, maiden, you would become queen? Do not think it is as easy as asking. Bring us the sky and lay it at our feet, and the crown is yours.” He motioned for her to leave.

Stunned at the magnitude of the task, Oriana turned to go, slipping her hands into her pockets. A thousand sharp edges met her skin, and she gasped in pain.  

For a moment, she contemplated her red-stained fingers.

The blood was salt and iron, not rubies.

Then, turning once more to face the councillors, she spoke. “Your grace, the task is a simple one.” 

From her pocket she took the cushion and drew a golden needle, and from the eye of the needle produced a length of silk bluer than midnight. The rest of the pins she scattered on the cloth, and they were the rays of the golden run. The fox’s claw became a silver slice of crescent moon, and the diamond spurs, placed just so, became the morning and the evening stars. Finally, Oriana drew the mantle over her shoulders and once more faced the councillors.

“I give you the sky in all its glory, not at your feet, but worn as a queen must wear the weight of her duty.”

“Then if you will have me, fair maiden, I am yours!” It was the youth, who Oriana now saw wore the regalia of a prince. “You are kind, clever, and wise,” he told her, “and none would do better for a queen.”

She showed the prince her father’s crest, and told him the whole of her story. “I was born to an undeserved crown. If I have earned this one, it has not been by silver or by stars. Only stay by my side, and I pray that our crowns will rest lightly.”

"Why they will shed light," said the prince, "brighter than day."

And in a day and a year, they were married. Oriana wore the splendid gown she had made with the seamstress, who was revealed to be the prince’s mother in disguise, and the fox turned up with his seven young kits. In time, Oriana and the prince ascended to the throne, and if my history serves, they are still ruling now. 
Belle Perkins is a college sophomore and folklore enthusiast from Virginia. Previously, her short story "The Robin's Nest" was shortlisted for the 2018 Amy Wahl Short Story Prize for Teens.

Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff
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