The Scene: A small Bavarian town in the Georgian Era
Georgina, the youngest sister
Phillipa, the middle sister
Fredericka, the oldest sister
The Ants of a Hill
A Hive of Bees and their Queen
Three prince brothers, who all looked exactly alike
Phillipa and Edwina laid on a blanket in a field overlooking the river. Privileged, shiny, and wanton, the sister princesses had been avoiding their duties all week. The king and queen had even sent out a messenger to find them, but they devoured him almost immediately, plying him with wine, usurping any will he might have had to accomplish his task, having their way with him, and then sending him off in the direction of the forest, with a sore head and wobbly knees. So, the girls remained hidden in the landscape, bright in the sun, drunk with elderflower wine.
“I’m bored,” Phillipa told her sister, her arm resting over her eyes, shielding the mid-morning sun.
“What shall we do?” Fredericka answered. She thought for a moment. “If we go to the tavern, they’ll just alert Mother and Father.”
“We’re supposed to be out seeking our fortune. Perhaps we should sleep and then set off tomorrow.”
This made good sense to both of them, and they rested for the remainder of the day.
By the next morning, all plans had been forgotten and they continued to swim in the shallow river, lay in the grass, and imbibe the local friar’s good floral concoction. They decided not to travel out.
Meanwhile, back at the castle, the king and queen had grown tired of their older daughters’ propensity for disorder and pulled the final trick out of their royal hat: The youngest princess. They sent Georgina off to look for her sisters and to bring them home. Younger by five years, she was a different girl from Fredericka and Edwina in every way imaginable. She was kind where they were indifferent. Her common sense lay beneath every decision she made, and it seemed at times as if she could never be wrong, nor could she ever have fun. By far the most striking of the three sisters, with green eyes, dark skin and black hair, she was also the smallest, with a diminutive stature that belied her large presence.
She agreed to do this work, because it made sense, and she set off to find her ridiculous sisters. After several hours, visiting the tavern and the cake shop, she found them by the river.
“Come home at once,” she demanded, looking around at the detritus of three days’ indulgence spread around the meadow where the girls sat.
“Hard pass, Gigi.” Edwina looked lazily up at her youngest sister.
“Yeah, I don’t think I’m comfortable with that, Geege,” Federicka agreed.
“Mother and Father have said they will cut you off without a penny and marry you off to two of the older Konigsburg princes if you two don’t sort yourselves out.”
“They wouldn’t! They’re, like, middle aged!” Fredericka was especially horrified. She had managed to dodge marriage the longest.
“I think they would,” Georgina stared back at both of her sisters.
“Aren’t they our cousins?” Edwina raised an eyebrow, disgusted.
The next morning, the three girls set off, Fredericka and Edwina to begin their journey to find their fortune and avoid the despicable option of an arranged marriage, and Georgina to get them on their way without further distraction. They walked along the river bank on a path that soon left the village behind them.
They walked for several hours until the two older princesses got hungry.
“I’m hungry,” Edwina whined.
“Me too,” Fredericka complained.
“Alright, let’s get the blanket and the food out,” Georgina started to look around for a good flat spot, but Edwina had already spread the blanket just where she stood. “Here, then. Fine,” she said.
They pulled out the chicken legs and boiled eggs and carrots and parsnips and began eating. Soon the blanket was covered with ants. The ants crawled on from every direction. They covered the grass.They walked toward the girls’ legs. They marched toward all of the food.
Edwina and Fredericka screamed and shrieked, stamping their feet and hopping up and down, all at the same time. Edwina took her bottle of elderflower wine she had been drinking from and began pouring it all over the ants.
Georgina put the food back in the basket, took up the blanket to give it a good shake, and looked underneath. A mound in the earth seemed to grow before her eyes, with more and more ants flowing from it. They had been sitting on an ant hill.
“We’re sitting right on top of their home. It’s no wonder they’ve all come out. Stop stomping and let’s move our picnic away from here.” Georgina was, as ever, frustrated by their absurdity.
That evening they made camp by the river, sitting by a fire Georgina had laid, and eating a simple dinner. As they were finishing their meal in silence, a raft of ducks came paddling by, curious about the newcomers on their banks. They looked closely and quacked. They spotted bread. They quacked more.
“Gigi, make them stop,” Edwina exclaimed.
But the ducks began to paddle to the shore. They began to walk up onto the grass. They got closer and closer to the girls.
“Ah! Ducks!” Fredericka shouted and began throwing large chunks of the bread at the ducks. Edwina joined her, lobbing fist-sized pieces of sourdough at the black-backed birds. But the ducks were undeterred, and they began to eat the bread with their blue bills.
“Stop!” Georgina cried. “You’ll kill them with pieces that large!” And sure enough, one went back to the river with a large piece stuck in its bill that it could neither swallow nor let go of. The duck turned on its side in the water. Georgina ran into the water, fished the bread out of the duck’s mouth, who returned then to the shore. She began to pick up the pieces on the bank and break them into smaller bites for the birds. She was growing more and more tired of her sisters’ antics.
The next morning, the princesses continued on their journey, wondering how much further they would have to go before they found a way to make the older two girls’ fortunes. They walked for miles along the river, past villages, past orchards and more meadows. They came to rest that night just outside the grounds of an imposing castle.
Georgina went off to find berries for their dessert later, and left her sisters with instructions to build a fire for dinner. She returned to find the fire lit, which was impressive to say the least, but positioned at the base of a large oak tree, which was not.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she said to herself.
They cooked their dinner and began eating when they noticed a few bees alighting all around them. More and more came, and Georgina looked up into the oak tree and found that a hive just above the fire’s smoke was swarming.
“Bees!” Edwina yelled.
“Yes, bees, Edwina,” Georgina rolled her eyes. “And your fire is going to suffocate them. Let’s get it out.”
Fredericka and Edwina ran as far as they could, but Georgina stayed to put earth from the riverbank on the fire to quickly smother it. The bees went back to their hive, and Georgina was more exasperated than ever with her sisters and looked forward to the moment when she could return home.
The next morning, they set off again, walking toward the edge of the castle grounds. As they approached, they noticed how quiet it was. There were no gardeners, no workers, no family to be seen. Curious, the two older sisters walked around to the other side of the castle wall. There was no one to be seen. They passed through the gate and entered the courtyard. Georgina had been a few steps in front of them and did not see them leave the path. It was several minutes before she looked back and realized she would have to turn around and look for them, once again.
The sisters found the stable and walked toward it, remarking on how everyone must have been out. Surely, horses would make some noise. They poked their heads in the first stall. Stunned, they found a horse that was gray and still. It was made of stone. Haunted, the two sisters stepped back and away slowly. They noticed that all of the stalls had the same gray, silent stone horses in them.
Georgina found them walking backwards, their eyes large and their mouths silent.
“What is this place?” she said, looking around.
“I don’t know, but I’m going inside.” Fredericka dashed up the stone steps into the side entrance, leaving her sisters no option but to follow.
They wandered around the castle from silent, oversized room to room. No one made a sound and there was no movement. Eventually, they found a small room off the kitchen. A shuffling sound could be heard inside. They opened the door.
“Hello! And who do we have here?” A little gray man welcomed them heartily. “I’ve not seen anyone in so long.”
“I’m Fredericka, and these are my sisters, Edwina and Georgina.” Fredericka made her status as the oldest sister known. “We are traveling to find our fortune and avoid an arranged marriage.”
“Ah, lovely. Well, you must stay for supper. I’ve already made more than I can possibly eat.” As the sun was getting lower, and the girls were a bit hungry, they agreed, and he showed them to the kitchen, where he would lay a simple table and produce a meal for them. “I haven’t had anyone to talk to in some time.”
The girls all looked at each other. No one said a word.
They ate in silence, saying only “thank yous” and “yesses” to the little man’s queries about extra portions of the stew he had made. They finished their meal, said their goodbyes, and returned to their camp for the night, leaving him to his washing up.
The next morning, they returned to say goodbye, but found only a stone table in the courtyard. On the table was a message etched, and Fredericka, the oldest of course, read it out loud:
Complete these tasks and your fortune you shall find:
One, find and gather Prince Otto’s thousand pearls, scattered in the woods.
Two, collect the key to Prince Conrad’s bedchamber from the river.
Three, identify the youngest prince, Rupert, from the three identical sleeping princes.
Fail these tasks, and to stone turns your body and mind.
“Let’s get this show on the road!” proclaimed Fredericka. “Edwina, you and I will start with the pearls. Which way is the forest?”
Georgina watched as they set out. She set out a plan, and as she thought and thought, the day drew long. By dusk, the sisters had not returned. Georgina walked to the edge of the forest. She looked in but could spy nothing unusual. She ventured further and found the floor of the woods glowing with tiny white lights: pearls. They were everywhere. She walked on. In the middle of the path ahead, she spied two unmoving objects. Her sisters. They were stone, gray and quiet.
Georgina was not surprised, nor could she leave them to this fate. So, she walked back to the edge of the woods. In her mind, she tried to think of a practical solution to collecting such a scattered treasure. She took some time, and as the sun sank lower and darkness was nearly upon her, the lights in the forest shifted. They began moving toward her. She watched closely as pearl after pearl began to make their way to her. She held out her skirt, as one thousand ants, coming to her rescue after she had come to theirs, delivered and deposited the one thousand glistening pearls into it.
She made her way back to the courtyard, placing the pearls in a bucket below the table. The first item on the list disappeared. She looked at the second. This was a task she didn’t think she could manage alone. In the near-dark, she walked to the edge of the river. She had no lantern, but even so, it might have been impossible to find such a small thing in such a vast amount of water. She sat on the bank for a moment, watching the ducks. After some time, she noticed one swimming carefully toward her, while all the rest slept with their heads carefully nestled. The duck swam to the shore, walked up the bank toward her, and dropped a key at her feet.
“Thank you,” she said, simply.
She took it back to the courtyard and deposited it on the table. The second task disappeared from the list. For the third task, she knew she would have to venture into the castle. She took the key with her. She made her way to the fourth floor and found the last bedchamber.
The key opened the door without effort, and she went in. All of the brothers looked exactly alike. All were handsome, of course, but all were sleeping. They had not been turned to stone, but they would not awaken.
Georgina wondered how she would determine who was who, when she saw a note on the bedside table of one of the brothers. It said that the oldest had eaten a bit of sugar before he slept, the middle had had some syrup, and the youngest a little honey. She thought about how to resolve this dilemma for some time, when a queen bee flew in through the open window and went straight to the brother in the middle bed.
Georgina knew this had to be the youngest brother. She touched his hand, and the spell was broken.
The princes woke up, the sisters returned from the forest, and the little gray man made them all a late dinner.
At the end of the summer together, the older princesses agreed to marry the princes, securing their fortune, but only because they wanted to.
Fredericka married Otto, the oldest prince, and they spent many lazy days complaining together.
Edwina married Conrad, the middle prince, and they moved away to a sunnier climate, where they would have even less work to be responsible for.
Georgina decided not to marry Rupert, the youngest, but instead, stayed on at his castle with him. They set up beekeeping, and a market stand. Because they had such good fortune, they simply gave away the honey and beeswax candles. The drone of the honeybees and the sweetness of their honeymaking kept the villagers, and the prince and princess, content for all of their days.
Laura lives south of Portland, Oregon with her Irish husband, all-seeing, all-knowing teenage daughter, and her sock-stealing dog, Pluto. She makes her living as a college composition instructor, helping others to write.