It was a glorious spring day. The prince didn’t care. He was sick of all the duties, meetings, royal audiences, and most of all, the compassion. Too many people needed compassion and care. And he didn’t want to care anymore.
If he had to help one more old man down the stairs, one more peasant pull a cart, one more invasion be routed, one more soup kitchen on Tuesday nights—No.
The prince set his heart to stone. It was time to do what he wanted, go wherever he chose, and not care about other people’s expectations.
That day the young prince left without telling his father goodbye. He set off with a grim face, not caring where he went as long as he chose the way for himself.
As the eternal ribbon of road collapsed into night, he found himself at the bright window-lights of a crumbling inn. He stumbled through the oaken door and noticed the flowers. Every surface was adorned with sparkling lanterns and wildflowers.
There he met the innkeeper’s granddaughter. She was a poor girl, but her bright brown eyes were rich in kindness, and her fair hair was crowned with flowers. The prince stayed there for the night.
The ailing innkeeper often needed the girl’s help, but she never complained, only flew to do his will with joy and compassion.
“Why are you so happy to serve others?” asked the grim prince. “Because the true measure of love is revealed in hard times. Without compassion, the world would be a dark place.”
The prince took this into his stony heart, but it did not soften. The days flowed on and he resumed his lonesome trek. At last, his legs wearied and he continued by rowboat. Dark trees brooded overhead as the river rushed to its end, hungrily licking the banks.
It began to rain.
As his arms shivered with exhaustion and cold, one oar slipped free and escaped beyond reach. Desperate, the boy paddled lopsidedly and brought the renegade oar close. He reached out. Then reached a little more.
But then the furious river tossed him out of the tilted boat and wrapped him in cold shrouds. Alas, the boy could not swim.
Just as his eyes sank into darkness, a strong hand grabbed his shirt and hoisted him onto the banks. Coughing and retching, the boy finally glimpsed his rescuer: a tall, stony-skinned troll.
It smiled with red dagger teeth and purred, “Ye be strong and handsome, good for many things. Follow and we will take what is ours and live free.”
Turning to lead the way, its moss-crowned back sank into the shadows.
The boy stood. Why not? The trolls live free from responsibility, free from demands, and I can do what I want, he thought, ignoring the warning of his heart. After all, he wasn’t a prince anymore.
He came to live with the troll’s band and to learn many things about fighting and trickery. To test him, the troll sent him to a road to wait for travelers and convince them to visit the camp, because the trolls were lonely and longed for more humans. The boy blindly obeyed.
And it came to pass that the innkeeper and his fair-haired granddaughter were traveling to the physician, for the innkeeper was dying. The flowers in the girl’s hair were wilted and dead.
The boy recognized them, and his stony heart twisted at the sight of the girl pulling the sick man in a cart, but he knew he must not care.
“Halt! You will come with me.” he said. The girl’s bright brown eyes alighted on his and filled with joy. She ran and flung her arms around him. “Oh, joyous day, that brought you to me! A friend when I needed one most.”
He did not return her embrace and tried to choke his care as it rose to his heart. “You must…come with me.”
A feeble cry arose from the old man, his trembling finger pointing to the forest. The shadow-bound troll was prowling the edge of the trees near the road, but the road was in sunlight.
“Come, bring the girl,” it pouted, “bring her to be our friend. Bring them both. We are very lonely.”
The boy’s eyes glazed, and he seized the girl and cart and brought them to the woods. The girl pleaded with him, but he would not hear, for the lure of the troll had taken him.
If he cared about one person, he would have to care about many, and that required sacrifice and responsibility. He must not care. After all, he was not a prince anymore.
At the camp, many trolls appeared from the darkness of the trees and licked their blood-stained teeth. With greedy smiles and flexing fingers, they bowed to welcome their esteemed guests.
“The stone table is prepared,” hissed the lead troll, “Come, honored ones, and join our feast. Today is special, for we have not feasted thus in many moons.”
The boy tried to clear his mind, but the troll-words were soothing, and he knew he must not care. They were brought to the stone table and pushed atop it. Then the troll handed a long, gleaming, black blade to the boy. “Feast. Take and kill. They are juicy and fresh-hearted.”
Finally, the boy understood the hearts of the trolls, and he turned to the bright-eyed girl. She stood over the sick man, whom the trolls had placed upon the table as well. The boy stepped closer and slowly brushed her fair hair from her tender throat.
He looked into her eyes as he raised the blood-hungry knife. Those kind, caring eyes. Her tears trembled unfallen as she protected her feeble grandfather, and he knew he must not care. But he did care.
His stony heart was pierced by her loving gaze. He realized that he must care. He must allow himself to love. After all, he was the prince.
But that love required sacrifice, even his own life. He felt his heart of flesh beat powerfully, hot blood course through his limbs. He whirled and slashed the black blade at the troll’s stony skin, but the blade sparked and skidded off.
The troll laughed, it’s eyes glinting in the tree-induced darkness. “Foolish human. Ye think ye can kill me? Now ye will watch them die and then I will grind your bones into crumbs and feed ye to my children.”
With one swipe, it knocked the prince off the table, then grabbed the girl by the neck. Winded on the ground, the prince searched franticly for a solution, but the heavy tree cover shrouded the clearing darkly.
The girl struggled and clawed at the troll, but it only laughed. Then the prince threw the black blade toward the troll, but the blade spun past it, and the troll laughed.
“Ye didn’t learn the last time—” Then the blade slammed into its target: a rope. The rope split and the tree limbs held down by the rope snapped upward.
Bright daylight stabbed through the gap and the troll gasped and dropped the girl. A scream struggled and died in the troll’s throat as it hardened into stone.
The rest of the trolls stampeded in fear.
The prince quickly untied the other ropes and more light poured into the clearing. “Quickly, while they are distracted!”
The prince scooped up the feeble innkeeper while the girl scrambled off the table. They passed through the discombobulation of the trolls and out of the forest of darkness.
A road revealed itself to them, and they pursued it, looking for a healer for the failing grandfather. The young prince soon wearied of carrying the man, and the lonely three stopped beneath a lone tree.
As they were resting, a patrol of King’s Men appeared on the road. Catching sight of the three, the King’s Men turned their horses and rode nearer. The captain spoke: “Hail, travelers! We are searching for the Prince and the King bids you tell us of any news of him.”
Agitated, the young prince sprang up. “Where is the King? Has he come with you?”
“It is as you say, for behold, even now the King approaches.” The captain swept an arm to the road behind him.
A way off, several dust-cloud-accompanied horsemen approached. The boy turned to the girl, grabbed her arm, and whispered in her ear. “We must flee! If my father learns of what I have done, I will bring shame on him and the whole kingdom. I am not worthy to be his son any longer.”
But the girl said to him, “Boy, who then is your father? Are you the prince?”
The prince, wringing his hands in defeat and shame, answered, “Once, I was the prince, but now I am not worthy. My father will not receive me. But how can we flee? For your grandfather is very weak, and I cannot carry him quickly.”
The girl gently rebuked him. “An upright man should not flee from his mistakes, and neither should a prince. You overcame your wickedness by great bravery and compassion.”
But even as they spoke, the King caught sight of them and urged his mount to a great speed. Reaching the tree’s shade, he flung himself from the saddle and engulfed the startled prince in fervent embraces. “My son! My son! At last, I have found you! My heart, pierced with grief, is now pierced by love and full to bursting! Come back to me and be my son again!”
But the prince hung his head and told the King of his unworthy deeds. The prince covered his face in his hands, saying, “I have acted shamefully. Who am I, that I am worthy to go with you, and be your prince once more?”
“You are my son.” said the King. And the King took the prince’s hands and led him home. They took with them the innkeeper, who soon recovered, and the kind-eyed girl.
From that day, the prince embraced his royal calling with joy and became a great king, remembered throughout the ages for his love, bravery, and compassion. And he lived happily with his kind-eyed wife and her grandfather all the days of his life.