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My Stepmother Remained as Evil as Ever

I bet you think that when a story ends with the words, “And they all lived happily ever after,” that the people in the story do just that, dancing in the rose garden every day, holding hands, staring dreamily into each other’s eyes while the dishes wash themselves and the harvest jumps out of the fields and into the oven. In reality, life goes on much as it did before, only now you’re married and live in a different house. At least, that’s what happened to me after Prince Charming put the glass slipper back on my foot and led me to the altar as his bride.
When Char sent the carriage round to our house to collect my things—even though I’d told him I had barely anything to my name, and most of that was rags—my stepmother sent it back empty to the palace, saying that as she had lost a servant, she was entitled to another one.
“What do you mean she’s lost a servant?” asked Char, who really was clueless. “Are you bringing a maid with you? There’s no need, for we’ve plenty in the palace household, so your mother can keep hers.”
“Stepmother,” I corrected, “as in ‘wicked’. And no, I’m not bringing a servant with me—I’m the servant she’s referring to. I used to clean out the hearth, boil the water, wash the clothes, sweep the floor, peel the potatoes-”
Char interrupted my list with a kiss. I would have gone on, as there was tons more that I used to do, but he clearly didn’t understand domestic tasks.
“Well then, we’ll just send a palace servant to your mother’s house, and then all will be fine,” he said.
“Stepmother,” I muttered, feeling sure that all would not be fine.
Nor was it. Barely a week later, my stepmother marched up to the palace gates, demanding to see the king, saying that his servant was a no-good, idle, useless lazybones who was eating them out of house and home.
I was sitting outside by the lily pond, savouring a flaky croissant and watching the gardeners prune the roses while Char cantered his horse up and down the paths, so I heard all the commotion at the gates, and couldn’t really refuse to see her, the old bat. She was led over to my table, her eyes wide with jealousy, and before I could even offer her a seat, she launched her tirade at me.
“Just because you’ve moved in here, there’s no need to forget your father and your real family. Did you ever stop to think whether he’s getting enough to eat while you sit here and gorge yourself on these pastries? No, I bet you don’t spare a thought for those less fortunate, even though we’re your family, your own flesh and blood!”
I was about to point out that she had ample flesh of her own to worry about and not a drop of her blood belonged to me, but Char rode up at that moment and caught the bit about family, so he flashed his most handsome smile and made the most stupid suggestion.
“Cinders, why don’t you invite your family to move into the palace? There are plenty of spare rooms, and then you can see them every day.”
I shook my head and frowned, frantically signalling that this was the worst idea ever, but of course my beloved husband didn’t see me, and my stepmother immediately began to babble in her most obsequious tone, so in the wink of an eye, there I was, back where I had started, only in a bigger house.
Don’t worry; I didn’t have to clean out the grates, but Lucretia and Griselda still treated me like their personal slave, asking me to find them ribbons and help them try on the dresses they found in the palace wardrobes, and then they would flounce down to breakfast looking like a pair of flannel haystacks. The palace staff, who had begun by pitying me and being friendly, now treated me as if I’d brought a plague of locusts into the house, which I suppose was a good comparison as those two ugly sisters never stopped eating.
It was only when I noticed my stepmother looking through the book of royal guests that I realised what her plan was. She wanted to marry her daughters off to visiting royalty, and to that end, she kept suggesting we hold an elaborate ball every time a foreign delegation came to visit. Char would have agreed to it all, so empty-headed was he, but at least his father, the king, had a better hold of the royal purse strings, and so my stepmother had to be content with a series of banquets.
I fell ill just before the visit of the Carthenians, so I missed all the commotion when Lucretia overturned a soup tureen in the ambassador’s lap, and I was indisposed again when the Northerners came to the palace and Griselda fell off a horse. When I became unwell the day before the Islanders were due to arrive, I began to suspect my stepmother of deliberately poisoning me to keep me out of the way—presumably so that her daughters would be the only females under fifty in the same room as the foreign delegates.
“Char, you have to do something about her,” I pleaded when he came to my room bringing some foul-tasting broth, which I suspected my stepmother of preparing.
“She’ll make our life a misery, and those two will scare away all of your friends.”
“Don’t worry darling,” he said, patting my hand. “I have the perfect solution. We’re going to send them on a cruise around the southern ocean, only we’ll tell the captain to stay away from all shores for at least two years.”
“What about the poor crew?”
“We’ll give them ear plugs and tell them to always look busy, coiling ropes and stuff.”
So my stepmother and her two daughters went on an extended holiday while Char and I got on with living happily ever after.
Lucretia and Griselda came back three years later, with sailor husbands, and they all seemed to be very happy. As for my stepmother, they left her on an island inhabited by penguins, so she immediately declared herself their queen, and I suppose she is still as evil as ever.

A Bedtime Story, featuring a fairy, a wizard, a dragon and a castle

I read a news article that suggested the ideal bedtime story should be 8.6 minutes long, feature a dragon, a fairy and a wizard and be set in a castle, so …

Once upon a time there was a king who lived in a small house by a muddy pond, while high on the hill in the middle of his kingdom a magnificent castle with three ballrooms and seventeen bedrooms was inhabited by a single dragon.
“I do wish you would do something about that dragon, so that we could go home,” the queen would say every morning while eating breakfast.
“I’m doing the best I can,” the king would answer, and then they would finish their breakfast in silence, neither looking at the other.
The two princes did not mind the dragon being in their castle because they rather enjoyed playing in the muddy pond with the village children, and, in any case, it was their destiny to grow up and slay the dragon one day.
The princess did mind that the dragon was in her castle because it meant no balls and no opportunity to dress up and meet young men, other than the village boys who were always in the pond with her brothers. She blamed the princes for the family’s predicament and she was right.
When the twin princes were born the king was so delighted to have two sons that he decreed a public holiday and arranged a big feast for all the nobles in the kingdom and also all the people in the nearby villages. He invited sorcerers and mages, fairies and wizards, making sure that nobody who could take offence was left off the guest list, but with so many magical people around something was bound to go wrong. One of the sorcerers drank too much spiced wine and conjured a dragon for the young princes, saying, “every kingdom should have a dragon: that’s how legends are made.”
The other guests were scared of the creature, even though it was no bigger than a lizard, because the sparks from its sneezes burned holes in their fine dresses and waistcoats. The king ordered a page to put the dragon in a box and then went back to enjoying himself while the page took the dragon to the kitchen to show his friends, who began to poke at the poor creature to get it to spit out flames.
“What are you doing?” called a fairy, fluttering through an open window, while the pages quickly stuffed the smouldering animal back into the box.
“We’re looking after this dragon,” said one page, “it’s a gift for the princes but the king wants it out of sight during the party.”
“Quite right,” said the fairy, flying away from the ball of flame that was heading for her wings, “but you must be careful not to let it get away. Here, I’ll put a spell on it to contain it to the castle,” and she waved her wand, sprinkled some dust in the air, and then, with a flick of her wings, she went upstairs and joined the guests in the main ballroom.
The fairy’s spell worked very well. The little dragon was prevented from leaving the castle by an invisible barrier and for the first couple of days it remained on the ground floor, exploring the kitchens and all the rooms in the servants’ quarters, terrifying the maids and the cook and delighting the pages. On the third day the dragon began to grow. First his tail grew longer, then his legs, one at a time, causing him to walk lopsidedly, and finally his head caught up with the rest of him. As he grew he became stuck in small spaces, knocked over things with his tail and burned most of the furnishings. Everybody wanted the dragon banished to a cave but because of the spell he could not be removed from the castle.
The poor page could not remember which fairy had cast the containment spell and none of the fairies the king contacted could do anything about it, so the only solution was for the royal family to move out of the castle and let the dragon take it over. Soon, the dragon had grown so big that each of his legs stuck out a different window, his tail poked up the chimney and his nose lay outside the front door on the drawbridge, where his tongue was able to reach down to the moat and scoop up any unfortunate duck which came too close.
At last the beast stopped growing, but it was impossible for the king and his family to move back to the castle, a fact that the queen and the princess bemoaned every day.
“Won’t the dragon die of hunger?” one of the king’s advisors had suggested, but after seven years the dragon showed no sign of starving.
“We need somebody to undo the spell,” said another advisor, “or at least, to disable it.”
“You must announce a contest to get rid of the dragon,” said the queen, who understood how men functioned. “Promise the winner a large sack of gold, and a title and we’ll soon have our castle back.”
“Good idea,” said the king, “I can offer the winner half the kingdom and the hand of the princess in marriage.”
“Oh no, you won’t,” said the princess, who had just come in to breakfast, “I’m not a prize to be given away to some lout who happens to kill a smelly dragon.”
“And the kingdom is too small to divide in half,” said the queen, “especially as you already have two sons who each expect to inherit.”
The king grumbled but agreed to the contest and told his advisors to announce the news. Soon the people could talk of nothing else but the coming contest and strangers began coming from far away, eager to try their skills against the dragon.
It soon became apparent that the spell binding the dragon was a powerful one, as it could not be undone or changed; it could only be improved upon, and each new spell made the dragon even stronger.
After one week of spell casting, during which time the dragon had been changed into a giant mouse, a snake, a jellyfish and a pink canary, and everybody was getting tired of the constant bangs and flashes and the smell of enchantments, a wizard and his son came to the kingdom to try their luck against the dragon. The wizard’s son stopped at the muddy pond and joined in a game of chicken fighting with the other boys while the wizard strode up to the king and said that he could rid the castle of the dragon, but only if he were allowed to inherit the kingdom.
“That’s preposterous!” said the king, “I have two sons who will be king after me.”
“Well, send them on a quest or something, or marry them off to princesses in far lands.”
“I can’t do that, but maybe you could marry my daughter instead?” said the king, who was willing to try anything to get rid of the dragon.
“Daddy!” shrieked the princess, “I am not marrying some old wizard, even if he does get our castle back for us.”
While the king and the sorcerer were arguing the two princes and the village boys huddled outside in the bushes, listening.
“Why does it have to be a spell that removes the dragon?” asked one boy. “Can’t we just knock down a wall and lead it out?”
“Because the dragon’s confined to the castle, silly,” said another boy.
“Well why don’t you just make the castle bigger?” asked the wizard’s son.
This was something nobody had thought of and when the king heard the idea he immediately called for his royal architects and commanded them to design an extension to the castle. However, the architects were more concerned with becoming famous, so they spent a lot of time sketching plans for battlements and turrets, and nothing actually got built. The wizard was so proud of his son’s suggestion that he began to draw up his own designs, which relied on magical walls, so nobody paid them any attention.
The princes and the village boys had taken to walking up the hill each day to visit the dragon while the architects adjusted their drawings. The princes were eager to show off their muscles and boast of how one day they would kill the dragon, but the village boys were more interested in looking at the dragon’s teeth and playing a game to see who could run up and touch a scale without being singed by the dragon’s breath.
“I don’t think you need to actually extend the castle,” said the wizard’s son, “you could just build a big wall from the moat and enclose a field large enough for the dragon to live in. Technically, it would still be part of the castle grounds.”
“But how will we get him out of the building?” asked one of the boys.
“What if he grows again?” asked one of the princes, who was secretly not looking forward to killing the dragon.
“Let’s worry about that later,” said the wizards son, who was pacing out the ground, “help me drag some rocks over here.”
So the boys carried rocks from the fields and piled them up against the castle wall, while the dragon watched them with his big green eyes, and snorted smoke at them when they got too close. After several hours they had built a small pen next to the castle wall and the dragon stretched out his front foot and planted it into the earth, leaving a large footprint, then he lay his head down on his front paws and let out a loud belch.
The boys ran down to the village to fetch the architects and the wizard and soon everybody who could haul stones was engaged in extending the wall to make a larger pen. The wizard tried conjuring some stones into place but they rolled away and he concluded that the spell on the dragon was preventing any magical interference.
By the time it grew dark they had enclosed what looked like a large paddock and the dragon was sniffing around the edge of the wall, and scrabbling with its front legs.
“How’s he going to get his tail out of the chimney?” asked a small boy.
“I think he’s getting smaller,” said another.
Everybody looked at the dragon and they saw that he was no longer trapped in the doorway, and his legs were not poking out of the windows, but tucked underneath him. A moment later his tail slithered down the chimney and curled around his body and soon his eyelids closed and the people could just make out little puffy snorts of sparks.
“He’s gone to sleep!” said one of the princes.
“Well at least he’s not trying to eat us,” said the other prince.
The people stood around for a while, looking at the sleeping dragon but they began to feel tired themselves, after their hours of lifting stones, and so they went back to their houses.
In the morning one of the village boys was the first to go up to the castle and he discovered that the dragon had gone.
“Are you sure?” asked the king when he heard the news, calling for his carriage to take him up the hill to reclaim his castle.
The dragon had indeed gone from the castle, leaving a pile of broken scales on the floor, claw marks on the dining room table and burned shreds of fabric hanging from the windows. The king, queen, princess, both princes and the household staff went from room to room, holding their noses against the smell of dragon, examining the damage and wondering how soon they could move back in.
“I’ve found him!” said the wizard’s son, walking up from the far end of the new paddock, holding something small in his arms.
The boys all crowded round and saw that he was carrying a small dragon, which spat out flames and flapped its wings, becoming more and more agitated as it was brought closer to the castle.
“I think it knows that it will grow bigger and get trapped again if we put it inside the castle,” said the wizard, who was trying to take credit for the building of the paddock wall. “But if you let it live in this field, which, thanks to this wonderful wall, is now technically part of the castle, then it will probably stay small.”
The king began thinking over the benefits of owning a dragon which could be made bigger just by hauling it indoors. He could scare his enemies, or charge admission to watch the transformation. Perhaps the dragon was going to be of use after all.
The queen began making lists of the furniture she would have to replace, and wondering how she could get the princes out of the pond and into their royal attire, now that court visitors would be calling again.
The princess walked around the three ballrooms imagining the parties that they would soon be giving, and the dances that she would be able to enjoy. As she pirouetted with her hand in the air, holding an imaginary partner, she bumped into the wizard’s son, who was standing watching her.
“What are you doing here?” the princess asked.
“I’ve come to claim my prize for solving the problem of the dragon,” he said.
“What prize?”
“Well, there was talk of a sack of gold, or half a kingdom, or was it half a princess?”
“What cheek!” said the princess, “I’m not a prize, and anyway, the dragon’s still here.”
“You’re right,” said the wizard’s son. “I’ll have to fix that, and then I’ll come back for my prize. Save the first dance for me.”
And he winked at the princess and skipped out of the room.

Moving House

I wrote this story for a competition which asked for a one page submission on the theme of Wood

“Sell this house?” said Mrs. Pig, “but my grandfather built it with his own hands! And-”
“Yes, I know,” said Mr. Pig, “he built it brick by brick, and it withstood all the huffing and puffing from the wolf, while your great uncles’ houses were demolished. We’ve all heard the story many times and I know how important this house is to your family, but can’t you see we’re running out of space?”
Mr. Pig waved his trotter at the room behind him where a dozen little piglets lay squealing in a heap on the floor while four older pigs ran around them, dribbling a soccer ball. In the corner a hanging crib held three baby pigs and underneath that several more pigs sat at a tiny table, pretending to study.
Mrs. Pig sighed. She knew the house was too small, but what could they do? The children were too scared to move out, and their family kept growing and growing.
“Look, I spoke to a new realtor today,” said Mr. Pig, producing a brochure. “We can build our own house out of wood, over beyond the pond, on that new patch of land that used to be a forest, and we can have as many rooms as we want.”
“Wood? But Great Uncle Tom’s house was made out of wood and look what happened to him!”
“No, I don’t mean a house of sticks; flimsy wobbly things – no wonder they fell down. I mean a log cabin, with interlocking pieces that you can expand by adding modules. It would be perfect for us.”
Mrs. Pig was troubled, but after studying the pictures of the large, spacious houses, and reading the realtor’s proposal, she thought that perhaps she should put her family’s needs first so she agreed to the move. Mr. Pig began designing their new house with lots of advice from the younger members of the family.
“Can I have my own room?” asked more than one little pig, only to be told they would still have to share with some of their siblings.
Mr. and Mrs. Pig made a point of supervising the construction, to be sure that the windows were installed properly and that the optional chimney was included. Each time they visited the building the younger piglets played leap frog over the steadily diminishing piles of logs; the wails when their tails became trapped between the stacks of wood made Mrs. Pig worry that the house would be a hazard but her husband assured her that the logs would form a solid wall when slotted into place.
Before she closed the door on the brick house for the last time, Mrs. Pig took down the photograph of her grandfather and his two brothers from the mantelpiece. Poor Great Uncles Tom and Bert never had a chance to raise their own families. She sniffed and wiped her eyes, then gave the key to the family of goats that had bought the house and climbed onto the back of the moving van which held all their possessions. At the new house the piglets had started a game of sliding down the long, smooth bannister, landing in giggling heaps on the floor, while Mr. Pig oversaw the unloading of the furniture. Mrs. Pig propped the photo of her grandfather up on the new mantelpiece and took a moment to absorb the strong smell of wood. She walked around the house, testing the window latches and the lock on the front door until she was satisfied that the house could be secured, then she made a pot of tea, and, ignoring the pandemonium, sat down to relax in her new kitchen.
“Look, Mama, we even have a cat flap!” cried one of the tiniest piglets, poking his head through a small swinging flap at the bottom of the kitchen door, and waving his front trotter at her.
“Goodness! Whatever do we need that for? We don’t have a cat,” said Mrs. Pig. “Is that safe?”
“Can we keep it, please?”
“All the homes have them,” said Mr. Pig, coming into the kitchen with the paperwork to sign. “It’s an added benefit, according to the brochure. The realtor said that all the neighbours love them.”
It took a very long time for the family to settle that night, with the young ones rushing around, claiming bedrooms and opening all the windows to lean out and wave at the people outside, but gradually exhaustion took over and once the house was quiet, and the door latched, Mr. and Mrs. Pig curled up together on the sofa and raised a toast to Grandfather Pig.
In the kitchen, the cat flap opened silently and a long furry arm reached inside and felt for the latch.

How the Cat Got its Name

Whoever heard of a cat called Blanket? Well let me tell you how it came about.
Not so long ago it was the custom for every self-respecting Prince to slay a dragon in order to prove his worth before seeking the hand of a Princess in marriage. Naturally every self-respecting dragon took exception to this custom and, when not breathing fire and brimstone over the hapless Princes, kept themselves well out of the way. In time this led to a shortage of dragons and some very short-tempered Princes.
The Princesses were also unhappy, because the stream of suitors asking for their hand in marriage dried up, for no Prince would dream of seeking a bride without having at least one dragon slaying to his credit.
“Daddy, it’s not fair!” shouted Princess Materi, “Lucy and Genevieve had at least three Princes each come and drool over their hand before they were married, and Terena even has a bracelet of dragon’s teeth and a dragon scale rug. And now it is my turn to be courted and not a single Prince has turned up in a month!”
“There, there, my dear,” murmured the King, wondering if he would be asked to give up half his kingdom to get her married off.
“Who would want to drool over your hand anyway?” asked Prince Luand. “What about me? I haven’t ever seen a dragon, let alone fought one. Just my luck to get stuck in the castle with you for company.”
And the two siblings continued their bickering day in and day out. It was the same in neighbouring kingdoms; state visits were a thing of the past, for who would want to visit another monarch without bringing tales of daring and gifts of dragon’s teeth or scales?
“Your Majesty,” said the court Wizard one day, “I have an idea.”
The King glanced listlessly at the Wizard, expecting another display of rabbits popping out from goblets of mead.
“Why don’t we breed our own dragons?”
“What? Have those dreadful creatures in the castle, breathing fire all over the tapestries?” said the Queen.
“No, Your Majesty, we’d keep them in the barn, then when visiting Princes came we’d release one at the far end of the field. Nobody would know.”
The King thought about this new idea for a few days and the more he considered it, the more it appealed to him. So the next week the Wizard conjured some dragon eggs and set them to hatch in the barn. Day after day he went to look at them but there was no change.
“When are the eggs going to hatch?” Prince Luand kept asking. “I want to start practising dragon killing right away.”
“But you can’t kill them when they are babies!” cried Princess Materi, “besides, my suitors will need dragons themselves!”
The King became impatient; the whole court became impatient and still the eggs did not hatch.
“Who is sitting on the eggs, my dear?” asked the Queen one morning, when she could bear the tension no longer.
“Sitting?” asked the King.
“Sitting?” asked the Wizard.
“Yes, you know, keeping the eggs warm; incubating them.”
The Queen looked at the King, the King looked at the Wizard and the Wizard looked behind him where he saw the cat sleeping, curled in a ray of sunlight.
“The cat is!” he cried, scooping up the indignant cat and running out of the castle, all the way across the field to the barn.
“Here you are, kitty,” he said, placing the cat gently on the eggs, “here’s your new bed.”
The cat hissed and arched its back and the Wizard got ready to cast a calming spell when all of a sudden it looked beneath it, sniffed at the surface of an egg and began to purr. Louder and louder the sound became, until the whole barn was filled with a roaring thrum.
Two days later the first egg hatched. The little dragon unfolded its sticky wings, took one look at the cat and flew out of the barn. The cat did not appear to care.
The Wizard replaced the egg with a new one and the cat continued as before, while the court watched the progress of the young dragon, flitting around the countryside, eating sheep and cows, getting bigger by the day.
“Can I go and fight the dragon, Father?” asked Prince Luand.
“No!” shrieked Princess Materi, “we need a dragon for my suitor to slay!”
The problem was solved the very next day with the birth of a second dragon, who followed its elder sibling to ravage the countryside.
The King was delighted.
“I’ll be the envy of all the land! Every Prince from far and wide will come here to face the dragons. My daughter will have the best husband, my son will soon have a score of dragon pelts to his name!”
“But what if you run out of dragon eggs?” asked the Queen, “you can’t just keep conjuring them out of nothing.”
“I won’t need to conjure them any more, Your Majesty,” explained the Wizard. “You see, a fallen dragon’s tooth grows into an egg if planted the same day it falls out; provided we collect all the fallen dragons’ teeth and plant them immediately, we’ll have a constant supply of eggs.”
“Hmm, I see. And what about that cat, the blanket,” asked the King, “will it stay on the eggs?”
“You don’t need to worry about her,” replied the Wizard, “the dragons have scared all the mice into the barn. She’ll live there happily ever after.”
And that is how Blanket the cat got its name.

The Dragon

I wrote this as a timed writing exercise: we had fifteen minutes to write something using the words smoke, salt and mountain. I like writing about dragons and I am sure this one will have some adventures in the future.

The dragon lay inside its cave, its shallow breathing sending small puffs of smoke upwards. His belly was full and he was resting before his next flight. He licked his lips with his forked tongue, remembering the taste of his last meal – a young sheep from the field over the mountain. Not as sweet as princesses, but they were so hard to find these days.
The dragon burped and a small tongue of fire flickered out of his mouth, then he settled back to sleep. He dreamed of a big castle far away, full of succulent princesses. Big ones, little ones, fat ones, juicy ones. All waiting for him to drop by for breakfast.
He would soar above the mountains then swoop down on the unsuspecting kingdom. He imagined himself perched on the rampart of the castle, wings outstretched, casting a huge black shadow on the courtyard, princesses running squealing in all directions, holding their skirts in their hands.
Yes, those darned skirts. If only princesses didn’t have to wear clothes. They were so difficult to digest, all those petticoats, and the prickly crowns, that tasted as if they were crusted with salt. Not the jewels, of course, those he liked to keep, picking them out one by one with his talons. He had quite a collection now in his cave. Why couldn’t princesses be kept in a field, like sheep, except without the woolly coats. Now that would be a fine meal.
The dragon rolled over and crushed its wing uncomfortably. It opened one eye and caught a glint of sunlight reflecting off steel. No, it couldn’t be. Not another hero, coming to show off. Really, couldn’t these knights wait until after lunch?