Chapter 3: The Biggest Regret

biggestregret

A boy named Ryan climbed into the attic, his favorite place. On a shelf, Ryan saw a book called, Doom Clown: The Worst Joker.

“Read me,” said a voice coming from the book.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

“If you say ‘Doom Clown’ three times, I will be free and yours to read and make you laugh foreverrrr and everrrr.”

Ryan ran downstairs to his brother Jack’s bedroom to tell him what happened.

Jack said, “I bet that clown’s not very funny. Say his name three times, and let’s see what happens.”

Ryan said, “No, you!”

“Fine, scaredy cat,” Jack said, and he repeated ‘Doom Clown’ times.

They heard a thump in the attic, and then a scratch on the door.

Jack opened the door, and there was Doom Clown, with a scary smile.

“Thanks, little boys!” he said. “Come closer, and give me a hug!”

Jack and Ryan screamed and ran.

Chapter 2: Doom Clown’s Revenge

clowncopymachine

Doom Clown made copies of himself in the mirror. The copies crossed to Earth trying to find Good Clown.

The copies of Doom Clown asked the kids on the playground, “Have you seen Good Clown?”

“No!”

Finally, a boy named Jamy said, “He’s coming to my classroom today.”

“Ok.”

The Doom Clowns found Good Clown blowing balloon animals for students.

They grabbed him by the collar and said, “Time to die!”

They were going to take Good Clown back to their world, but then one kid in the classroom said, “No!”

Then another.

And another.

All the kids screamed, “We love Good Clown! Leave him alone!”

The copies of Doom Clown vanished from the Earth and disappeared forever.

But if you say ‘Doom Clown’ three times, watch out.

He’ll be back …

file (1)

Once there was a Good Clown who entertained boys and girls at birthday parties, but deep down he had a bad side. One day while looking himself in the mirror, Good Clown accidentally summoned the monster in himself.

The monster was Doom Clown, and he said, “How you doing, old friend?! You wanna play?”

Good Clown said, “No?!”

But Doom Clown refused to be turned down.

“Let’s play anyway!” Doom Clown said, and he tossed Good Clown into the closet and locked him in there, or so he thought.

Then Doom Clown went to a birthday party. He said to the kids, “Time to die!”

He started running after them, trying to fart on their heads so their heads would pop off, because his farts were so gross.

Then Doom Clown had to pee, so he went to the bathroom. Good Clown used the opportunity to take control again.

“I am good, l am good, l am good!” said the face in the mirror.

Then Doom Clown got stuck in the mirror.

The end.

Maybe.

Chapter 1: Doom Clown Lives

Grimhilde Lives

Dragon Witch

As long as Autumn could remember, she feared witches, and none captured her imagination more than Grimhilde, the creepy old lady with dark eyes and long nose featured in the classic Disney film, Snow White.

When Autumn was five, she visited Disneyland and rode an attraction, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, where she first encountered Grimhilde.

For weeks after the ride, Autumn refused to enter a bathroom or closet or any dark space alone, fearing a witch might lurk in the corner. Autumn’s anxiety over Grimhilde took such hold over her that her mother, Lauren, needed to remind Autumn regularly it was all make-believe.

“There are no witches in the world,” Lauren said, “just little girls with active imaginations.”

Autumn wasn’t convinced, however, and only with the distraction of friends and fun that came from kindergarten did she manage to put aside her fear, at least for a while.

On a fine summer day after finishing kindergarten, Autumn returned to Disneyland. In the year since her last visit to the “Happiest Place on Earth,” she had grown taller, able to ride the park’s roller coasters.

Autumn rode Space Mountain for the first time, thrilled by its speed, loops and turns. After making rounds on other big kid rides, she decided to return to Snow White’s Scary Adventures, ready to confront Grimhilde.

Arriving at the attraction, Autumn clasped her mother’s hand and waited in line for her turn to board the carriage that would bring her face-to-face with the witch. Finally, she stepped into the carriage and curled up next to her mother; the safety bar clamped down on them firmly.

The carriage lurched forward, and Autumn and her mother approached two large doors that swung open. After passing a pleasant, pink room occupied by the Seven Dwarves, the carriage made its way through a mine shaft, littered with glistening green gems, and finally entered a castle through a dark corridor.

The corridor led to a room.

There, Autumn spotted the Evil Queen, who faced the Magic Mirror. Through the mirror’s reflection, Autumn saw the Evil Queen’s stern face, pointy crown and purple robe.

“Magic Mirror on the wall,” the Evil Queen said, “through this disguise … I will fool them all!”

The Evil Queen turned toward Autumn, arms outstretched, transformed into Grimhilde.

“Ahhhhhhhh!” Autumn screamed.

From the witch’s mouth, fire spewed and flames licked Autumn’s face. Autumn clung to her mother, eyes shut, ready to feel her cheeks burn.

But she felt nothing, except fear; then, suddenly, the carriage stopped.

“That’s strange,” Lauren said. “There must be some technical difficulty … I’m sure we’ll be moving again soon.”

Lauren nudged her daughter.

“It’s okay, Autumn,” she said. “Look up.”

Autumn peeked and noticed the witch’s eyes peering into hers, but no flames licked Autumn’s face; that was just her imagination. In fact, the creature that loomed before Autumn was frozen.

“It’s not alive,” Lauren said. “It’s just a machine, see? On standby. There’s nothing to be afraid of, my dear.”

“You were right, Mom!” Autumn said. “Witches are not real!”

Autumn again clung to her mother, this time out of joy. After she hugged Lauren, the ride continued, and so did Autumn’s life.

As the little girl returned to Disneyland from time to time, eventually as a woman with a family of her own, she realized she preferred Space Mountain over Snow White’s Scary Adventures.

Although Autumn knew Grimhilde was not real, witches still frightened her more than roller coasters.

S’more Boy Returns

s'more boyThroughout the school year, Autumn’s classmates often returned from weekend getaways, regaling her with tales of pitching a tent, hiking through a forest, and hearing stories around a fire. Camping quickly captivated Autumn’s imagination, a great American tradition the six year old wanted to experience herself.

Of the joys of camping, however, one garnered Autumn’s attention the most. S’mores. She longed to eat the gooey, marshmallow, chocolate, graham cracker treat.

On a hot afternoon in June, Autumn arrived at a mountaintop camp with her father, Marshall, his girlfriend, Chloe, and Chloe’s brother, Will, ready for her first outdoor overnight adventure.

Their over-stuffed car came to a grinding halt at the entrance to the park, where Marshall stepped out to check in with the ranger.

Meanwhile, Autumn stood by and swatted flies buzzing around her head. In the time her father talked to the ranger, she was bitten by two mosquitoes. Intuitively, Autumn started to wonder what other ‘joys’ she could look forward to on her maiden voyage into the wilderness.

“Okay, I think we’ll try that hike tomorrow morning …” Marshall said, concluding his conversation with the ranger.

The ranger, a white-haired lady with piercing blue eyes, bent down so she was eye level with Autumn and said, “How about you, dear, what would you like to do on this trip?”

“Eat s’mores!” Autumn said.

“Yes, s’mores, of course, what is a camping trip without them?” the ranger said, and she began speaking in a hushed voice. “But Beware, young lady, a ghost is said to inhabit these woods. They call him S’more Boy. He likes to eat the treats of our camp guests, so be sure to clean up after your mess, so you won’t be visited by an uninvited pest!”

“That’s one way to keep the trash in the cans,” Marshall said, “and another way to keep the kids up at night. Thanks, a lot.”

“You bet,” the ranger said with a grin, waving to Autumn as her father tugged her away. “Have a nice trip!”

“Is there really a ghost?” Autumn said as they walked toward the car.

“No,” Marshall said. “I think she was just saying in a roundabout way that we need to keep our site clean, unless we want bears or something to ruffle through our stuff.”

“Bears?”

Marshall realized that between the ranger’s comments, and his own, there was little that put a child at ease.

“You have nothing to worry about,” he said, patting her head, buckling her tight in her car seat. “Never mind what that lady said, or me, all right?”

“What was that all about?” Chloe said as Marshall put the car into drive.

“Ghosts and bears are coming to get us tonight!” Autumn said.

“Oh, boy,” Marshall said.

“No, S’more Boy!” Autumn said.

*

They found their site and pitched the tent. Well, actually, Marshall, Chloe and Will pitched the tent while Autumn scrambled up some boulders until her father yelled at her to get down. He asked her to collect sticks for the fire instead.

That was a task Autumn managed handily, finding stray branches and twigs until there was a pile so big waiting to be lit that it was larger than Autumn herself. After that, Autumn wasn’t sure what to do. There were no TVs or pizza parlors or water slides, like there were in the big city life of Los Angeles. Not only was camping hot, with a lot of bugs, but it was also boring. Some trip this was turning out to be.

“Now what?” Autumn said.

“Looks like you’re going to have to entertain yourself,” Marshall said.

Autumn did. Life in the woods took a little getting used to, true, but once Autumn came to terms with the fact she didn’t have the usual gizmos and artificial amusements to keep her occupied, she adapted well.

First, she gathered an assortment of rocks — big ones, small ones – lined them along the campsite, and went into business.

“Who needs magic crystals?” she yelled, to everyone and no one in particular. “I have red ones, blue ones. I have crystals that heal you, and crystals that make you fly …”

None of the neighboring campers seemed to appreciate Autumn’s wares, but Will offered to buy a rock, which made Autumn happy. For a moment. Then it was on to another game …

Autumn chased bunny rabbits. She sang and danced in a makeshift theater she carved into the dirt with a stick. She even made a fishing pole with a branch, string and rock for bait, trying to lure tadpoles from the pond.

When it was time for the hike, Autumn led the charge. She climbed hills, strolled fallen trees, skipped rocks.

Life was good, despite the heat and bugs, and in time even that didn’t bug Autumn as much.

Eventually the sun set, a fire made. Day turned to night, the weather cooled, and even some of the bugs went away. Marshall, Chloe, Will and Autumn ate. They sat under a canopy of stars, surrounded by darkness, and gazed at each other across the orange glow of firelight. When they weren’t talking, there was only silence.

Chloe, Will and Autumn took turns telling stories. They roasted s’mores, and they were better than Autumn imagined they would be. She loved pushing the gooey marshmallows through a stick and roasting them over the fire.

For a while, camping was heaven. Then, Autumn couldn’t take anymore. She was done, she realized. Exhausted. She didn’t even think about cleaning up her mess; she dropped her gooey marshmallow stick and approached her father, arms raised in surrender.

“Daddy, put me to bed,” she said.

Marshall brushed his daughter’s teeth, changed her into her pajamas, and laid her into her sleeping bag. He told Autumn a story about a little girl who is given a special gift for her birthday, a box that allows her to travel in time. Autumn loved the story, but even so, in the back of her mind, she hadn’t forgotten about S’more Boy.

In the middle of the night, she woke. Something scratched along the tent, and she heard a faint voice.

“Give me more,” said the voice with a low, frightening moan. “More s’mores, more s’mores …”

The next morning Autumn startled awake, frightened by her nightmare. But it may not have all been in her head, because there were small footprints around the camp fire.

“Probably your own,” Marshall said.

“Daddy, can’t you see, S’more Boy’s for real!” Autumn said.

She found her stick. Licked clean.

“See?” Autumn said.

“Probably from you,” Marshall said.

Camping that day was little different than it had been previously, including the relentlessness of the heat and bugs. The games continued, but instead of them being shorter, Autumn, Will, Chloe and Marshall found ways to make them longer.

For example, they made wreaths out of twigs to decorate the makeshift theater Autumn made and sang and danced in the day before.

“Camping requires a lot of improvisation,” Will said, and they laughed, including Autumn, once Will explained to her what ‘improvisation’ means.

That night, after Autumn enjoyed her s’mores, she was not as willing to go to sleep as easily as she had been previously, however.

“Daddy, I’m scared,” she said, sobbing in her sleeping bag. “I’m afraid S’more Boy is going to get me!”

“Oh, sweetheart, it’s okay,” Marshall said, rubbing her hair. “Don’t be afraid. S’more Boy is just pretend, remember?”

“But I heard him …”

“You cleaned up after yourself tonight, right?”

“Yes,” Autumn said, wiping the tears from her face.

“Then you did everything the ranger told you to do,” Marshall said. “You have nothing to worry about.”

That night, Autumn slept soundly until she again heard scratching along the tent. This was no nightmare, either. She startled upright in a panic, and shook her father.

“Daddy, Daddy, S’more Boy’s here!”

Marshall rose, groggy, and listened. He didn’t hear anything except the wind rustling in the trees; certainly there was no sign of a ghost looking for a treat.

“False alarm, sweetheart,” Marshall said. “Now quit scaring yourself, and get some rest.”

Marshall’s head was about to rest on his pillow when he heard it. Faint, and not so much the moan of a boy, but a boy’s fiendish cackle. And the boy was getting into something …

Marshall sat upright, no longer groggy. He grabbed his flashlight, and Autumn clutched his arm as he unzipped the tent and shined the light toward the smoldering campfire.

Smacking a s’more in the fading glow of the firelight, the pest turned and faced them.

“Is that a bear?” Autumn said.

“No, a raccoon,” Marshall said, smiling. “How about that? I guess the ranger’s tale got to both of us.”

“You were scared too, Daddy?” Autumn said, loosening her grip on her father’s arm.

“A little,” he said, “but there’s nothing to worry about, after all.”

Father and daughter laughed.

Marshall shined the light around the campsite, to see if there were any more raccoons, but there were none.

When he shined the light back on the campfire, ‘S’more Boy’ was gone.

How the Karate Monster Became the Karate Princess

karate princess

Autumn loved karate, and her father, Marshall, loved teaching her what little he knew.

After all, a little self-defense never hurt anybody — or so he thought.

“Let’s fight!” Autumn said.

Seated on the living room couch, Autumn sprang to her feet and ran to her father’s bedroom. Marshall chased his princess to his bed, where she stood, eyes level with his, fists raised.

“After this, it’s time for bath and bed, okay?” Marshall said.

Autumn didn’t respond with words. Instead, she charged her father with the quick, precise punches and kicks he taught her to use if someone ever attacked her.

“Hey, that’s not self-defense!” Marshall said, overwhelmed. “Get off me!”

Autumn laughed as Marshall blocked, except one kick, which grazed his groin. It was like a bell going off in Marshall’s head: his daughter’s kick had just the right amount of force in just the wrong enough place to make him reel in agony.

“Daddy, Daddy!” Autumn said. “Are you okay?”

Slowly, Marshall recovered.

“Only kick a guy there if you’re in real trouble, understand?” he said.

“Okay, Daddy,” Autumn said. “I promise.”

Marshall flipped Autumn onto the mattress and began tickling her.

“Payback’s tough!” he said. “Say, ‘I win!’”

“I win!” Autumn said, laughing.

“I mean … say … ‘Daddy wins!’”

But Autumn was laughing too hard to speak.

Finally, Marshall disengaged Autumn, but she was too wound up and continued to attack. After several minutes trying to re-direct his daughter off the bed and into the bathtub, Marshall started to wonder if his princess hadn’t become a monster – a karate monster.

“If you keep this up, I won’t be able to play karate with you anymore,” he said. “I think you’re taking our matches too far.”

“Okay, fine,” Autumn said.

Autumn desisted, took a bath and crawled into bed.

The next day, Autumn was playing with classmates on the playground after school when her mother, Lauren, witnessed Autumn get into a fight. A male student scratched a female student, both of whom were brother and sister, and Autumn responded by karate-chopping the boy’s chest, causing him to cry.

Autumn, however, refused to apologize.

“He was being a bully!” she said. “I was protecting her!”

The students’ mother quickly gathered her crying son and confused daughter and fled the playground.

Next time Marshall picked up Autumn to spend the night at his apartment, Lauren told Marshall about the incident.

“Autumn is having trouble controlling herself,” Lauren said. “I think you two ought to stop playing karate for a while.”

Marshall, on the other hand, had mixed feelings about his daughter’s mixed martial arts. He knew it was wrong for Autumn to hit the boy, but he liked the fact his daughter stood up to him and protected the girl.

Perhaps Autumn needed to understand there was a time to use karate to resolve conflict, but most of the time words were best.

That night, Marshall refused to play karate with Autumn. Instead, he said he had a surprise.

“Get into the bath, and then get into bed,” he said. “I have a special story I want to share.”

Marshall called the story, “Heart & Sword,” about a prince intent on finding a magical treasure that promised to protect his inheritance, the kingdom, from conspiring brothers. The prince found the treasure, which turned out to be a woman, and she taught him the power of kindness, not violence, in solving problems.

The prince married the woman, who became the princess. The prince inherited the kingdom and proved to be as wise a ruler as his father once had been, because he listened to his wife.

“Violence rarely makes things better,” Marshall said. “It’s always best to try to solve a problem by talking to those you have the problem with first. A little kindness goes a long way.”

The next day, Marshall and Autumn went to the park. There, Autumn began playing tag with an older boy and sister.

The objective of the game was different for the siblings than it was for Autumn. For the siblings, Autumn always had to be ‘it’ and try, and fail, to tag them. However, Autumn was too fast, especially for the boy. So, any time Autumn almost caught the boy, he called timeout and made up an excuse why he couldn’t be ‘it.’

“You can’t get me, I need to tie my shoe!” he said.

“Yeah, he needs to tie his shoe!” his sister echoed.

But his shoe was tied; he simply bent down and re-tied it.

Next time Autumn almost caught the boy, he stopped her again.

“You can’t get me, I have a rock in my shoe!” he said.

“Yeah, he has a rock in his shoe!” his sister echoed. “That’s not fair, now, is it?”

He bent down and removed his shoe, but there was no rock in it.

Next time Autumn almost caught the boy, he stopped her again with another excuse. And again. And again. His sister always played along.

The boy and his sister were taking advantage of Autumn, but it was different from the bullying Autumn witnessed at school. The boy and sister weren’t hitting Autumn or anyone else, for that matter, physically or with words.

They were hitting Autumn by playing unfairly with her.

That was wrong of them, and it hurt. Autumn became so disillusioned with the game she often stopped chasing the boy and sister, going on the swing or doing gymnastic tricks on the monkey bars by herself.

Every time, the sister said, “Hey, little girl, try to get us!”

Again Autumn would try, and fail, to tag the boy and sister; again they had their excuses.

Marshall looked to see if the siblings’ parents or guardians were present or paying any attention; not surprisingly, they weren’t.

As for Marshall, he had seen enough; he decided it was time for his daughter to take action.

“Sweetheart, come here,” Marshall said, waving Autumn to the bench from where he sat and watched.

“Are you having fun?” he said when she arrived.

“No,” Autumn said.

“I wouldn’t be having much fun, either,” Marshall said. “You’re faster than that boy, so what’s the problem?”

“Every time I catch him, he says he can’t be it.”

“Sounds fishy,” Marshall said. “So, what do you want to do about it?”

“I want to punch him.”

“Maybe so,” Marshall said, “but is that a good idea?”

“No.”

“So, what should you tell him instead?”

“Stop making excuses, and play right?”

“Sounds good,” Marshall said. “Give it a try.”

Autumn turned back toward the playground and hollered at the boy.

“Hey, dude, get over here!” she said. “I need to talk to you!”

The boy stood still at top of the slide, mouth agape. He did not move.

Autumn repeated herself.

“Hey, dude, get over here!” she said. “I need to talk to you!”

The boy didn’t respond. Autumn marched toward him; she met him face to face at the top of the slide.

“I’m tired of your excuses, dude!” Autumn said. “Start playing right, or don’t play at all! Do you understand?”

The boy nodded, and so did his sister, behind him.

“Okay, let’s play,” Autumn said, and she tagged the boy. “You’re it!”

The game continued, and judging by the laughter, Marshall thought this time it was enjoyed by all involved.

Only Marshall wasn’t satisfied. Driving home from the park, he was curious about his daughter’s choice of words and tone when she confronted the boy.

“You did a great job explaining to the boy that he was wrong,” Marshall said. “You were calm, but firm. You didn’t lose your head or get frustrated. I’m very proud of how well you handled the situation, and I’m glad it worked out for you.”

“Thanks, Daddy,” Autumn said.

“But I have a question for you,” Marshall said. “Why did you keep calling the boy, ‘dude?’”

“I notice boys listen to me better when I talk to them like boys do.”

It was a profound insight, and Marshall realized his karate monster was no more. Autumn had become a karate princess, whose words were better weapons than her fists.

Heart & Sword

sword of peace

Once upon a time, there was a great King who led his people with fairness and wisdom. Unfortunately, the King’s health was in decline, and so was his kingdom. None of the King’s subjects understood why, but many suspected the reason had to do with a recent omen.

The royal family’s coat of arms was displayed high above the King’s throne. For generations, it consisted of a sword crossing a heart, during which time the kingdom was ruled with fidelity. However, after the Queen died, the coat of arms changed, so that the sword seemed to pierce the heart instead of protect it. Real blood began to drip onto the feet of the King as he sat on his throne, which his servants scrubbed away. Many saw this as a sign the King’s demise would mark a period of turmoil for the kingdom, unless the royal family again learned to live together peacefully.

The problem was the King’s sons were neither married nor had children, and many of the King’s subjects felt these young men were too ill-tempered to rule. As the time for the King’s death drew near, his sons plotted more fervently to seize power from one another, and the royal family’s coat of arms dripped more blood day by day.

Perhaps the most greedy and selfish of all the king’s sons was his eldest and the heir apparent, the Prince. He wanted to make sure none of his brothers robbed him of the opportunity to control the kingdom, but otherwise he gave little thought to the manner in which he might use his power, which greatly troubled the King.

“Even now, you look at me as if I am already dead,” the King said. “But what shall you do, and whose will shall you serve, when I really am gone? Your own?”

“I shall serve your will, father,” the Prince said. “I will force this land and its people to do as you intended, always and forever.”

“That’s a clever answer, but I fear not the right one,” the King said. “I would prefer my successor serve the will of the people, and not mine or anyone else’s. Force should only be used to do right by others. Do you understand?”

The Prince dismissed his father’s remarks and continued his plotting. There were rumors of a map that led to a treasure so powerful that anyone who obtained it could lead an army against the Prince and threaten his chance to control the kingdom. The Prince wanted the treasure, so none of his brothers would dare challenge him.

The map to the treasure was said to be buried deep inside the stomach of a talking oak tree, which only made itself known if someone worthy sang to it.

The Prince, believing himself worthy in any matter that interested him, arrived at the forest, and sang. His voice, however, was so coarse and unpleasant that the birds flew away, and the rabbits and squirrels buried themselves deep in their holes to avoid him.

Needless to say, the oak tree the Prince sought remained unresponsive, and so the Prince left the forest, dejected. The next day, he returned, pondering what he should do next, when he heard a lovely voice.

He followed the voice to a brook, where he found the forest birds, rabbits and squirrels listening to a lady singing as she washed her hands in the water.

“Excuse me, Prince,” the lady said, when she noticed him.

“No, please, excuse me!” the Prince said. “It is I who interrupted you and your beautiful song. May I ask you for a favor, miss?”

The Prince explained that a map had been taken which rightfully belonged to him. The map was under a spell, hidden somewhere in the forest.

“Only a person whose voice is worthy can lure the map out of hiding,” the Prince said. “I suspect you will do. Will you help me?”

“Of course, my Prince,” the lady said. “I am always willing to help those in need.”

The Prince took the lady by the hand, and she sang as they wandered together through the forest. At last, they came upon an oak tree that had the gnarled features of a face.

“What might I do for thee, o’ lovely one?” the oak tree said.

“Help me return a map to its rightful owner,” the lady said.

“Of course,” the oak tree said, and out of its mouth emerged a rolled scroll.

The scroll would have landed on the lady’s feet, had it not been for the Prince, who leaped forward and snatched it midair.

“Ah-ha!” he said. “Mine!”

Once the Prince had the map in his possession, he thought his quest soon would be finished, because no one would be able to stop him from obtaining the treasure that would ensure his power for as long as he lived. However, as he unraveled the scroll, he realized his quest was anything but complete.

“What’s this?” the Prince said. “It’s blank!”

He turned to face the tree, but the face in the tree was still and silent.

“Great, now what?” the Prince said.

“May I see the map?” the lady said.

“Promise to give it back?”

“You are its rightful possessor, are you not?” the lady said. “Of course I will!”

The Prince handed the lady the map. As soon as she touched it, something magical happened. The scroll was no longer blank; a map to the treasure appeared.

“Amazing!” said the Prince. “How could this be?”

“I do not know,” the lady said, equally surprised. “Perhaps this is a sign our work together is not done yet.”

“I cannot think of a better reason myself,” the Prince said. “Perhaps you will join me for the rest of my quest, or at least as long as your company proves necessary?”

“I would love to, but I really should get home,” the lady said. “I am told nothing good happens in the forest at night.”

“Fear not, my lady!” the Prince said. “You would be in excellent company. No harm would come to you, I promise. Also, my father the King would be most grateful for your service.”

“In that case, very well,” the lady said. “No one is expecting me home, anyway. My parents passed long ago, and I support myself by selling mushrooms in the village.”

The lady raised a basket full of truffles she recently collected under the trees.

“I see,” the Prince said. “Maybe we can turn your misfortune into something more palatable. Perhaps you would allow us to enjoy your morsels tonight for dinner? I would compensate you in coin for the trouble, or course.”

“As you wish, my Prince,” the lady said. “But, really, it’s no trouble at all. My truffles are delicious, as you will see!”

“Excellent, then it’s settled!” said the Prince, and together they followed the map to the mountains beyond.

The map led them along a trail up a majestic peak that overlooked the kingdom. At the top of the peak they found a cave, the final destination of the map.

Night fell, they were tired, and the Prince and lady decided to camp near the cave’s entrance. They lit a fire, munched roasted mushrooms, and shared stories about their lives. Then, they heard a distant hum.

“Oooooh, eeeeeeee, oooooooh, ahhhhhhhhhh, oooooooooh!” bellowed a group of dwarves as they marched up the mountain.

“Quick!” the Prince said. “Hide!”

He and the lady poured dirt on the fire. They watched as the dwarves unsuspectingly passed them and continued into the cave.

“Gather your belongings,” the Prince said. “We will catch them by surprise!”

“They look tired,” the lady said. “Are you sure we should be introducing ourselves at such a late hour? Perhaps tomorrow would be a more fitting time for all of us to meet.”

“Absolutely not!” the Prince said, and he stood and drew his sword. “Let’s go!”

They proceeded slowly, cautiously. The cave was dimly lit, its rocky walls strewn with gold. The deeper the Prince and lady went, the brighter the cave became, until at last they reached a large cavern, filled with the comforts of home.

Tired, indeed. By the time the Prince and lady arrived, the dwarves were fed, a pile of dirty dishes were stacked near a sink, and they were fast asleep, snuggled together in a big bed.

Opposite the cavern was a closed chest.

“That must be it,” the Prince whispered. “The treasure!”

Together he and the lady crept past the dwarves. The chest was unlocked. The Prince quietly opened it, peered inside.

Nothing.

“What?” he said. “How could this be?”

He closed the chest, and by so doing, inadvertently let his frustration known; the chest slammed shut with a loud thud.

When the Prince turned back toward the lady, the dwarves were sufficiently aroused. They stumbled forth from their bed and formed a barrier barring the intruders from the exit.

The dwarves carried an array of knives, forks and other kitchen ware, raised as weapons.

“Who goes there?” they said in unison.

“It is I, the Prince!” the Prince said, pointing his sword. “I have come for the treasure that rightfully belongs to me!”

“What treasure?” a dwarf said, stepping forward. “We have no treasure here, just that empty chest you see. It has inhabited this cave longer than we have!”

“Listen up, you little monsters!” the Prince said. “I didn’t come all this way just to hear …”

As the Prince and dwarves bickered about the whereabouts of the treasure, the lady peeked inside the chest. This time, there was a beautiful golden necklace with a heart-shaped ruby pendant.

The lady gently retrieved it, and the Prince and dwarves ceased their bickering. They stood and watched in silence.

“Try it on, my dear,” a dwarf said.

The lady did as suggested, but she could not clasp the necklace together by herself.

The Prince stepped forward, reached behind her neck, helped her, and then he stepped back. He and the dwarves marveled at the lady and the heart necklace. It was as if it were made for her.

“My lady, would you be willing to return with me to the castle, to show the King what I have found?” the Prince said.

“Of course,” she said, and the she turned to the dwarves. “Would that be all right with you?”

The dwarves mumbled to each other in awe and agreement.

“Take it as long as you wish, my dear,” they said. “Good luck!”

The Prince returned to the castle with the lady. The two appeared before the royal court. Blood stained the foot of the King’s throne. Gathered around the King were his sons.

“Father, I have been on a great journey,” the Prince said. “All this time I sought a treasure I thought would help me vanquish my enemies. I found that treasure, but it was not a powerful axe or sword, as I hoped.”

The Prince turned to the lady.

“The treasure I found is you,” he said to his companion, “and your kind heart.”

The comment caused murmurs around the court.

“In our time together,” the Prince continued, “you have shown me a power that goes beyond my own. You have shown me the power that comes from looking out for others. I have been selfish and greedy in my objectives, and for what purpose? A sword that protects itself serves no one, while a sword that serves others protects everyone. Today I seek your hand in marriage, because I realize that the heart and sword rule fairest and wisest side by side.”

The lady agreed to marry the Prince, and he was delighted.

So was the King. His son had learned a valuable lesson about the nature of love and loyalty. Finally, the Prince was fit to rule the kingdom, and soon his brothers would follow his lead, too.

The royal family’s coat of arms ceased to drip blood.

In time, the Prince and lady became King and Queen, and together they had several sons and daughters.

They lived happily ever after.