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Open Features: Konradin's Quest

Betty McKay tells of Prince Konradin, who finds what he is looking for and realises that the world will never be quite the same again.

Once upon a time long ago and far away there lived a king and queen. For many years they had longed for a child and at last their prayers were answered. Prince Konradin was a snow baby, born in a blizzard on the coldest night since the world began. With his first breath of life the icy cold entered and chilled his psyche.

Never had there been such celebrations. The royal couple were delighted with their child. Not only was he beautiful and healthy, he never cried. Gentle and placid, he was admired by all who saw him. Only his mother nursed within her a fear that she could not quite understand or explain.

Throughout his childhood the boy grew tall, handsome and strong of limb. Learned doctors, tutoring him. marvelled at his wisdom. Polite and dutiful, he obeyed all who took charge of him. In the hunting field he was brave and fearless. Konradin seemed a paragon. Sons of the nobles at the court were his companions. They joined in manly contest with the prince, jousting, fencing and wrestling. Excelling in all these pursuits, he invariably won. yet he felt no pleasure in winning. Not modesty you understand - not caring!

Alas, despite possessing all these skills, the boy was of a chilly disposition. Never had he been seen to smile or heard to laugh. The court jesters and clowns tried in vain new and side-splitting jests. Konradin sat melancholy-eyed unmoved by their capers. Until at last, utterly demoralised, they quit the court refusing to return.

Worried, the queen asked her husband to help the prince. Perplexed, he insisted that nothing ailed the boy, "He's a little serious maybe, but he's a handsome young fellow sound in wind and limb. He's a credit to us. But to set your mind at ease, my dear, I'll get a couple of quacks in to examine him."

Renowned physicians, summoned to the court, applied their nostrums and potions. All known remedies were applied, from medicinal herbs to tickling the soles of the royal feet with a feather, to no avail. The physicians, because they could find no cure suggested the queen was suffering from acute anxiety. "It's her age, Your Majesty, her time of life, you understand." Leaving a bottle of nerve tonic they pocketed their large fees and went home.

To celebrate Konradin's eighteenth birthday there was to be a splendid tournament, a tourney between the bravest knights in the kingdom. Beside the palace, a silken tented city was to be erected where all would compete. The stands overlooking the vast concourse would be in the shapes of towers and terraces, magnificently decorated with tapestries and banners; indeed no expense would be spared.

Each jousting knight would proclaim the name of the maiden whose servant of love he was. He would display the favour of his lady by a scarf, a veil or a bracelet upon his sleeve, given to him as a token of her love.

Now to Konradin a maiden was a maiden. All maidens were alike to him, whether beautiful as the dawn or ugly as a toad. None moved him to love or admiration, none he found repulsive. He was indifferent to them.

The queen was a loving mother and longed to see her son happy. In desperation she confided her fears to Griselda, her Lady-in-Waiting. Anxious to help, Griselda told of a wise woman she knew, who carried an excellent line in love potions. So, slipping into an all-embracing black cloak and popping her crown into her pocket, the queen set out to visit her.

The wise woman's cottage, although shabby, was very clean. Fragrant herbs hung from the beams, and the room was full of exciting smells. The floor was scattered with rushes, lavender and rosemary and a cauldron bubbled away on the fire. Nearby on the hearth sat a black cat watching her.

"How cosy everything looks," said the queen.

As soon as the old woman saw her, she curtseyed low, saying, "Your Majesty! Honoured I be,
To have the Queen come visit me."

"Ah! You recognised me. Tell me, my dear, what is your name?"

"Your Majesty, not wishing for to quibble,
In the trade I'm known as Sibyl."

The Queen realised she must be very clever, for only the wisest of Sibyls spoke in verse. With tears in her eyes, she explained how things were with the prince and asked if the wise woman would help her son.

Smiling, the apple-cheeked sorceress patted her hand and replied,
"Konradin must travel before the tourney
To the Eastern limits he must ride,
On a long and lonely perilous journey
To the forest where the White Crows bide.
They will give him a golden key,
To take to the island in the Lake.
For Fair Fenella, to set her free,
This is his quest for Beauty's sake."

The Queen gasped, "But Fair Fenella, who is she?"

"Fair Fenella is the beauteous one
Who will lift the spell upon your son!"

"Heaven be praised," said the Queen. Thanking the old dame, she gave her ten gold pieces and hastened back to the palace, secure in the knowledge that at last someone had understood.

Within an hour of her return the rince, who always obeyed his mother, rode out of the palace gates at a tremendous pace in an easterly direction.

His thoughts as he rode, it must be said, were of great perplexity.

Whatever was Ma thinking of, sending him on this - what had she called it - a Quest? Still it was better than watching all those mummers mumming and tumblers tumbling, and thank Heavens she hadn't sent a minder with him.'

It took two days' hard ride to the forest at the eastern limits. When he arrived there it was dark and cold. But as he never felt the cold, he ate the last of the food the queen had given him, lay down beside his horse and slept. The strange night noises of squeaking and shuffling that went on around him in the darkness bothered him not a jot, for he did not know the meaning of fear.

Waking at dawn he sat up, and ranged before him were thirty enormous white crows with not a black feather between them. They stood silently, gazing fixedly at him with dark unblinking eyes. If Konradin had not been spellbound, this could have been quite an unnerving experience. However, because he returned their gaze with his cold blue eyes, it was the crows that began to get fidgety.

At last, the largest of them hopped forward and said:
"Noble Prince, we have here a key,
For Fenella's collar, to set her free. And, in a little while,
We will lead you to her isle. There six white swans will take
You to the middle of the lake."

'A talking bird forsooth!' He rose and made ready his horse. The crow put his beak under his left wing and brought out a tiny gold key. Flying up to Konradin, the bird dropped the key into his hand. Konradin placed it in his pouch and they set forth. All the crows flew in an unkindness ahead of him, and he gave his horse its head and rode like the wind.

At long last, leaving the forest path they came into open countryside once more. There before him lay an island set in a lake. Swimming towards the shore were six large white swans. They spread their wings so that they formed a boat, and Konradin sat in the centre of them.

The crows cawed: "Farewell", and flew back to their forest home.

Swiftly the swans' feet paddled and ferried the prince to the island. Climbing ashore he looked about him for the maiden, but none could be seen.

Suddenly, through the trees paced a beautiful milk white hind with a golden collar round her neck. The animal stepped daintily towards Konradin, lowered her lustrous eyes and bowed her head.

'Whoever heard of a deer called Fenella? Still, I did promise, so it's in for a groat in for a guinea, that's what I say', and taking the key from his pouch he stepped forward and unlocked the tiny padlock on the hind's neck.

As he lifted off the collar he felt a searing heat. It was as if he would be consumed by fire and he cried aloud: "Ma! Ma! What have you done?" and then he knew no more.

He did not know how long he lay there, but when he opened his eyes his head was cradled in the lap of the most beautiful maiden in the world. She put her soft lips upon his, and in a blinding flash Konradin realised it was all true what they had said about Great Aunt Alice and the Frog. Oh Joy! Joy! Without a doubt nothing would ever be quite the same again!

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