A short story idea I’m toying with that starts out as a fairytale you’re probably all familiar with but ends up somewhere unexpected. I am pretty happy with how it turned out and will probably keep working on this one!
Once upon a time, in a strange little kingdom far across the sea, in a land not so unlike the one that we ourselves inhabit, a curious, hooded traveller arrived at the royal palace, seeking an audience with the queen.
Now, the guards, living as they did in a tiny seaside kingdom that didn’t really matter much to anybody, knew better than to refuse the traveller’s request outright. Why, in a kingdom as insignificant as theirs, the traveller could very well be any of a vast number of characters straight from a child’s book of fairytales. The guards at the gate had heard worrying stories from afar, delivered by their fellow protectors that safeguarded the inconsequential multitude of shrunken kingdoms and diminished duchies that lay scattered across the land. Stories of witches and wizards, curses and calamity, damsels and dragons and dastardly deeds had reached them where they stood, and so they brought the traveller before the queen. In part, because they feared the consequences of refusal, and in part because guard duty did get dull, day after day in a quiet kingdom like their own.
And so the stage is set, you cry! But wait, storyteller, for I am certain that I have heard this one before. He is a magician, come with an offer of riches and power beyond all mortal imagining, a deal with the devil that conceals a hidden catch. Or, no, he is the long-lost heir to the throne, come in disguise to confront the grief-stricken queen whose madness has driven her to cruelest tyranny. If not, then surely he is a foreign prince lured by tales of the peerless beauty of the jealous monarch’s daughter, and comes seeking her hand in marriage and with it, a happily ever after.
Smug, aren’t you? Well, you are right, in a way, but you are also wrong. For the traveller, kneeling before the queen as is her due, pulls out from his worn sack a board with black and white checkered squares, and places it on the ground before her.
“Oh, your majesty,” the traveller intones, bowing his head and sweeping back the hood to reveal grey hair worn thin with time and a small, tame beard. “I have travelled far to see you, for I have heard that you, amongst all those who claim to rule this land with a just and tempered hand, that you alone are wise.”
The queen, naturally, is pleased by these flattering words, and leans forward on her throne, for she has never before seen a board like that which is laid out in front of her.
“Your words are welcome and most kind, fair traveller; but tell me, what is that which you have brought before me? It is a curious trinket, and I much desire to know its purpose.” The traveller smiles, the patient upturned lip of one who is about to reveal a great secret to a breathless audience.
“If you will permit me, your highness, I will demonstrate.” At a curt nod from the queen, he reaches once more into his worn travelsack and begins to pull out small, intricate figurines carved from marble and jade, each piece no larger than the palm of your hand, and places them carefully upon the board. When he has finished, four ranks of pieces – two of marble and two of jade – are arrayed against each other at either end of the checkered board, drawn up as if for battle. The traveller looks up at the queen, who has been watching his preparations, enthralled.
“And now what happens?” asks the queen, impatiently.
“And now we play,” he replies.
And a table is brought, and so they play, for hours and hours as the bemused guards look on, and the queen is much delighted by the game, which she finds to be quite to her liking. She proves to be more than a match for the stranger, and eventually, having boxed in the traveller’s king once more, cornering him in a lethal trap, she leans back, with a sigh of satisfaction.
“Traveller, you who are a stranger to this land. You have done me a great service in showing me this invention of yours, which is as pleasant a diversion as any I have known. But allow me to keep this board, and the pieces on it, and you may name your price in return.” The traveller is wise, and has foreseen this outcome, and planned out his request accordingly.
“Oh, your highness, it is enough that I have brought you pleasure with my humble game. Yet, if you must repay me, I ask only that you fill my board with grains of sugar, one upon the first square, two upon the second, four upon the third, until all the squares are full.” The queen, thinking this to be a pitiful price to pay, accepts with glee.
Aha! you crow, I knew it. I have heard this one before, storyteller. Whether it be with grains of rice or wheat or sugar, this is one story that I know. It is old and tired, and so are you, if you thought I wanted to hear it again.
Perhaps. But stay, for you have not yet heard the end.
And I do not mean the end for the traveller and the queen and the guards at the palace. When the queen finds out the true price she has agreed to pay as the sugar is piled on the board, what happens next depends entirely upon who is telling it. In some accounts, the inventor is beheaded for his cleverness. In others, the queen honors her deal and abdicates, ceding control of the kingdom to the sly visitor from afar. In yet others, the queen is amused at the trick the traveller tried to pull, and allows him to stay on at her court, in a position of privilege. It does not matter; what matters is what happens to the sugar.
For you see, many bags of sugar, hauled into the throne room for the purpose of paying the traveller’s absurd price, have already been upended upon the board. When the queen realizes she’s been tricked, she orders the sugar removed from her sight and disposed of, before continuing on to whatever ending you have chosen.
Behind the palace, nestled within a copse of aromatic pine trees, is a dump, the kind that every palace has for the disposal of food scraps. True, it’s not generally mentioned in your average fairytale, but then again such stories rarely acknowledge that people need to breathe, or to eat, or even to visit the lavatory once in a while. The servants, of course, dutifully take the board outside and dump the sugar carelessly upon the pile, wrinkling their noses against the pungent and pervasive odor of decay as they do so. They file back to the palace, leaving the sugar behind.
Now, why does any of this matter? Well, the dump is full of rotting food scraps. It therefore serves as a veritable buffet for the birds, and insects and small furry woodland creatures that live in this particular stand of trees. The dump is also home to two colonies of ants, one black and small, and one black and slightly larger. These ants do not get along. These ants are constantly fighting over the choicest bits of rotting food left them by the magpies and the raccoons that steal the rest.
The gigantic mound of sugar, dumped there on the orders of a foolish queen, is large, so large that it would feed a colony of ants for a very great length of time. It is therefore valuable, more valuable than anything in the pile has been for as long as any of the ants can remember, so valuable that the fragile truce which has been in place between the rival colonies for some time no longer seems quite so important.
In other words, the ants are marching to war.