Advent Train Stories: The Greatest Gift

Welcome to the Advent Calendar Story Train, where you can read through 24 stories under the theme The Gift. Thank you for reading today’s story. The next one will be available to read on December 13th, titled “Heart Unwrapped.”  The link will be active tomorrow when the post goes live.

If you missed yesterday’s you can go and read it here.

 

The Greatest Gift

 Ian Gough

 

Upon a round table in the highest of towers, a locked cage of white holds a nightingale. It sings, sending its melodic notes floating on air, calling through the mists. A somber sonnet, it meanders through the sky, reaching out for distant forests and serenades the jagged mountain tops, longing to be heard by anyone willing to set its performer free. Yet there, the nightingale remains.  

Beside the nightingale is another, trapped within the same stone walls. Lady Ingrid listens to the bird’s solemn tones, an ache clasping at her chest, she weeps at sharing twinned fates with the nightingale. The victim of a dreadful curse, Ingrid is paying the price for the sins of her father. A pawn in a game she cannot dream to win. 

A malicious jester holds her captive, using powerful, underworld magic to imprison the two tortured souls. His plot is one of revenge. 

Through the window, Ingrid gazes down upon the lands she loves. Heart in turmoil, she agonizes over the only two options left open to her. Either marry the jester and denounce her family or solve the cunning words of the fool’s riddle. This, the jester’s folly, evil and twisted. 

‘If you want to be free, something precious you must give.

Match a gift for a gift, and in happiness, you shall live.’

It’s not as if she hasn’t tried to leave. Each morning she wakes and grasping for a flicker of hope, Ingrid stands before the open archway. The hallway beckons and she takes a step forward, yet each attempt is blocked by a powerful force, pushing her back. Her day ends when all hope is extinguished. 

While she cannot leave, others can come and go.

A servant brings food and the jester visits on a regular basis, whispering his sickly sweetness in her ear and trying to tempt her with sugared words. This fool wants her hand and plans to make her his, but still, Ingrid refuses to give in. He brings candies, places a pendant of shining silver about her neck, and drapes a wedding dress of pure silk, sewn with golden threads upon her bed. He promises anything if she agrees to be his bride. Deep down Ingrid knows the gesture is not offered in love, but to spite her father. 

For three years the jester comes, plying her with gifts, and begging Ingrid to concede until rejection wears him down. Eventually, he stops coming, and Ingrid trembles for her lack of a future, and for that of her family.  

With the jester gone, her distraught father Lord Sigurd is able to enter the tower. He tries to free her, yet regardless of his efforts, cannot break the curse. He orders his men to search for the jester, his intention to force the fool to remove the curse, but he’s nowhere to be found. 

The lord issues a proclamation. If anyone can deliver the greatest gift and lift the curse, they will receive double their weight in gold.

Knights, nobles, magicians, and heroes arrive from far and wide, each on a quest committed to solving the riddle. Hundreds of bold new faces appear in Ingrid’s doorway, eager to claim their prize. Yet, one by one they fail, walking away empty-hearted, and leaving Ingrid and the nightingale to suffer in their shared seclusion.  

With the passing of time, those who quest to solve the riddle dwindle, and Ingrid remains a prisoner for another five long years, until the day arrives when no one comes. Destined never get set foot outside ever again, the nightingale’s song is grave, until it too falls silent.

Ingrid’s appetite for life fades and wracked with worry, her father becomes ill. Taking to his bed, he calls for a cook to bake the most delicious cake imaginable which he arranges to be delivered to his beloved daughter on the day of her thirtieth birthday.

A new serving girl delivers the cake, taking it to Ingrid along with a birthday message from her ailing father. Overcome with despair, Ingrid throws it from the tower in frustration, fresh tears caressing her face where so many have flowed before.

The serving girl, Rose, returns to Lord Sigurd, sharing news of Ingrid’s distress, and her concerns about what his daughter may do if she cannot be freed. Moved by his grief and Ingrid’s plight, Rose makes Sigurd an offer.

“My lord, I think I can free the princess if you will allow it.”

“But you are only a serving girl. How can you solve the riddle when so many others have failed?”

“I can but try, my lord. What have you to lose by letting me do so?”

Unable to fault her logic, Lord Sigurd summons his aides, and despite his illness makes the long journey to the tower. Helped into a seat by the doorway, he watches with interest as Rose approaches his daughter.

“Give me your pendant,” she instructs, holding out her hand. “A gift for a gift.”

Overcome by the frailties of her father, Ingrid does as she’s asked without question, and sees a clasp appear on the pendant where none had been before. Rose unclips it, retrieving a tiny key which she hands to Ingrid.

“Release the bird,” Rose whispers.

As if a veil has been lifted, Ingrid understands and moves to the nightingale’s cage. Unlocking the door, the bird takes flight, singing a joyous song as it sails through the window on a cool evening breeze.  

Rose stands aside, gesturing. Unsure at first Ingrid passes through the doorway and falls into an embrace with her father. The curse lifted, Lord Sigurd’s joy at her release turns to woe as he sees past the golden tresses of his daughter, to the place where Rose stands. The limpness of his hug causes Ingrid to follow his gaze. Daring to look back at the room from whence she has finally escaped, she gasps.

“You!” she chokes, her teeth gritted close to breaking.

The stains on the serving girl’s clothes are gone, her tangled hair has vanished, and the fresh face of kindness has been replaced by sharp, pointed features. Rose is no longer a serving girl, instead, she’s transformed into the sneering Jester.

“Who did you expect?” he mocks, a grin wider than a shark. “I’ve decided, as you will not agree to marry me, then I shall claim my weight in gold for your release.”

“Never,” splutters Lord Sigurd, gripping his chest.

“But you made it a proclamation,” cackles the jester. “One I claim by right.”

Ingrid pulls away from her father’s outstretched arms, striding toward the jester, her fists scrunched tight. He grins, a twinkle in his eye.

“You are spiteful yet clever, and for that reason, I’ve decided to give you a gift. It is a gift you eventually gave to me,” she speaks clearly, her voice calm and as sweet as melting chocolate.

His palms are open, tongue caressing greed-stained lips. He wants his gift, and he wants it now.   

Moving closer, Ingrid pauses. “It is the greatest gift. The gift of freedom.”

Leaping forward she shoves him hard in the chest sending the fool tumbling. His legs scrape against the brickwork of the windowsill, flipping his body until he clears the ledge. Falling, the jester’s agonized screams can be heard in all four corners of the realm until he plunges to his death at the bottom of the tower.  

“Come father,” says Ingrid, placing an arm around his shoulder. “We are finally rid of the jester’s curse. It’s time we went home, so we can be together again as a family once more.”

Leaving the room behind forever, a flutter of wings can be heard, and the nightingale lands upon the sill. It sings a beautiful song, filled with joy.

A song about a gift.   

 

 The End

  

 

7 thoughts on “Advent Train Stories: The Greatest Gift”

  1. I knew the jester would try to claim the prize. It was a nice read – reminded me of fantasy tales I used to listen to when I was a kid. Nice share.

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