The Tale of Duchess Hydrangea
How One Girl came to Unite her Kingdom.
Once upon a time, in a world a mirror's thickness away, there lived a little girl by the name of Abigail Hydrangea. She was tall and pretty and wore flowers in her pure white hair; so pretty was she that all the boys and girls in the land spoke of her beauty. However, inside her heart, she was troubled. It was not long after her twelfth birthday that her father, Duke Hydrangea, succumbed to an unknown disease. Abigail was very, very sad for many days, and she hid away so well that it took a week before anybody found her.
Her courtiers found her eventually, however, and made clear to her what must be done. For Abigail, whose mother had died in childbirth and her father recently having passed away, was now a Duchess and ruler of her lands.
Though her father was a kind and just man, he had not ruled well. The Hydrangea lands stretched far and wide, but the East and the West of those lands were as different as countries could be. The East, where pink Hydrangeas bloomed, was prosperous farmland in which crops grew well and communities blossomed under successful trade. The West on the other hand was a wild, dark, mountainous place where the Hydrangea flowers grew blue and purple. The people there envied the bounty of the eastern lands, and civil war loomed.
One of Abigail's first duties as the new Duchess was to travel the length and breadth of the duchy, meeting each and every noble and gaining their support. She and her retinue began first in the prosperous East, where her castle lay. Day after day, she travelled from one castle to the next. At each she was given fine food served on silver plates, and fine wines in golden goblets. She was consoled on the passing of her father, congratulated on her coronation, and given the lords' and ladies' best wishes for her rule, and Abigail in turn congratulated the lords and ladies on the success of them and their land. At the end of each evening she slept on a soft bed with goose-feather blankets.
So continued each day in the sunny and successful part of her realm. But, protocol dictated that the young Duchess must visit each and every castle in the land, and so as the weeks passed she found herself further and further toward the west. The castles of her noble subject became harder and harder to reach, and they hitched an extra four horses to her carriage to carry her up the steep slopes of hills and mountains.
Though Duchess Abigail was still given the best that her hosts had to offer, the food and wine were no longer as splendid. Gold and silver plates and goblets became china and marble, and her blankets were stuffed with chicken feathers and sawdust. The lords' and ladies' congratulations became strained and forced, and Abigail herself found less success to congratulate them on.
Her evenings became steadily less and less pleasant, until one day she came to a castle whose gates were barred to her. Arrayed atop the battlements were a hundred men in armour, who refused to answer her calls as the rain sluiced down around her. She knocked and knocked on the door for ten minutes or more, before the shutter opened and a bearded face looked down at her.
“Abigail,” he boomed, “know ye that my name is Thurgar, and that all the lords of the West bow to me as their Duke! We refuse to recognise you as the Duchess of the Land of Hydrangea!”
Duchess Abigail was quite taken aback, though she refused to let herself be offended by the man's words. This was a lesson her father had taught her, the way in which the nobility elevate themselves over those who think rashly like peasants.
“Why so?” asked the little Duchess. “What is it about my family's rule that you dislike so fiercely that you resort to treason?”
“You and your father, and your father's father, you have cared only for the East of this land. While you have contented yourself with riches there, you have not spared even a thought for the people of the West, who are poor and struggling to survive.”
“I speak not for my father or my grandfather, but know ye now that I care for all of my realm, East or West. Otherwise, why would I be here?”
“The lords of the West demand more than words, girl who would be a Duchess!” said Thurgar. “We demand action! The people of the West live in the mountains, and can scarcely feed ourselves, whilst the East has food aplenty! Arrange for each farm in the East to send but a quarter of their harvest to the West, and we will submit to your rule.”
Thurgar closed the heavy shutter with a thump, and bellowed laughter. “They will not even consider giving up a fraction of their profit!” he thought to himself.
Duchess Abigail turned away from the great wooden doors of the castle with a stern look on her face, and she and her retinue rode back to her castle in the East.
There she summoned all the land-owners and the merchant Princes, and told them plainly. “The men and women of the West are starving, and I cannot abide it! Henceforth you must give a quarter of your harvest to the West.”
The land-owners and merchants talked amongst each other, and did sums in their heads. Even though they would still have plenty to feed the East, they would not tolerate their profits being reduced. A merchant Prince named Assam spoke up.
“Methinks the Duchess favours too much the West of her realm! I fear that if she does not allow the East to prosper freely, she may find an uprising on her hands!” There was a chorus of nervous assent. “We will not give goods,” said Assam, “we deal in trade, and only in trade!”
Abigail did not rise to Assam's treasonous claim, just as she had remained calm in the face of Thurgar's threats. Instead, she returned to her castle to think. Many days and nights she pondered this problem, whilst the Westerners armed their troops and the traders of the East plotted amongst themselves.
One day, a man came down from the mountains with a handful of coal, which he presented with haste to the Duchess.
“Your father sent me into the West many years ago,” he said, “to spy on movements in the mountains.”
Abigail was shocked – to spy on one's own citizens! But the man continued.
“But as I went about my duty, I noticed that Western fires never wanted for fuel, even though they have precious few forests and no charcoal is ever shipped there. This, your Grace, is the fuel – coal! Beneath the mountains lie tons of the substance, quantity beyond measure!”
And with that, Abigail hit upon her idea. No matter how divided a realm, no matter how insular a people – every man wants something that someone else has. But that problem can be turned into an advantage for everyone.
Abigail rode as fast as she could to the camps of the merchants, presenting each with a fragment of the coal as a token of their bargain. They each would offer a ton of food for each ton of coal brought down from the mountains. Next, Duchess Abigail took all the jewels and coins from her treasury, along with carts of bread from the merchants as a token of their side of the bargain.
She rode up to the gates of Thurgar's castle, and Thurgar was so astonished to see a wagon train loaded with food that he swung the castle gates wide open. He was even more excited to see the cart of jewels and coins, and to hear the promise that they would be used to build mines all over the mountains!
Within but a few months, wagon trains regularly brought coal from the mountains to the rivers of the East to be sold, and carts of food from the prosperous East wound their way back West to provide the people their with food.
Under the guidance of Duchess Abigail, along with Thurgar and Assam as her advisers, the land of Hydrangea blossomed from a divided and squabbling nation into a beautiful land in which each and every one of Abigail's subjects worked hard, ate well, and lived happily ever after.