The King and Queen had produced no children of their own, and so a proclamation was made throughout the kingdom and all the surrounding kingdoms. Anyone who wished to try and prove themselves worthy could come and apply to be the heir.
Naturally there were many, many applications—the potential princes and princesses travelling from far and wide. Each applicant came before their Royal Majesties and stated their case, extolling their own virtues and qualifications for the role. Some were dismissed almost immediately; others were allowed to reach the end of their speech before being rejected. But eventually all the applicants were whittled down to just two possibles: Plain-and-Mousy and Tall-and-Lovely.
The two young women stood before the King and Queen on their thrones. Plain-and-Mousy was quivering with excitement and enthusiasm. Tall-and-Lovely was calm and self-assured.
The Queen addressed them.
“We will assign you both three tasks. After they are completed we will decide who will become our heir.”
Then The King spoke.
“This is your first task. You must clear the forest behind the palace, so we can expand and build there. You will each be assigned half the forest and you have one day and one night to complete the challenge.”
And so Plain-and-Mousy changed into her lumberjack gear and bought an axe. She was surprised to see that Tall-and-Lovely remained in her elegant frock, and did not appear to be making any preparations at all.
“I’ll see you at the forest,” said Plain-and-Mousy.
“Mm,” said Tall-and-Lovely.
Plain-and-Mousy arrived at her side of the forest. She began swinging the axe with enthusiasm but it soon became clear that she would not be able to complete the task in the allotted time. She sank to the ground in frustration and exhaustion, and quickly fell fast asleep.
Suddenly she was awoken by the sound of many tiny bells pealing simultaneously. She opened her eyes and there was an elderly woman standing before her. An elderly woman with wings and a wand.
Plain-and-Mousy jumped to her feet in surprise.
“Don’t be afraid, Plain-and-Mousy!” said the elderly lady, waving the wand around rather vigorously. Plain-and-Mousy ducked. “I am your fairy godmother!”
Plain-and-Mousy straightened up and beamed. This was a bit of good timing.
“O fairy godmother,” said Plain-and-Mousy politely. “I have to cut down half the forest in one day and one night but I’m so tired. Have you a spell that could do it for me?”
The fairy godmother shook her head. “There is no magic strong enough, but I can make a spell to assist you in your task.”
She waved her wand and a mug full of a dark, steaming liquid appeared in Plain-and-Mousy’s hand.
“Drink it down, my child!” the fairy cried.
Plain-and-Mousy gulped it down. It tasted revolting—horribly bitter. But once the mug was drained, she felt as though she were buzzing, and she wasn’t tired at all. She grabbed the axe and started swinging with a will.
She worked her way steadily through the forest all day and all night, and it was only when she was admiring her handiwork at daybreak that she realised she had cleared the entire forest on her own. There had been no sign of Tall-and-Lovely.
“Oh, well,” thought Plain-and-Mousy. “It just means that I’ve definitely won this round.”
There wasn’t time to get changed. She headed straight back to the palace to find out what the second task was.
The two young women were once again in front of the King and Queen. Plain-and-Mousy glanced across at Tall-and-Lovely but she seemed unconcerned that she had failed the first task.
The Queen spoke.
“The second task is to go to our neighbour’s kingdom and persuade all of his knights to come and be loyal to us. You have one day and one night to accomplish this.”
Plain-and-Mousy and Tall-and-Lovely curtseyed and left the palace.
“Do you want to travel together?” asked Plain-and-Mousy. “Just till we reach the neighbouring kingdom?”
“No, it’s fine,” said Tall-and-Lovely, and she headed back to her hotel.
Plain-and-Mousy shrugged and set off on her long journey.
She found the twelve knights at their training camp.
“Will you come and be loyal to the neighbouring monarchs?” she asked.
They all guffawed.
“If you want us to change sides, you will have to demonstrate your might, little girl,” said one. “Fight our champion.”
A knight in red armour came forward and Plain-and-Mousy gulped. He was a big lad, and armed to the teeth. Luckily at this point there was the sound of little bells and the fairy godmother reappeared.
“Can you help me, fairy godmother?!” said Plain-and-Mousy. “I need a weapon.”
The fairy waved a wand, and a huge storybook on a stand appeared, the spine of the book oddly at the top.
“Er, …thanks?” said Plain-and-Mousy. “But I was hoping for a sword or something.” She lifted the cover of the book. “And these pages are all blank!”
The fairy godmother wagged her wand at her and Plain-and-Mousy ducked again.
“You could not hope to win in a physical fight, foolish child. You must use your intelligence and powers of persuasion.”
The fairy solemnly handed over a marker pen, and suddenly Plain-and-Mousy knew what she had to do. She flipped over the cover of the blank storybook, and then with many keywords and many diagrams, she explained why working for the other kingdom would have greater health benefits, would give a higher level of job satisfaction, and would lead to higher wages after two years.
By the end of her speech the knights were all cheering, and she was carried back to the neighbouring kingdom shoulder high.
Yet again, Plain-and-Mousy and Tall-and-Lovely were in the presence of the King and Queen.
Plain-and-Mousy was finding it hard to stand upright, after the long walk to the other kingdom and the long ride back. (Being carried shoulder high by knights wasn’t as much fun as it sounded; in fact it was damn well uncomfortable after the first hour and a half.) But her heart was warmed by the thought that she had completed the second task. Tall-and-Lovely hadn’t even left her hotel, as far as she could make out.
The King spoke.
“Here is the final task. You must go to the troll who lives on the edge of the kingdom, take all his gold from him and bring it back to us. You have one day and one night.”
Plain-and-Mousy and Tall-and-Lovely curtseyed and left the King and Queen. This time Plain-and-Mousy didn’t even bother to wonder what Tall-and-Lovely was up to, as her rival strolled off to get her nails done. All she could think of was how to get the gold.
Plain-and-Mousy arrived at the troll’s home. He lived in a hole in the riverbank, and the walls, floor and furniture of his dwelling were covered in mud. Plain-and-Mousy shuddered. But the troll seemed happy enough. He was shaping mud into bricks and pots and leaving them in the sun to dry, all the while humming to himself. Plain-and-Mousy sat on the grassy bank watching him and felt guilty. Why should she steal the troll’s gold or trick him out of it? He’d obviously worked hard for it, and the King and Queen didn’t need any more money.
There was a familiar tinkling and the fairy godmother appeared. Plain-and-Mousy looked up at her.
“You don’t have to take the gold by deception or by theft,” declared the fairy. “You can offer something in exchange.”
She held out a mop.
Plain-and-Mousy looked at the mop, looked across at the troll’s muddy home, and then looked back at the mop.
“Is this a magic mop?” she asked. “Cleans all on its own..?”
“No,” said her fairy godmother.
Plain-and-Mousy sighed and rolled up her sleeves.
The troll was thrilled with his gleaming home and pressed all the gold he had on Plain-and-Mousy. Though even now she still felt a bit guilty.
“But I can’t take it all,” she said.
The troll laughed. “This is just today’s takings. I don’t keep it in the riverbank. I deposit it in the town’s building society.” He leaned forward and whispered. “There are a lot of dodgy people about.”
Plain-and-Mousy smiled weakly.
She really, really wished she’d had time to get changed this time. There was mud in every orifice. But their Majesties could not be kept waiting. Plain-and-Mousy strode into the throne room, head held high. She had completed all the tasks. All that was left was for her to be formally declared the heir.
The King and Queen entered and Plain-and-Mousy and Tall-and-Lovely curtseyed low. Plain-and-Mousy couldn’t stop a smile coming. This was it—she was about to be made heir to the kingdom. She wasn’t sure why Tall-and-Lovely had bothered to turn up.
The King and Queen looked at each other and then the Queen addressed them.
“It has been a hard decision,” she began.
Like hell, it was, thought Plain-and-Mousy. But she supposed it was nice they were considering the feelings of the unsuccessful candidate.
“However, after much thought, we have chosen… Tall-and-Lovely.”
Plain-and-Mousy had taken a step forward before she realised what the Queen had said.
“We thought she was the best candidate,” said the Queen.
“Made a better first impression,” added the King. He looked Plain-and-Mousy up and down. “And she’s better turned out.”
Tall-and-Lovely glided forward to stand between her new adoptive parents.
“But you have done so well,” she smiled. “I’m sure I can speak for their Majesties when I say we’d like you to stay on and continue serving the kingdom.”
Plain-and-Mousy stared at her for a moment.
“So,” she said finally, “to clarify: I would continue doing these difficult tasks but would remain a commoner and you would be the next Queen and be in charge?”
“That’s right,” beamed Tall-and-Lovely.
“Sod this for a lark,” said Plain-and-Mousy. She whistled and the fairy godmother appeared.
“Come on,” said Plain-and-Mousy. “We’re leaving.”
And she and the fairy godmother went off and founded their own small independent kingdom: offering quests and magic, made to measure.
And you know what, they did OK—because their hearts were pure and their rates were reasonable.