Once upon a time there was a royal Prince. His name was Wendell, which was not a name he liked but like many things that went with his royal status, he inherited.
Wendell was named after his great great great grandfather, who was once King Wendell the III. When Wendell became King, he would become King Wendell the IV.
It was likely Wendell would become king, since he was the oldest child. So from his birth he was groomed to become king. He received lessons to teach him all he would need to know to rule the kingdom. His tutors taught him history, geography, swordsmanship, proper grammar and, most importantly, the art of negotiation and debate. He was often called to his father, King Pendulus, and sat in on royal sessions to learn how to rule a kingdom. Afterwards he was quizzed to make sure he understood his lessons.
Wendell learned many things. But by the time he was 14 years old, the one thing he was most certain of was that he didn’t wish to ever be king. He wasn’t sure exactly which part of being a king was more onerous to him – having to sit on the throne and judge people, having to listen to boring underlings who prated and pranced around trying to get the king’s favor or sitting through horribly long royal ceremonies while wearing heavy jewelry, robes and a crown. His own crown as a prince was heavy enough – and it was only one third the size of the one his father wore!
The difficulty was that everyone assumed that Wendell wanted to be king. His servants thought being king was the best thing in the world because they spent their lives waiting on the king. The politicians at court all really wanted to be king so they could be in charge.
It seemed to Wendell that the only person who didn’t want to be king was him. And that was a very lonely place to be.
He began to skip his lessons, spending long afternoons wandering around the Royal Forest after sneaking away from his tutors. He would sit on a large rock by the Royal Stream and sigh as he thought about all the other things he could do if he wasn’t destined to be king. He could be a tailor or an adventurer. He could go off to distant lands and not be stuck at home on a throne. He could pass on the streets like a normal person without children and subjects tossing flowers at him or grabbing for his royal robes.
“Your Highness,” a voice said from nearby.
Wendell turned to look. He was certain it was either a tutor or a servant sent to find him. But no one was there. Shrugging, he turned back to his ruminations.
“Over here,” the voice said. It sounded closer.
He turned to look again. There was a frog on the rock near him and it was looking right at him, cocking its head. “Did you speak, frog?” he asked.
“No, there’s a ventriloquist hiding in the bushes,” the frog said.
Wendell peered around the clearing, but saw no one. When he looked back at the frog, it was holding its little green head in its flippers. “Alright, so you’re a talking frog,” Wendell said. “Is this some kind of lesson?”
“Probably,” the frog replied, settling down on the rock next to the prince. He hopped over toward the prince and the prince noticed that one of the frog’s back legs was a bit crooked which made it difficult for the frog to move about.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
“When I was a human, I was called a cripple,” the frog replied. “Now that I’m a frog, no one seems to notice.” His tongue came out and he caught a fly and munched on it contentedly. “You see, my dear brother, I was supposed to be the royal heir. I am your older brother Percival.”
Wendell blinked. Older brother? How could that be? He thought about the chart of royal succession and suddenly there was a bit of hope in his heart. It was true that he should have been named Percival, not Wendell, since royal heirs’ names were chosen in a certain order. He’d asked his tutors why his parents skipped the name Percival and was greeted with sharp answers suggesting he turn his mind to his studies rather than questioning the wisdom of his elders.
“But – if that’s true – why would you be a frog, dear Percival?” asked Wendell.
Percival shook his head – as best a frog can do – and sighed. “I can see the royal lessons were a bit wasted on you, but I’ll explain. You’re a bit naive, brother. Can’t you see that it wouldn’t be seemly for them to have a prince – or a king – who was born with a disability?”
“Your leg? That’s all? But what happened, Percival? How did you become a frog?”
“One night when I was about three years old, the Royal Wizard came into the nursery. He told me to put on my warmest cloak and he took me into the forest, near this very spot. Then he cast a spell on me that turned me into a frog. It also apparently keeps me at a safe distance from the castle, which was a spell he added when he realized I could still talk. I think he feared for his pension if that was ever found out.” Percival sighed. “Anyhow here I’ve been, waiting and hoping all these years for someone to come by. I never thought I’d get to talk to you.”
“They keep me pretty busy with lessons,” Wendell admitted. “But I’ve run away on them. You see, Percival, I don’t want to be king. Do you?”
“It’s my right to be king, as the first born son,” Percival said.
Wendell tried not to laugh. It was pretty funny to see a frog say that, but on the other hand he didn’t want to hurt his brother’s feelings. “Well the issue now is how to restore you to your rightful state so you can assume your proper place in line.”
“Whatever. I just don’t want to be a frog,” Percival said. “But I don’t think either the royal wizard or sorcerer will defy the King and turn me back into a human form.”
Wendell smiled. “Then we’ll have to trick them, dear brother. Leave it to me.”
For the first time in a long time, Wendell felt happy again. He told Percival to remain near the spot where they met and ran back to the castle to fetch someone who could do magic. He didn’t bother to go to the royal staff members, but instead made his way to the servants’ quarters, ignoring those who curtsied and bowed as he passed by them.
He found the room where Maya, one of the oldest servants, slept in her bed. Maya worked in the kitchen for many years until she retired and she was known around the castle for knowing magic. Wendell was certain she was old enough to know that his brother was born and had just disappeared one day. He was also certain she would help them.
Maya listened to him carefully, then packed a small bag with herbs and potions and they found their way back to the forest clearing. Percival was sitting perched on a rock.
“Your royal highness,” Maya said, trying to take a knee and bow before Percival.
He blinked. “Forget all that. Can you help me?”
She nodded and sat on the ground, mixing potions up. In a short time, she had a mixture that she set aside. She asked Wendell to start a small fire and heated the potion, then once it was liquified she placed it in a gourd from her pack and handed it to Wendell.
“Feed this to Percival,” she said “and he will return to his true form.”
Wendell nodded and carefully poured the liquid down the frog’s throat. There was a flash of light, a noise that sounded like “poof” and suddenly his older brother Percival stood in front of him, about six inches taller than Wendell.
There was no doubt it was his brother. They had the same eyes, the same jaw, and the same color hair. The brothers embraced and then Wendell laughed. “You don’t look very royal in your birthday suit, brother!” he said and handed Percival a pair of breeches Maya brought along.
Percival laughed and got dressed. He walked around a bit and his left leg went out underneath him. “I need a crutch, Wendell,” he said.
So Wendell fashioned him a strong crutch from tree wood. He even carved the royal insignia on it before he gave it to his brother. Percival laughed and they headed back to the castle.
As they crossed the moat, Wendell could see the Royal Wizard standing at the castle door. His staff was glowing, ready to cast another spell. Maya stood between the two princes and the wizard as they approached.
“No more spells, Wizard!” she said, pulling out her own staff. “Or I’ll die ending your life!”
The Royal Wizard blinked and put his staff down. As he stepped aside, the King strode up and began to cross the bridge. The royal soldiers saluted as the king passed by and walked up to his two sons.
“What is the meaning of this?” the king asked Wendell. “What have you done? Why have you brought him here?”
“Percival is the rightful heir, father,” Wendell said. “I do not wish to be king, but I would have obeyed you if I hadn’t found out that there is a true heir.”
“You are my heir, you are the one who will be king!” thundered his father, refusing to even look at Percival.
“Father,” Percival said, moving toward the king, “can’t you even look at me after all these years?”
King Pendulus slowly turned toward Percival. Tears sprung up in his eyes, but he made no move toward his eldest son. “Why do you return? You know there is no future here for you.”
Slowly Percival turned and began to walk away back toward the royal forest.
“Wait!” Wendell said, holding his hand up. “Father, if you send Percival away, I go with him.”
One of the royal tutors stepped forward and whispered something into the king’s ear. The king smiled. “Yes, that’s an excellent idea. It will put this to rest once and for all.” He called Percival back. “Your tutor has suggested that you both be quizzed and whoever knows more about how to be king will inherit the throne.”
“But that’s not fair, father,” Wendell said. “Percival hasn’t had the lessons I have.”
The king shrugged. “That’s my offer.”
And so the two princes were brought before the royal court early the next morning. They sat on a dias and learned men from the kingdom questioned them. Tutors asked about history and geography. Politicians asked about alliances and even the captain of the royal guard asked about how they would secure the kingdom. The head of the farmers’ guild asked how they would provide sufficient food.
At first, Percival was at a distinct disadvantage. The only geography he knew was from the forest. The only history he remembered were the tales told to him as a small boy. But as they questions turned to more practical issues, Percival began to do better than his brother. He knew how to survive, how to protect himself against predators, and how to forage for food in the winter. Percival answered each question with a practical bent while Wendell was often left stumped, saying “I don’t know”.
King Pendulus sat on his throne, listening intently. Toward the end of the questioning, his face grew increasingly redder and at one point he shouted at Wendell “You’re not trying, boy!” but there was nothing he could do. It was clear to everyone that Percival would make the better king.
And so it came to be that the prince who did not want to be king didn’t have to be. Instead Wendell happily watched as Percival took his rightful place as heir – and his older brother. Wendell was allowed to pursue other interests, while Percival happily caught up on his lessons preparing to be king.
[The moral of the story is: Outward appearance is not the best way to judge character – and nature is a better teacher than many think.]
Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan