Once upon a time...

Frank McDonald, MSP has given us a good old fashioned fairy tale, filled with knights and honour, oaths and, of course, true love. 

Now if you'll excuse me, I have something in my eye.


In the little town of Brenton on the coast of Cornwall, there lived an accomplished and honorable knight, Arviragus, and his lovely wife, Dorigen. They had grown up together and had been childhood sweethearts, giving each other their first kiss under an apple tree on the edge of town. That early sweetness and innocence had never faded from the relationship, leading to a happy marriage full of mutual understanding and simple love.

When they had been married for about a year, their easy relationship was given its first trial. There was a war going on in France, and a battle had crossed into an English territory, forcing them to get involved. A week into the war, a messenger brought a letter to Arviragus, summoning him to France. Dorigen cried and begged for him to stay, but he had no choice. The penalty of desertion was death by hanging.

On the appointed day, Dorigen accompanied Arviragus down to the docks beneath the white cliffs. Knights and their sweethearts lined the shore, kissing or murmuring to each other or just holding each other close. Dorigen and Arviragus joined this line, facing each other with matching grave expressions. The day was grey and windy, and the waves broke against the black rocks that lined the seashore.

“I’ll write you as often as I can,” Arviragus said, taking Dorigen’s small hands in his.

“I’ll do nothing but wait by the doorway for your letters,” Dorigen replied.

The horn on the ship blew, and the knights dutifully trudged towards it. Arviragus cupped Dorigen’s face in his hand and kissed her gently.

“I love you,” he whispered, his voice almost disappearing on the wind whipping from the sea.

“I love you too,” Dorigen replied.

And then he was gone, following his fellow knights towards their ship. Dorigen watched Arviragus’s back until it had disappeared into the crowd. Then, she ran up the small cliff-side path. At the top, the ship was small as a toy and the men merely ants. She watched as the ship maneuvered its way out to sea. Her breath caught in her throat as the ship got too close to one of the large, sharp black rocks. Brenton was famous for its shipwrecks, as even the most experienced captain had trouble navigating the swirling sea around the black rocks. After an agonizing few minutes, the military ship navigated its way out of the port and was on the open sea. Dorigen watched it until it disappeared into the horizon. Then, tears dripping down her nose, she turned and went home.

As the months went by, Dorigen’s mood never lifted, and she knew that she would not be happy again until Arviragus was at her side. Dorigen spent much of her time sitting on the muddy grass on the top of the cliff, watching the sea, hoping that maybe, somehow, Arviragus’s ship would appear. Every time a ship did navigate its way to the port, she held her breath as it made its way through the black rocks, and once it landed she ran down to the dock, always hoping, always wishing. But it was always just a lone fisherman or a relative coming to visit someone in Brenton. Once, as Dorigen sat on the cliff on a particularly rainy day, she witnessed a shipwreck. It was a small ship, holding about ten men, and the captain couldn’t manage to fight off the rain, the wild sea, and the rocks. His ship smashed into the rocks nearest to town, the boat splintering into a thousand pieces and the men falling into the sea.

The men were strong swimmers and they all managed to get to the shore, but the incident sent Dorigen into a panic. What if Arviragus’s ship came in on the day of a storm? What if he wasn’t as lucky as these men and was caught in a riptide? Or, what if he was killed by the rocks before he even got a chance to attempt to escape? Growing up, Dorigen had always liked the rocks. She liked how they guarded Brenton like sentries, keeping them safe from intruders, and she liked the sound of the waves breaking against them, the sharp clap that had always been the background noise in her life. But now, she regarded them as enemies, the one obstacle between herself and true happiness.

Dorigen was still thinking about the rocks at the town’s annual May Day party. As usual, the party was a big affair, with musicians playing and food piled high on a table in the town square. Children ran around the May Pole, giggling as their ribbons got tangled up in each other. The adults danced gracefully with their spouses or suitors, looking elegant in their colorful dresses and tailored suits. Dorigen had let herself be dragged to the party by her friends, but she couldn’t bring herself to dance. It made her think too much of all the times she and Arviragus had been here together, twirling on the dance floor late into the night, until the candles had melted down to nothing and the stars were their only light. Dancing with anyone else would be a betrayal to him.

Unbeknownst to Dorigen, she wasn’t the only one who wasn’t dancing. At a nearby table, Aurelius, a friend of Arviragus’s, was also sitting lost in thought. And his thoughts were focused on Dorigen. Wonderful, lovely Dorigen, who he had had feelings for since…well, for as long as he could remember. But unlike Arviragus, he had been too shy to act on them, too awkward. Arviragus had always been easily charming, never having a problem speaking to anyone, even beautiful girls like Dorigen. Then there was Aurelius, whose tongue tangled into a stuttering mess when he tried to talk to Dorigen. To Arviragus, flirting with her was as easy as cutting into butter. Aurelius hadn’t even bothered to tell Arviragus how he felt; he knew there was no point, it wasn’t like Dorigen would choose someone like him over someone like Arviragus.

As the years went on, he had watched as Arviragus and Dorigen’s flirtations turned into something more, something unbreakable, and cursed himself for not letting his feelings for Dorigen be known. Maybe then, things would have been different.

Now, it was the first time since childhood that Dorigen was alone. In the months that Arviragus had been gone, Aurelius had been looking for an opportunity to talk to Dorigen, and this party was his chance. His last chance, maybe. So he took a deep breath, pushed his chair back, and walked over to her.

“Hello, Dorigen,” he said, attempting to keep his voice from shaking.

She looked up and gave him half a smile. “Oh, hello, Aurelius.”

“May I sit with you?”

She nodded, and Aurelius clamored into the seat next to her, moving so quickly he almost missed the chair. His face reddened, but Dorigen didn’t even notice.

“Are you having fun?” Aurelius asked.

“Honestly? No, I’m not.”

“Oh, would you maybe want to leave? With me, I mean. We could have a pint at the pub.”

Dorigen chuckled. “Why, Aurelius, are you asking me out?”

“I—I might be,” Aurelius mumbled. Then, he quickly added, “Or maybe not.”

Dorigen laughed again and put a hand on Aurelius’s arm. “Aurelius, I’ll go out with you when...” She paused, trying to imagine the most outrageous thing she could. She thought of it, and smiled. “I’ll go out with you when all of the rocks are removed from the coast.”

“Tr...truly?” Aurelius stuttered.

But Dorigen didn’t hear him—her friend had called for her from a few tables over.

“Farewell, Aurelius,” Dorigen said.

Aurelius rushed home, the task that Dorigen had given him repeating in his head over and over again.

At home, Aurelius’s older brother Cornelius was tending to the fire. He glanced at Aurelius when he rushed inside. “Dorigen has given me a task,” Aurelius announced. “If I remove all of the rocks from the coast, she will be mine.”

“How are you going to do that?” Cornelius asked.

Aurelius shook his head. “I don’t know.” He groaned and sank onto his bed. “This is impossible, isn’t it?”

Cornelius put a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “We’ll think of something.”

But they couldn’t think of anything. As the weeks went by, they brainstormed every day, but they came up with nothing. Aurelius became more and more despondent as it became clear that there was no feasible way to accomplish this task. Cornelius, who hated seeing the brother he loved in such dire straits, tried his hardest to think of something, any loophole or any solution. But there was nothing.

One day, Aurelius went out to the market to buy bread. As he was paying, someone behind him said his name. He turned to see Arviragus and Dorigen. Arviragus had a brown bandage around his head and a bandage on his arm.

Arviragus limped up to Aurelius and clapped him on his back. “Hello, old friend.”

“Arviragus got a minor injury in battle, and he was honorably discharged. Isn’t that wonderful?” Dorigen said, beaming up at her husband. Arviragus put his arm around Dorigen and kissed her forehead.

Aurelius grasped his bread so hard it crumbled. “Yes, it’s a miracle,” Aurelius said, his voice small.

“You must come over for supper soon,” Arviragus said to Aurelius.

“Certainly. Farewell, Arviragus.”

Aurelius went straight home and laid down on his bed. He didn’t move again for the next two weeks. He may have stayed there forever if his brother didn’t finally come up with a solution to his impossible problem. Cornelius told Aurelius his idea as Aurelius sat on his bed.

While away on business, Cornelius had come upon a traveling magician. This magician practiced in a small house that was filled with brightly-colored potions, ancient books that were covered in dust, and cauldrons that bubbled and gave off the most peculiar smells. When Cornelius first walked in, he had thought this magician was one of the many frauds who believed if he filled his home with enough strange things, people would believe he was truly magical. So, to test him, Cornelius had bought a potion that supposedly made anyone who drank it two times larger. He fed it to a field mouse, and sure enough, the mouse doubled in size. Cornelius, now convinced of the magician’s talent, told the magician of Arviragus’s troubles.

“...And he said, for a thousand pounds, he will remove the rocks!” Cornelius finished. “He will come down to Brenton in a fortnight.”

“But I don’t have a thousand pounds,” Aurelius said. “I don’t even have a hundred pounds.”

Cornelius sat down on the foot of his brother’s bed. “I have a thousand pounds.”

“I can’t ask you to do that for me.”

“I want to. I’m sure you’ll pay me back when you can.”

For the first time in a month, Aurelius smiled. “Thank you, Cornelius.”

“It’s my honor. It’s not every day you get to help your brother win his true love’s heart.”

As promised, in a fortnight, the magician rolled into town in a large caravan with the words ‘The Great Horace’s Magical Remedies’ written across its side. Aurelius and Cornelius met the magician at the cliff-side spot where Dorigen had spent so much time sitting and waiting for Arviragus’s ship. When they got there, Aurelius was surprised to see that the Great Horace was rather ordinary looking. He had long silver hair that was tied back, and he wore a plain brown tunic. He held a large, leather-bound book.

“This must be our lovelorn chap,” Horace said as Aurelius and Cornelius walked up to him. “Do you have the thousand pounds?”

Cornelius handed over the money, and Horace quickly counted it.

“How long will it take you to remove the rocks?” Aurelius asked.

“This is an easy task, my boy. I just have to read a little spell out of his book of runes, and it will be done.”

Aurelius nodded, his heart hammering away. Horace opened his book, releasing a cloud of dust. Then, he began chanting in a strange, ancient language. As he chanted, the air around Aurelius seemed to still, and the sound of waves clapping against the shore and seagulls crying became muted. After a few minutes, Horace closed the book, and the world returned to normal. Except the waves sounded quieter, like they were gently rolling to shore. Holding his breath, Aurelius glanced over the cliff.

The rocks were gone.

“Thank you,” Aurelius said to Horace, who was counting his money again.

“Of course, my boy,” Horace muttered distractedly.

“I’ll be right back,” Aurelius told Cornelius. He turned and ran back into town, not stopping, not slowing down at all, until he reached Arviragus and Dorigen’s door. He knocked on it so loudly it shook. Dorigen opened it, revealing Aurelius’s flushed face.

“Aurelius, what’s wrong?” Dorigen asked.

“Nothing is wrong, nothing at all! Come with me. And bring Arviragus too.”

Dorigen, frowning slightly, went back inside. She reemerged a minute later with Arviragus, and the two followed Aurelius to the cliff-side, where Cornelius and Horace still stood.

“Look,” Aurelius told Dorigen and Arviragus.

Dorigen and Arviragus both looked over the cliff. Dorigen clapped a hand over her mouth, and Arviragus’s eyes widened.

“The rocks...they’re gone,” Dorigen said faintly.

“You told me that if I got rid of the rocks, you would go out with me. Well, Dorigen, my love, I have removed the rocks.”

Arviragus looked at Dorigen. “You told him that?”

“I...I said it in jest. I never thought he really would...” Dorigen’s face went pale. She glanced back and forth between the two men who loved her. Arviragus stared at her with betrayal etched into all of his features. Aurelius grinned triumphantly.

Arviragus ran a hand through his hair, staring out at the sea. When he looked back at Aurelius, a new expression had crossed his face: resignation. He took Dorigen’s hands. “Dorigen, you must go with him.”

“No, I can’t! I don’t love him.”

“That doesn’t matter. You made a promise, you swore an oath. And when you swear an oath, you have to obey it, even when you don’t want to.”

Tears filled Dorigen’s eyes, but she nodded. She kissed Arviragus, so sweet and tender Aurelius had to look away. He couldn’t bear to see it, to see how much love was in that one simple kiss.

“I love you,” Dorigen said.

“I love you too,” Arviragus said.

He let go of Dorigen’s hands and walked away, not looking back. Dorigen silently wept. Aurelius put an arm around her, and Dorigen stiffened.

“Please don’t touch me,” Dorigen said.

Aurelius let go. He turned away from Dorigen and looked out towards the sea, the sea that was calmer than he had ever seen it before. It looked so strange without the rocks. So empty. He wasn’t sure that he liked it.

As Dorigen sobbed next to him, Aurelius knew what he had to do. This wasn’t the life he wanted—he didn’t want Dorigen if she wasn’t really his. And it was clear to him now, she never would be. She would always belong to Arviragus, and he to her. So Aurelius shouted, “Arviragus!”

Arviragus  had been walking slowly, shoulders slumped and limp even more pronounced than before. When he heard his name, he turned. Aurelius jogged over to him. “I’m sorry. What I did was wrong. Dorigen is yours.”

Arviragus clapped a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You’re a good man, Aurelius.”

Arviragus limped back to Dorigen as quickly as he could. He shouted her name, and when she saw him coming, she grinned and ran up to meet him. They embraced, and Aurelius looked away again.

“I’m sorry, Aurelius,” Cornelius said. Aurelius had forgotten that Cornelius and the magician were still there, witnessing his humiliation.

“It’s for the best,” Aurelius said, looking over at Dorigen and Arviragus. They were walking back towards their home, hand in hand.

Horace glanced at the brothers, and then, with a painful sigh, he handed the thousand pounds back to Cornelius. “You’re having a bad enough day,” Horace said to Aurelius.

“Thank you,” Aurelius said.

Horace walked away, leaving the two brothers alone.

“I’ll meet you at home,” Aurelius said to Cornelius.

Cornelius nodded and left. Aurelius stood on the cliff’s edge, looking down at the green-blue water.

“Goodbye, Dorigen,” Aurelius whispered.

And he too walked away, leaving the empty sea behind.