“Papa? Why don’t I have any hair?” asked Becky as she was tucked into bed.
Her father, Eddie Deschain, a man who could string together a good yarn, thought about it, sat down beside her, and took in a deep breath.
“Once there was a prince too curious for his own good. He wandered through his family’s large kingdom, constantly outwitting whatever poor bodyguards the queen and king assigned him. The majority of the common folk grew fond of their little prince, who seemed to come and go without a care. Those with more… malicious intentions, found out that the prince’s curiosity was matched only by his craftiness. Despite being only a child, many bad men and women had been thrown in the dungeon because of him. Naturally, the queen and king worried, but they eventually accepted that locking him away would ultimately do more harm than good.
“Despite this freedom, the prince soon grew tired of the kingdom and all its walls. He hungered for more. Beyond the borders was an ancient forest that surrounded them on all sides. Few went in if given the choice. Mothers whispered of the horrible monsters that lived there, always hungry, and that any child who journeyed into the woods was destined never to return. That last bit turned out to be a fib, seeing as the prince soon went into the forest and returned as he pleased. No monsters ever bothered him. Much to his great disappointment.”
“But he eventually saw something, right?” Becky squeaked.
“Someone,” Eddie corrected. “On the eve of his twelfth birthday, the prince escaped his mother’s stuffy celebrations and made way towards his favorite spot; a river bend where he could finally stop running and gaze up at the sky. At the stars. The first prince, his older brother, had once said that good people became stars when they died. This prince often looked up, for hours, trying to find him.
“Yet it was not his brother the prince found that night, but the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. It was not her face or figure that made her beautiful. Although both were lovely. No. It was her hair. Hair that glowed like white fire and seemed to go on forever. The woman was washing that hair in the river, making sure that every strand was properly cleansed.”
“She sounds amazing,” Becky sighed wistfully.
Eddie smiled. “The prince thought so too. Driven by his curiosity, he walked over to the mysterious woman. She was neither angry nor surprised by the boy. After watching over him since birth, she’d grown quite fond of the prince. As a birthday gift, she let him brush her hair for a time. Hours for him, seconds for her. Eventually the boy awoke in his stuffy bed.”
“Did he ever see her again?”
“Many, many years later when she came to retrieve what he’d stolen.”
“The prince stole?”
“Yes, but by the time she returned he was the king. The Lovely King.
“You see, that night while washing the woman’s hair, the prince managed to take one single strand. Whether the lady truly didn’t notice or pretended not to, only she knows. Yet that single strand, clutched tightly in his skinny fist, was all the proof the prince needed to know that that night hadn’t been a dream. At first he tied the strand around his neck, always hidden under his collar. As his red hair grew longer, the prince used it as a silver ribbon. And then it eventually disappeared.”
“He lost it!”
“No, it just got lost in the fold.”
Now Becky just looked confused.
“The prince’s hair,” Eddie explained, “became as white as the woman’s at the river. It was a gradual process but after a few years, not a speck of red was left. Well, at least not in his hair. And that wasn’t the only thing that changed. The prince’s entire body evolved beyond that of a mortal man. He became incredibly fast and strong. His sharp wit became genuine cunning, which, in turn, became unmatched strategic wisdom. Though they couldn’t explain the change, most of his kingdom still adored their prince. Even more so, they stood in awe.
“Though not everyone was so accepting. His enemies scheming inside the walls, for every great man has enemies, whispered that they were destined to be ruled by a monster. An omen sent from the deepest shadows of the forest to corrupt them all. Without the lady’s power the prince would have met premature death at their hands, many, many times over.”
“Yet the prince survived and eventually became king. Women lusted after him and gossiped of his beauty. Eventually the title, ‘The Lovely King’, caught and spread through the kingdom like wildfire. Girls swooned at the mere mention while their husbands spoke it in much crueler tones, whether out of jealousy or skepticism. The men who fought under the king knew better.”
“Unlike most kings, when enemies came knocking he fought alongside his soldiers, always at the head of the charge. The deadly game of war finally seemed to satisfy the king’s thirst for excitement, and he was a master at it. Though it surely helped that he knew the ancient forest better than all his enemies and allies combined. After fighting by his side, many soldiers would declare their king a silver-eyed beast of war or an angel of death. Either way, he was a force of nature to whom they declared their undying loyalty. The Lovely King never lost a battle and made sure that any citizen who died within his walls only did so due to old age or illness.”
Becky puffed out her cheeks. “The lady?!”
“Wow, you’re impatient! Well, eventually, on the eve of his fiftieth birthday, the king received a visitor hailing from the most mysterious depths of the ancient forest. With their matching hair, many in the throne room assumed her to be the king’s own mother, even though both his parents had died many decades prior due to illness. She appeared much older than he remembered and was shrouded in a waterfall of white hair. The mysterious women approached the once curious prince and offered him an explanation and a deal.
“You see, at that time, the world was a much smaller place. Each and every single human life walking on the earth was represented by a strand of the lady’s hair. When a person died, their strand also fell. The king was no exception. One day his life would end. Yet, the lady possessed it no longer. Impossible and improbable as it was, the little boy had taken his own life in his own hands. The strand he’d stolen had been his own. After that night at the river bend, destinies were destroyed. His kingdom had been destined to fall decades ago, with all its citizens dead. Yet, here they were, breathing. The universe itself was being crushed under the weight of lives that never should have existed. The lady had come to reap them all. To restore balance.”
Becky’s shocked face made Eddie chuckle.
“That’s what she’d come to do. Not what she wanted to do.”
She visibly relaxed.
“The Lovely King had done great and wonderful things with her power. The lady recognized that and was proud. Yet the world would surely collapse if he continued to exist the way he was. Yet he neither deserved to die nor stand among a kingdom of corpses. A compromise had to be made. The lady offered to spare the kingdom in a way in which the world would return to balance. Yet it would only work if the king gave up the power he’d stolen.”
“His hair?” Becky guessed.
“Not just his hair but the hair of his descendants and some of their life. Their sacrifice would eventually balance out the lives that the young prince had unintentionally created. The Lovely King did not lose his life after making the deal. He lived to be quite old actually. Yet he was no longer an angel of death or the Lovely King. Just a man. He never saw the woman again. Though he did occasionally feel slender fingers running across his scalp during the seconds between sleep and waking. The king’s people continued to love him, though very few knew the true extent of his sacrifice. Some even made fun of his weird shaped head.”
“Eventually the curious king passed on and found his brother, who made fun of his bald head too.’ Eddie stroked her pale cheek with his thumb. “And that’s why.”
“Will I become a star?” she asked.
Eddie smiled a fragile smile.
“You sure will, baby. You sure will.”
He kissed his daughter’s bald head and left her to her lovely dreams. There was just no way to know how many of them she had left.
Every single one had to count.