Strasbourg–Saint Denis

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They always tell the story wrong.

There was no wicked fairy, no thieving father or nagging mother, nobody locked in a tower, and certainly no heroic, handsome prince.

I do have nice hair, though. They got that part right, at least.

The villain of this story isn’t who you think it is. As for the hero, well, I’m not so sure there was one.

There were just people, muddling along, doing the best we could. We didn’t always get it right, either.

We tried, though. That’s important.

And we were lucky. That’s important, too.

And we all helped each other, one way or another. Sometimes that’s the most important thing of all.

My mother had wonderful hair. Even more wonderful than mine, whatever you may have heard. It was thick and long, as soft and fine as embroidery silks, and it shone like silver and gold.

It takes a lot of strength to grow a head of hair like that.

It takes a lot of strength to grow eleven babies, too, so it’s not surprising that by the time I came along, she had just about run out.

My father loved my mother very much – that part of the story is true, though nobody ever gives him credit for it – and so he went to the wise woman for help.

No, he didn’t climb over her wall to steal her greens. He was an honest man, my father, and my parents were not so poorly off, though eleven children will stretch a man’s income as much as they stretch a woman’s belly. They could afford to pay for the things that needed paying for, and this definitely needed paying for.

(Stealing wouldn’t have helped him anyway. My father was a stonemason, not an apothecary. How would he even have known which herbs he needed?)

So there was no stealing. Instead, my father went to the wise woman’s door like a civilised man and asked what to do for his wife, who was weak and ill from her pregnancy.

Madame Rohan is a kind woman, and a patient one too, but she can be stern when the situation warrants it. She gave my father parsley to strengthen my mother’s blood, and rampion to strengthen her bones, and then she gave my father such a talking to that by the end of it he was as pale as milk, and his legs shook so much that he could hardly walk home.

It takes two to get pregnant after all, and Madame Rohan saw no purpose in fixing the symptom without addressing the underlying problem.

No, of course she did not ask for his firstborn child as her payment. What would she do that for? Trust me, nobody wants Jean-Paul as payment, not even his betrothed. Oh, he’s good hearted enough, but my mother always said it was like having an ox in the house – big, and strong, and prone to breaking things. And Madame Rohan was an apothecary – can you imagine a man like my brother in a stillroom?

Her payment? Well, I was never told just what it was, but my parents had no more children after me, though all the world spoke of the affection between them. Whatever it was she took from my father, I’d say he was glad and more than glad to give it.

My mother was sick for a long time after my birth, and I was a frail, under-sized child, who would not nurse. Between caring for my mother and running after seven young children, my father and eldest siblings had enough to do, and more than enough, without caring for a baby. And so it was that after my mother was safely delivered, and my father and brothers and sisters had each had their turn to hold me, Madame Rohan took me to back to her house, where she fed me goat’s milk mixed with honey and herbs, and rocked me to sleep with songs about babies who grew big and strong and healthy.

Nothing was ever said of fostering or adoption, but one year passed, and then another, and my mother grew strong and well again, and I stayed with Madame Rohan, in her little house and shop across the square from Strasbourg Cathedral. Oh, I saw my parents often enough in those first years, and certainly they loved me, but they had ten other children at home – Jean-Paul still had not moved out, to my mother’s chagrin, and his wife was nearly as clumsy as he was – and I was sickly and my heart did not always work as it should. My parents could not provide the care I needed, and Madame Rohan could, and that was that.

Besides, Madame Rohan had become attached to me, and I to her. I called her Tante Rohan, and she called me Persinette, after the parsley she had given my mother.

You could say that my parents did give the wise woman a child after all. But it was never intended that way.

Most of what I remember of my early childhood was that I was constantly, miserably, ill. If an elderly man visited Tante Rohan about a dry cough, I would catch it at once, and it would turn to pneumonia before the week was out. If the little girl who shared my pew had a sore throat, I would contract influenza, which would go straight to my lungs and settle there. And when I caught the measles on a visit to my family, I lay close to death for a week, and then had to spend months convalescing with a hood over my eyes, for fear that I would lose my sight.

Tante Rohan said that it was because my body was not good at defending itself from illnesses, and so I got them more often and more severely than other people. She made me special teas to help my body fight better and to build my strength, and she made me stay in my room when people visited her for her cures, but her efforts were to no avail. Somehow, the illnesses found me still, each more debilitating than the last.

And so Tante Rohan built a tower for me to live in.

Ah, I see you are interested now. You’ve been waiting for the tower, haven’t you? You are going to be disappointed. It wasn’t anything like what you are thinking.

How do I know what you are thinking? My dear, you are not the first young woman to seek help from the fairy godmother…

My tower was not a prison. I had a key to it, just as my aunt did. But it was necessary. My body could not withstand so many illnesses, and to keep me safe from them, I had to be shielded from the people the illnesses followed.

And it worked. Alone in my tower, I finally began to grow well. I was still weak, of course, and I still had trouble with my heart from time to time, but away from the contagions of the town, I grew slowly stronger.

The tower was build as an extension to my aunt’s house – five narrow floors rising up above the shop. Since I must spend my life there, Tante Rohan took care to fill each room with every sort of  amusement or leisure activity that I could desire. The lowest floor, which sat just above the shop, was my classroom and workshop, part laboratory, part still-room, where Tante Rohan taught me all she knew of healing and herbs. Above this was a music and sewing room, filled with musical instruments, and all sorts of wools and silks for textile work. The window of this room overlooked the street below where the musicians liked to play, so that I could learn by observing them, though they did not always know that they were my teachers. Above that was a bright, empty room that served as a sort of gymnasium for me to run around in. The fourth floor was a library, with shelves full of books that rose to the ceiling, and a window seat overlooking the courtyard behind our house.

The very top floor of the tower, right under the eaves, was my bedchamber. It had a large window that looked directly out at the cathedral spire, and a cosily sloping roof. From here, I could look out over all of Strasbourg, or so it seemed to me. I loved it, and as soon as I was strong enough to do so, I pushed my bed right up against the wall under the window, even though it meant I had to be careful every morning not to hit my head on the ceiling when I sat up.

It was worth it, though.

The closer I was to the window, you see, the closer I was to the bells.

I suppose I should explain about the bells.

I can’t remember a time when the bells didn’t sing for me. Living next to the cathedral as we did, the bells greeted me every morning, marked the hours of the day, and sang me to sleep at night. They were part of my life, as close to me as my heartbeat – indeed, when my heart tripped and fluttered in my chest, it was the bells that seemed to steady it, to bring it back into a proper rhythm.

But it was only when I was six that they began speaking to me. This was before I went into my tower. You will remember that my brother had the measles, and I had it after him, and was not allowed to see so much as a flicker of candlelight for week after week? At first, I was too ill to care, but as I grew better, I became restless. Delicate I might be, but I was still quite an active child, and I was accustomed to my days being full – with play, or helping in the kitchen or stillroom, or reading, or sewing, or running the occasional errand for my aunt. To have my hands and feet still for so long was nearly unbearable.

Tante Rohan did what she could to entertain me, of course, and my mother and sisters visited as often as Tante Rohan would permit, but as the itching and soreness in my eyes began to fade, my boredom and frustration only grew. It seemed to me that even the bells mocked me as they rang out the passing hours – another hour spent in darkness – another hour with no visitors – another night falling at the end of another day where the world had turned in its orbit while I remained in my room, as still as the statues on the cathedral’s facade.

Hard though it is to imagine now, I began to hate the bells.

I began to shout at them. I don’t remember now what I shouted, but my aunt came running into my room at once.

“Persinette! Little Persinette, you must not shout at the bells,” she said.

Child though I was, I heard something in her voice that made me stop.

“Why not?” I asked, rather sulkily.

Tante Rohan stroked my hair. “The bells are our guardians and our friends,” she told me. “They watch over all of Strasbourg, but you and I, who live in this house and under their shadow, are in their particular care. If you listen to them when they ring, they will tell you many things.”

I was dubious about this, to say the least, but just then the bells struck ten, and began their goodnight peal.

“Listen,” said my aunt again. “Listen, and listen well. With time, you will learn to understand them.”

And so I did. At first, I heard only the sound of bells ringing, and I instinctively screwed my eyes up tightly under the blindfold to hear better. For a moment, the world went red, and I cried out in pain. And that was when I heard the bells singing to me.

“Poor Persinette, sweet Persinette, poor Persinette, sleep Persinette, poor Persinette, sweet Persinette…”

I was asleep before they stopped ringing.

At first, I did not understand much of what the bells sang to me. It takes a while to learn any language, after all, even for a child of Strasbourg.

But the bells made an effort, and so did I, and soon we had moved on from such simple calls as ‘Here comes your aunt! Here comes your aunt!’ or ‘Wake up wake up it’s breakfast time! Wake up wake up it’s breakfast time!’ to more interesting conversations.

The bells paid attention to all the comings and goings of the people who visited the cathedral, and as these were the people who passed beneath my tower window, I took a similar interest. As the years went by, the bells kept me abreast of all the news of the town – I heard that the blacksmith had taken a new apprentice; that the baker’s widow was planning to sell her shop and move to Reims to be with her daughter; that farmer Juran’s simple son had sold his cow for beans that he claimed were magic; that the street singer who played beneath my window had been banished from the town for serenading the mayor’s youngest daughter after church; that the mayor’s youngest daughter had been married and brought to bed of a son not six months after the wedding; that the bishop was building a new palace…

I was always particularly interested in what the street musicians were doing, as I heard them daily from the window of my tower, and felt a kinship with them. My aunt had bought me several fine musical instruments, and I spent many an hour in practice, until I had become quite a gifted musician in my own right. It must be confessed that I had something of a tendre for a particular cellist who often played two doors down from my window. The bells regarded this with a combination of amusement and disapproval.

“Not for you! Not for you! Not for you!” they tolled at me.

“But he plays so beautifully,” I sighed in reply.

“Playing for another! Playing for another!”

Well, that was disappointing, but only to be expected. I never left my tower, after all. “Who?” I asked, resignedly.

“Girl who sells the flowers one street over! Girl who sells the flowers one street over!”

“I thought you said she was married!”

“Also the blacksmith’s daughter! Also the blacksmith’s daughter! Also the blacksmith’s daughter!”

“Who is in love with the journeyman, and not likely to be seduced by a roving cellist.”

“He loves another! He loves another! Try the violinist, try the violinist, try the violinist, try the violinist…”

I wrinkled my nose. The violinist was an excellent musician, but he was older than my aunt.

“I think you are making up stories,” I told the bells.

The peal that followed sounded suspiciously like laughter.

I did make friends with some of the musicians, as I grew older. There was a singer – not the one who had loved the mayor’s daughter, but another – who accompanied himself on the lute, and would trade verses and harmonies with me as I stood at my window and sang. There was a woman who played the hammer dulcimer, who often sent me duets for dulcimer and flute that we could play together. And there was the cellist, too, once I outgrew my infatuation, who played often beneath my window, and sometimes invited me to accompany him on the violin.

My aunt encouraged these friendships, viewing them as a safe way for me to socialise, and the bells provided commentary on my musical efforts. Occasionally, they spoke to one of my musician friends, but most of the musicians were too focused on their own music to listen for words hidden beneath the peal of the bells.

I made other friends, too. Learning to hear the bells had opened my ears to the other living parts of the cathedral, in particular the statues which crowded around the western facade of the church. The saints mostly spoke among themselves, but would keep me company from time to time, and helped me learn my catechism. Saint Laurent, on the north transept, was always fun, though he did have a tendency to tell really terrible jokes, mostly about the other saints. He said his goal in life was to make Saint Lucy roll her eyes, which, since she kept them on a plate carried in front of her, was not much of a challenge. One had to be in the right mood to deal with Saint Laurent.

My dearest friends among the statues were the three foolish maidens and the three wise ones who stood in rows over the right portal of the Cathedral. The wise maidens were serious but kind, and would talk about my books and my work in the stillroom, though have no idea when they had found the opportunity to read. As for the foolish ones, I always felt that this was an unkind name for them. They didn’t strike me as any less intelligent than their sisters, and shared my interest in the people of Strasbourg.

Next to the foolish maidens was a handsome statue who called himself the Prince of the World. I was not impressed by him. It seemed to me that he would flirt with anyone, seen or unseen, and I was not interested. I had heard what was under his cloak.

Sometimes the bells brought news from far away. They talked to the church bells in neighbouring towns, and told me of wars, of the deaths and ascensions of kings and queens, of saints and miracles, of fires and floods and plagues. I shared the news with my aunt, but not with anyone else – it would not do for the townspeople to think we knew more than we ought.

My favourite part of the day was the evening. I liked to open the windows as the sun began to set, and listen to the people talking in the street below. Lying snug in my bed with the window open wide, I imagined myself among them, part of the crowd, enjoying the evening after a long day of work or study. I could not feel lonely in such good company.

As night fell, the crowds would disperse, and the street grew quieter. At ten o’clock, the Cathedral bells would strike the hour, echoed by all the churches in Strasbourg, bidding their people home to bed. After the hour was struck, there would be silence for a moment or two, and then the Cathedral bells would ring out again one last time for the night, the notes tumbling over each other with joyful abandon. I would close my eyes to hear them better, and as I did so, the bells seemed to crowd into the room around me, their chimes resonating and echoing through my body until I shuddered with the delight of it.

You’re waiting for the bit with the hair, aren’t you? I can tell. It’s everyone’s favourite bit.

Have you ever imagined what it would be like to have someone climb your hair? Well, imagine it now. Think about the physics of it, for one thing. The average prince weighs, what, 90 kilos? Even assuming that my hair was strong enough not to be pulled out of my scalp, do you really think I could carry 90 kilos with my neck? My head would probably snap off.

Yes, I know that’s a grotesque image. But it’s your fault. You were the one who thought that it would be romantic to have someone climb up my hair.

Nobody ever climbed up my hair. There. I’m saying it. Do you still want to hear my story?

Good, then.

I lied to you before. I said that I was not interested in the Prince of the World.

Habit, I suppose. I lied to the bells for so long about him, and it is difficult to hide one’s thoughts from the bells.

Certainly, I was wise enough to know better. I knew what the Prince of the World had under his cloak. The maidens had told me – wise and foolish both – and even if they hadn’t, the bells had warned me about him.

The Prince of the World warned me about himself, too. He was very honest about it. He told me that he did not deserve my friendship; that he could bring me nothing but harm; that I would be wise to shun him as the maidens did – and I wept with pity for him. It must be hard to live under such a burden of sin and regret, I thought. Defiantly, I determined to be his friend despite everything he had said and done. Every day, I made a point of greeting him, of speaking to him kindly, even though he would not speak to me, until at last he began to reply.

Oh, he was clever. If he had been too friendly, too easily won, I might have heeded my friends’ warnings. But his diffidence, his evident desire to protect me from himself, was irresistible. He was only a statue, after all – what harm could he do me? And surely a man who spoke so earnestly of his faults, so regretfully of his past misbehaviour, so wistfully of how he had thrown away any right to speak to me – surely he could not be beyond forgiveness?

Surely, it was my duty as a Christian charity to hear his confession, to welcome his repentance, to speak kindly to him when others shunned him. How could he learn to do better, if he never had a better example before him?

Yes, he sold me a bill of goods. But I’ll say this for him – he didn’t lie to me. Not then.

You are looking at me askance, I see, wondering how I could have been so foolish. Good. If you plan to seek your fortune, a little skepticism will serve you well. A sweet and trusting nature is a charming thing indeed, but it’s a dangerous trait in a girl who wants to determine her own path in life.

Take me, for example. I was sixteen, and romantic, and had never met a person who meant me ill. I was also lonelier than I was willing to admit to myself. And the Prince of the World was a very charming, very handsome man who needed me to save him.

There is no temptation in this world greater than the desire to believe that one’s love is the one thing standing between a handsome man and his damnation.

You look unconvinced. I hope you never learn how true that is.

Of course, I should have been safe, me in my tower high above the town, and he in his place on the arch over the right portal. But I was foolish. He asked me for a lock of my hair –

Yes, I saw how you sat up straight just then. I didn’t say my hair was unimportant. I said that nobody climbed it.

He asked me for a lock of hair as a token of my friendship and my forgiveness, and I gave it to him.

How? It hardly matters. Perhaps I folded it into a paper plane and glided it into his hand. Perhaps I sewed it with a light stitch into my aunt’s dress, so that it would fall out in the doorway as she walked into church. Perhaps I gave it to one of my street musician friends to deliver.

The point is, I was stupid. I gave him a lock of my hair, and the next thing I knew, he was climbing into my bedroom window after the bells had stopped tolling for the night.

(It had to be after the bells stopped tolling. He could never have gained entry to the house if the bells had been awake.)

I learned later that the three wise maidens had tried to prevent him, but he had a lock of my hair, freely given, and there was little they could do.

And that first night, nothing happened.

Well, nothing apart from the fact that we talked, and I fell in love even more deeply than before.

The second night, he kissed me, and I let him. The foolish maidens chided me in the morning, but I did not heed them.

The third night, the maidens woke the bells, and they began to ring.

I did not hear their warning – with a lock of my hair in his hand and his kiss on my lips, I was deaf to anything the Prince of the World did not wish me to hear – but my aunt heard. She heard the bells, and she heard the saints and she heard the maidens over the church door, too, and she ran up to my bedchamber as though her feet had wings. Before we could blink, she snatched the lock of my hair from the Prince’s hand, and threw it into the fire.

The Prince snarled and turned on her, and I saw what was under his cloak.

Perhaps it was the burning of my hair that broke the spell, or perhaps it was the sight of his true nature, writhing and twisting under his cloak, sending out horrifying tendrils from his skull to his heels.

Or perhaps it was the sight of the man I loved – the man who claimed to have repented of all his past cruelties – dragging my aunt to the window by her hair.

I realised he had lied to me.

Then I realised that he had told the truth, and I had been too stupid to believe him. That was worse.

My aunt had hooked her legs under my bed and was holding on with all her strength, and my would-be lover was dragging at her plait, leaning backward as he pulled.

He tugged again, and my aunt shrieked, and I turned and grabbed the pen-knife from my desk and sliced through her plait.

My aunt fell forward, landing half on top of me.

The Prince of the World went out the window.

The bells of the cathedral rang out in a loud, angry peal, and people rushed into the street, looking for the fire. We looked out the window too, but the Prince of the World was nowhere to be seen.

Ah, I see you have some questions. Let me anticipate them, if I may.

No, I wasn’t pregnant. A statue can’t get you pregnant. Nor can kissing, for that matter, and we hadn’t moved beyond that.

No, he did not fall into a thornbush. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Strasbourg is quite well-paved with cobblestones. There aren’t a lot of thornbushes around. He didn’t go blind, either. You can’t blind a statue.

You can shatter a statue on cobblestones, though. I still don’t know how he survived that fall, but when I looked out my window the next morning, there he was, as handsome and smug as ever, standing in his place over the church door.

And no, of course my aunt did not banish me to the wilderness. What would have been the point?

She did send me away, though – but now we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Tante Rohan was angry with me, of course, but she forgave me. She said a lot of things about the stupidity of sixteen-year-olds, but I accepted her criticisms as just. I’d nearly got her killed, after all. And I don’t know what would have happened if she had not come up the stairs when she did. The foolish maidens have never told me where they came from, but I noticed long ago that they each wore clothing of a different style. I do not think that they were always statues.

The bells were angry with me, too. I put my head under my pillow to muffle their words, but their grief and anger and fear for me could not be so easily drowned out. It was not a pleasant night.

It was our custom, every morning, for my aunt to go to the market while I set the table and made everything ready for breakfast. We would then breakfast together, before going our separate ways for the day – I to my tower to study or play music or make up the more common remedies that my aunt sold in her shop, and my aunt to the shop to care for her customers.

The morning after our encounter with the Prince of the World, I slept badly, and woke only when my aunt came home from the market. I hurried guiltily down the stairs, but table was already laid and Tante Rohan had just taken the yoghurt out of its pot to stir. As I entered, she dropped it with a cry. Droplets of yoghurt splashed from the pot in all directions, but my aunt paid no attention. Instead, she stared at the index finger on her left hand – which was, I realised, a slightly darker, dustier colour than it should have been.

She cradled it in her right hand, and we both stared at it in horror.

Her finger was no longer flesh, but rather stone. Red sandstone, to be precise. The colour of our cathedral, and of its statues.

My aunt drew a deep breath. “How very tiresome,” she said. “Persinette, would you please stir the yoghurt?”

“But aunt…”

“Breakfast first, Persinette. We shall eat, like civilised women, and then we shall discuss what needs to be done.”

I duly stirred the yoghurt, and sliced bread, and held my peace. My aunt managed her breakfast with very little clumsiness – any good apothecary will slice a finger from time to time, chopping herbs, and must be able to manage one-handed – but there was no conversation between us. My aunt was clearly thinking hard, and I did not have the heart to speak.

At last, my aunt pushed her plate away. I saw that the tip of her ring finger was also tinged with darker red, and wondered if it had been so earlier.

My aunt followed the direction of my gaze, and sighed. “I suspect your sandstone friend is playing tricks on us,” she said.

“My sandstone– oh no!” I stared at my aunt in horror. I had thought that any spell he had cast would have been broken when he fell. “But how?”

My aunt smiled a little sadly. “When you rescued me from the Prince of the World last night, he fell away with my hair in his hand. I believe he is using it to curse me.”

I blinked, then looked away, unable to meet my aunt’s eyes. The curse was my fault, then. Even when I tried to do good, I had made things worse. My heart began to dance strangely in my chest and I gasped for breath at the too-familiar sensation. I reached hastily into my pocket to find the cordial my aunt had made for these spells.

The bells began to ring.

“Steady. Steady. Steady. Steady. Be strong. Be strong. Steady. Steady. Be strong…”

I gasped again as my heart found its rhythm, far faster than the cordial would have helped. “Thank you,” I told the bells.

“No time. No time. No time. See to your aunt, see to your aunt, see to your aunt, see to your aunt.”

My aunt’s expression was grim, and her ring finger was definitely the wrong colour now. I knelt down beside her chair. “Tante Rohan, please forgive me. This is all my fault. If I hadn’t been so stupid, The Prince of the World could never have cursed you.”

My aunt laid her hand on my head, and stroked my hair briefly. Her own hair, of course, was ragged and short, but she had wrapped what remained in a kerchief for the market. “There is nothing to forgive. If I had gone out the window last night, my life would already be over. You have bought me time. There no reason why I should not survive this, if we act quickly.”

“Act quickly how?” I asked.

“You must get my hair back, of course,” said Tante Rohan.

I stared at her, not knowing what to say. My aunt continued, her voice brisk.

“We do not know how fast the stone will spread, so it will have to be you. Now. Finish your breakfast, clear the table, and then I want you to go upstairs and talk to the bells. The statues, too – I know you have some friends there. If you cannot get my hair back directly, you will need to ask the bells to take you to Saint-Denis.”

I swallowed. I did not know where Saint-Denis was, but it sounded as though I would need to leave my tower. I had not set foot outside it for ten years, and the idea of leaving filled me with both excitement and fear.

“What will you do, then, Tante?”

My aunt frowned. “I? I shall spend the morning in the shop. It would be best, I think, if I close for a few days, but there are several recipes I must finish and deliver first, especially if my hands are to be affected.”

I hesitated, mentally framing another apology. I might have saved my aunt last night, but if I hadn’t been stupid about the Prince of the World, she would not have needed saving, and he wouldn’t have been able to harm her today. I opened my mouth to speak, but my aunt halted me with a raised hand.

“Go, Persinette. You have bought me time, but that time is not infinite. I need you to help me now. I know that you are upset, but you will have to deal with that later. Right now, we have a statue to defeat.”

I nodded quickly, and ran out of the room before she could see me crying.

Upstairs, I threw myself onto my bed and called to the bells.

“Oh bells, what can I do? My aunt will die, and it is all my fault!”

“What do you mean? What do you mean? What do you mean? What do you mean? Tell! Tell! Tell! Tell! Tell! Tell! Tell! Tell!”

I explained what had happened at breakfast, and what my aunt had said about her hair.

“Can you get her hair back for me?”

“No. No. No. No. Ask the wise and foolish maidens, ask the wise and foolish maidens, ask the wise and foolish maidens.”

But the maidens couldn’t help me either. The foolish ones were silent, and the wise ones too far away to be of use. “Don’t be angry with the foolish maidens,” one of them whispered to me. “He has their hair, too.”

I knew then what would have become of me if my aunt had not intervened.

The saints around the West Façade and the apostles on the tympanum were sympathetic, but unhelpful. “Not our mythology,” one of the apostles explained to her. “We’re historic figures, or close enough to it. But the Prince of the World? That’s something you Alsatians made up for yourselves. And don’t get me wrong – he’s an excellent illustration of what he is trying to be, and he certainly fits in with the parable of the wise and foolish maidens. But he’s outside our jurisdiction, theologically speaking.”

“What if we aren’t speaking theologically?”

“We’re apostles, Persinette. We always speak theologically.”

There was regret in the apostle’s voice, but no help. I sighed, and thanked him anyway. Perhaps the statues on the north transept would be able to provide a different perspective.

The gargoyles on the north transept were noisy and unhelpful, and Ecclesia and Synagoga seemed sad, but Saint Laurent was, if anything, more cheerful than usual. Adversity always brought out the best in him, and the worst in his jokes.

“Saint Laurent!” I called. “How are you today?”

“Medium rare,” he replied, “But heading for well-done, I should say. It’s a warm day. I’m sorry to hear about your Tante Rohan,” he added, in a more serious voice.

I nodded, a lump in my throat. “Can you help me get her hair back?”

Saint Laurent was silent for a long time. “I have little knowledge of Princes,” he said, “And this is no ordinary Prince, I think. I agree with your aunt – you will need to go to Saint Denis.”

I wrinkled my nose in confusion. “I don’t understand. What is at Saint Denis?”

At this moment, the clock struck twelve, and the bells began to chime.

“Necropolis of Kings of France! Necropolis of Kings of France! Necropolis of Kings of France! Necropolis of Kings of France! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!”

Saint Laurent made a noise of agreement. “They’ve been burying Kings there since – well, not since my time, but since the sixth century or so. There are dozens of funerary statues, all Kings and Queens. And Kings trump Princes, whichever way you look at it. Together, they should be more than a match for the Prince of the World.”

This made sense, of a sort, though my heart beat faster at the thought of leaving my tower. “Very well, then,” I said. “Where is this Basilica?”

“Just north of Paris, I believe,” said Saint Laurent.

My heart sank. Paris was nearly five hundred kilometres away. It seemed that bells and statues had certain blind spots.

“Paris is a long way from Strasbourg,” I reminded them. “I have not left my tower since I was a child, and even assuming I could do so safely, it would take me at least a week to travel there. Longer if I had to walk, as I expect I would! I fear it would be too late for my aunt.”

“We can take you there, we can take you there, we can take you there,” sang the bells.

I blinked. “How?” I asked.

“Bell to bell, bell to bell, bell to bell, bell to bell, bell to bell, bell to bell…” they chimed.

This did not clarify matters, but neither the bells nor Saint Laurent seemed able to explain further.

“Very well,” I said. “I shall speak to my aunt,” and I turned away from the window.

Saint Laurent called out after me.

“Persinette! If you are going to the Basilica, will you take a message for me to Saint Denis? We third-century martyrs need to stick together.”

“Of course,” I said. “I would be happy to do so.”

“Excellent. Then tell Saint Denis from me that I always thought he should have quit while he was a-head.”

I groaned, and the bells chimed their disgust.

“Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!”

Saint Laurent was unmoved by our disapproval. “I’ve been waiting years to make that joke. Centuries. You have to tell him. And then come back and tell me what he said.”

I shook my head. “Maybe after we have found a cure for my aunt,” I said.

But I took comfort in Saint Laurent’s assumption that I would come back.

I did tell you that Saint Laurent made terrible jokes. The one about Saint Lucy should have been a clue that I wasn’t lying. Now, do you want to know what happened, or not?

My aunt returned from her errands with a drawn face, and a right hand that was almost entirely stone. The palm was still flesh, but her fingers and the back of her hand had all calcified. It looked uncomfortable, but her expression did not invite sympathy.

She sat down in her rocking chair with a sigh. “Tell me what the bells said,” she invited.

“They couldn’t help,” I confessed. “Nor could the statues. They want me to go to Saint Denis, but aunt, it’s five hundred kilometres away! I’d never get there in time!”

My aunt nodded, unsurprised. Well, she knew better than I did that the stone was spreading. She must have known that I had not managed to retrieve her hair. “Did the bells say that they could take you?”

I frowned. “They did. ‘Bell to bell,’ apparently, but I’m not sure what that means.”

“I’ve never travelled that way myself,” my aunt acknowledged, “But I was told by my grandmother, who was told by her great aunt before her, that in times of need, the bells can ring a person from parish to parish, in the same way that they pass news one to another.”

“But how?”

“My grandmother told me that if the need is dire, one must climb the steps of the bell tower while the church bells are striking ten, and ask the bells for their help. When they begin the carillon, the sound will push you to the next church, and the next, all the way to where you need to go.”

I shivered. I had loved the bells for most of my life, but the idea of being in the bell tower while they rang was unsettling at best. Their chimes were loud enough to vibrate through me even when I lay in my tower – surely if I was among them in truth, the sound would shake me to pieces…

My aunt saw my hesitation. “If you do not think you can survive it, then you must not go. I would not buy my life at the price of yours. We can still send you to Saint-Denis by cart – it will take longer, of course, but it would be safer.”

Safer for me, perhaps. We both knew that if I went by cart to Saint-Denis, my aunt was unlikely to live long enough to see me return.

I swallowed down my fear, and smiled at my aunt. “Certainly not! The bells are my friends, and would not harm me. And you know that if you put me in a cart, I’d just catch some horrible fever from the carter. The bells are by far the best solution. I’m just a little nervous about leaving my tower.”

It was almost entirely the truth.

Of course, there was one statue I had not spoken to.

The Prince of the World had been uncharacteristically silent during the day, when I had been speaking to the other statues. I had half-expected him to try to woo me back, or failing that, to taunt me with what he had done to my aunt.

But it seemed that once again, he was waiting for me to come to him.

I thought about that, as I climbed the stairs to my room. My aunt had told me to ask the bells and the statues how to get her hair back. She had not, I am sure, meant to include the Prince of the World in that instruction. And it seemed unlikely that he would simply hand her hair over without a fight.

Still. It seemed to me that before I risked my life on a journey to Saint Denis, I should at least find out whether the Prince of the World would be willing to release my aunt if I asked it of him.

Upstairs in my room, I closed the door. I did not want to be interrupted in this.

“Prince of the World, will you speak to me?” I asked.

He was silent, but I knew that he was listening.

“I am sorry I forced you out the window last night. But you were trying to kill my aunt! You must see that that was wrong.”

There was still no reply.

I tried once more. “Will you give my aunt back her hair? She should not have to die for my stupidity.”

But the Prince of the World remained silent. I sighed. Saint-Denis it was then. I turned away from the window, and began to consider what to pack.

“I thought you loved me.”

I spun around, but the Prince was still safely on the tympanum, and not in my room. “I did love you,” I told him honesty. “I thought you were my friend. And then I thought you might be more. But then you tried to kill Mme Rohan, who is like a mother to me. That is not how friends behave.”

I felt his sigh through my whole body. “I told you that I had a terrible temper.”

“You did not tell me you had a violent one. And in any case, you told me you had repented.”

“I had repented. I repent now. I am sorry I hurt your aunt.”

“Then give my aunt back her hair, and heal her hand, which you have turned to stone.”

The Prince of the World was silent. “I cannot,” he said at last, and I turned away.

“Not without your help,” he added, quickly. “It is a difficult spell to break, and requires three drops of blood shed on the stone that supports me.”

I shook my head. I did not trust him for one moment, and certainly not with my blood.

“I would do no harm to you or to your aunt,” vowed the Prince of the World. “You have my word on it. Persinette, you must not risk yourself on this journey you plan! Your aunt means well, but she is terribly mistaken. If you are in the tower when the bells ring, you will surely die!”

I said nothing. The Prince of the World knew me well, and he knew how to play on my fears. While I was certain that the bells would never deliberately hurt me, I knew, too, that they did not entirely understand how humans worked. They might well do me great harm by accident.

The Prince of the World, by contrast, would never harm me by accident, and he knew exactly how humans worked. But this was less than reassuring, since I now knew that he was entirely capable of harming me deliberately. Even if I could trust his word, there were more people in the world than myself and my aunt. He had not promised that anyone else would be safe from the magic he could make with my blood.

I would rather take my chances with the bells.

Perhaps the Prince of the World heard me thinking, or perhaps he knew when he had pushed as far as he could. “You can change your mind,” he told me, quietly, as I went about the room collecting my cloak and my shoes. “Any time until you enter the bell tower, you can change your mind, and I will hear you.”

I ignored him, and instead began gathering the things I would need for my journey. My heart cordial, first. The pen-knife which I had used to cut my aunt’s hair and free her from the Prince of the World. A flask of water. A candle, for the stairs. A tinderbox to light the candle. Spare underthings. My Sunday dress. A needle and thread. A map, since there was no certainty that the bells of Saint Denis would be able to return me home. A pencil. Some money.

That was all, I thought. My pack would need to be light if I was to carry it up the three hundred stairs to the top of the bell tower. I looked around my room one final time, and saw a line of silver against the blue of my blanket. A strand of my aunt’s hair, I realised, and as I drew closer, I saw that there were six more on the bed and the carpet beside it. I gathered them up carefully and put them into the locket I wore around my neck with the miniature of my parents. Perhaps they would bring me luck; if nothing else, they would let me carry a little of my aunt with me on my way.

And then I left my tower.

My aunt was waiting for me in the shop.

“Do you have everything you need?” she asked.

“I think so,” I said.

Tante Rohan nodded, then put her hands on my shoulders and kissed me on both cheeks. “You are a good, brave girl, Persinette,” she said, “I am proud of you. Be wise, now, and when you speak to strangers, listen for the intentions that lie underneath their words, so that you are not deceived again. Now, go with God. I trust that I will see you soon.”

She stepped back from me, dropping her hands, and I saw that the fingers of her right hand were now the red of sandstone. I swallowed.

“Thank you, aunt,” I said, and then I walked out of the shop and into the streets of Strasbourg.

Yes, of course I loved my aunt. Do you think I would have gone to the bells if I had not?

You never met Mme Rohan, so you could not know. She was the kindest woman in the world, and she loved me like a daughter, but she absolutely hated fuss, and was uncomfortable with displays of emotion or physical affection.

I knew, as my aunt did, that we might not see each other again. We both understood that I might perish on the journey, and that even if I survived, we might not defeat the Prince of the World fast enough to save her.

So, since we were saying goodbye, I chose to do so in the way that my aunt would prefer.

When you love someone, you try to do what will make them happy. Tante Rohan kissed me goodbye, because she knew that I needed affection. And I walked out of the shop without a backward glance, because I knew that she needed me not to see her cry.

We understood each other very well, my aunt and I.

It was strange being down at ground level, hearing conversations flowing around me instead of below me. I kept colliding with people, since I was not used to cobblestones, and had to watch my feet instead of where I was going.

But I did not have much time to think about this this. It was nearly ten o’clock, and I needed to be inside the cathedral and at the foot of the bell-tower before the bells began to chime the hour.

I used the central portal. Perhaps it was cowardly of me, but I did not wish to walk underneath the Prince’s statue. What if I tripped, or had a sudden blood nose, and gave him his three drops of blood by mischance? It did not bear thinking of.

The door was heavy, but it opened when I leaned on it, and I entered the cathedral. I had not been inside since I was a tiny child, and I remembered the vivid colours of the windows and the soaring height of the vaulted ceiling. None of that was visible now. The cathedral was dark, and even after I stopped and lit my candle, I was surrounded only by flickering shadows.

I walked quickly across to the foot of the bell tower, and lifted my candle. I could only see the start of the great spiral staircase, and I bit my lip. I had been so worried about the sound of the bells at such close quarters, that it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder how I could possibly climb more than 300 stairs in the time between when the clock began to chime the hour, and when it finished striking ten. I would have to run, I realised, and even then I wasn’t sure I would be quick enough. Perhaps I should take a sip of my cordial before I even started…

But it was too late to worry, because the first bell chimed, and I threw myself up into the darkness of the stairwell, taking the stairs two at a time, as fast as I could. The bells called encouragement down to me, their voices loud in the confined space of the stairwell.

“Climb, Persinette! Brave Persinette! Climb, Persinette! Come, Persinette!”

I climbed, half running, half leaping, the weight of the chimes like gravity pushing me downward. My heart felt as though it was about to burst out of my chest, but I forced myself on. I lost count of the stairs, and my candle blew out. I held onto it anyway, and kept going.

The hour began to strike, each chime a blow to my chest. I knew the bells were trying to encourage me even as the sound battered me, but I could not hear their words through the wall of sound that hammered through me. Grimly, I kept climbing, darkness and noise pressing in on me until I could hardly breathe.

I almost didn’t notice when the sound stopped. Perhaps I would never have noticed, except that just as the bells stopped, I climbed a step that wasn’t there, and tripped over air. I fell to the floor, wheezing, my heart skipping and fluttering as I reached for my cordial and took a long sip.

All around me was silence – the most beautiful silence I had ever heard – but I knew I only had a few moments before the bells would begin again, and that now I was right beneath them. I could see them only as darker shadows against the dark sky, but I could feel that I was at the top of the tower, and I sensed the weight of them bearing down on me from above, even though I knew they were still high above my head.

My heart began to steady, and my breath caught just enough for me to gasp out “Bells, will you take me to Saint-Denis?”

And the evening peal began.

I do not remember the journey very well. The human brain protects itself from the memory of pain, and so while I remember the pain, and that it hurt more than anything I had felt before or since, I can’t remember how it felt.  All I remember is that each strike of the bells seemed to fling me from my body and back into it again, shattering me and remaking me with every chime. I felt my death in every note, and I must have screamed, though I did not hear it, because when I arrived in Saint Denis, my throat was so sore that I could barely speak.

I was dimly aware of the bells and the churches as they flung me on through the night – from Nôtre Dame de Strasbourg to Saint Mammès in Langres, to Saint Pierre et Saint Paul in Troyes and then on to Nôtre Dame de Paris. The journey could not have lasted more than a quarter of an hour, but to me, it seemed as though it would never end.

Was it exciting?

Have you been listening to anything I said?

No. It was not exciting. It hurt more than anything I’ve ever felt in my life, and I thought I would die or go mad before it ended. If I’d known what it would be like before I decided to go…

Well. It’s probably for the best that I did not know. I don’t know that I would have had the courage.

I arrived at Saint-Denis at last, and stumbled down the steps of the bell tower to ground level. To this day, I don’t know how I managed not to fall. Perhaps Saint Denis was watching over me, or perhaps the bells were. I felt bruised all over, half deaf, and my nose was bleeding, which was really the least of my concerns, except that a little part of me wondered if it had all been some sort of terrible dream and if so, whether I was about to find myself back in the Cathedral at Strasbourg, bleeding for the Prince of the World.

I lay down on a stone block like one of the funerary statues, and slept.

I woke up with the sun pouring in through the big rose window above me, and leapt to my feet with a gasp. I was surrounded by light and colour, by pale stone and stained glass, blue and purple and red and more blue, filling the very air with their richness. For a moment, I could do nothing but look up, and up. You must remember, I had not left my tower for many years, and while the view from my window was beautiful, it never changed. This was entirely new. I had never been anywhere so light.

I turned around, slowly, overwhelmed by the splendour of the building. All around me was beauty, the work of many hundreds of pairs of hands, each of them talented beyond measure. I felt tears in my eyes, and dashed them away. My aunt would never have approved.

My aunt –

I felt suddenly afraid. It was afternoon already, and I had lost the better part of a day.

“It’s magnificent, isn’t it?”

The man standing beside me had a kind smile, but I had to tilt my head to meet his gaze. His head, smile and all, was not attached to his neck, but instead was cradled in his arms.

“You must be Saint Denis,” I said, feeling a little taken aback.

“Just Denis, please,” the saint said. “And you must be our visitor from Strasbourg. Did you sleep well? Are you hungry?”

I blinked. “I have bread. And I slept very well, thank you. But sir, I need your help, or at least my aunt does.”

“Yes, of course. The bells told me something of it. You need to get your aunt’s hair back from the Prince of the World, I think?”

“Or just to stop her from turning into a statue,” I agreed.

Denis nodded. “That might be easier. Though it’s not so bad, being a statue.” He smiled at me. “I do miss feeding people, though. Stone statues never get hungry, unfortunately. Still, they are pleasant company.”

I didn’t quite know what to make of this, so I nodded politely. “Speaking of company, Saint Laurent sends his regards.”

Saint Denis smiled. “Is that what he actually said, or did he make a terrible joke about heads?”

I felt myself blushing, and the saint laughed. “I thought as much. That’s the drawback of being a statue. Our personalities are set in stone, as it were. Come. Let us find you a King who can help with your Prince problem.”

There are, indeed, a lot of Kings and Queens in Saint Denis’ Basilica. Saint Denis knew them all by name, of course, and could tell me their life histories. He introduced me to them one by one, with a shy sort of pride. They were, I saw, his beloved flock, and they clearly regarded him with great affection.

I told the Kings and Queens my story, and they were sympathetic.

King Clovis I spoke to first. He was the oldest King in the church, and had to speak in Latin, as the French of his time would not have been intelligible to myself or the later statues. “Your Prince of the World is after my time, I think,” he said, “But I agree that together we should be more than a match for his power.”

King Charles Martel nodded agreement. “The chief difficulty is the distance,” he said. “If the Prince of the World will not give your aunt’s hair back voluntarily, we shall have difficulty taking it from him. It’s difficult to have a tug-of-war when one cannot reach the rope.”

The Kings and Queens pondered this for a few minutes.

Queen Fredegund spoke up. Saint Denis had introduced me to her earlier, telling me briefly of her rise from slavegirl to reigning Queen, and assuring me of her reform in a manner that suggested more hope and charity on his part than true faith. “Perhaps we should look at this from another angle,” she said, sweetly. “Obviously, it would be best to retrieve your aunt’s hair from this so-called Prince, but the most important thing is to stop him from continuing to use it against her.”

The other Kings and Queens said nothing, but I sensed a wariness in their silence.

“That sounds like a very practical suggestion, Fredegund,” said Saint Denis at last. “How would you suggest doing this?”

Fredegund smiled. “If Persinette would care to press on the stone in the middle of my pendant, she will find something I set aside for just such an occasion.”

I looked at Denis uncertainly, but he nodded. I walked across and pressed on the stone in Queen Fredegund’s pendant. The stone slid aside to reveal a small alcove, containing a vial. Tentatively, I removed the lid, then replaced it hurriedly. Judging by the fumes, it was a poison strong enough to melt sandstone. There was a tense silence from the other statues.

Saint Denis sighed. “Fredegund, we have spoken of this before. It is not true repentance if you keep poisoning people.”

Fredegund was unabashed. “Obviously I repent of my previous murders. But this is different. I’m not suggesting we poison someone whose only sin was to get between me and the throne, I’m suggesting that we destroy an allegory of temptation before he murders a kind old woman, or tempts other young maidens to a stony fate.”

I couldn’t help feeling that she had a point, but Saint Denis shook his head. “Nevertheless,” he said.

King Henri IV spoke up. He was a bust only, not a full funerary statue, but he had a flirtatious gleam in his eye nonetheless, and several of the Queens smiled and blushed when he spoke. “Your concern for others is admirable, Fredegund, but I fear that there are some practical barriers that you have overlooked. How would you administer the poison? I doubt that Mademoiselle Persinette could withstand the journey back so soon after coming here, and even if she could, how could she reach the Prince of the World when he stands above the portal of the church?”

Saint Denis looked a little pained at this pragmatism, but did not comment.

Catherine de Medici smiled. “He came to her room before. I’m sure he would again, if invited. And the invitation might make him release his hold on Persinette’s aunt all the sooner.”

I shuddered. “I am not giving him more of my hair,” I said, firmly. “We have no way of knowing how the Prince of the World would use it, and if he chose not to come to my room, he would then have two of us in his power, not just one.”

Saint Denis’ head shifted in his hands, as if he would like to nod in agreement, and smiled at me approvingly.

There was silence again, as we considered the situation. I fiddled with the locket I wore around my neck, hearing again Charles Martel’s comment about distance.

“I have seven strands of my aunt’s hair,” I said, slowly. “Would that help, do you think? In this… tug of war for the rest of it?”

“Or even to break the curse,” agreed Clovis I. “If we have some of your aunt’s hair, we might be able to reach her directly to undo what the rest of her hair was used to do.”

I opened the locket, my fingers shaking with sudden hope, and then stopped. “Where should I put my aunt’s hair?” I asked.

“Give it to me,” said Clovis. “I shall reach out with it, and the others will help me.”

I hurried across, and placed the hairs in his left hand, then stepped back and waited.

“On the count of three,” said Clovis.

The hairs in his hand grew straight, and I felt a sense of tugging through the room. I clenched my fists in sudden hope. Beside me, Saint Denis prayed quietly.

The tugging sensation stopped and the hairs sprang back.

“I’m sorry,” said Clovis. His voice sounded tired. “It’s not enough. We are stronger than the Prince of the World, but seven hairs are fair weaker than a full braid. I had to let go or risk breaking them altogether.”

My shoulders slumped.

“So it’s plan B then,” said Fredegund, brightly.

“It is not plan B,” Saint Denis and I said together, and it seemed to me that her statue pouted.

“What about my hair?” I asked, suddenly. “If we braided my aunt’s hair into mine, would that give it enough strength to hold?”

“It might,” said Clovis.

I sighed a little. I was rather fond of my hair, and I was not at all sure that I had the sort of face that could compensate for the lack of its beauty. But it would grow again. And if it saved my aunt…

Best not to think about it. I sat down on the floor beside Clovis I’s tomb, and unwound my braid from its coil on top of my head. Then I took out my pen-knife, and sawed it off entirely.

Catherine de Medici sighed. “A shame. What I could have done, with hair like that.”

I swallowed a lump in my throat and began to braid my hair together with my aunt’s. My head felt oddly light without the weight of the braid.

King Henri IV laughed. “Persinette would be beautiful if she didn’t have a hair on her head. Leave her alone.”

I was pretty sure that Henri IV was the sort of man who found all women beautiful, but I still felt a bit better. I stood, and placed my braid in Clovis I’s hand.

Again, the count of 1, 2, 3…

Again the tugging…

And again the sigh as the braid snapped back.

“I’m sorry, Persinette,” said Clovis. “Your hair won’t catch your aunt’s braid properly, so it’s still the seven strands that take all the weight. If she were truly your aunt, it might be different, but…” his voice trailed off.

I turned away quickly, and bowed my head into my hands, weeping. It was one thing to cut off my hair for my aunt’s sake; another thing entirely to cut it off for nothing. And now, here I was – far from home, ugly, and about to be orphaned.

Saint Denis transferred his head to his left arm, and reached out to squeeze my shoulder with his right hand.

“You have done a good thing, Persinette, and it is not your fault that it did not work. Your aunt would be proud of you.”

Not if she saw me crying like this, she wouldn’t, I thought. Such a display, Persinette! Pull yourself together and stand up straight like a civilised woman! I hiccupped a laugh through my tears. No, my aunt would certainly not approve of this.

I shook off Saint Denis’s hand and straightened my spine, dashing my tears from my eyes.

“Madame Rohan is truly my aunt in every way that matters,” I said, firmly. “No, more than that. She is my mother and my father as well – she raised me from an infant, fed me, taught me, protected me, and was willing to give her life for me. Perhaps we do not share blood, but we have shared everything else. If my hair does not recognise hers, it is not because we are not true family.”

Saint Denis smiled a little. “’We who are many are one body in Christ, for we all share in the one bread.’ And none would dare deny that those who sup with us at the Lord’s table are our brothers and sisters in Christ. You and your aunt shared bread, did you not?”

I blinked. “Of course,” I said.

“Then surely you and your aunt are one body and one blood, for love has made it so in the sharing of the bread.”

Saint Denis laid a hand on my head in blessing, and then laid it on the plait that was draped across Clovis I’s tomb. “Try again,” he told the King. “I think you will find that it holds now.”

For a third time, I felt the tugging sensation, but this time, it was different – now the tugging seemed to come not from the air around me, but from the back of my head, as though someone was pulling hard on the braid that was no longer there. I cried out in pain, clutching my head as I felt my spine bent backwards by the fierceness of the pull.

Suddenly, something seemed to release, and I fell forward hard onto the stone tomb in front of me. My hands and knees throbbed, and I was fairly sure I had bruises on my bruises. I raised my head, slowly, gritting my teeth against the pain. It felt oddly heavy.

“Oh, well done!” said Henry IV.

“That’s done the trick,” agreed Charles Martel.

Catherine de Medici shook her head. “My dear, you are going to have to do something about your hair. You can’t possibly wear it like that.”

Fredegund grumbled. “I still think we should have dealt with that Prince my way. Who will stop him from preying on other girls?”

I got stiffly to my feet. My hands and knees were bleeding, and I rather thought my left knee was sprained. It was going to be a long walk back to Strasbourg.

I nearly tripped over my own hair.

I blinked down at it in surprise. My hair, before I had cut it, had been long enough to sit on, and golden, like my mother’s. And it still was… to a point.

I brought my braid around to look at more closely, my fingers running over the place where it should have stopped, but didn’t. The plait reversed, suddenly, but more dramatic than that was the change in colour. Where the hair above my hips was still the yellow gold of ripe wheat, the hair below it was dark brown and streaked through with silver.

It was my aunt’s hair. Except that now, it seemed to be attached to my head. And added to my own hair, it reached the floor, and even trailed a little behind me.

Catherine de Medici was right. I really couldn’t wear it like this. But that was a problem for later.

I turned to Saint Denis. “Thank you,” I said, and then turned around to include all the Kings and Queens of the Basilica in my gesture. “Thank you, all of you, for your help. I can’t thank you enough.  You have saved my aunt’s life, I am sure of it.”

Saint Denis smiled. “I am sure of it too. But we can ask the bells to send a message, if you would like.”

“I would like that very much,” I admitted. I looked down at my strange, three-coloured hair again. “I suppose I had better do something about this. It’s a little… distinctive.”

I reached for my scissors again, but Saint Denis put out a hand to forestall me.

“Leave it as it is,” he said. “I think you’ll find that it is better this way.”

This seemed unlikely. “Better how?” I asked.

He smiled again, shifting his head to his other arm. “Family goes both ways,” he said. “When you claimed your aunt as your flesh and blood by the bonds of love, she claimed you in return – you could not have saved her otherwise. And just as your shared love won your aunt her freedom from the Prince of the World, so too it won freedom for you, from the illnesses that have plagued you. Your frailty, your heart that would not always beat as it should, those came from the man who fathered you and the woman who bore you. But you are Madame Rohan’s daughter now, and there are no heart ailments in Madame Rohan’s family.”

I blinked at the saint in confusion. “And… what has my aunt’s hair to do with this?” I asked.

Saint Denis shrugged. “Perhaps nothing. But I would not cut it off just yet. If nothing else, it’s a powerful symbol of who you are now. You might find you want the reminder.”

I couldn’t think of a reply to that, but I put the scissors away in my pack, and began to loop my hair up out of the way, amidst commentary from several of the Queens.

“Thank you again,” I said, to Denis and the Kings and Queens. “I don’t have the words to thank you for what you’ve done for me, and I don’t know what I can do for you in return. But if there is ever something I can do to help you, send me a message by the bells of Strasbourg.”

I took a deep breath, and shouldered my pack. I would need to find somewhere to spend the night, and a good sturdy stick to lean on, with this knee. A bath would be lovely, too, and some supper…

“It was our pleasure,” said Saint Denis. “To tell the truth, it can get a little dull here, for all of us. It’s nice to be able to do something useful, from time to time.”

“I shall be sure to send anyone suffering from statue problems in your direction,” I told them, and Henri IV and Charles Martel laughed.

Everything went quite easily after that. The bells of Saint-Denis offered to send me home, but to tell the truth, I had no desire to travel in such a fashion again. Since I was now in good health, and my aunt was also well again, I would rather walk back to Strasbourg.

Saint Denis walked me to the door of the Basilica. “Travel safely,” he said. “And greet Saint Laurent from me. It’s been far too long since we last broke bread together.”

I looked at him askance. “I thought you said statues didn’t eat?”

Saint Denis smiled shyly. “Well, there’s always stone soup.”

I had the feeling that he’d been brewing up that one for nearly as long as Saint Laurent had been dreaming up the joke about heads.

It was my first time out in the world, and in any case, my sprained knee would not permit haste. I decided to take advantage of this opportunity, and turned my journey home into something of a holiday. I travelled slowly from town to town, visiting churches and bells and market squares along the way. Once my knee improved, I occasionally stopped for several nights in the same town, taking long walks by day to explore the forest paths or fish in the rivers.

As the nights grew colder, I learned to knock on the doors of the larger farmhouses, and offer my services as an apothecary. With winter approaching, many housewives were very pleased to have me brew up remedies for common complaints, in return for a bed by the fire and food for my journey. Occasionally, a farmer would let me travel on his cart to the next village.

In Champagne, I met a handsome young cellist. He teased me, and flirted with me, and soon flirting turned to kisses, and kisses to even more enjoyable pastimes. We travelled together for a fortnight, playing and singing together in inns in exchange for our board and lodging, and parted as friends just outside Nancy.

I always did have a weakness for cellists.

I arrived home from my journey some three months after I left. My aunt was not best pleased to find me late, and with child, but her joy at seeing me again was greater than her disapproval. And she doted on the twins.

The bells were less happy with me. I had not known that they could be jealous. For the first few nights after I returned, their evening peals pounded through me with such force that I cried out with the pleasure and pain of it. But they, too, forgave me.

They could not give me children, you see.

Yes, that is my son who plays the cello outside the Cathedral on sunny days. He takes after his father. The bells and I are very proud of him.

My daughter? Ah, she apprenticed with my aunt, and became one of the greatest apothecaries in all Alsace. She moved to Nancy with her husband, but she has made friends with the bells there, and we speak nearly every day.

I still live in my tower, of course, though I come down into Strasbourg during the day, to meet with my friends and to run my shop. Saint Denis was right about my health – I never had problems with my heart again, nor have I caught so much as a catarrh in the last five decades.

There is no real reason why I should stay in my tower.

Well, there is one reason. Saint Denis would tell you that it is the best reason of all.


I would not want to move far from my bells.

I know that’s not why you came to me. But you need to be patient. We old women have our stories to tell too, as much as you young ones do. More stories, really. We’ve lived longer, after all.

And you needed to hear the truth before you chose.

When you visit the fairy godmother, you expect to become part of a fairy tale. You expect magic, and handsome princes and happy endings.

But fairy tales do not always happen in the way that you expect.

Sometimes, the witch is the beloved foster mother.

Sometimes, the handsome prince is the villain.

Sometimes, there is no wedding, and the maiden returns to her high tower above Strasbourg, to live out her life there, with the bells and her children for company.

Sometimes, that is the happiest ending possible.

But sometimes, the ending is not happy.

Sometimes, the bells fall silent too soon.

Sometimes the quest ends with an empty tower and a maiden encased in stone.

Sometimes, it is the witch who is transformed. There are wise maidens as well as foolish ones on the right portal of Strasbourg Cathedral. Did you never wonder where they came from?

This story has happened before.

So has yours.

I can help you find its beginning, but you are the only one who can write what follows.

How will your story end?



Strasbourg–Saint-Denis can be found in the 2nd arondissement, on the corner of the Rue Saint-Denis and the Boulevard de Strasbourg.  It sits at the north-east edge of the 2nd, bordering the 3rd and the 10th arondissements, and is not far from the Canal Saint-Martin.  The first metro station on this site opened in 1908, serving line 4 and was originally named Boulevard Saint-Denis.  In the early 1930s, it expanded to serve lines 8 and 9, and gained its current name.  Saint-Denis is of course the patron saint of France (whom we have met before); the Boulevard de Strasbourg is so called because it runs to the Gare de l’Est, from which the trains to Strasbourg depart.

I decided to set this story in Strasbourg rather in Paris, mostly because I recently spent three days in Strasbourg, and was miserably ill for the entire time.  So I spent a rather wistful long weekend in a little room on the top floor of the Hôtel de Rohan, right opposite the Strasbourg Cathedral, feeling very sorry for myself and dreaming extremely strange fever-dreams about the bells (which really did feel as though they were in my room).

I think it’s pretty obvious how this story evolved, really.

(I will say, despite hardly seeing any of Strasbourg at all, I fell instantly in love with it.  And, of all the hotels in Europe that I was sick in – which was most of them! – my hotel in Strasbourg was by far the nicest.  If I opened the window, I could lie in bed and be entertained by the musicians in the street below, and listen to all the people passing by and having loud conversations in French or German or English, and it felt remarkably cosy and homely and not at all lonely.  But if you are ever in Strasbourg, you should probably know that voices carry really well on those narrow streets, and sometimes the person in the room above you speaks French and German and English and is a nosy, eavesdropping person.  So don’t tell secrets on the streets of Strasbourg.)

As for my characters, Persinette is the French precursor to the Rapunzel story, written down by Charlotte Rose de la Force.  Her story is much the same as Rapunzel’s, except that it was parsley, not rampion, that her mother craved, and and her tower seems to have been even more lavish than mine.

The Prince of the World is a real statue, representing the temptation of worldly things, and was apparently a fairly popular mythical figure in medieval Alsace.  He is very handsome at the front, but his back is made of snakes and toads and other unpleasant things, and he seemed like a likely villain for my story.  The right portal on the western facade of Strasbourg Cathedral features a statue of him alongside the three foolish virgins from the parable in Matthew.  Opposite them stands the Bridegroom with three wise virgins (there should really be ten virgins in total, five wise and five foolish, but presumably there was not enough room for this).

Saint Laurent (Saint Lawrence in English) was a Roman saint who was martyred by being grilled to death on a grid-iron in 258 AD.  He is reputed to have called out, partway through the proceedings ‘Turn me over, I’m done on this side’, and  is clearly the type to tell dad jokes.  He can be found, grid-iron and all, on the north transept of Strasbourg Cathedral (which I should probably call Nôtre Dame de Strasbourg).

Saint Denis was a Greek saint, who came to France to convert the Franks, and was martyred by beheading, also in around 258 AD.  I have no idea whether he and Saint Laurent would have known each other – likely not – but they were contemporaries, so perhaps they had at least heard of one another.  Saint Denis, or at least my version of him, appears in another story of mine, Saint Denis and the Basil, in his pre-martyred state.  And this is probably the point where I should apologise if my theology in this story verges on the blasphemous again.  That’s certainly not my intention, but it’s difficult to write a story with both magic and miracles in it.  They clash, rather.

The Basilica of Saint Denis can be found just north of Paris, in the suburb called Saint-Denis.  It is known for its extensive collection of funerary statues – more than 80 Kings, Queens and Princes of France are buried there, with the oldest being Clovis I, who died in 511.  I don’t know a great deal about Clovis I or Charles Martel, but Henri IV is one of France’s more famous Kings – the husband of Queen Margot, the founder of the Bourbon dynasty, and France’s first Protestant King (sometimes.  He converted and deconverted to Catholicism more than once).  He was also known for being very charismatic, and something of a ladies’ man.

I didn’t want Persinette to speak only to Kings, so I decided to randomly look up a Queen or two, and struck gold with Fredegund.  Sold into slavery, she seduced King Chilperic, convinced him to put aside his Queen, and when he married someone else instead, she murdered her.  And then married Chilperic, who may well have been too frightened to say no at this point.  Having made the leap from slavegirl to Queen in a mere 18 months, she commenced a career that was notable for finding creative ways of killing people.  You can read more about her here.  She was not a nice person, but she is certainly a memorable one.

Catherine de Medici was the wife of Henri II, the mother of Francis II, Charles IX and Henri III, and the mother-in-law of Henri IV (so we are back in the world of Queen Margot here).  Her political influence was considerable, particularly after the death of her husband, and she was rumoured to have been involved in the occult.  Many contemporaries held her responsible for the Saint Bartholemew Day Massacre; modern historians seem to be divided on her complicity.

All but two photographs above are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  The image of parsley is by Forest and Kim Starr.  The first photograph of the bells of Strasbourg Cathedral are by Claude Truong-Ngoc.  The photograph of the Prince of the World with three Foolish Maidens is by Coyau.  The photograph of Saint-Laurent is by Ralph Hammann.  The larger photograph of the bell is by Paralacre.  The photograph of Saint Denis is by Thesupermat, and is actually from Notre Dame de Paris (the Basilica of Saint-Denis has statues of Saint-Denis, but they are more action shots).  The photo of Clovis I is by Arnaud 25.

The other photographs are my own work.


Réaumur–Sebastopol Strasbourg–Saint-Denis Château d’Eau
Bonne Nouvelle fleur12left Strasbourg–Saint-Denis fleur12right République
Bonne Nouvelle Strasbourg–Saint-Denis République

2 thoughts on “Strasbourg–Saint Denis

  1. Christine Forber

    1. I love the idea of a website badassoftheweek!!
    2. Great story. Wonderful how you turned the traditional fairy tale on its head.
    3. Cool to be able to include your own pictures.


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