Long ago, at the eastern edge of the world, two princesses lived in a beautiful palace surrounded by an exquisite garden. One of the sisters delighted in the sunshine, the flowers, the birds, but the other sister was drawn to black magic and the darker side of life.
When they grew older, the king presented his joyful daughter with his most precious jewel, a heart-shaped ruby. Her sister became enraged with envy, and one day she stole her sister's jewel and disappeared.
Soon afterward, the palace and all the land surrounding it were draped in a dense black fog. The birds stopped singing; the forest animals fell into a silent sleep. The sunlight could not pierce the thick clouds that hung over the land, and the flowers in the garden lay their heads upon the ground as if they too would sleep. The joyous girl, sitting amidst her flowers, began to weep, but soon she too was fast asleep.
No one knew how long the sleep that was like death lasted, but suddenly one night, a streak of light burst across the sky and through the dark clouds. The streak touched down upon the ground in the midst of the princess's garden. When it landed, the stars began to glow again, and the princess opened her eyes and looked up at the creature that now stood beside her.
It was the Firebird, the most dazzling creature in all the world, with feathers that shone as brightly as a thousand suns and crystal eyes sparkling with blazing light. The princess knew at once that this was the creature that brought life to the world, and on the Firebird's back sat a handsome prince.
The moment they landed, the man jumped from the Firebird's back, and the bird again rose into the air, blazing through the clouds. One of its glistening feathers drifted to the ground and landed amidst the flowers, but the prince and princess paid no attention to the flowers, for they had fallen in love.
When the Firebird vanished, the clouds parted and the gloom drifted away. The sky turned rose, then golden, and the birds woke to greet the new dawn. Soon all the animals lifted their heads from their long sleep and began to roam the land. Joy was everywhere.
The prince and the princess spent the whole golden day together, but just as the sun began to set, the prince turned white as a ghost and fell to the ground, dead.
The princess wept over her beloved, and in her despair began to wander aimlessly through her garden. Suddenly the gleaming Firebird's feather caught her eye. She picked it up, and when her warm hands touched that magical feather, she heard wings fanning overhead and the garden was bathed with brilliant light. The great bird returned, and he motioned with his fabulous head for the princess to climb upon his back. And so she did.
With the princess sitting comfortably between his great wings, the Firebird soared into the sky. Higher and higher they flew, the bird's wings beating steadily as they crossed mountains and rivers and valleys. After many hours the princess looked down and saw a landscape of dark canyons. Here the Firebird swooped to earth again, landing at the foot of a terrifying cliff. The bird bent his head, showing the princess a cave.
She climbed off the Firebird's back and peered inside the cave. There she saw a woman dressed in black sitting over a fire where a cauldron boiled. The woman was chanting a haunting melody, and when the princess heard her voice, all the memories of her long-ago life returned, and she knew this was her sister. She also knew that it was her sister who had cast the spell of sleep over the land.
The princess ran into the cave, the Firebird's glittering eyes lighting her way. She kicked the cauldron from the fire, and the heart-shaped ruby sprang from the liquid as she did. The princess caught the jewel, and when she did, her sister screamed and disappeared.
The princess ran outside and settled herself upon the Firebird's feathery back. They swept into the sky and flew faster than the wind back to the palace.
When they landed, the princess ran to her beloved and lay the jewel upon his breast. When she did, he awoke, and the Firebird, having saved the land, flew off into the sky, soaring and tumbling like the brightest of stars.
And so it was that once again the dazzling Firebird, who has always carried the fire of the heavens and who watches over all mortals, helped to return precious life to a dark and weary world.
The second book collection of wonderful tales from "Tell Me a Story" is available for $14.95, plus $2 for postage and handling. Send your orders to "The Spectacular Gift," in care of Andrews & McMeel, P.O. Box 419242, Kansas City, Mo. 64141; or call (800) 642-6480. Be sure to indicate your newspaper's name on your order. Allow three to four weeks for delivery.