Once upon a time there was a king who had four sons. The sons’ lives were ill-fated: one died of illness, another fell to his death from a tower, and a third was killed in battle. Then there was only one son left to succeed his father. The last young prince was a sickly boy, and doctors warned the king that his son’s heart might not be strong enough to let him live to be king.
This was a tragedy, not only for the king and queen who loved their last little boy dearly, but for the whole kingdom. Without a clear succession, many feared it would once again be racked by civil war. So the king offered the highest reward for anyone who could save the prince’s life.
Scores of healers and magicians made their way to the castle, but all the herbal droughts and magic amulets did not make the young prince any better. Indeed, he grew weaker by the day. So when at last a man came along and proposed a radical solution, the desperate king and queen were willing to listen.
The man who called himself the magister said he would take the prince away to heal. And as the problem was the boy’s heart, a band of iron would be set around it to make him strong. This had worked well on many a sickly boy, the magister said, indicating the hearty adolescents in his company. The king was impressed with the lads, with their mature and resolute air. Such a lad could well succeed to the kingship, he thought.
The queen did not want to part with her precious little boy, but the magister was persuasive. The young prince needed to be away from the restrictive castle atmosphere and the nurses’ coddling, to play and be educated amongst other boys of his own age. A boy who would one day be king, he said, must needs let go of his mother’s skirts one day. The prince would be in the very best hands and the iron band around his heart would make him strong. Reluctantly, the king and queen agreed to let the magister take the prince away.
The prince thrived, or so the magister’s reports told the king and queen. And once the boy had mastered his letters, his tales of sport and play warmed his parents’ hearts. As the king’s son and heir had been sent away, many noblemen’s sons were sent likewise. And their letters too told of sport and play, of lessons and rewards.
Now and then, the prince was sent back to the castle to visit so his parents could assess his progress. The queen would cry a little when he came, and more when he left again, but the king would always remind her it was all for the prince’s own good.
The years went by, and at last the prince returned for good. He was tall and strong now, fearless and resolute. But the queen found it hard to recognise the son she had sent away all those years ago, and she grieved for the little boy she had lost.
As the king grew older, the prince took on many responsibilities, and finally became king himself. He fulfilled his promise and became a strong leader, though he had little time for those who were weak or poor. Away from home he had known only the company of noblemen’s sons: now he knew little of ordinary people’s lives, and cared less.
When the young king in turn had sons, he too sent them away, and had an iron band set around their hearts to make them strong. His aging mother protested, surely they were healthy enough and didn’t need it. But her son only laughed: it never did me any harm, did it? So it became the fashion, and all the noblemen’s sons were sent away, and soon the daughters too. And an iron band was set around their hearts to make them strong.
For most of the children it seemed to work: they became resourceful and independent, if a little distant, a little cold. But some had their spirits crushed by the iron band: they died or left the kingdom, never to return. These were the weaklings, it was said, and the kingdom was better off without them.
Over the years, the kingdom changed. There had been greed and nepotism before, but there had also been laughter and music. Now the rulers had only cold disdain for all who were not of their kind, laughter was mockery or icy ridicule, and the music died away. The land became the Iron Kingdom, ruled by people with iron in their hearts.
But for those who fled, there was a signpost behind the pass leading out of the kingdom. It showed the way to a forge by a river where a smith with a crinkly smile would receive the traveller kindly. If they had that look of cold despair, he would offer to remove the iron band. “Can you do that?” they would ask in disbelief. “It will hurt,” the smith would say gravely, “but it can be done.”
Once the operation is over and the traveller is up and about again, they walk by the river. And soon they sit down, and the tears start to flow. Suddenly, they can hear the sweet gurgle of the river, the singing of the birds, and the shepherd’s pipe. For with an iron band around your heart, you cannot cry. And without tears, there can be no music, no laughter, and no love.
When the traveller sets off again there is still pain, but there is also hope. With heartfelt thanks the traveller takes leave of the smith, offering payment. The smith waves it away. “I was once like you,” he says, and shows his scars.
As the traveller leaves they exchange a smile of kinship: the kinship born of shared pain, which, eternal or fleeting, runs deeper than that of blood.