Two books stood side by side on the library shelf, The Staunch Soldier and The Laughing Princess.
A class of children pushed into the room. 'Hey, cool! Look! There’s new games on the computers,' called one. The others swarmed over to the machines, greedy for turns, and knocked the Soldier and the Princess clean off the shelf.
The Staunch Soldier and The Laughing Princess were the oldest books in the library. They had been delivered on the same day years ago, all glossy and gleaming, as fresh as the ink they were printed with.
The Soldier had gazed at the Princess. He was dazzled by her brilliant emerald eyes as they danced and dazzled across the illustrations which were sandwiched among her thick creamy pages.
And the Princess had marvelled back at the cool powerful image of the Soldier boldly imprinted on his cover.
But a book is more than its cover. These two told fabulous stories as well. Over the years they became the most popular books in the library, the targets of heavy borrowing. Their stories passed down generations of readers, touching the lives of as many as had ears to hear and hearts open to receive them.
Most of all, though, the books shared their stories with each other.
The Soldier learned that beneath her gorgeous cover the Princess was as kind as she was funny. Her story told of love and laughter. It had the power to brighten and lighten lives even the sickest and the loneliest. That was the true beauty of the Princess, the Soldier thought.
The Princess in turn learned that the Soldier was not just a handsome face on a cover. His story told of loyalty and valour. He used his strength and might to stand up for little people people who were being bullied or pushed around. He was staunch. That was his truth.
The Princess and the Soldier had shared their stories for so many years now that they could scarcely remember where one’s ended and the other’s began. They had reached the stage where they could finish each other’s sentences.
But now BLAT! SMACK! They were tossed rudely apart and dashed to the library floor.
The class leapt and shouted around the computers.
'Give me a go!'
'No way! You give me a go!'
'Get out! It’s my turn. Otherwise I'll have to get a boring old book.'
'Are they saying that we've passed our use-by date?' The Princess was astonished.
'I have heard people say that books will become obsolete,' the Soldier replied slowly.
'Obsolete, shmobsolete,' whirred a Computer. 'People who can’t read can’t use me. Besides, people need stories. Always have, always will. Even I know that, unreliable piece of machinery that I am.'
The Librarian stooped to pick up the Laughing Princess and the Staunch Soldier. 'Oh dear. You two are looking the worse for wear,' he said. 'Perhaps it’s time I retired you down to stack. Or maybe I should put you out in the withdrawn pile. Somebody might like to buy you since nobody seems to want to borrow you.'
The books' pages crackled as if they were being scrunched and torn. 'Oh no. Please no. If that happens we would never see each other again,' they rustled.
A boy ran back to the Librarian. 'I can’t get on a computer. They're all taken. I suppose I might as well take this old Soldier book out. It’s nonfiction so at least it’s true.'
A girl ran up and snatched the Princess. 'And I'll take this one. I can’t get on a computer either. Oh, it’s a fairy tale. Isn’t fiction true then?'
'Course not. Dontchoo know anything?' sneered the boy. 'Fiction’s only makeup and pretend.'
'Don’t take any notice,' the Soldier whispered to the Princess. 'Beauty is truth and your story is beautiful. you’re every bit as real and true as me.'
'Truth is beauty too,' said the Princess. 'And you are staunch and true. But at least we're not to be sold. It’s only goodbye for a while.'
'I'll see you in Returns,' called the Soldier as he was carried away. 'Till then, adieu.'
'Three weeks from today,' smiled the Princess.
'Take care of those old books,' the Librarian called as the children ran off.
But the girl dropped the Princess and left her behind on the bus. She lay forgotten in the dirt under the seat till the driver happened on her. He took her home to his wife who only liked watching TV. 'This old book is filthy,' she said. 'I’m not having it in my house. you’ll have to burn it.'
'I’m not burning any books,' said the Driver. 'There’s trouble follows when people burn books. That’s a fact. Big trouble.' And he put the Princess out for the used goods collection instead.
The boy took his book home but he preferred playing electronic games to reading so he used the Staunch Soldier to prop his window open instead until one day the Soldier fell out into the street and was picked up by the collectors too.
Down at the used goods depot the Soldier and the Princess stood face to face again. Now their jackets were dull and dirty, their pages worn and torn.
'Nobody will want these,' said the Sorter. 'I'll put them out for recycling.'
The Princess’s endpapers curled with fear at the thought of being crushed to pulp. But she continued to perch on her ragged spine, smiling bravely to brighten the Soldier. He too stood dauntless in his tattered cover, and the sight of him strengthened her.
'Remember, whatever happens, nothing can ever take away the truth of our stories,' his pages whispered.
'And our truth is our beauty,' she rustled back. 'Our voices will live on.'
The Carter came by to haul the leftovers away. It was the school holidays and he had his daughter Alice in the cab of his truck. Alice was going to be a writer when she grew up and already she had the gift. She could hear the true clear voices of good books anywhere, no matter the state of their covers.
'Listen to you,' she said to the Soldier and the Princess as she flicked through their pages. 'Your stories of courage and laughter are ringing and singing with the echoes of all of the greatest tales that have ever been told. Your voices must never be silenced. Come home with me. One day I am going to tell stories of my own but for now, while I’m learning, I must fill my eyes and ears with the secrets of great books like you.'
She carried them home close to her heart and set them down on the kitchen table. Patiently she glued and taped and repaired them, cleaning and strengthening their covers until they gleamed back at her, as fresh as the day they were published.
Alice read the books aloud to herself at night, then slept with them under her pillow so their tales of daring deeds and hard-won happy endings brimmed up and over their pages and into her dreams.
By day she wove their beauty and truths into fresh enchanting tales of her own, the old computer her father brought back from the depot whirring and clicking as it faithfully recorded them for books and for e-publication, for video and radio.
By the time she grew up Alice’s stories were already reaching around the world. They too became part of that chorus of great tales that would echo down the ages long after she stopped telling them.
But she never forgot her old friends. 'The Laughing Princess and The Staunch Soldier are my wellspring,' she would tell reporters. 'They are where my stories began.'
And the Princess and the Soldier lived happily ever after, side by side on a shelf carved specially for them, whispering their secrets and sharing their truths with anyone with ears to hear and hearts open wide enough to receive them.
© Sue Devereux
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