Once upon a time, in a distant land, there was a queen — Queen Beyaz by name. She was a good queen, and we know that because she always wore white. Good queens wear white. Bad queens wear black. Or red. Or green, at a stretch. But this queen would never think of wearing anything but white.
And everything around her was white, too, just to make sure that people knew she was a good queen. So she had a white palace, with white walls and floors and ceilings and furniture — a devil to keep clean, but it was a price Queen Beyaz was willing to pay to keep up appearances.
When she needed to get about, she had a white horse, a mare, whose name was Bianca, because in Italian that means ‘white’. The mystery was why she was called by an Italian name at all when it wasn’t the official language of this queendom, but that’s a mystery for another day. Suffice it to say that Bianca was the Queen’s best friend, and vice-versa.
Everyone in this land was happy because they had a good queen (as I’ve already said) and were prosperous. The soil was rich, so they grew the best veg on the whole continent. And the country’s craftspeople were the most eminently skilled in the world, meaning that exports of high-end products like saddles, swords and fine, bone toothpicks helped the local economy thrive, and then some.
But as it so often does with idylls, something happened that put the kibosh on it all. In this story, what happened was an evil king: King Kötü. And we know he was evil because, well, clothes not only maketh the woman, they also maketh the man. He wore tunics that were striped — black, red and green; a horrible mixture of colours for a horrible man with very little dress sense. Apart from that, what made him so bad? I’ll tell you.
He was rude. And he was greedy. And he was extremely cruel. Oh, and he smelled awful, but no one could tell him that because if they tried, or if they merely whispered it to a friend and the king got wind of it, he’d have their heads cut off, just for starters. That’s right: he’d cut their heads off, then torture them. He wasn’t very bright actually, this king.
Did I mention that he was greedy? He wanted it all, and he wanted it as near to now as possible, the ‘it’ being territory. He’d been eyeing up Queen Beyaz’s lands for ages and was waiting for the right moment to invade, which came one winter. Almost to a man, the Queen’s forces went down with heavy seasonal colds and were were abed with a hot water-bottle for their feet when King Kötü’s hordes swept across the border. It was a cinch.
Queen Beyaz — who never caught colds owing to her exemplary diet and litres a day of lemon and garlic tea, which also kept suitors away — fled on Bianca, along with a handful of those faithful servants and guards who somehow didn’t have colds either.
When King Kötü found out that Queen Beyaz had escaped his evil clutches — and they were very evil clutches indeed — he was sorely miffed and, par for the course, had half a dozen of the Queen’s entirely innocent subjects beheaded, then tortured. Of course, none of them talked, so he summoned an old woman that sold flowers on the steps of the White Palace and was known to be abreast of all the gossip.
She loved the Queen and refused to tell Kötü where she’d gone. In a moment of inspiration, the King decided not to behead and torture her and instead offered her a gold coin, which was worth three times what she would earn in a lifetime. She sang like a canary.
Queen Beyaz was headed towards the port, with the hope of sailing to a safe haven somewhere. Unfortunately, Bianca wasn’t the swiftest of steeds, and King Kötü caught the fleeing party up in no time, cutting off their route to the port.
So it came down to a stand-off on the beach. With her back to the sea, brave Queen Beyaz and her faithful entourage, who were, it must be said, quivering in their boots. On the land-side, King Kötü and his mighty army, or at least those soldiers that hadn’t stayed behind in the capital to pillage — you don’t get the chance of a good pillage every day of the week, after all. Whatever, just for a change, Good was heavily outnumbered by Bad.
Weighing up her chances of escape, the Queen realised they were slimmer than one of those indigenous bone toothpicks. She was well aware of how legends are made, and she decided there and then that a future legend was what she wanted to be. She stood up in her stirrups (which made Bianca whinny something rotten — you’ve no idea how that can hurt) and addressed her country-folk.
“Are you with me, men?!”
“We are, Your Highness!” came the full-throated response.
In fact, they were all mouth and trousers, her men. Erroneously confident of their bravery and devotion, Queen Beyaz reined Bianca round 180 degrees, dug her spurs in and held on as the horse, whinnying wildly again — those spurs … ouch! — charged into the sea.
The members of the entourage looked on as Bianca and their Queen splashed further and further out. There was no way they were following; they were faithful but not stupid, and would rather take their chances with King Kötü’s mercy than face certain death by drowning — a particularly nasty way to go.
The water came up to Bianca’s fetlocks, then up to the Queen’s feet, then up to the saddle. Beyaz slipped regally from Bianca’s back and was the first to disappear into the depths, weighed down by her overly-ostentatious armour; she was a good queen but a bit of a show-off, if the truth be told.
The horse appeared to be treading water — a neat trick she learned on the spot — but finally succumbed. The last thing the onlookers saw was Bianca’s white mane in the churning waters, almost indistinguishable from the crests of the waves, breaking in the sharp wind that had just begun to blow up.
Feeling pleased with himself, King Kötü did in fact show the Queen’s subjects mercy, which made his soldiers think that he might have gone a bit soft. Indeed, the moment was the seed of his downfall; from that day on he was no longer seen as a figure that inspired awe, and within a month, the captain of the guard would stick a pike through him and assume the throne.
But what of Queen Beyaz and the trusty Bianca? Well they perished, of course — it’s scientifically impossible for a human being or a horse to be submerged in water for any length of time and survive — although the legendary status that the Queen sought was assured. Kind of.
The scene gave rise to a popular saying in the now-kingdom’s native language which, roughly translated, went: ‘You may lead … but the others may not follow’. Not exactly the glowing legacy Queen Beyaz had envisioned that day on the beach of her demise.
No, it was Bianca that lived on in a less negative way, albeit anonymously, her noble end remembered in the kingdom and beyond through the name for those white-topped waves you get out at sea.
Not ‘Biancas’, sadly for her memory, but perhaps the next best thing.