Once upon a time, there was a princess who lived at the top of a tall tower made of stone with one wide window that looked over a barren, wasted land that stretched as far as the eye could see. There were no stairs in the tower and no doors, for the princess lived under a strange doom - she was cursed to live locked away in her tall tower until someone came who knew the secret of the tower, and when they spoke the secret, the tower would melt away and she would be free.
Many princes came, riding their destriers across the barren land, caparisoned and proud of their strength-at-arms and their glory. She would watch them riding towards her for days and her heart would fill with hope that this one, this one, would be the one who knew the secret. Then they would ride to the foot of the tower and they would decry what they thought the secret was - and they would ride away empty-handed and her tears would fall from the tower-top like rain behind them and her heart would grow again as stony in despair as the land that stretched as far as her eyes could see.
Many princes came because there was a rumour that the tower contained treasures beyond imagining, that when it melted dragon hoards of gold and jewels would spill across the land, that magic spells of infinite power would be theirs, that something precious was held within the tower.
Many princes came because the princess was more than passing fair and they wished her for their trophy bride.
Many princes rode away with nothing more than they came with and they soon forgot the princess whose eyes bled tears like rain.
She was very lonely.
She sat one day in her tower, her sighs stirring small breezes in the near-empty room and she tried to remember when she had not been a prisoner. She knew there had been such a time, that she had run through fields of flowers when she was little and that someone once had loved her and kissed her, but she could remember nothing else. Nothing but the loneliness. It had been a long time since a prince had ridden across the land to her tower.
'M'lady,' said a voice from below her window and she was so affrighted she nearly fell from her chair. She had seen no-one crossing the plain.
But when she looked down out of her window a man stood there, clad all in dusty brown and black so he seemed almost to melt into the barren land and his worn boots showed that he had walked all the way to her tower.
'You are a prince?' asked the princess, her heart still racing from her fright.
He bowed, a deep and graceful bow. 'No prince, m'lady,' he replied, and a half-smile touched his face.
'No prince,' she repeated. 'Then what are you?'
'A thief, m'lady,' he responded and his broad smile suddenly glowed like the sun.
'What do you come to steal here?' asked the princess. 'The land is barren and there is nothing here but this tall tower that has no doors.'
The thief leaned gently against the staff he carried. 'I had heard that there were precious things to be had within this tower, m'lady,' he replied.
She sighed. 'There may be precious things,' she said. 'But this tower cannot be breached until someone names the secret of the tower and releases me from the curse that holds me here.'
'So it is true,' the thief said, looking up at the princess, whose face was wan but still as fair as morning. 'The man who talked of precious things told me that a princess waited in a tall tower without doors in a barren land for someone to come and tell her the secret of her imprisonment and set her free. I have travelled far to find you, m'lady, and I wish to set you free.'
She looked down upon the handsome thief and allowed a small glimmer of hope to grow in her heart. 'Do you know the secret, thief?' she asked.
His smile slipped from his face and his mien was grave as he asked, 'Do you know the secret, m'lady?'
Her tears were silent but fell about him like rain from the tall tower-top as she wailed, 'I don't know the secret, I don't remember it, no-one knows the secret and I shall never be free. I long to be free, thief, to escape my tower and my barren land and see the flowers again.'
He felt her tears strike him, slide runnels through the dust that coated him. Softly, he said, 'M'lady, I am a thief. But more than just a thief, m'lady, I am the best thief in all the world. I can steal anything from anywhere. I have stolen the light from the moon, the eyes from a dragon, a kiss from a mermaid. And I have stolen your secret.'
Her tears stopped and she smiled, and it was like the sun breaking free of the clouds. 'You know the secret of the tower?' she asked, and hope ached in her voice.
'I do,' he replied, his voice gravely courteous. 'The secret of the tower, m'lady, is that you built it.'
Her eyes were wide and startled as a fawn's as she looked down on him and breathed, 'I built the tower that has trapped me in my loneliness?'
'You did, m'lady,' confirmed the thief. 'You were young and you were hurt by love, your magic burning the life from the one you loved and kissed, and you thought that you must never hurt another. Such is the magic in your bones, m'lady, that you built this tower and this barren land and took yourself into utter aloneness until one could come and remember this for you.'
Memory and wonder dawned in her eyes as she looked at the thief. 'I remember,' she breathed, 'I remember,' and the tower melted around her like the walls of dreams until she stood before the thief and around their feet, where her unnumbered tears had fallen, flowers sprang from the soil and furled outwards until the barren land was blanketed in blooms.
'I was hurt in love,' she said. 'I loved a boy and kissed him and he died because the magic in my bones burned him away. And so I built myself a tower in a barren land and made myself alone and made myself forget until one came who knew my secret and could release me. You have set me free, thief,' she said, and her eyes shone like the stars.
'Free forever, m'lady,' replied the thief. 'For you built the tower with your magic and have learned to shape it and control it thus. You are free to live and love again, m'lady.'
She smiled at him, the thief who set her free. 'Do you still seek precious things, thief?' she asked. 'I built my tower with precious things and magic spells of great power. Do you still desire such treasures?'
The thief bowed low. 'The joy is in the taking, not the having, m'lady,' he replied. 'I need no treasure from the tower.'
She smiled at him, a smile that dazzled, and reached out her hand and cupped his cheek and saw that he was not burned by her touch.
The thief, who was the best thief in the world and thus knew the value of all things, smiled back at the princess and knew that he needed no precious things from the tower, for he had already stolen the greatest treasure that had been within - for he knew he had stolen her heart.
Once there was a princess in a tall tower with no doors that she built to contain her magic, but that trapped her in her aloneness. She was set free by a thief who stole her heart and knew it was the most precious thing he had ever held and treated it accordingly.
And, as is the way in such things, they lived happily ever after.