Prologue

Listen carefully, my child, for I must speak quickly and quietly, and there isn’t time to slow down or repeat my words, and I have much to tell you.

When it grows dark after sunset and before the moon rises, run silently toward that bolder against the mountain’s foot and slip around the left side. Behind it, you will find a narrow passage that leads into the hills. Of all who remember it, I am the last and if we are not caught, they will never know it is there.

The path through the canyon is flat and smooth so walk quickly along it. Don’t look back or wait for me – if I am delayed, I will catch up to you when I can, and it is important that you keep moving in case they notice us and follow.

By the time the moon has risen, the path will lead you to the great fall and there it will seem to end. Stay to the left and be careful as you pick your way along the rocks for they are slippery. Behind the fall is a cave where you can rest for the night. It will be cold, which is why I bundled you up so warmly. You can eat a little of the food that I hid in your pockets, but not too much in case the journey takes longer than planned. If I can, this is where I will find you.

If I am not there when you awaken, you must keep going and trust that I will come when I can. I promised your mother that I would keep you safe and, while you must be careful, nothing I ask you to do will violate that promise. So if I am not there when you awaken, you  must go on without me.

To the right of the waterfall, where the path disappears at the foot of the old slide, you must begin to climb. You can do it – my brothers and I did it when I was a girl your age, and we scratched markings of the route onto the stone, markings like you followed when I taught you to climb the stone chimney in the old kitchen. Follow the markings as long as you can, but use your judgement where they have faded or the rocks have shifted. I know you can do this.

When you reach the top, you may be tempted to turn back to look for me or to gaze forward across the mountains – but do not wait there. You would be silhouetted against the sky for any who are watching to see. Keep low and make your way to the far side quickly. Once you are off the rim, take your time descending. Do not search for markings there; my brothers and I never crossed the great slide and you will need to find your own way down.

At the bottom, you will find the path again. I have seen it from above and it grows steeper there, snaking it’s way beneath overhangs and along cliff’s edge, overlooking the river below. Follow, keep following, for several days, until it reaches the valley.

The great slide happened when my grandmother’s grandmother was a little girl so it will have been many years since the people of the valley have seen outsiders and they may be frightened. They may not understand our language any more. Do you remember the phrase that I taught you? Whisper it in my ear…

Yes, that is it. That is how you greet them and introduce yourself. That is how you ask for escort to the queen — or to the king, if they have changed their ways. You have the token that I sewed into your pocket? That is what you will show them, so that they know you are a friend. A friend in need.

You will need all your resources then, my child. Your ears to listen and learn their language, your tongue to speak with them. Your eyes to observe their customs and learn to fit in. Your heart to guide you in making friends. And your nose to keep out of trouble.

Ah, they are a grand people, the stories say, but strange. Strange things have happened to them, magical things, things that rarely happen outside the valley any more.

It is said that their king’s family once ruled this whole land, from the secret valley and the mountains, across this plain and our village, to the great river and beyond. But, before my grandmother’s grandmother was even born or her mother before her, the young king, when he married, was so in love with his queen, that he wanted to give her the best of everything and celebrate all the time with pageants and festivals, and buy her beautiful robes and jewels. Soon he began to run short of funds and the moneylenders would no longer cover his debts, and one by one, he sold his castles and cities, and lands, and moved closer and closer to the secret valley, until finally they had only that one last hunting castle left.

You will see it when you first enter the valley, on the right, perched up on a hill overlooking the river and the village and the farmland. From the tower, it is said, that you can see all the way over the great forest of the valley, all the way across to the mountains on the far side.

Do you remember the stories I used to tell you of the valley, when you were younger? Come, cuddle closer to me, we will lie here together beneath these thorns, as still and silent as the toad out-waiting the crane, and I will whisper the story in your ear once more, while we wait for the sun to set.

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