What I will tell you now, little one, happened many years ago. Long before the slide that blocked the road to the valley. Long before the streets emptied and the roads closed. Long before we forgot what it meant to be free to sit in the sun and feel the warmth.
When the king, as I said, lost all his lands and cities to his neighboring rulers who held his debt, and retreated into his smallest castle in the secret valley, it was an awakening for him. He promised himself and his queen that he would mend his ways and he began to spend his money wisely.
He had a new well dug for the villagers, one that brought up fresh, clean water, and a fountain for the castle courtyard, so that the kitchen didn’t have to carry water uphill from the well in the village. He invested in graineries to store the crops and cats to kill the rats, so that the people would always have plenty. He introduced new strains of cattle into the mix, to strengthen the breed. He bought a new loom for the weaver’s wife, and increased the size of the flocks of sheep.
The people prospered and he prospered.
The queen gave birth to their first child, a daughter. Do you remember what her name was? Whisper it in my ear… That is right: Ursula.
The king, although hoping for a boy and heir, was delighted. He ordered a day of celebration and held a great fete in the village square and a huge ball in the castle. Courtiers came from outside the valley, with their entourages of tailors and musicians and magicians. When they saw the beauty of the valley, many of them stayed, and the castle became a place of gaiety again. Huge feasts and hunting parties, music and art, and games and intrigue. The king enjoyed the fun but also stayed true to his commitment to making the valley kingdom successful and continued his works for the village, repairing the church roof and building a small school.
The queen gave birth to their second child, also a daughter, whose name was — oh, yes, very quietly in my ear… That’s right: Athena.
The king again held a great celebration and ordered beautiful new dresses for the queen and for Ursula, as well as a beautiful necklace for the queen. Again there was a feast for the peasants and more courtiers came and more stayed afterwards, and the castle became even more elegant and, all said, a true refuge from the world. The king, telling himself between glasses of wine, that he was staying true to his promise, repaired the bridge and relocated the houses closest to the river a little further uphill to avoid the spring floods.
The queen gave birth to their third child, again a daughter and her — yes, yes, that is right. Her name was: Elena.
Again the king held celebrations across the valley and in the castle, although this time he had truly, truly been hoping for an heir. Three daughters, three princesses. Three dowries. And no heir.
The merriment continued for many years. There were Maying picnics in the last meadow in the forest, the very edge of where the hunting parties dared to go, for after that it was dark under the trees and easy to get lost. The princesses made daisy chains to string around the queen’s neck and in her hair. There were sledding parties on the lower slopes of the surrounding mountains in winter, where the princesses hooted and hollered as loud as the others as they flew down the slopes. In the summer, there were boating parties on the slow, swollen river, and the princesses dangled their fingers in the water, trailing through the lazy reflections of the trees and sky. And in the fall, the princesses swirled about the harvest dances, with bonfires and red and yellow leaves riding the gusting winds.
The princesses at first, all seemed much alike, little dolls with long hair and large eyes, all dressed in beautiful, frivolous, gaily colored dresses with far too many bows and ribbons. They took dancing lessons and painting lessons, and learned the manners required of princesses of the realm. As the years went on, the courtiers and villagers began to notice that they had developed personalities of their own.
Ursula understood her father’s desire for a son and did her best to lift the burden of rule from the king. From the time that she was a small child, she followed him about, learning about the valley and the people. She was the one who organized the raising of the new barn. She was the one who recognized that the miller was cheating the villagers and encouraged her father to replace him. She was the one who kept things moving when the king was distracted by other things, as he so often was.
Athena’s heart rode the wind. She cheered the queen’s spirits, as the queen lay in bed or sat quietly by the window, for she was often in a delicate condition during the years following her youngest daughter’s birth, and again and again disappointed. When Athena wasn’t at her mother’s side, distracting her with some merry tale or beautiful confection she had commissioned the tailor to produce, she was hunting with the hawks. In times of trouble, she sat at the top of the tower, gazing across the valley, eyes peeled for wolves or fire, as the season dictated.
It fell on Elena to lift the burden of the castle housekeeping from her mother’s shoulders. She managed the maids and the footmen and kept the courtiers in line. She could often be found in the kitchen – the kitchen, a princess, imagine! – with the cook, devising new delicacies to tempt the queen’s appetite. On the warmest days, when no one was looking, she had a habit of falling in the great fountain in the castle courtyard, and – while outwardly apologetic – her sisters noticed that she always emerged soaked, clean, and refreshed.
Finally, when Elena was almost grown, the queen gave birth to a son, the prince, Claudius.
By that time, there was little left for a prince to inherit for a series of troubles had descended on the little valley. It started with a long, hot summer that continued into fall and a very mild winter, and drought the following year. The cows wandered hungrily for there was no grass and there was no crop that year for a hot wind blew all summer, drying out what crops had managed to endure, and blowing away the soil.
The more delicate of the courtiers slipped out through the narrow passage to the world beyond, but the villagers praised the king’s foresight, and lived off stored grains. When the rain began in the fall, everyone sighed in relief, and hoped the worst was over. But the rain didn’t stop – although it eventually turned to snow, more snow than they had seen in years, and then to rain again in the spring, and the river flooded higher than ever, and left the fields in standing water, and the seeds either washed away or the plants that grew rotted before harvest. More courtiers left and the people tightened their belts, and lived on meat and short rations of grain for another year.
Several good years followed after that, but then illness slipped in through the tiny path, unnoticed in the pack of a trader. It scurried from house to house, taking first the old, then the very young, and left men unable to work. Ursula pulled her hair back into a wimple, stretched a handkerchief across her face, and went from house to house, moving the sick to the church, to be cared for there by a crew of nurses headed by herself. Elena organized what housewives were healthy into making huge vats of broth, which they left outside the church door, and encouraged everyone to wash, wash, wash. Athena took the hawks out and hunted rats that she had burned in great piles until the spread of illness stopped.
By the time the prince was three years old, the remaining courtiers had fled, followed by the castle servants and the more mobile of the villagers. Elena, unable to manage the entire castle without a huge staff, had consulted her sisters and moved the family into the kitchens, where the queen, who did not thrive in the bone-crushing cold that had descended on the valley that year, could rest in the heat from the cooking fire. Athena persuaded her mother that it was for the best – just a temporary thing, really. Ursula arranged chairs and benches around the fireplace, with their parent’s huge canopied bed and their trundles behind the benches at the end of the room furthest from the door. The kitchen table, where they did much of the daily prep work directly across from the fire, and left the area closest to the door for cold storage and firewood. And cold is mostly what was stored there for there wasn’t much food for royal family or villager that year.
The cold had descended early in the fall, bringing deep snows that covered the fields, and blocked the passage out of the valley. The lazy river was frozen and the valley lay still and silent, with only thin trails of smoke to indicate the few houses still occupied in the village.
Despite the king’s best efforts, the situation was looking grim, my dear, as grim as our own situation.
But we must never give up hope. Never.