Even now, when we face such troubles, my little one, it seems as nothing compared to the troubles that they people living in the secret valley faced that winter and, in particular, on the coldest day of the year.
The queen and the princesses had gathered around the fire in the kitchen where they had found shelter. The queen, wrapped in blankets, huddled closest to the flames, recovering from yet another illness that winter. Elena stirred the broth in the great kettle that hung over the hearth. Athena sat on the bench, cuddling little Claudius and entertaining him. Ursula, at the kitchen table, chopped their last onion.
Yet each of their thoughts were not there. They were with the king who had taken his hunting bow and remaining arrows and left just before sunrise in search of something for them to eat. The long, dark day had stretched and stretched. They had done what little chores there were to do – it was too cold to wash clothes and there was no wheat to bake for bread – and they were so tired, tired of living this way, that each chore seemed to take forever. And still the dim day continued.
And still the king did not return.
Soon the grey afternoon grew darker still and Ursula lit the candles – they did so little to brighten the room that she need not even have bothered. And still the king did not return.
They ladled the broth into mugs and sipped them slowly, holding the warmth in their mouths for as long as possible, letting it slip down their throats and warm their stomachs. They tilted the mugs high, catching the last drips. And then that was it – their meal for the day. And still the king did not return.
Finally, Athena prepared Claudius for sleep, wiping his hands and face, cradling him in one arm, while Elena banked the fire and Ursula cleaned the mugs in water melted from snow. Just as they were about to blow out the candles, the outer door blew open and slammed against the wall, a dark misshape entered, and the door slammed shut again.
“Father!” Ursula ran to him, lifting a cold, stiff shape off his shoulders. He stretched his back and let his bow slip to the floor.
“Father, where have you been?” Elena rushed to help Ursula with her burden.
“Father, come sit by the fire where it is warm, Claudius and I will make space for you,” Athena rose with Claudius, lifted a log with one hand, and added it to the fire. The king limped over at sat beside her on the bench. Claudius reached out his arms to his father.
“In a moment, my son,” the king said, removing one boot then another, and handing his wet coat to Elena to hang away from the fire, and then accepting a cup of hot broth in return.
“Where have you been?” Athena asked.
“And what have you brought?” Elena added.
“It’s a deer,” their father answered. “I have brought a deer – with your good housekeeping it will last us the rest of the winter. If this winter ever ends,” he added with a great shiver that made Claudius laugh.
“A deer!” Elena exclaimed. “Where did you find a deer in this weather?”
“And what happened to the rest of it?” Ursula asked, standing back from it, an assessing look in her eye and a carving knife in her hand.
“That is a tale,” their father replied. “A tale for a snowy night.”
Claudius climbed into his father’s lap and leaned against his chest, feeling his father’s voice reverberate against his ear and sighed.
When I set out this morning, their father began, I was resolved that today I would find game and I would not return home until I did. All was still and silent, only the sound of my breath moved in the cold air, that and a little drift of smoke from the village.
I started near the entrance to the valley, but the snow there was deep and unbroken. It was clear nothing had come that way in days. I then descended to the valley floor, crossed the frozen river – it is so frozen now, you might dance on it, like we did at the winter festival so many years ago… Do you remember, my love? He asked the queen who was so bundled up that only her eyes showed between the folds of the blanket, eyes that smiled back at him with love.
I walked along the river almost to the village – I was certain that if any animals were about, they would find a spot where the ice had broken, to drink from. But the ice was not broken and there were no tracks. I left the river and set out across the fields, which stretched wide and featureless around me. If I had spun about, I might have been lost, except for the smoke trails from the houses and the high mountains before me. I ascended into the hills almost to the shepherds summer camps, high up where the grass was once green in summer and the flocks could graze all day.
Finding nothing there, I descended again, crossed back to the other side of the river, and turned my face to the snowy woods.
The queen, in her blanket cocoon stirred. Elena and Ursula paused, their hands red with the blood of the deer, and Athena, who had been lazily poking the coals, hesitated. Claudius looked up at his father’s beard, which still dripped ice.
At first, as I stumbled along the hidden path, I saw nothing. I walked as far as the May meadow where we used to picnic, do you remember, girls?
Ursula and Elena smiled at their father and resumed their work. Athena left off poking the fire and refilled their father’s cup.
Ah, what times we used to have there. But there was no sign of bird nor beast, so I returned to the path and ventured further in.
I walked, oh, I don’t know how far, but it was almost dark when I caught sight of the tracks, fresh tracks, leading further into the wood. I followed them, taking short, slow steps, silent steps and then, in the deep gloom of late afternoon, I saw her. I reached back over my shoulder, removed the arrow and fixed it to the bow. And shot.
Like a flash, she took off, bounding further into the wood. I followed quickly for I had hit her and knew she would fall eventually and I did not want to lose her. Finally, I came upon her, lying gasping, she struggled to rise but could not. I drew my knife and finished her off.
And then I felt the hand on my shoulder.
It was a strong hand, in a mailed gauntlet, gloved in fur, and it held me firm. A deep voice growled at me.
“Who dares hunt the creatures of the forest, subjects of the King of the Wood?”
Claudius gasped and the girls smiled at each other. A snowy night’s tale indeed.
I introduced myself as his neighbor and ruler of the valley, but he did not release his grip. “To hunt my lands is punishable by death!” He told me then.
I begged for my life, explaining that I was responsible for a family of six, my queen, young Prince Claudius, and my three grown daughters.
“Three daughters,” he growled, still not releasing me. “Tell me of them. What is the eldest like?”
I described you, darling Ursula, thinking nothing but of keeping his talking, hoping to raise compassion in him. He cut me off with a question.
“Is she brave?”
I described your bravery, how you did not flinch when the beasts grew sick and had to be put down. How you worked among the ill villagers, nursing them back to health. How you shut yourself up afterwards until you were certain that you had not also caught the plague.
“Is she wise?” He asked me then.
I described, my sweet Ursula, how you quickly discovered the best order of things and put things in motion, like raising a barn or organizing the village to put out a fire.
He asked, “Is she compassionate?”
I told him, Ursula, how you learned about each villager individually and taught me to see their worth, for what they were, and who needed help when.
I wasn’t sure what he wanted and my voice trailed off. Finally he spoke.
“She sounds ideal. I will marry her. My carriage will come when the moon is rising. You may keep the deer.”
His hand left my shoulder but before I had recovered myself sufficiently to turn and view him, I heard him stride away into the woods. When I finally turned, I found I was alone again with my kill.
I finished my work, shouldered the deer, and returned through the woods, feeling the darkness pressing down on me from all sides.
The king paused then, shifted the dozing Claudius back to Ursula’s lap and rose, walking across the room to where he had dropped his gear.
I returned through the village, stopping at Widow Weaver’s home, where I traded the loin for this…
He pulled from his bag a dress of a deep gold.
“I had commissioned it several years ago, for you, Ursula, before our troubles began and we still had hope of finding you a marriage. And now it will be your wedding dress.”
Ursula, standing, her hands dripping in blood, gazed at the waterfall of soft gold that he held toward her.
“The King of the Forest. What a match! The moon will rise soon. Let your sister finish that. You must get dressed.”
For so men speak to us always, my little one, when they are forced to make bad deals and we bear the consequences of their nonsense.