It seemed to Ursula, little one, unreal, as if nothing had substance, as if she moved through a dream. Washing her hands in the icy water, watching the water in the bowl turn red with the deer’s blood and her hands turn pink with the cold. Brushing her hair over and over as if that would wash it clean. Slipping off her old clothes, the bite of the chilled room on her shoulders, and the nap of the beautiful new dress catching on the rough skin of her fingers.
Candlelight and firelight reaching out to the gold of her dress, catching it, bouncing it around the shadows. Her family, silent, her father resting on the bench, his day’s exertions caught up to him. Her mother flickering in the shifting light of the fire, a point of stillness, still wrapped in the blankets, only her eyes visible. Athena, seated on a stool across from her father, her arms wrapped tightly about Claudius, rocking him and humming a lullaby. Elena moving jerkily about the kitchen table, chopping and wiping her eyes angrily with the back of her hand.
Ursula slipped her feet into her boots. The dress was soft and beautiful, the fabric heavy but not warm enough. She looked around her for something to wrap about her shoulders but of course there was nothing. She felt she should say something to her family, to her sisters, her mother; she wanted to say something to her father but didn’t know what to say. What was there to say?
In the distance, she could hear sleigh bells, growing closer.
Watching, she could see as each of her sisters heard the bells. Elena stopped her angry chopping, lay down her knife, and rested her hands on the table. Athena stopped rocking, suddenly, and Claudius shifted in her arms, slowly emerging from sleep. Her mother’s eyes opened and looked straight at her, then dodged away to her father, who set his feet on the floor and stood. The sound of bells was very close now.
“It is time,” he announced and they moved like ghosts toward the door.
Outside, it was still, dark, and very cold, all the world asleep: the castle walls, the village beyond, the trees, the snow, even the stars glistening in the cold, deeply slumbered. The sleigh bells were the only sound, growing louder and louder, echoing the silence. The louder they grew, the more the silence echoed around them.
The sleigh emerged from the darkness, glossy black, polished, drawn by a single horse, immense and as glossy black as the sleigh itself. Ursula, gliding through her nightmare, approached, stepped firmly into the sleigh, gazed down at the rich furs piled high on the seat. There were no reins. She looked back at her family, silhouetted in the doorway.
They shouldn’t leave the door open, she thought practically, they’re letting the cold in.
Her mother, with a gasp, turned away. Athena wept, her arms joggling Claudius, who reached up to her face. Elena, stony-faced, looked back her, her eyes promising that someday, someday…
Her father swallowed then boomed out. “What are you all crying for? This is a wedding! Ursula will be Queen of the Forest! A great alliance for us!”
The sleigh jolted forward with a tremendous crack, Ursula, thrown off balance, fell onto the bench, the furs sliding down around her feet. Behind her a crash, she turned back to see. A huge chest had fallen off the back of the sleigh, tumbled open onto the ground behind her. Her mother and sisters stood, watching her go, Claudius reaching out one tiny hand toward her. Her father gazed at the contents of the chest, spilled out on the ground before him, an immense pile of sparkle and light, a fortune in diamonds. Ursula turned away to face the darkness before her and realized how cold she felt.
Reaching down, she pulled the furs up, wrapping them around her back and head, and piling them high across her lap, tucking them in around her legs and feet. The horse moved swiftly, silently but for the bells, through the sleeping village and the snowy fields. The moon had risen and cast a silvery light on the deep unbroken snow around her, illuminating the path before her, shimmering on the dark hair of the swiftly moving horse. Almost too soon, the darkness of the forest rose up before them and swallowed them, but even here the moon turned the snow on the path silver. To the left, the May meadow emerged as a flash in the darkness, then disappeared again.
I can’t tell you how long that ride lasted, my little one, Ursula could not have told you herself. It seemed to last forever and, at the same time, it seemed almost over in a flash. As the horse slowed, she rubbed her eyes and realized how far they had come, for they had reached a strange, solitary mountain that she had seen from the top of the castle’s highest tower, peering out of the great forest, but so far away they could see only the highest peak. A light at the base showed that it was not just a mountain but also a castle, home to the King of the Forest.
The sleigh drew up to the great doors which stood open, letting the golden light within spill out on the snow and the shape of the tall man who stood there. He was not just tall, but wide, enormous in all ways, and her hand, as she laid it in his outstretched palm as she descended from the sleigh, looked as tiny as Claudius’s baby hand in her father’s.
“Welcome,” he said in a voice so deep that it resonated off her chest. “I am so glad you have come.”
“Thank you,” she said, not sure what else to say. “It was my honor.”
He smiled down on her and she saw that he had a kind face. “Go on inside,” he told her, turning her toward the door. “I must put the sleigh away.”
She entered the door and paused, amazed at what she saw. The first thing that struck her was the size. The whole inside of the mountain must be hollow. The ceiling soared high above and the walls disappeared into shadow along the edges. She moved to the enormous fireplace, ablaze with warmth, grateful to be thawed. The huge mantle was held up by enormous carved bears, picked out in gold. She sat in a chair beside the fire, also carved with bears, then stood, unsure what was expected of her.
The king returned, closing the door behind him, and silence descended.
“You must be hungry,” he announced and she realized she was. He gestured to a long table, richly spread with a feast. Freshly baked bread, butter, huge bowls of roasted vegetables, meat in heavy sauce. Sweet honey on white cakes. She ate it all, washing it down with the rich red wine that he poured for her, and felt better.
“Let me show you your new home.” He rose and holding out an arm to her. She took it and walked with him from room to room, admiring tapestries, carved furniture, statues, all beautifully crafted, delicate and bold; all featuring bears. They ascended a sweeping staircase picked out in gold and the main floor disappeared into shadow. He opened a door in the narrow hallway and they entered a cozy room.
The canopied bed – newel posts, again bears, draperies of trees and bears – took up most of the room. Across from it, a golden table, and a large mirror, a set of gilded brushes and a golden ewer and basin. Candles and a huge fireplace radiated golden light but were almost overshadowed by the silver from the descending moon, framed in the one window that looked out over the forest below.
“This will be your room,” the King said, almost shyly. She rested one hand on the head of a carved bear that held up the great mirror on the table and looked at him, a question in her eyes. His eyes looked back at her then dodged away.
She walked back to him and stood very close, looking up into his face. “Our room,” she said firmly.
How long did they stand like that, little one, looking at each other? I do not know and I don’t think they could tell you if you could ask them. It seemed forever and yet just a moment before he looked away from her eyes, over her shoulder, to the window.
“The moon,” he whispered, swallowing. “It is setting. I should tell you —
She lay a finger on his lips. “I know,” she said, and rested her cheek on this trembling chest.
For such was her love for him, little one, it struck her suddenly like a lightening bolt and it continued to burn deep within her for the rest of the days, even long after she learned the truth.