Time passed, little one. When babies are little, we often wish that we didn’t have to carry them everywhere that they would learn to walk, and then they start to walk and we wish they would just come back here, now! And when all they do is cry and babble, we wish they would talk, as if that would give us a glimpse into what is happening behind that sweet baby smile, and then they start talking and we wish they would just be quiet, just for a moment. This is what you have to look forward to as you grow older, little one, and you will. And it will continue all your life, this pushing forward and then regret and pulling back.
And this is what Athena felt, as she watched Claudius. The snows melted and he went from crawling to toddling. The flowers pushed up and she took him on long walks through the village. As the sun returned to the secret valley and the people emerged from their homes, faces upturned to catch the warmth, the queen emerged from her blankets and, with Elena’s help, grew stronger and gradually regained her place in the world.
The king used Ursula’s diamonds to rebuild his kingdom. He sent them out into the world, to bring back seed and plow animals, to rebuild the flocks of sheep and chickens. Like a scent, the promise of the diamonds lured people back to the valley. Villagers, farmers, craftsman, and the kingdom grew. Then courtiers and musicians and artists and tailors and chefs, and the king grew merry again. As the weather improved and the crops grew, he sponsored festivals for the people and fetes for the castle. The first year’s harvest was good and the second year’s great. The curse, the family felt, must be lifted.
The diamonds slipped through the king’s fingers until, at last, there were only a hatful, then a handful, then enough for a simple ring, and then there were none. The king looked around at his kingdom, peopled, wheat waving in the breeze, full silos, laughing courtiers.
And then the plague returned.
First it hit the animals, dropping them in the fields and in the barns. The farmers, mad with desperation, killed entire flocks before they could be taken down. Then the farmers themselves grew sick, a headache, a cough, a nightmare that sat heavy on their chest. From the farmers it spread through the church and the market to the rest of the village. The villagers shut themselves into their homes and hoped the shadow would pass them by. The courtiers left the valley, carrying it with them to our land and beyond, followed by craftsmen and musicians and chefs.
And the king’s family again was alone.
When the warm September breezes blew through the valley there was hardly anyone left in the village, just a few people to old or too weak to flee through the canyon, along the path that you will take in just a few hours, my little one. They barely had enough to eat, for the crops had failed, and the animals had died or fled.
When the king shouldered his bow and arrow that early fall morning, the land loomed empty around him.
All day, Athena played games with Claudius, chasing him up and down the empty stone staircases of the old castle, while Elena and the queen cleaned the kitchen, aired the bedding, and did the wash. The sun was bright but the wind blew briskly, chasing the clouds across the sky. As the shadows grew longer and then filled the valley and night fell, the little family made a simple meal of roots, such as they would usually feed their animals, only now there were no animals and they were grateful for what they had.
Although none of them spoke it aloud, they wondered what was keeping the king.
Finally the wind blew the door open and the king bustled in, slamming it behind him.
“Father!” Claudius called, wriggling in Athena’s lap.
“Where have you been, my dear?” the queen asked.
“And what have you brought for the pot?” Elena asked, taking it from him. “A goose! And a fat one, too! Wherever did you find it?”
“And what took so long?” Athena asked, clutching Claudius tightly.
“I will tell all,” the king said, settling into a chair by the fire, and taking Claudius from Athena.
When I left this morning, the king said, the first frost was on the grass and stones, and I knew winter will not be far. I must get something for the pot, I told myself, something that can last us. But I saw nothing. I walked deep into the canyon, but I saw none of the scurrying creatures that live beneath the rocks and even the birds that nest high up in the cliffs have left. I walked across our fallow fields and into the foothills, but the burrows and nests are empty.
Finally, I was forced to walk into the forest.
The women paused their work, their stirring, their plucking, and stared at him. In his arms, Claudius turned his face up to look into his father’s eyes, but his father was staring into the flames.
For a long time, I saw nothing – no deer, no rabbits, nothing. I walked deep into the woods but the animals were sleeping or silent. So I turned for home.
A sigh roamed from queen to Athena to Elena, and they resumed their work. Claudius settled back against his father’s shoulder again.
When I reached the May meadow — do you remember, my dear, the festive picnics we would have there when the girls were young? — I paused for a moment, gazing up at the stars above, picking out the bear and the eagle and the great fish.
I heard the flock before I saw them, and made my bow ready. I pulled back the string and let my arrow fly, bringing down that fine fellow, who landed just on the far edge of the meadow. As I stooped over him, I felt a mailed hand on my shoulder and a sharp voice spoke, “I am king of the forest sky. All those who live in the trees or who fly above it are my subjects. Including this goose whom you have dared to shoot down.”
The king cleared his throat and the sound echoed through the silent room. No one moved as they waited for him to continue.
I introduced myself, as well as I could with my back to him, for his grip was so strong that I could not turn, and explained that my family was starving, my wife, my little boy, and my two grown princesses, my Athena and my Elena.
The king smiled at them but they stared back at him unsmiling.
Athena, the king of the sky mused, what is your Athena like?
I started to tell him of your beautiful hair, my darling, but he cut me off with a question: Is she courageous?
So I told him, Athena, of the time that the butcher’s boy, on a dare, tried to climb the great cliff behind the castle and got stuck almost at the top, too frightened to go up or to come down, and how you wrapped a rope around your waist, tucked up your skirts, climbed all the way up to him and chased him up the rest of the cliff, lowered him to the ground with the rope, and then climbed down on your own. Oh, my knees had been like jelly, until you were safely on the ground again, but you pushed me away and read the boy a lecture that he never forgot until his dying day, poor lad.
The king over the forest laughed and asked if you were kind. I told him how, when your brother was born, and your mother so sick for so long that horrible winter — the king paused, perhaps reflecting on what else had happened that horrible winter — how you took care of Claudius, carrying him about with you as if he were your own, keeping him warm and fed until his mother was well again.
“She sounds serious,” the king sniffed. “Has she no joy in her?” I laughed and told him you were the most joyous girl I knew — how you out-danced everyone at the harvest fetes and told the children stories until they laughed.
And he said… He said, “She sounds like an ideal wife. I will send my carriage for her when the moon rises.”
I started to protest but, when I turned around, he had gone.
Claudius slid from his lap and ran to his mother. The king rose, reached into his bag and pulled out a wealth of fabric which he held out to Athena. She washed her hands, thoroughly, in the rough soap and tepid water, then took the bundle from him and shook it out.
“It’s not a dress,” the king explained. “The weaver’s widow didn’t have any dresses made up, but she had this coat that she had made for one of the courtiers who fled; and offered it to me, if we would bring her some broth. It’s a beautiful coat and she said it would fit you, you’ve grown so tall and so thin.”
Athena set it aside with a quiet word of thanks that did not reach her eyes, brushed out her hair and washed her face, and straightened her dress. Then she slipped her arms into the sleeves of the coat — silently rejoicing in the smoothness of the silk lining against her dried skin — and buttoned up the large, carved buttons on the front. She ran her palms down the intricate embroidery and admired how the firelight caught the rich colors. Although she didn’t say it aloud, she liked the coat better than she would have liked a dress.
The sound of approaching hoofbeats drew the family out the door into the courtyard. The moon shone rich and golden through the open gates and a deep bay horse drawing a glossy brown carriage trotted in and stopped before them.
Athena kissed Elena and her mother, bowed her forehead to her father’s hand, and gave Claudius a huge hug, which she had to tear herself away from.
“Don’t go,” Claudius cried but the great horse was already pawing at the ground and Athena turned her back resolutely on him and climbed into the open carriage.
The horse leapt forward, there was a tremendous crack behind her, and she glanced back to see that a huge chest had spilled open, depositing a pile of coins that glowed gold in the moonlight. She quickly turned away again, staring firmly between the horse’s ears, as they trotted along the moonlit road through the village and across the fields.
When they reached the edge of the forest, the horse unfurled an immense pair of wings and with a hop, the carriage rose into the sky above the forest.
Athena sat back in the carriage and stretched her hands to the sky, hugging herself in her rich new coat.