Oh, my little one, my foot has a cramp. Let us move a little, just a little, move our hands and our feet – silently, do not let the dried leaves we are lying on crackle and give us away. Oh, my old bones do not like waiting like this. Hm? Yes, yes, the story.
The gold lasted much longer than the diamonds had. For some reason, the diamonds had disappeared steadily but the gold, while it seemed less than the diamonds had been after that first night, and disappeared quickly in the weeks to come, never quite seemed to run out. Just as they started to despair that they were down to their last few coins, those coins would seem to multiply, or they would discover coins that had gotten caught in a crack at the back of the trunk, or had rolled behind it, almost like magic.
And so the king was able to rebuild his kingdom, attracting only the people of the village, the farmers and herders and bakers and brewers, but the courtiers and fawners and hangers on didn’t find enough to attract them in the little village and soon moved on. And the kingdom grew prosperous, in a little way, a quiet way. And that suited Elena and Claudius and their parents just fine.
The weather grew milder and the villagers were able to graze their flocks in the foothills again. The crops grew again and the storage bins refilled.
One of those that came and stayed for more than a year was a woodsman, who took Claudius into the nearby forest – just the edge of the forest, not past the May meadow — and taught him how to find the squirrel’s cache of nuts, and when the various edible plants first appeared each year and which stayed longest in the fall. He taught him how to tell whether a mushroom would make a good meal or which must be avoided if one did not wish a short and painful death. And, though they did not hunt them, he taught Claudius how to track the animals, how to wait for long hours without moving, as we do my little one, and watch from the shadows for the animals to come to them.
Life was fat, my little one, for several years, for far longer than Elena could have hoped. All too soon the last gold coin was gone but their prosperity lasted for a little longer, until that terrible summer.
Oh, it grew so hot that summer, so hot. The crops dried up in the fields, just shriveled to dust on the stalk. The river became but a trickle. The animals, poor things, grew thin and cried for food until their dry mouths could cry no longer. At first the people survived, for the king had put food by. But the autumn brought no relief and the winter was mild, so mild, with little rain and the white on the surrounding mountains stayed at the peaks. When the second year promised to be as hot and dry as the first, the people started to drift away and the little village emptied out again.
Up at the castle, the food grew lean again. The queen had no more energy than to sit, fanning herself in a shady corner. Elena moved listlessly about her work until the shade reached the fountain in the courtyard, then she sat for hours on the rim, trailing her fingers through the warm waters. Claudius, too hot to play, dozed or looked at pictures in his father’s books.
The king disappeared with his bow and arrow again.
One night, after he had been gone all day, he returned with a huge fish.
The queen’s lips grew thin and hard.
“What a tale I have,” the king started but the queen cut him off.
“You married our Elena to a fish?” She demanded.
“He is king of the forest waters!” The king argued.
“Forest waters indeed!” The queen retorted, and all her anger, all her disappointment, all her sadness at the loss of her daughters roared out at the king.
Elena nudged her brother and they slipped into the courtyard, closing the door on the harsh words spiraling upward in the hot little kitchen.
“Come, brother, sit beside me here on the fountain’s edge,” Elena said and he joined her there. “The water is cool,” she added, “trail your fingers through it.”
Claudius did as she bid, and then felt her hand take his.
“Feel along the wall here,” she hissed to him, moving his fingers along the wall. “Do you feel where the stones is loose? There is a little cache here. There is no gold in it now, but it is the perfect place to hide such riches, not for yourself, no, but to stretch it out just a little longer. When there are too many riches, the parasites come and father spends on ridiculous things. He says it is for mother because he loves her so much, but I have noticed that she is sad when the castle is full, and heavy with worry. When there is just enough, he spends it only as needed and the village prospers. Remember that when I am gone.”
“Gone?” Claudius asked, startled. “Where are you going?”
“Do you not remember our sisters?” Elena asked. “Ursula and Athena, who cared for you when you were just a baby and mother so sick?”
“I — I remember Athena,” Claudius said, casting his mind back. “Did she used to sing to me?”
“Sing to you and carry you and feed you. Oh, you cried when she went away. Ursula was our oldest sister, you would not remember her, she was the first to go, when you were still just a baby. Promise me that you will not forget me as you have forgotten them.”
“Never,” Claudius swore.
“I don’t know what’s ahead for me,” Elena continued. “I can only hope that it will be as good as the best that I have had here. If you need anything, in the future, come find me, and I will see what I can do to help.”
Before Claudius could promise, the door opened and their father emerged from the kitchen.
“Elena,” he said sadly. “It is a great marriage, you will be queen of all the waters that flow in the forest.”
“yes, father,” Elena answered dutifully.
“The weaver’s widow has died,” their father continued, “and I have no wedding clothes for you.”
“Take my shawl,” the queen said, appearing in the doorway with a parcel done up in paper. When Elena shook it loose, she found a light shawl, as light as cobweb, that shimmered in the moonlight as if it were the evening water.
“Oh, mother,” she said softly with a hug, “thank you.”
The carriage appeared almost immediately, glimmering silver and drawn by a white horse. Elena curtsied to her father, kissed her mother goodbye, and whispered, “remember” to Claudius. Then she climbed aboard and the horse took off. As before, there was a loud cracking sound, a huge chest fell off the back of the carriage and spilled open at the king’s feet. But Elena did not look back to see the pearls that rolled about the courtyard.
The horse trotted quietly through the dark town but, instead of turning immediately to the forest, it turned at the bridge and descended into the river bed. The river, to Elena’s surprise, was flowing again, swiftly, as if a great rain had fallen unseen in the mountains and now cascaded into their valley. The horse splashed gently through the deepening water and the carriage pitched back and forth, until the river turned into the forest and Elena saw that the horse’s tail and hind legs had turned into a fish’s tail.
Then she sat back and let the river take her where it would.