Are you hungry, little one? Reach deep into your pocket and have a small piece of bread and just a sip of water. I know it’s not enough, really, but it will have to be enough for now. Later, tonight, when you have reached the waterfall, when you are safe, you can eat more. But let’s not think of that yet. We have a long afternoon ahead of us until the sun sets and the night turns blue and our journey begins. Until then, I will continue the story of the small kingdom, the story of the four princesses.
Elena’s pearls lasted longer than Athena’s gold coins, longer than Ursula’s diamonds.
At first, when the king sent them out into the world to bring back new seed, new animals, new craftsmen and farmers and bakers, the musicians and dressmakers and courtiers followed — but they left again soon after. The queen would take them aside and send them on their way as each arrived. When the king found out, he was furious — what is a kingdom without courtiers? — but the queen didn’t stop what she was doing. And the kingdom prospered. The fields grew ripe, the animals fat, and the people happy.
This continued for many years. Claudius grew taller and stronger. Whenever he was not working, he slipped into the woods at every chance, repeating the lessons from the woodsman. Remembering what he could eat or not eat, reading direction from the trees. Sometimes he stood in May meadow, gazing deeper into the woods, still as a tree himself, watching and listening, though he never heard anything. Watching and listening and remembering his sisters.
All too soon the pearls were gone. And soon the land grew tired. A cold rain fell every day, soaking the soil. The river flooded, washing away part of the village and villagers left. The animals, cold and wet and tired, grew ill. The stored grain grew moldy and the people grew hungry. The land seemed, as it so often had, stuck in one season for a full year, then a second.
One morning, the king – driven by a hunger deep in his soul – rose early and slipped out of the old castle, where they still lived in the kitchens. The door had hardly shut behind him when the queen shook Claudius awake.
“Get up!” She hissed, beating him with her fists. “You must get up! Now!”
As he pulled himself out of sleep, rubbing his eyes open, Claudius saw the queen hastening about the kitchen, pulling – was it really? – a loaf of bread out of a barrel and some cheese out of a drawer, and flinging them into a pack with a knife, a blanket, and a flask of water.
“Get dressed, quickly!” She called over her shoulder, adding other things to the pack. Claudius, still sleep-befuddled, stared at her, still trying to make sense of her actions.
“Now!” She commanded him and he finally moved. As he dressed, she added, “Several layers.”
Dutifully, he added an extra shirt, an extra pair of pants. He slipped his feet into his boots, flailed into his jacket, and crammed at hat onto his head. His mother held out the pack to him and he swung it onto his back.
“Come,” she said, handing him a mug of gruel and turning for the door. “Drink that as you walk. We haven’t much time.”
“Where are we going?” He asked as they paused at the gate. The queen peered out, looking cautiously about then watching something far off toward the mountain pass.
“To the forest,” she answered. As they turned toward the forest, Claudius glanced over his shoulder and saw his father’s back headed away from them.
“Mother, what is going on?” Claudius demanded.
“Have you finished that gruel yet?” She asked. “Then sip it up and give me the mug. Walk quickly now. Stay quiet until we are out of the village.”
They walked quietly through the just-waking village, taking care to avoid the streets where people had already raised their shutters. Soon they were out the other side and following the path into the woods.
“Now will you tell me –” Claudius demanded and the queen stopped. The May meadow stood off to one side and she gazed at it for a long time.
“We used to come here when the girls were little,” she sighed. Then she took Claudius in her arms and hugged him tight. “I don’t know what your father will come home with tonight, who he will bargain with, what he will promise them, who he will promise you to, or what price we will pay when we are unable to produce you as promised. I don’t know and that worries me.”
The queen gestured to the woods. “Your sisters are out there somewhere. They cared for you when you were little. I pray you will find them and that they will be able to help.”
She looked up at him one last time, her eyes taking him in. “Go. Go quickly and don’t look back… Go!”