Prince Claudius, little one, ate sparingly of the food his mother had given him, always eating just a little less than he wanted. He tried to use the skills that he had learned from the woodsman as a child but, in the spring, the plants and animals are just awakening and food is scarce. Soon hunger, like an old friend from his childhood, returned to him.
He grew weary with it and his thinking became cloudier as his pack became lighter. He forced himself to keep moving deeper and deeper into the woods, searching for signs of his sisters, but all he saw was more trees. Finally, one day, he opened his pack and pulled out everything, searching for even a crumb. At the bottom, he found a tiny purse that he had not seen before. When he opened it, he found it contained one diamond, one gold coin, and one pearl.
Not much use when you are lost and hungry in the woods. For Claudius knew, as we know, little one, that money buys you nothing when there is nothing to buy. Nonetheless, Claudius put the purse into his pocket, wrapped the blanket around his shoulders, and strapped his knife to his belt. Then he left his empty pack and wandered deeper into the woods.
That night, as he slept, he dreamt of a castle far off, in a land where everyone also slept. He wandered the halls of the castle searching for something but finding only other dreamers. Finally he reached a room high up in the tower and, pushing the door open, found one more sleeper, a princess, who had collapsed across her bed. On the pillow next to her lay a slate with strange markings on it.
When he awoke, he saw a small wood mouse washing its hands, just in front of his face. Slowly, slowly, he reached out and then quickly grabbed it. It was tiny but it would make a mouthful.
“Don’t hurt me!” The mouse squeaked and Claudius was so surprised he almost dropped it. “Don’t eat me, please!”
“I am so hungry,” Claudius apologized to the mouse.
“Berries,” squeaked the mouse. “I know where there is a thicket of winter-berries, still ripe and ready to eat.”
“There is no such thing,” Claudius scoffed.
“There is! There is and I will take you there, I promise… And, if you find I have led you astray, you can eat me then.”
Claudius considered, then nodded his assent. He placed the mouse on his shoulder so it could whisper directions in his ear.
“It’s a way off,” the mouse told him. “But so many berries! And I will tell you a story as we walk.”
“If this is a delaying tactic –” the prince threatened.
“Not at all,” the mouse replied with great dignity. “I have made a bargain.”
And the mouse began to tell his tale:
The Mouse’s Tale
Many years ago, so many years ago that even the oldest have forgotten how long, there lived a princess. She was the youngest in her family, with three older brothers, and often felt alone with so many men about. But there was always her mother, a wise woman, trained in the gentle magics, and the princess loved her deeply.
But when she was almost fully grown, her mother grew sick and died. The princess was inconsolable. She wept and wept. She locked herself in her room with all the shutters closed, and slept for days, refusing food. At night she sometimes crept out of her room when her father and brothers and all the servants were asleep, and drifted through the hallways like a ghost, remembering that there, her mother had held her up to the window to view the stars, and there, her mother had comforted her when she had complained about being a princess. One night, she drifted into her mother’s room and stole her magics.
In her own room, with the door locked, she tried to make a spell that would bring her beloved mother back to her. She searched through her mother’s books and scrolls, she mixed potions, and made noxious smokes, and gazed into candlelit mirrors — but all she saw was her own pale, dark-eyed face.
After days of this, a loud thumping on her door interrupted her.
“You must come out!” Her oldest brother called through the door, shaking it ferociously. “You’ve grieved long enough. We are sad, too, and we need you. We need you to manage the servants and plan our meals and mend our clothes and greet us with a smile when we return from the hunt.”
The princess was furious. “How dare you tell me when I have grieved long enough! How dare you tell me I must smile and cook and clean and take care of you! Begone!”
But her brother persisted. “Sister, you must come out now. It is time to take your place amongst the living and give up the dead! It is your duty!”
“My duty!” The princess hissed, angered beyond all measure. She began then to write on her mother’s slate with sharp, bold letters, and she hissed under her breath. When she had finished, she held up the slate toward the door, said a final word, and blew out the candle, whoosh!
Her brother’s entreaties ended. The door stopped shaking and rattling. All grew quiet. Then a mighty roar split the silence and the door burst open, splintered beyond repair, and a great bear dashed into the room.
Appalled at what she had done, the princess grabbed a mirror and held it up before her like a shield. The bear caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, let out another mighty roar, and turned and fled.
The princess dashed after him, following the trail of destruction and wailing servants through the halls, down the great stairs, out the door, through the gate, through the village, to the edge of the woods. She could see his great form disappearing through the trees in the distance, never looking back.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, but the bear did not hear.
“Go on,” Prince Claudius commanded. “What happened next?”
“Here are the berry bushes,” the mouse replied, scampering down his arm and disappearing into a thicket. He called back over his shoulder, “Eat to your heart’s content!” and then was gone.