So many berries, little one! Prince Claudius almost did not know where to begin. But his hands reached out, plucked the berries, and carried them to his mouth, before his mind even told them to.
Ah, they tasted good, the sweet, tart berries. Claudius ate and ate until his belly was full and then he ate some more. Finally, he turned away from the fruit, his hands and face sticky.
That is when he saw the bear.
It was just a cub, so cute, so roly-poly. But where there is one cub, Prince Claudius knew, there is often another. He froze, his eyes drifting past the cute, little bear, to wear another cub sat, his cute little head tilted to one side, watching Claudius as Claudius was watching him. Claudius felt a trickle of cold slide down his spine. For where there are two cubs, there is a mother bear.
Before he could look further, the first little bear ran toward him, with an adorable little growl and then his brother also ran toward him, and he found himself pinned to the ground by the two sweet little bears. He heard something larger moving toward him but he couldn’t get up. A shadow fell across him and he braced himself to meet the mother bear.
“Boys,” a sweet voice said. “Boys! Let the man up; let him up. Come now, go and fill your belly with berries, and let the man get up.”
The bears moved off, a smooth hand reached down, and Claudius found himself looking up into a face that was both familiar and strange.
“Thank you,” he said, sitting up quickly, taking her outstretched hand. “Thank you for rescuing me.”
“They didn’t mean anything,” she laughed, as he staggered to his feet. “They were just excited to see someone new. And, maybe, just a little, protecting me.” She looked with love at the little bears who were, as Claudius had done a few minutes ago, gorging themselves on the spring berries, fur sticky.
“I am Claudius,” he said, trying to remember the manners his mother had taught him, “Prince of the Valley.”
The woman stopped laughing and looked at him, silent for a long moment. “Claudius,” she said finally. “I am Queen of the Forest. I am Ursula, your sister.”
Claudius gave a deep bow and Ursula smiled. “When I saw you last, you hadn’t really begun to walk yet. What brings you into my realm.”
Claudius scratched his ear. “It’s a long story.”
“Ah,” Ursula smiled again. “Then you had better keep me company while I, too, eat some berries, and tell me your story.”
When he had finished, Ursula smiled again and said, “Come back with us and I will tell you my story.”
“The King –”
“Ah, the King,” Ursula said as she rounded up the cubs. As they walked, she told him of her moonlit sleigh ride, of meeting the King, of the wondrous castle carved out of the mountain.
“Of course, it was a spell,” she added. “And when the moon set behind the mountains, the castle was but a cave and I discovered that the king, well, the king was a bear.”
“A bear! But…” Claudius looked at the cubs, gamboling beside them on the path.
“My sons,” Ursula said with a smile. “For you see, my husband is not always a bear. When the full moon lights the sky, he returns as a man, the cave becomes a castle again, and I am a queen once more.”
Claudius fell silent.
“I will shelter you until the moon rises tonight,” Queen Ursula told him. “Then you will meet my husband and we will see how we can help you in your quest.”
“My quest! I hardly know what I am questing for,” Claudius told her.
“Yes, sometimes we do not know what the question is until the quest itself is nearly over,” she replied placidly, then moved ahead, calling the cubs to her out of the trees and Claudius had to hurry to catch up.
When they reached the cave, it was nearly dark.
“The boys have a little room off to the side there. You will find it a tight squeeze but it is safe there. My husband cannot enter in his bear form.” Ursula looked away. “In bear form, particularly when he has not changed in many days, he finds it hard to remember — to remember that he is sometimes a man and that they are his sons.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me,” she said with a smile. “He always remembers that he loves me, though he sometimes forgets why. Go on, now. He’ll be home soon.”
Claudius squeezed through the small opening into the antechamber, a tiny crack with a sandy floor that smelled intensely of bear cub. The boys, as his sister called them, curled up against him, one his arms, one against his legs. Warmed and — for the moment – safe, with belly full, Claudius dozed.