Prince Claudius awoke suddenly in the dark, unsure where he was at first. He could feel the heavy warmth of the two cubs on either side, trembling against him. He could hear a fierce sniffing at the snug entrance to the tiny chamber where he hid. Then a roar so mighty that the earth itself seemed to shake drove his small companions deeper beneath him. He encircled them with his arms and waited without otherwise moving.
As the reverberations echoed away, he heard Ursula’s voice, calm and soothing. He couldn’t make out the words but he heard the bear’s reply, although it was directed away from his refuge toward his sister, an angry mutter of a growl. She replied in a somewhat sterner tone, and he heard the huge shape move away. There appeared to be a conversation going on, a strange conversation of growls and grunts, and loving scolding and laughter. He listened to the heavy movements in the main chamber, but then they settled down, and he imagined the huge beast laying, head in Ursula’s lap. His vision was supported by the sound of soft singing, a lullaby.
The cubs settled again, slowing losing form and becoming once more formless pockets of heat against him. His frantic heart steadied and, eventually, he fell asleep once more.
His next awakening was gentler. He became aware, first of cold and space. As he stretched, he realized that he lay on a soft surface, beneath smooth, heavy covers. He opened his eyes and took in the huge room where he lay. Carvings in the stone walls, carvings of bears, bears climbing trees, stretched toward the shadows of the ceiling high above.
As he arose, he was impressed by the wealth and luxury of the room he was in – and the poverty of his own attire. A cloak, richly embroidered with leaves and flowers, lined with fur, lay across the foot of his bed, and he swung it across his shoulders. It covered his ragged clothing but did not cover what he realized was his smell.
He left the room cautiously and followed the enticing smell of baking bread down the carved staircase into the main hall. Firelight and candlelight danced on the walls, setting immovable objects dancing. He found the family gathered around the hearth, father sitting with children on his knees, mother close beside them, leaning on her husband.
The boys saw Claudius first and, leaping down, raced across the floor to take his hands and drag him to the group.
“We thought you’d sleep forever!” One shouted.
“Forever!” The other shouted back.
“Good evening,” their father, King of the Forest said, rising, and holding out his hand. “Welcome to my home. I am Arthur, King of the Forest.”
Claudius introduced himself. His sister rose and smiled at him. “Our meal will be ready soon. Perhaps you’d like a quick bath first?”
Claudius followed her back up the stairs, past the room where he had slept, to a small chamber deep in the mountain. Here he found a thermal pool so hot that steam rose from it. She left him there with a towel and brush.
“Don’t be long,” she said. “Dinner will be ready soon, the moonlight doesn’t last long, and we have much to discuss.”
When Claudius regained the group, smelling much more befitting such a castle, dinner had been laid on the table, a feast, more food than he could remember having seen often during his life. Ursula smiled, “We don’t eat like this every night but this is a celebration. A reunion.”
They talked as they ate, Claudius catching Ursula up on their family’s story, the fate of Athena and Elena, his rapid departure.
“It is too bad your father did not learn his lesson,” Arthur growled.
“If Athena and Elena have found even a fraction of the happiness that I have with you,” Ursula smiled at him, “then they have been well repaid.”
Arthur turned red and played with his fork. Then he turned to Claudius and asked, “What shall we do with you now? You can’t stay here. The moon will set soon and I won’t be good company for you then. It’s a wonder Ursula even puts up with me, growling beast that I am. I won’t remember you – it’s a wonder I remember her, I don’t remember my own sons sometimes. You’ll have to move on. And anyway, you have a quest to solve.”
They filled a pack for him with food and water, urged him to keep the cloak he had found on the bed, and added a hat.
As they stepped out into the waning moonlight, Ursula and the boys gave Claudius one last hug, then she herded them back inside, back into their safe room, Claudius assumed, and he turned to go.
But Arthur had one last gift for him. “Take this ring,” he said, holding out a small circle of black hair, tightly braided. “I won’t be able to help you most of the time – if you see me, run quickly and find a tall tree. But if you need help that only I can give, twist that ring on your finger, call my name, and I will come. But,” he growled, “only once… You had better go, and quickly. The moon is setting.”
As the king turned back to the cave, Claudius set out rapidly into the darkening forest, putting distance between the refuge he had found for a few hours, unsure where he would go next.
For that is often the way, little one. We are not sure where our journey will take us and so we move forward, with faith that we will find a destination eventually, and make friends along the way.