When Claudius left Elena and her husband, little one, he wasn’t quite sure where his quest would take him next. He recognized that he had hoped that one of his sisters would somehow provide the answer. While they had welcomed him into their homes and provided food for his journey, his reunions with them had given him only more questions. He was tired, his feet were sore, he was often cold and hungry, his clothes were tattered, and he was long past his last haircut. He had seen more magic than he had ever dreamt existed in the world, but he was deep in the forest, far from his valley home.
And he had no clue where he was going or how to get there. All he could do, little one, was keep going on. That is all any of us can do on any day. Keep moving forward – and if we’re not sure which way is forward, just keep moving.
So that is what Claudius did. Mindful of the warning he had received upon leaving Elena, he moved away from the lake, into the edge of the forest, and then parallel to the lake. At least, at night here, when he looked up, he saw stars and the moon instead of the trees. Each night, as he watched the moon rise and make its way across the sky, he wondered what power it had over his brothers in law. Each morning, he watched the moon set, and he began to wonder what was at the spot where the moon dropped below the horizon. So, for sake of a better plan, he made that his destination.
He walked for days more, for weeks. One day, he looked up and saw a wall. A wall meant people, so he followed it inland, away from the lake, and he came to fields. It was early morning and the cows still slept. He walked on and found sleeping dogs, and dozing villagers. He remembered the frog’s story and wondered if he had found his destination.
Finally he came to another wall, a high protective castle wall. He gazed up the tall gateway and through at the castle guards, napping at their posts. He took a step forward.
Out of the forest beside the castle a huge black bull roared. It trotted out and positioned itself between Claudius and the castle entrance. It was taller than the bulls we have now, for it was a bull of the forest. Claudius, though he had grown to manhood on his journey, did not come even as high as the bull’s shoulder. It’s horns stretched wider than his long arms could reach. It roared with ferocity and anger and glared at Claudius.
Claudius wondered what he could do. He carried no sword, no spear, not even a bow and arrows. When he had been little, his father had told him marvelous tales of bull-leapers, who ran toward bulls, grasped their horns with their hands, and flipped themselves up and over a bull. But Claudius knew he was too short to reach the bull’s horns and too slow to surprise it and too tired for tumbling.
“This is all part of the same story,” a voice said. Claudius looked about then realized that the voice was his own. “Yes,” he said more firmly. “This is all part of the same tale.”
So he took the black hair ring on his finger, twisted it, and called upon The King of the Forest to help him.
Almost immediately, a huge black bear raced out of the forest and barreled into the bull, sending it flying. Claudius took refuge as the two battled ferociously. The fight was over almost immediately, the bear knocked the bull down, and with a mighty claw, tore the bull’s belly open from chin to hips.
Almost too quickly for Claudius to see, a bird flew out and up and disappeared into the sky. Claudius quickly twisted the feather ring and called on the King Above the Forest for help. A great shadow crossed the sun and Claudius saw an eagle, larger even than the great eagles that used to hunt our land, little one, speed across the sky. It seized the smaller bird in it’s great talons. The smaller bird, with a squawk, dropped an egg before disappearing with the eagle into the distance.
The egg fell down, down, down, landing finally in the lake. Claudius raced through the village and back to the lake shore, but he could see only ripples, far out in the water. He twisted the third ring and called on The King of the Forest Waters for help.
For several minutes, nothing happened, then he saw a ripple on the surface, a rippled heading his way. There was a great splash and the egg shot up out of the water, flew through the air, and landed on the shore at his feet. The ripples in the water settled again and all was still.
Claudius looked down at the egg. It was still intact, uncracked, so he picked it up and put it in his pocket.
The Claudius crossed back through the village and through the castle gates. He entered the castle, passing dozing servants and the king, dreaming on his throne.
He climbed stairs and followed long hallways. But all he found were more sleepers. Until finally he came to a closed door. He opened the door and entered the room.
On a bed in the darkest corner, in deep sleep, he saw a princess. Although she must have slept for many years, her eyes were still lined with tears, and her forehead was furrowed with worry. Claudius crossed to her side, knelt down beside her, and kissed her lips.
So he kissed her again.
Claudius wondered if he was in the right story. He had journeyed, he had met mystery, he had battled – or at least called on his brothers-in-law – to battle on his behalf. He had found his way here. There was a sleeping princess, he had kissed her, and she had not awoken.
Just to be sure, he kissed her again.
And still she slept.
Claudius was close to despair. Glancing up, he saw the slate hanging above her bed, covered in hastily scrawled runes. He seized it and smashed it on the floor.
The princess gasped and awoke, holding her head as if she had drunken too much wine the night before. She stared at Claudius.
“I dreamt I was a mouse,” she finally said.
“You were a mouse,” Claudius told her. “You helped me find my sister and your brother, the bear.”
“And I dreamt I was a sparrow.”
“You were a sparrow. You helped me find your brother, the eagle.”
“Was I also a — a frog?”
“You were.” Claudius added, “I think you were also a bull.”
The princess laughed. “Yes, I think I was.” Then she sobered. “I’ve done terrible things.”
“You were very angry.”
“I’ve caused my brothers much pain.”
“And they have found true love.”
“How can I put things right?”
“I’m not sure,” Claudius answered. “But I wonder if this would help.”
He held out the egg and the princess took it. She tilted her head on one side, wondering.
“Where did this come from?”
“I think you gave it to me.”
The princess stared at him. Then she sat up and reached over to crack the egg on the hard side of the bed. Claudius stilled her hand before it could hit the surface.
“Wait,” he told her. “Let’s wait until moonlight.”
The princess thought for a moment, nodded, and placed the egg carefully in her pocket. Then she rose, shook out her skirts and the princess and Claudius made their way to the window, where they watched the sun set. And, as they waited for the moon to rise, they talked. Claudius told her his tale, and she told him how she had dreamt of his journey through the woods.
Finally the moon rose. Claudius gave her the three rings. She held them and said a few words of forgiveness, giving forgiveness to her brothers for their infuriating behavior, and seeking forgiveness for the magical transformations that she had caused. Then she cracked open the egg. It was empty.
The princess and Claudius looked at each other, wondering if the spell had worked. Then, with a twinkle, the rings and the egg vanished, and they knew all was well again.
And that is the story of the secret valley, my little one. Now the sun is setting, the guard is about to change, get to your hands and knees, get ready to run, get ready for my word to run.
And remember, no matter what you hear behind you, keep on running.
Eventually you will come to the secret valley and then you will be part of a different story. A better story. And then you can make a happy ending for yourself.
Remember: just keep running.