Chapter 11: King of the Forest Waters

Author’s Note: Oops – this one didn’t get posted in order. Sorry.

Do you feel better now, my little one? Hungry? Reach down deep into your pocket and take a little bread. Just a little – you will need more for your journey – and I will continue my tale.

As Claudius emerged back onto the shore with the frog, he saw that the shore there extended into the lake, a thin finger of land, a line of stones, barely visible above the water, led far out into the lake. And he saw, at the near end of this isthmus, a woman, her back turned toward him. He hardly noticed that the frog jumped down then and disappeared under a fern.

Although, as the frog had cautioned him, he did not make a sound as he approached, she must have sensed he was there, and she turned and he saw his sister, Elena.

She smiled at him but laid a finger across her lips. He nodded. When he reached her, he hugged her tightly. She was thin and poorly dressed, her hair long and lank. But, as the sky was growing orange with sunset, he suspected that would change soon.

She gestured at the stones stretching into the water and indicated that they would walk, single file down that line, and that his footsteps must fall when hers fell, and that he must not touch the water. Claudius followed her silently, stepping when she stepped, carefully keeping to the dry parts of the stones, the still water mirroring the sunset, mirroring his sister, mirroring him.

When they reached the end of the line of stones, Claudius was surprised to see a staircase spiraling down into the water. He followed his sister down into the dark, carefully still matching her steps. At the bottom of the stairs, he found himself in a vast, glass room, the dark blue of the lake stretching around him. Elena stood beside a huge basket woven of lake reeds, holding the lid. She gestured with her shoulder and he climbed into the basket. She laid the cover on top and he found himself in darkness.

With his finger, he made a small hole in the reeds, just large enough for his eye, and peered out. The room was sparsely furnished. The basket, a rocking chair with a pile of blankets beside it. His sister rocked gently, sewing the blankets. As she rocked she began to sing.

She sang about her journey there. How the white horse had grown a fish’s tail and dove deep into the river through their village. How it had drawn the carriage most of that night until it had come to the vast lake and she had seen, not far from shore, a tall glass castle. Her new home. And how she had met her king, a man she had immediately fallen in love with, who treated her like a queen when the moon was high. And how, when the moon set, she found herself in this glass bowl with almost nothing, while her husband swam around and around outside.

Claudius saw then, beyond her, beyond the glass walls, a great shape, as she had said, circling her home. The form was immense and shadowy, and it moved like a predator.

And he heard it singing back to her. Heard it! He felt it, vibrating through the walls, through the floor, through the basket, through his bones. It sounded angry.

He watched as Elena calmly laid aside her sewing and walked to the glass wall closest to the great underwater beast. She lay one hand on the glass and sang again, and Claudius knew that this song was not for him.

He watched and listened as Elena and the king sang to each other then, a strange duet with words, without words, with an intensity of sound that hummed through Claudius’s body like a lullaby. After a while, Claudius grew weary and slept.

And, as always, when he awoke, the moon was high. The glass bowl had been transformed into a castle, and his sister was transfigured, her dress glittering with jewels, her husband charming and welcoming. They laughed and feasted and gazed out over the star-dappled water.

As the moon set, the king, as his brothers had before him, gave Claudius supplies for his journey, and gave him a ring, twisted from scales.

“If you need my help,” he promised, “twist this ring on your finger and call me and I will come. Once.”

Then he pointed the way back to shore. “Once the moon sets, stay away from the water, for I will not know you. Follow the shoreline for three days and you will find what you have been searching for. I wish you luck.”

Claudius turned his back on the castle and made his way to shore.

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