The late morning sun spilled in from the tall windows of the room and fell on the Queen’s loom. Una watched her mother stitch intricate patterns into her latest tapestry. She liked to please her mother with her presence but embroidery completely bored her so she feigned interest. Besides, if she watched any more closely she might see how her mother’s hands trembled and that made her uncomfortable.
The sun glanced off the Queen’s ring and caught Una’s eye. The opal set within the golden band smoldered, holding a fire unmatched by any other stones of its kind. “Mother,” she said. “Wherever did you get that ring?”
The Queen sat back from her embroidery and splayed her fingers to behold it. “My mother gave this to me. It is very old. My great grandmother told me the story of it once.” She smiled at her daughter. “She told me that after the ring had been passed down for decades in the Prince of Velania’s family, he gave it to her as a wedding gift. A priceless treasure, I’m led to believe.”
“Oh. That’s… romantic.” To be sure, the story was sweet – but even Nurse had a beautiful ring with the same story, and that somehow seemed to sap all the real romance out of it.
The Queen laughed. “I know you don’t really think so. But that’s not the only thing. What makes it special and priceless, Una, is that this ring is said to be the product of the Twelve Year –”
“Mama!” a plaintive voice wailed, and into the room trudged little Felix, feet dragging and shoulders slouched – the very picture of dejection. “Father promised to take me down to Ramgrip today to see the soldiers. He even told me to wake up at dawn so we would get there early enough, and now he’s gone and locked himself up in his study again –”
Una’s mouth gaped. “Really, Felix,” she interrupted. She planted herself protectively in front of her mother’s chair. “Here Mother and I were having a civilized conversation and you take the liberty to barge in with your fickle woes!” That was a good one, Una thought to herself. “Didn’t Nurse tell you that Mother is too ill to be wasting her energy on squabbles and the like?” she continued. “You’re told to report to Nurse if you have any offenses to be taken care of. Besides, General Argus himself is here and he and Father have business to attend to.”
Felix looked distraught and his sorry posture sagged even more. The Queen’s jaw dropped. “I will tolerate no such thing!” she exclaimed. “Una, get Nurse this instant. I won’t have her taking over my rightful place as Mother.”
Felix tore off down the hall. The Queen began the struggle of standing to go after him, but Una stopped her before she could do what she was forbidden: leave her chair. “I’ll get him, Mother,” she said.
Felix sprinted down the garden tiers toward Goldstone Wood, and broke into the line of great trees for the first time. He tore through the thick and wild growth, his frustration igniting as thorny brambles and tangled undergrowth snagged his feet and forced him to slow down. He grunted and complained, grabbing onto trees and dragging himself forward. His anger fueled him on, but by the time his energy was spent he could still see back through the trees and into the gardens. He saw Una running – no, skipping – after him. The spectacle renewed his resolve to get away. He did not want his sister to come after him! He had hoped to go missing for long enough that one of his parents would actually come looking. He trudged along. There was still time to hide before Una saw him. And he would hide here until one of his parents came themselves.
The woods became darker as they thickened. Felix told himself he wasn’t afraid. He was brave, and he would prove it to his father. Maybe then he would notice him. But he was afraid and soon every twig that snapped underfoot made him jump with fright. He paused for a moment in order to compose himself. The dead silence that ensued soon gave way to a faint sound – was it a voice? He looked behind him and saw nothing but the trees. They were now too thick to see through into the garden. Straining his ears, he thought the sound came from somewhere ahead of him. Did he dare discover the source? Of course he dared! He was brave. He picked up a fallen tree limb for a weapon and advanced.
The trees began to thin again as he neared a small clearing. He stopped just inside the shadow of the overhanging trees, and blinked. Before him on the far side of a trickling stream was what appeared to be a council of cats. They sat neatly in a circle on the bank. Noses twitched and ears flicked attentively towards a shadow from which came a plumy golden tail. Nothing else could be seen of their leader, who remained concealed in the shade.
Felix flung up his arms, holding his branch on high, and ran forward. “Hey, beasts! Get outta here!” The cats, startled, looked back at him with alarmed eyes. “Leave! Scat!” he bellowed. They remained where they were and turned back to their leader for direction. “Bleck,” Felix spat, dropping the branch. “I hate cats.”
From behind came a voice he recognized. “Oh, Felix…” his sister sang in that annoying, prim tone of hers.
Another smaller, quieter voice urged, “We must alert the Master! Quickly!” Caterwauls and yowls filled the air as the cats raced into the woods beyond, away from the clearing.
Una strolled out into the clearing from the path that Felix had left. She promptly grabbed her little brother’s arm and dragged him backwards into the woods. “Mother wants you,” she announced. “And Father will be angry when he finds out you’ve been in the Wood.”
“Let me go!” yelled Felix, pulling back ferociously. “They can come get me themselves!”
“Come on, Felix!”
Una could not believe herself as she grappled with him. She was much too old for such squabbles, and besides, her skirts might get soiled. She let go.
Felix flew back. He tried to recover his feet, failed, and crashed into the stream.
“Una!” Felix blubbered indignantly, flailing around in the brown water.
Covering her mouth, she tried and failed to conceal hysterical laughter. “Oh! Felix!” she howled. “Look at yourself!” He glared at her, rage coloring his face red. “You’re absolutely covered in mud!”
“Una!” he practically screamed. “You stinking –” He cut himself off and lifted his hands out of the water. Mud oozed in between his fingers. His expression transformed from rage into bliss as he beheld the most sought out treasure of boyhood. “Awww, yes!” he exclaimed.
Wonderful. Mother will love this. Una rolled her eyes in disgust and focused her attention on her surroundings. She gasped. The beauty of it immediately caused her heart to sprout wings and soar. Twirling, she spread her arms out and craned her neck to look up. The sky gleamed like blue sapphires through the leaves of the tall trees. “How beautiful!” She gushed. “How perfectly captivating!” Then she saw the bridge. “Oh!” She stepped on the planks. The bridge stretched flat across the stream. It was old, but made of strong, healthy wood – no doubt made from the trees surrounding them. Sunlight filtered through the leaves and bathed it in ethereal light, and birdsong filled Una’s ears. How she wished she had her notebook! This was altogether the perfect spot to gather inspiration.
She turned to Felix and clasped her hands. “I must thank you for running away, Felix. Imagine us going out whole lives without ever finding this! It will be our own special place,” she said, deciding to share – only because Felix liked the mud so much.
“Felix! Una!” The children looked up, startled. “Children!” It was Mother. Felix’s heart sank with guilt. He knew that she would never let them come back to the Wood.
“Here, Mother,” Felix said feebly.
Una momentarily panicked. “What is she doing out of her chair?”
Within a couple moments the Queen came through the trees, from the trail of broken branches that Felix created on his escape. Exasperated and uneasy, she said, “Come now, children.”
“No, Felix. Come.” She directed a commanding look at him, and began to laugh. He sat waist deep in muddy stream water. “Oh Felix, what have you done?”
He pointed up at Una. Mud ran down his arm and dripped from his elbow. “It was her!”
“Una,” the Queen remonstrated, but Una’s attention was already focused on her. Her mother swayed ever so slightly on her feet.
She approached her and held out a hand. “Mother, please sit. You can sit with me, on the bridge.”
“No. We are leaving this forest at once. Your father will be upset if he finds that we have all run off. And he may punish the attendants despite my pardon.”
“Can’t we stay and play just a little while?” Felix whined.
“No,” the Queen said firmly.
“Mother!” Una cried, troubled by the paleness of her mother’s face. “Please sit down!” she pleaded. The Queen released a breath and went to the bridge and sat. After a moment of stillness, she drew her feet closer and tried to take off her shoes. Her fingers fumbled with the simple task. “Mother, please,” said Una, face drawn with concern. Felix watched on, enthralled, at the rare sight of his sister assisting another person. She helped with the buckles and pulled off the Queen’s stockings so she could dangle her feet over the bridge. Putting her arm around Una, the Queen drew her closer.
“Come, Felix,” the Queen beckoned. “Sit with us.” He scrambled onto the bridge and sat himself down on her other side. Neither he nor she cared about the mud that stained their clothes. “Oh, this is a lovely place, despite all the stories,” she breathed. “A special place. Perfect, in fact, for the likes of you two.” She looked at her children. “I love you two very much.” She caressed Felix’s hair. “And so does your father.”
Felix curled himself into a little ball and bawled into his mother’s skirts.
The Queen’s face fell into sympathetic wrinkles. “Oh, Felix, what’s wrong?”
Una sniffled, and did not say a word as her shoulders shook with silent tears.
Suddenly the Queen knew what the matter was. Una never cried, and if she did, it had to be about something big. Something caught in her throat, and her own eyes filled. Her arms drew her children closer and held them tight.
Felix spoke in a small voice. “I thought… when you get sick you’re supposed to get better. When you take your medicine.” He looked up at her. “Haven’t you been taking it?”
The Queen could not look at him, though she smiled sadly through her tears. “I know. I have, Felix. But I do not think…” Oh, how could she say this to him! How was she supposed to prepare them? The burden was too much to bear.
Una cringed at her mother’s sudden sob. The Queen pressed her hand to her mouth, trying to hold it back. “Mother, you’re frightening me.”
“I am sorry,” she gasped. She took in several deep breaths, and calmed a bit. Looking up the stream, she seemed to speak to herself. “When my grandmother was sick, she was so very at peace. She spoke to me about… passing.” She swallowed, and her voice quieted. “And about other things. I remember what she said. But I fear… it is too late.”
She bowed her head, and a moment of great tension and grief filled terror of what was to come overcame the hearts of those three.
Something made the Queen turn her attention sharply to the trees beyond the bridge. Her eyes darted and focused on something unseen, and she became completely quiet as if trying to catch a word on the wind. She peered into the wood with expectancy, seeming to take in with understanding whatever was being communicated to her. Then, relaxing, the lines that her children had grown so used to seeing faded somewhat. She touched her mouth again, but when she withdrew her hand her smile was serene, though her eyes still brimming with tears. “Then it is not too late.” She turned back to her perplexed and frightened children. They were reassured, but at the same time further confused. “It is time to go back home. Dry your eyes,” she said, dabbing her own and passing the handkerchief around. “Felix, rinse off as best as you can.”
After washing their faces and composing themselves, Una and Felix walked back to the trees on the near side of the stream. The girl turned back and found that the Queen remained barefooted on the bridge, facing the trees beyond. “Mother?”
“Go on, Una. Take Felix home.”
Una stood still, watching her.
Her mother looked over her shoulder at her and smiled. “Hurry along, then. Go to your father.”
“She told us to leave, but she stayed,” Felix informed his father. He tried not to sound too much like he was telling on his own mama.
“And she was acting strange,” Una added. “But not really in a bad way.”
The King frowned. The lines on his face revealed deep worry. “Well I can’t imagine what you two were doing there in the first place.”
The children flinched at his harsh tone but remained silent.
His heart raced in his chest as King Fidel ran down the gardens. What was she thinking? What had the children been thinking, leaving her alone, sickly and weak? And the attendants! They would not even enter that accursed wood for the royal family.
As he reached Goldstone Wood, he panicked, unsure of where he should start. The Wood so vast and the trees so alike made it a puzzle. He stood frozen. Then he saw where the branches were broken off, amongst the otherwise untouched wood. Onward he ran.
The Queen kneeled in the midst of the trees. She saw only flickers of glory, and she heard only a quiet voice. She trembled in the dark of the Wood and strained her ears to hear. “Do you remember when I revealed myself to you?”
“I remember. My grandmother spoke of you.”
“Yet you denied me.”
The Queen’s breath caught in her throat and she quavered all over. She could say nothing. Her mind clambered to find an excuse, and found many; but upon opening her mouth, none seemed worthy of presenting to this... man? Spirit?
She remembered, again, what her grandmother had said long ago, as she lay on her deathbed. “He is a King of kings,” she had said, as she gripped her granddaughter’s hand. “And that he would love, and care for, a creature such as myself –”
“Grandmother,” she had said. “You are a Lady. Of course it is right that you should be recognized and cared for!”
Tears had filled the old lady’s eyes as she shook her head. “No, my girl,” she had said, her voice thick. “I have been ever so wicked to this King. But he loves, my girl, and wants me to walk with him, even through death…”
“No, grandmother,” she had said, her voice harsh. “You are good. You will not die.” And in her heart, she refused to believe a word her dear grandmother said from then on. She even refused to acknowledge her eventual passing.
The Queen now bowed her head. “I am sorry.”
The King strode through the Wood, hardly slowing as branches grabbed at his clothes. His imagination tormented him as he fought through the trees.
“Do you count the cost? This is your road to salvation, and there is only a short time.”
The Queen nodded. “And my family?”
“I have loved them as I have loved you for all this time, since the beginning of time. I will take care of them.”
The King stepped out from the trees and onto the bank. He briefly took in the small, trickling stream, and the wooden bridge that stretched over it.
The Queen stepped barefoot out of the far side of the Wood. Fidel's heart thudded with relief and he burst forward across the bridge and caught her up in his arms. With one hand he felt her forehead. “My dear, you are not well,” he said, but she laughed softly, taking his hand in her own. He raised his eyebrows and looked down at her face. Pale, and with a sickly flush about the cheeks. Yet, there was something different about the corners of the eyes and lips. They were soft, and hardly drawn at all in any sort of discomfort or worry.
By the next morning, the Queen was sitting up and embroidering again. Una could tell by the slowness of her hands and the squinting of her eyes that the Queen’s mind dwelled intently on something else.
“It’s too bad we won’t be able to go to the Wood anymore, Mother,” Una sighed, and waited expectantly for the Queen’s response. No response came. “Mother.”
“Oh,” the Queen said, finally seeming to notice her daughter’s presence and recalling what she said. “Una, please don’t hint. There’s no need to be indirect.” She set her needle down and turned her attention to her daughter.
Embarrassed, Una tried again. “Couldn’t we play in the Wood, Mother? It will keep Felix busy for once, and I just know it will do wonders for my writing!”
Just then her father walked in. “Yes, Una, you and Felix may play there.” She clapped her hands and turned to give him a smile, but noticed how unhappy he looked about the subject. “However you must always give me word when you are planning to go, you must not go when it is dark and you may not remain there for more than an hour at a time. Understood?”
Una’s temper flared with indignation. To report to him whenever they wanted to go out? And only remain for an hour at a time? How ridiculous! But to not be able to go at all would be worse, so she nodded her head shortly, not wanting to risk opening her mouth and have something unbidden pop out and destroy all hopes.
Felix stood at the doorway and heard it all. “Yipee!” he shrieked, and tore down the hall towards the doors. “Well, we’re going now,” Una said, and ran off in pursuit. Fidel watched them go, and when the door slammed he turned a tender gaze on his wife. “There. How was that?” he asked gently, with a touch of impatience. “Have I humored you sufficiently?”
She smiled. “Yes. Almost.” Her tone became serious. “But Fidel, I am telling you the truth about yesterday and if you would just listen…”
“Of course. I know. You are right,” the King said shortly. “Yesterday was an interesting day. You seem to have recovered well enough, but you were very weak. Very weak. No doubt your adventure in the Wood left you very fatigued.” His voice dropped. “Of body and mind.”
“Fidel, if you’re thinking I just imagined it all…”
“Perhaps you didn’t,” he broke in sharply. “But we have all heard the stories. The Wood is a dark place that plays tricks on the mind. And I don’t like the children playing there.”
“But I will appease you in this. Fear not that I will go back on my word.”
For a moment she seemed to struggle, but then, in her customary way of letting go, the Queen let out a breath. “I thank you, Fidel. The children are very grateful. It will be good for them to have a special place to go to in the coming days.” The eyes looking up at him were sad, yet hopeful.
His smiled, but the corners of his mouth seemed to falter, and the smile never quite reached his eyes. He bent down and kissed her. Swiftly he turned to go, but he felt the hand of the queen brush his. She slid her fingers into his. For a moment, all he felt was the difference in her skin. He knew he could not look into her face for fear that she would see his. “Fidel.” She said. “All will be well. I am sure of it. I wasn’t sure of it before, but now I am.” Without a word, he knelt silently by her side and held her hand.