Once upon a time...
There was a shy princess.
She spoke to few of her subjects, as she was afraid they would think her overly talkative or self-centered. As it were, the people of the kingdom loved the princess and thought the world of her but they in turn were afraid to speak to her, lest she think them overly forward or disrespectful.
The King and Queen loved their daughter, and gave her everything. They provided her with gifts, animals, a superb education (which was unheard of for a woman in those days) and all of their love. The princess grew in grace, kindness and intelligence. Her peers and the elders in the church thought her to be of greater wisdom and maturity than most women twice her age.
The princess, though of the highest intellectual stature, also grew in great beauty. As the years passed and she became of age, all the men in the kingdom were continually amazed by her surpassing loveliness and grace.
Also puzzling to the menfolk was that the princess had never taken a suitor. Childhood romances had run their course, naturally... the princess even being sent to the highest tower in the castle for a night after unashamedly kissing a young squire in the school yard...nonetheless, the princess had for the most part, despite several close calls, remained without a significant romance throughout her young life. Not to be overly preoccupied by the matter, the princess and her royal parents were inclined to let nature run its course. In due time, they assumed, the princess would see fit to pursue a Godly courtship...
But the time passed quickly, as the princess grew... and still every bachelor in the small town maintained a glimmer of hope that perhaps HE, lord willing, would be the one to take the princess for his own. The princess continued to grow in beauty, and in favor with all who knew her.. and still was without the earthly love so many were sure would someday strike quick as lightning...
--------------------------------------------------------------- One night the princess sat by the mirror in her spacious room, brushing her hair before laying down to bed. A shrill chirping drew her attention to the windowsill, where sat a brown sparrow, head cocked to one side, gazing at the princess. She smiled, went to the window. The bird fluttered willingly to her, and she saw that around its leg was secured a small piece of parchment. She removed it and unrolled the paper to read this short message: "To whomever God in Heaven shall send this small creature... this song is for you." She looked at the bird, puzzled.. and as if on cue, the bird began to sing. Not in the ordinary chattering of a sparrow, but with the glorious melodic beauty of a human voice. The princess stood entranced, hands clutched against her breast as the little bird sang the angelic tune... the heavens themselves seemed to open and the princess could have sworn to hearing not one or two, but a whole choir of voices pour from the small creature. The music swelled and bloomed, as if painting colors in the night air... the princess stood motionless, in awe of the beauty of the miracle.. and tears rolled down her cheek as the last few notes lingered in the air and faded away.
The princess struck the tears from her face and ran to her bed table in flushed excitement. Scrawling a quick note upon the other side of the original, she then tied her own message to the leg of the sparrow with a piece of red ribbon. The bird smiled up at her, turned, and fluttered off into the darkness.
The princess lowered herself slowly into bed that night, unable to sleep, amazed at what she had just witnessed.. while the last faint echoes of the angelic chorus still remained in her ears, the sound floating above her head like stubborn champagne bubbles...
Who had sent the bird? Why had it come to her? How did one train such an insignificant creature to perform so? She slept then, still pondering, finally dreaming of church and hymns and beauteous song...
The days turned to weeks... then months. Still Anique waited, yearned for a reply from the mysterious wizard, or musician, or magical being who had sent the angelic gift of heaven's choir in a common sparrow...
Who could have done such a wonderful thing? The princess was obsessed, completely engrossed in the possibilities. Her studies, though not negatively affected by the recent occurrence, became less important in her own mind... as did the daily activities from which she had formerly derived so much pleasure. Those around her sensed a certain restlessness. She was incomplete, searching, but for what, she knew not exactly. Still time passed, and the sparrow did not return.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ One stifling hot day during the mid-summer months, Anique became altogether bored with her royal duties. Out of the palace she strode, past protesting maids and cooks, through the stables and out through the courtyard. Her mother's reproving cries drew only a sharp peal of mischievous laughter from the princess, and she quickly pulled the bulk of her royal dress up around her knees and ran through the courtyard, out the main gate of the palace and down the giant marble steps into the village itself. The small town was nearly asleep at that time of day, as the white sun had driven most inside to seek refuge from the insufferable heat. The princess strolled confidently through the tiny village, enjoying the surprised stares she elicited from the tiny children and mothers and street vendors she encountered...
Nearing the enormous oak gate to the city, the princess slowed her pace, not intending to actually leave the village limits... why, she had crossed the enormous moat to leave her father's city only a few times, and always with an absurdly large number of maidservants and guards and of COURSE, her parents. She stopped a moment, hesitated... well, after all, she was of age to think for herself. Anique strutted through the massive stone entrance to the city, across the wood and iron drawbridge. As unfashionably rude as it would have been in her father's palace, she felt even more compelled to then remove her shoes (they pinched anyway) and walked off into the massive field... it seemed to stretch for miles. It most likely did, as only one narrow dirt road traversed the meadow strewn with dandelions and buttercups and bluebells. A clear stream flowed nearby, and she saw that it seemed to be fairly deep and looked so very inviting on such a hot day... Anique looked back towards the city, and saw that no one had followed her... down the road, into the distance... no body from that way. She unbuttoned the top of her gown and wrestled it away. A few more cumbersome knots and the bulk of her dress lay in a bunch on the grass, leaving her wearing only the white undergarment she slept in. Her mother would faint at the news should anyone see her, but how fun t'would be until then... Anique stepped into the water and waded deeper and deeper.. The striking difference between the muggy air and the crisp frosty water left her breathless but she swam out into the stream, floated on her back and stared up at the blue sky, just daring a cloud to pass in front of the sun and acting overall very much unlike royalty.
"Excuse me, miss..." came a voice. The princess gasped and plunged beneath the water, praying that she would not be recognized. How horrible to be caught! She stayed under for a few moments but had to peek the top of her head out of the water, and saw to her horror a young man standing by the water's edge, Anique's crumpled and soiled dress hanging limp from his outstretched arm.
"Is this yours? Sawr it 'ere, I did.. and worried that p'raps you might o' lost it... " She could tell he was lying, having only wanted to spy on her, the tramp... she was furious.
"Turn around!" she shouted. "Leave my dress and face that way!" He obeyed, blushing crimson as he turned. She climbed from the stream and hurriedly threw her dress on over her damp undergarments, lest the rude boy see her indecent... what nerve had he, to gawk so at a woman... at a princess, no less! Her long brown hair also was stringy now and all of the morning's brushing gone to waste.. she frantically tousled it in the sun's warm rays, hoping to do away with the wet appearance before returning home... she walked briskly away from the boy, whose back was still humbly and obediently turned. When he heard the princess' retreating footsteps, he turned then, and meekly followed.
"Sorry I am.." he protested, "I meant only to" and she cut him off abruptly.
"NO," she exclaimed, "you are a rude, horrid boy.. leave me alone." He stopped then, and watched as she hurried towards the city gate.
"D'you still want your shoes?" he called out weakly, as a last effort to apologize. She couldn't go back without her shoes, she realized, and was forced to bite her lip and turn back reluctantly.
"Thank... you..." she was cooling off a bit, after realizing that the young man most likely was just a curious sort and meant no harm. She reached out to take the shoes from him...
Instead of handing Anique her shoes, he knelt down, took her small foot in his hand and slid it into the shoe himself. He then laced it up and made sure it was fitting comfortably, then did the same with the other. He stood up then, smiling slightly, hoping to have won a slight favor with the pretty girl he had just met. She saw to her surprise after looking at his face for the first time that he was not as young as she had first imagined. His voice was youthful and that had fooled her. In reality he was most likely older than she, and somewhat taller, with wide shoulders and stance. She decided that his hair had once been dark but was now bleached by the sun, and his skin had likewise been tanned and darkened by the hot rays. His eyes were blue, deep set, and searching.. his nose and mouth prominent but not entirely too large. His countenance at that moment was not altogether ugly... the princess found him to be a rather pleasant-looking fellow after all, despite the displeasure she had felt in seeing him initially.
"What is your name?" she asked, willing to further her knowledge of him, if only to postpone the inevitable return to her mother's scolding.
"Edward" he replied, although his accent made it sound like "Edwood". He was smiling fully now, obviously glad to have gained some ground after all.. his smile was so pure, so joyful, the princess felt suddenly strangely ashamed for having scolded him so, and momentarily lowered her gaze from his... in that fleeting moment she saw in his left hand a piece of crumpled parchment paper, tied with a tattered red ribbon...
"My goodness..." (she exclaimed), "That is MY ribbon... how did you come by it?!" The boy was flustered, taken aback by the sudden outburst of familiarity.
"Oh, I only happened 'pon it in t'woods.. real pretty it was, I thought.. did you much miss it?" he stammered, trying to be helpful.
"No.. yes... well I sent it away, with the paper.. have you the note also?" she asked in great excitement now.
"Well yes I 'ave, but I cannot very well read what it says.. the ink is smudged so, and I never did learn quite to read such fancy lettering..." and he handed it over to the princess, who gently unwrapped the parchment to see that indeed, the note had been wet and the message all but run across the paper. She recalled what she had written those months ago.. " May a gift of such angelic music be followed by a messenger of only a fraction of the beauty, I still consider myself blessed by all of heaven..".
"You say you found this? Where? When? Have you the bird with you?" He seemed surprised. "Well, no, Miss.. I have only just today found it in the woods yonder during my travels here.. I saw no bird.." and Anique's heart sank. He was but a lonely boy, a vagabond. He had no magical skills, nor did he have the bird.. he had only come across the note which someone must have dropped. All her hopes of finally meeting the One were crushed...
"Never mind then," she said. "Come, our village is most pleasant and I am sure if you are looking for work.. (his eyes brightened) " my father could put you in the stables or perhaps in the kitchen." "Your father?" he asked, confused.
"The King," she said, perhaps a little too smugly. She always enjoyed the look of shock exhibited when people realized who she was. Amazingly she received no satisfaction now.
"The king? Well then I s'pose you'd be princess.. m'lady.." he said simply with a smile, and knelt, taking her hand in his and kissing it gently.
So matter of fact and unfazed.. Anique stared at him, not altogether displeased by his manners but expecting such a different reaction.
Ah well, no matter...
"Thank you, sir... Edward, was it? You are so very polite; I would have not expected it." She immediately regretted her slight sarcasm but was again disarmed by his warm smile.
"Yes, m'lady, anything I could do for some small sum of money.. I've been away from 'ome since my birthday (t'was in April) and I haven't had much work.. I'm only looking for a place where I ken make use of myself, you know." She nodded, understanding but still disappointed that he was only some ordinary boy and not the one for whom she had waited so long...
"Come with me then," she said, "and we will find you a place to stay." He nodded and followed willingly, walking beside and slightly behind the princess, being especially careful not to trod on her already-soiled dress...
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Edward fit in quite well.. the King was surprisingly generous in allowing the boy to sleep in a small unused section of th servant's quarters, as well as paying him a servant's wages for the odd jobs he did around the palace.
He was there for a week, then a month.. his work was satisfactory, and he had completely won over all the servants (especially the women) in a matter of hours after arriving with his sweet disposition and willingness to please. He had found a place for himself, and even Anique herself, though initially unhappy at how commonplace he had seemed, found that she enjoyed the boy's company after a time. Sometimes the two of them would sit in the terrace outside her room, talking late into the night about everything and nothing in particular. The princess supposed it was not exactly proper to converse with a servant boy so frequently; some of less open minds might warn that the girl's superior inborn intellect would be warped by the boy's commonplace thoughts and ideas... but she knew better. She found their conversations to be refreshing and unique. Edward had such a gift of empathy... the princess found she could tell him anything, from her concerns with her studies to romantic complications with would-be suitors (most of whom became overly attached for no reason whatsoever). He would sit close... place a gentle hand on her knee perhaps; nothing too forward, of course, and pay rapt attention, eyes never wavering from her face while she spoke. He was always quiet; too quiet sometimes while she poured out her frustrations with the days' events or with her subjects in general and, although in many things he had no expertise and therefore little defined knowledge of the situation to offer, he always had some form of simple, reasonable solution. Anique found herself almost ashamed by his innocence, his unwillingness to judge harshly the actions or opinions of others... in Edward, she had found the purest of souls and the kindest, most compassionate of hearts...
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Their relationship grew...
As did the frequency of their long discussions out on the terrace, where late into the summer nights they would sit, faces close, talking of days past and of days to come and fairly most everything in between. In the fast approaching autumn months, and well into the chilling winter (the kingdom was widely known for producing the most bitter and bone-chilling of weather once the winter set in) the princess and Edward could be found, if not on the terrace, within the princess' own chambers, hunched over the fireplace, discussing poetry or laughing of the absurd clothing worn by the flighty ladies-in-waiting, who were on an extended visit from some kingdom far to the West.
It was puzzling to some, how the princess allowed herself to be so entertained by such a lowly servant... for all practical appearances, they were but a girl and a boy enjoying one another's company and although not completely out of the ordinary, most girls of royalty would turn up their noses at such a man as Edward. She did not however, and continued to seek his presence.
Edward's fondness for the princess grew over the months. He was of course in no place to consider the princess as any more than a casual acquaintance (it was only proper, after all) and he was indeed honored to consider her even as a friend... few and far between were the servants or kitchen help that were given even the slightest opportunity to speak with the princess, so for the extended times Edward was allowed to spend in her presence, he was exceedingly grateful. Still, he became discontent with the situation as it was, and even found himself growing envious of the occasional suitor that would visit in the hopes of catching the princess' eye. As out of place as his feelings were, Edward could still only hope that Anique felt *remotely* similar... that deep inside, apart from all of her royal duties and mannerisms, she could somehow... love him too.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The princess left then. Quite suddenly, she fell rather ill of influenza or some such disease ("Tis from the long nights on the terrace talking with the kitchen boy.." was the general opinion of most). As her father was a man of action, the princess was promptly sent (with a whole train of maidservants, of course) to her uncle's palace in the east... that particular domain was rich in the healing herbs much needed by the princess, and her uncle was known to employ the most widely renowned physicians in the entire kingdom. It was believed that in a matter of months (at the very most) Anique would regain full health and once again go about her royal activities.
Before her departure Edward had only a moment to speak with her.. a light touch on the arm and a daring kiss he planted on the top of her head.. then she was gone.
Edward was of course most put out by the situation... it was not his place to follow the princess around night and day; he realized. Still, her absence made him restless.
For three weeks she was gone. Then four. A month passed, then two, and a third. Over half a year finally had come and gone, and still the princess could not return home. Scores of letters, describing her "delicate state" and recommending a prolonged stay were received frequently by the king and queen... they were willing to go to any lengths to see their daughter healed, and accepted the fact that she would not be home for some time. Edward, however, grew in his impatience and longing to see her again... as the summer months waned and autumn once again grasped the kingdom, he grew in his resolution to once again enjoy Anique's company.
One early morning, before even the chickens had risen to peck at the cold earth.. Edward gathered a few meager belongings in a burlap sack. Out of the servants' quarters he strode, out of the palace itself, through the sleeping city and over the drawbridge, into the wilderness beyond. Over his left shoulder was the rough bag made of peasant's cloth... and in his right hand he grasped firmly a worn, tattered piece of red ribbon...
Edward set out to the East...
Knowing only to travel in that direction, without a proper map or guidance of any kind. A youthful, stubborn will drove him, as did his affection for the princess.
For days he walked. The bread and cheese he had tied up in his rough cloth sack lasted only the first day, as he was not accustomed to rationing his food (he had a healthy appetite, as young men often do). Hoping to arrive at his destination within a day or two, young Edward went without food for a spell, but after the third day had passed, he grew restless with hunger and determined to scavenge for at least a small bellyful of food. Being surprisingly skilled at making small traps and such, he soon snared a young quail which he plucked and roasted over a small fire. As the sun disappeared behind the trees, Edward sat, calmly turning his catch over and over on the wooden spit he had made. The flames of the setting sun were always so brilliant in that part of the kingdom during the autumn. Edward sat, hunched over his dinner, while the sun slowly fell in the sky and cast long parting beams of lights through the scattered trees... Edward's shadow stretched far behind him as all was bathed in brilliant orange.... slowly then, the sun was no more and only visible were the radiant colors streaked across the horizon.
After eating, the boy yawned, and stretched out upon the cold ground to sleep. Wrapped only in his own cloak and laying his head upon the bunched up burlap sack for a pillow, Edward pondered the previous days. He looked up at the sky and saw the stars slowly twinkle to life. Thousands upon thousands... millions, perhaps; piercing, white lights shone from each speck in the sky. Like someone had thrown handfuls of brilliant silver sand into the heavens, and it had stuck there, looking down at him. Edward smiled, thinking of the beauty of it all.. and how still the wonderful view above him did not compare to that of the Princess Anique.
He slept then, and dreamed of her... ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ He was walking, taking his time to absorb all the sights and sounds of a large city... the food shops, stables, cloth merchants and such. The hustle and bustle of a market at midday was very exciting to him. He traversed the streets, watching, observing, marveling; seeing many people but speaking to no one.
"Edward! Here!" the young man heard from close by. He turned, and saw the quick retreating figure of a girl all too familiar to him. Quickly he followed her into a small shop full of fabrics and dyes... but she was not there. "Edward!" and she giggled in delight... he turned and there she was again, sprinting up a flight of stairs away from him. Again he followed, and upon entering a seamstress' workshop saw that she was not there either... He heard a joyful peal of girlish laughter, turned and again saw her figure retreating across the open market square. Edward turned and ran, confused but determined.. the girl ducked into another small establishment, and Edward entered shortly after only to run full tilt into a teeming mass of drunk patrons. The tavern was full to capacity and Edward could hardly pick out the slender figure easily slipping through the crowd; only the bright red ribbon in her soft brown hair helped him to distinguish the quick retreating princess. Frustrated, Edward jostled his way to the bar and leapt onto it. From his perch he looked down at the sea of sweaty, jovial faces; farmers, carpenters, fisherman, all gathered to drink and celebrate as one, on some unknown occasion... and there finally was Anique, her laughter still ringing above the din and clamor of the inebriated, as she reached the back door of the crowded tavern and turned once more to Edward, beckoned, and disappeared once more. Edward jumped down and made his way to the back with some difficulty, where he burst through the door like a bat out of hell, ready to once again pursue the girl......
Yet there she stood, unmoving... her back to him, her head lowered, face cradled in her hands... she was crying.
The irritation Edward felt at being led around in such a manner melted suddenly, and he was instantly at her side, comforting... "What is wrong? Why do you weep?" He knelt then, in front of her, and looked into her face; it was hidden from him, enshrouded by her long hair.. slowly he parted her beautiful hair, pushed it back to reveal her face. Her cheeks were tearstained, but worse, they were sunken, pale... her streaming eyes were sad and forlorn. Edward gently took her face in both his hands, brought it near to his own. "I am alone, Edward.. I am sick. Where are you? I need your words, your comfort..." she said. Still holding her face, Edward wiped her tears away with his thumbs and kissed her on the forehead. Suddenly it was night and they stood in a field. "Look.. there you lay" said Anique, and Edward looked down to see his own quiet shape, resting silently under the stars. "Awake, Edward... awake and find me... follow the little creek you see here until it flows into the river that stems from the mountain... follow the great river north and you shall find me soon... hurry, Edward, for I miss you..." Edward held the princess in a long embrace, not wanting to let go, knowing now that he had indeed dreamed it all... He held both of her hands, kissed her gently on both eyes. She let go then, and turned away to walk slowly into the early morning mist, which rose from the earth in a sudden white blur to take the princess away...
Edward watched her melt away into the quick-approaching morning fog.. then knelt and grasped the shoulders of his slumbering self to waken him and find Anique...
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The sun slowly began to peek over the tops of the trees, finally warming Edward... he awoke.
Edward's Eyes Opened, And He Rose, Determined...
To the East he travelled, following the princess' instructions exactly. The trickling brook widened gradually into some nameless river, which in turn seemed to grow larger and swifter by the minute...
Edward stayed to his course throughout the day, following the rushing water towards the giant peak he saw in the distance.. the name of the mountain escaped him but as it drew closer during the course of the day Edward could see how truely massive it was.
As night began to fall, Edward reached the foot of the mountain, and just as the princess had said, the water finally led to a tunnel at the base of the mountain.
The river itself seemed to be swallowed up by an angry black hole, the granite worn smooth as glass around the edges by the years upon years of torrid rushing waters...
Edward could see no end to the tunnel. It seemed to stretch away forever into the distance, at a slight downward angle.. the only light cast upon the dark entrance was the pale silver glow of the quick rising moon, and even that only reached a few feet into the dark chasm. Edward looked nervously down into the unknown, and then up and around to survey the formidable mountain surrounding him. No... it would take days to hike over that.. the princess had visited him in his sleep, of that he was certain.. he could not hesitate to go to her.
Resolute, Edward ventured forth into the gaping, angry entrance, waist-deep in the dark, rushing water... for a moment he could just barely see the flowing river in front of him, then all was swallowed by the darkness. Edward grasped blindly in all directions as he waded with the current, feeling for a handhold on either side of him.. the ground underneath suddenly dropped off and his feet slipped forward.. the water spilled over a short waterfall and Edward was blindly thrown over the brink, plunging then underneath the icy waters. He surfaced gasping for air as the churning torrent sped along twice as fast now, hurling him along, terrified, trying desperately to keep his head above water. The angry waters then turned a sharp corner and Edward was thrown against the granite wall of the tunnel.. His head seemed to have been cleaved in two and a thunderclap sounded in his ears... sparks of light danced around his vision... then the water closed over his head and he knew no more.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ A tickling in his ear awoke him. In the sluggish, dreamy moments before he was completely aware of his surroundings, Edward imagined himself once again in the servant's quarters, being playfully awakend by the nuzzling whiskers of a stray kitten... he slowly opened his eyes. He lay not in a bed, but face-down in a muddy embankment. The sun had not quite quite risen, but Edward could see by the blue-gray half light of early morning that the river had come gushing out the other side of the mountain and hurled him into a shallow pool.. he had floated to the edge and most likely collapsed into the mud in his unconsciousness. He had been roused by a dandelion brushing against his face, blowing in the wind...
Edward rose to his knees in the muck and then lurched forward again, vomiting a stomachful of murky brown water.. it tasted of slate and chalky stone, and left grains of sand in his teeth. He wiped his mouth and walked unsteadily to the water's edge, waded in and rinsed his mouth.. his reflection in the water horrified him. His clothes were torn and muddied, his entire figure worn and battered... he remembered the knock on the head and winced when the knot on his temple reacted to his probing. His hair on that side of his head was matted down with dried brown blood.. he was soaked to the bone and in the early morning chill he feared for his own health...
He had forgotten! Edward sloshed once again to shore and looked to the North... there, in the distance he saw grain fields... he walked closer. After a half hour's journey he passed through the field and came upon a sight not easily forgotten... the ground upon which he stood dropped off almost immediately in front of him and he realized that he was in reality on the brink of a tremendous valley... the ground sloped downward, leading down a steep path into a massive canyon. The city down below... how beautiful it was! Partially hidden by the morning fog, only the outermost portions of the town were visible.. in the center however, there rose through the fog a high tower, surrounded by three or four others. The centermost tower seemed to signal the location of the entire palace..
She was there. He was sure of it. A narrow path to his right led down into the city, beneath the fog...
He started down.
As Edward made his way down the steep canyon path, The mighty sun slowly burned the morning fog away... the city became visible in the new light. The looming castle towers in the center of the valley were still surrounded by faint wisps of fog, which played about the uppermost peaks of the structure like ghosts in a friendly game of hide-and-seek.
Edward reached the base of the giant canyon with minimal difficulty, and saw for the first time the sheer enormity of the city.
The path leading down into the basin widened gradually into a well-worn road, which then became paved as it drew nearer to the city. What had seemed only an hour's journey from the top of the outer rim now turned into the wearying task of a half day's walk. Edward seemed to never draw nearer to the strange city, walking on and on towards it... the structures and high towers seemed to retreat from him as he advanced. The dusty road became more friendly to tread upon, as the surrounding foliage grew greener and more cultured. The many herbs and medicinal plants for which that area was so widely renowned became more evident, as finally drawing nearing the city limits the road came to pass through fields and fields of sweet smelling plants.. a fresh, healing odor permeated the unusually warm air. For that particular time of the fall, Edward noted, the weather had grown strangely pleasant. He though nothing of it.. the area was, after all, enclosed within a protective wall of granite and slate... the place would be more protected from the winter elements, he assumed. Edward was a simple boy, besides, and thought no more of the phenomenon.
The pastures stretched away forever on either side of him, the road he traversed only an insignificant man-made stripe of stone trailing meekly through the vast expanse of green and yellow and red... strange herbs and spices such as he had never seen were as grass for miles in all directions. He knew now why the princess had been sent here. If the strange and wonderful medicines concocted from these new plants were not enough to heal the princess, how else she could be cured he did not know. He began to feel slightly foolish for his efforts; to mistrust the beauty and healing power of this place seemed absurd to him now.
Still, he reasoned (while slowing his pace to pick a unique violet flower and take in its scent), the princess had still not been made well... and he decided that the fondness he had for her, be it only a childish infatuation, or something deeper, was worthy of his seeking her out.
The sun was now past the halfway point in the sky. Its rays streamed down upon Edward, who had long since been dried off from his insane spill down the long shaft of icy water. He drew nearer now to the giant city, and could make out the amazing height of the city walls, and the fearful gargoyles and griffins carved out of solid marble, perched upon either sides of the drawbridge, snarling at him. The unhappy creatures caused him no small amount of alarm, as real as they seemed.. and as he slowly crossed the moat into the walls of the city, a single thought entered his mind... that as beautiful as the fields were and as healthy as everything appeared, he had not yet seen one living creature. No birds nesting in the trees, no butterflies or bees nursing pollen from the exotic foliage... not so much as a minnow swam through the narrow stream or inhabited the moat.
The silence was eerie. As he passed over the drawbridge he saw not a single living soul. What should have been a lively, packed-to-the-gills marketplace atmosphere was devoid of all life. The cobbled ground he walked on stretched out into a wide open market square, and branched off into a dozen smaller roads, all leading further into the city and down alleys and to the homes of peasants and noblemen alike. However, no vendors were visible, no housewives chattering away or bartering over the outrageous price of a pound of salmon, no young children playing with the dogs or dogs chasing stray cats...
Nothing. Edward stood alone; a solitary figure, he ran both hands through his tousled brown hair and gazed in puzzlement across the empty marketplace floor. He looked up at the windows lining the street, out of which some diligent woman could always be seen throwing her dirty dishwater. The windows were all closed; not boarded shut, but closed.. Edward slowly paced down the long main street, looking up at the eternal row of silent windows and at the doors closed to the world..
It was as if the place was deserted. But a town of seemingly thousands of people? It was unthinkable. As beautiful and prosperous as it had appeared from the outside, the city was as deathly silent and eerie as a tomb from within.
Edward was unsettled by the seeming desertion of the place... if no one inhabited the city, then where was the princess. Either gone.. or dead, he feared.. he would not allow himself to believe such a thing. Newly determined, Edward looked up to locate the position of the central tower.. there it loomed, more ominous now than it had seemed when he had seen it from afar. The trails of mist still hung about its utmost peak; should not the sun have melted them away by this time of day? Edward knew not whether they were from the sheer height of the scaffold, or from another unknown force...
He shivered. As he quickly found his way through the dead city and approached the front gates of the palace, Edward felt an irrepressible chill... a cold fist gripped his heart as he walked through the unguarded front gate and all the blood drained from his face as he climbed the front steps and drew nearer to the giant oak door that was the entrance to the immense palace.
An iron lion's head above the door stared down at him, in seeming disapproval. Edward reached out tentatively to knock on the door...
It swung open of its own accord.
Edward Stared Fearfully Into the Yawning Hallway Before Him...
Sunlight spilled across the threshold and crept timidly into the vastness. Edward stepped into the room and looked all around at the cavernous ceiling. It loomed high above him, a stained-glass dome, so rich in color the light streaming though it became one immense rainbow, bathing the cold walls and floor in a prismatic radiance. The room was like an enormous ballroom, circular and paved with a mixture of gray stone and marble. The floor was smooth as glass, colored in patches by the gentle rays of brilliant color. As clouds partially obscured the sun and moved away again, the light shining through the domed ceiling flickered and danced. High pillars of granite surrounded the entire room like sentinels, looming over everything and disapproving of the beautiful array of iridescent hues filling the chamber.
Edward stood in the center of the magnificent hall, feeling at the moment rather small and unimportant. Surely this exquisite place was inhabited... the absence of any townspeople had caused him no small amount of confusion but he was positive that the royal palace itself could not be empty as well. The King's brother would not abandon his own castle, would he? Edward withdrew his eyes from the marvelous ceiling and focused his attention on the shadows at the end of the room. He had not seen it before... but there appeared to be a door (a rather subtle addition to the otherwise awe-inspiring, cathedral atmosphere) in the far corner of the room. Edward approached it, breaking the soft beams of violet and deep blue and gold that bathed the floor.
The door was simple, light wood. It was not locked, and opened with a slight tug on the iron handle. Edward peered into the dim light within and when his eyes adjusted he saw steps... a staircase leading up. He looked back, and once again marveled at the heavenly display of light on the ballroom floor.. resolute, then, he stepped through the door and began to climb the stairs.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Just inside the door there were two torches, one on either side, leaning out from the wall like two weary night watchmen. They were aflame, surprisingly, and Edward took one from its crook in the wall. Its light was but a patch of yellow, casting little more than a small halo upon the steps directly in front. The staircase was steep... Edward found himself weary after only a few minutes' advance. The stairs corkscrewed, winding into a tight spiral, going up and up and up. The air became thick with dust and Edward began to breath heavily. He placed his hand on the curving wall, which was oddly constructed; it was built with small stones and rock, cobbled like the streets in the market. Just out of reach, patches of silky cobwebs littered the wall above his head, white and shimmering in the torchlight.
The stairs were now laden with the dust accumulated by a long vacancy... not a soul had tread here in years, Edward thought. As he climbed the stone steps, he left footprints a finger's breadth thick in the chalky buildup. It was as if a faint powdering of light brown snow had fallen and remained, unmelted and undisturbed.
It seemed evident that all had abandoned this place... the market, the palace, the entire city. Edward continued upward, dreading that the princess might also be gone. How would he find her? If the entire village was gone, and her with it, they might never meet again...
Edward had been counting the stairs as he walked. The staircase circled upwards, and he counted to one hundred, and two hundred, and gradually he lost count... and still there was no end to the tortuous climb. Forever he walked, and forever he was sure it would take to reach the top... he remembered the view from the canyon brink, and how only one tower had surfaced above the fog. All others had been partially hidden and he was sure now that he was within the centermost tower, the tallest structure in the castle.
A sudden ray of light broke through the gloom as he came around the corner. There above him was a window, a small square cut out of the stone wall. Edward reached it and peered out through the opening. The sun had almost set, and the horizon was pink and purple and a dark red. It was beautiful, especially from this height... he looked down. Then the ground seemed to drop away and the fields were but tiny green patches far below; the surrounding towers were hidden by wisps of an evening fog and they were so far away, so far beneath him...
Instantly nauseous, he turned quickly and shut his eyes. He had never liked being very high up and a sick feeling settled into the pit of his stomach. His vision swam for a moment when he shut his eyes and then he was fine.. He looked once more, apprehensively at the rapidly setting sun and moved on.
A moment later, something caught his eye.. there were a few scattered footprints in the dusty steps above him! Someone had been there, only recently. The footprints were small... his heart quickened at the possibility. It could be her; as strange as all the other occurrences of the past three days had been, he still hoped passionately that the princess, his Anique could be here...
The steps led upwards in a continuing spiral, then stopped. A door, partially open, stood guard at the top of the staircase. Edward reached out to push it slowly open, hoping, praying, knowing what he would find inside...
There she lay. A Magnificent Canopy Bed Filled half of the small room. At the corners stood four oak beams, ornately carved with intricate designs and polished to a dull shine. A gracefully sloping canopy of red velvet trimmed with white lace hung overhead, drooping like the sad mossy curtain of a weeping willow. The bedclothes were satin, the purest white, and were undisturbed except for the slender figure lying peacefully in the center.
Edward approached the bed, in hushed awe of the beauty of the picture before him. The princess was draped in the silken sheets, the contours of her slight shape outlined by the creamy white cloth. The sheets covered most of her body, leaving only her bosom and face in clear view. The top of her cotton nightgown was a soft pink, gathered loosely and revealing the white skin at the hollow of her throat, which rose and fell ever so slightly with each breath. Anique's head lay cushioned on a wide pillow, her light brown hair encircling her face in a softly tousled frame. Her eyes were closed in peaceful sleep, her lips parted as if to allow a gentle kiss..
Anique's face was turned slightly towards the door, her peaceful countenance welcoming Edward's entrance.. she lay with her left arm at her side, and her right hand thrown casually up next to her face, a restless gesture in an otherwise still and serene portrait.
She was an angel. Her beauty surpassed all things under heaven and above, Edward thought... In the stillness, the last brilliant rays of the setting sun shone through a window at the far end of the room, casting long shadows across the floor and catching the air aflame. The princess was bathed in a deep glow, and she looked indeed to be a celestial creature.
The sun disappeared then, and the light dimmed, and the room became colder... as Edward approached the princess, he could see how pale she was. Her eyes were encircled by dark rings, her cheeks sunken and bloodless. Her lips had almost no tint of red at all. Her face was pallid, devoid of its usual rosy tinge. Edward at once felt a chill.. perhaps her sleep was deeper than he imagined.
He reached out and gingerly took her tiny hand in his own.. Oh, how cold it was! His mouth turned dry and the panic began to build in his heart as he looked for a way to tell that the girl was indeed still living.. He snatched a small mirror from the table by the bed and held it across her mouth. And he waited; only a few seconds, likely, but it seemed to pass as years... then Oh Joy! A faint breath from her mouth, and the glass was cloudy for just a moment.
The princess still lived.. but she was so sick, that much Edward could tell. He had no knowledge of curing, or of medicines. What was he to do? Edward sat by her side, clutching her cold palm in between his two hands. The remnants of the sun's light were swallowed by the vast horizon and the air became chilled..
All was still. The wind ceased to whistle around the high tower, and a deathly silence smothered the room.
Edward kneeled by the bed, holding Anique's hand, intertwining her fingers with his own.. she was too dear to him now, he thought.. All this way he had come, and she was here alone, with no one else by her side, no one to comfort her or heal her..
In the stillness.. in the black, cold silence of the small tower room, Edward prayed. Kneeling by her side, he buried his face in the blanket by her side, and wept. For an hour he stayed there, grasping her hand in his, crying out in fear and anguish and loneliness.. all of the awful emotions deep inside him, those he had ignored in the months without her; those he had felt in the days of his journey, wanting nothing more than to see her again... all of these feelings rushed from him now, in a torrent of grief and misery, his sobs muffled by the satin sheets.
A faint chirping startled him. He looked up, first at the princess.. she lay there still, deep in a disturbed rest. Then Edward looked to the window sill, and against the frosty night air, the tiny shape of a brown sparrow sat perched in the window, ruffling its feathers.
Edward gasped, leapt to his feet, and rushed to the window.
"Hello, little friend.."ÃÂ he said, cupping his hands on the window sill for the tiny creature to willingly hop into, "Thought I'd lost you, I did.."ÃÂ. The bird cheeped happily, grateful to have been brought in from the cold.
"How did you come to me.. Why, I left m'house and family..and I thought you'd gone.. I never thought t'see you again, no, never!"ÃÂ And he put his face near to the sparrow, and nuzzled it with his nose.. the bird in turn bristled its feathers and fluttered briskly as if to shake water from its tiny wings, chirping all the while with an exuberance uncharacteristic of such a minute creature.
"Come now.. she needs you, I know she does. She loved it when you came before. Please, I know it would help.."ÃÂ and Edward carried the bird over to the bedside table. The night was completely dark now.. the sun was gone and the moon had not yet graced the night sky. The only light in the small room now came from the weak, yellow flame of the torch Edward had left in a niche in the wall just inside the door. Even the pale, sickly light from that flame looked as if it were also dying, and Edward feared that as the light diminished, so did the life of the princess Anique.
The small bird perched on the table by the bed, less cheerful now... it regarded Anique solemnly, with its tiny head craning from side to side. Edward knelt once again by the bed, looking mournfully at the beautiful girl whom he loved.. she was finally so near to him, after so long... yet, so very far away.
The bird began to sing...in high, shrill notes at first. Then a fuller, deeper, more human quality came over the Song.. and the notes danced, bloomed in the night air as the small creature joyfully uttered forth the music. A choir of angels seemed to descend on the room, as the music of a thousand voices cascaded from the little bird, and still the Song continued.
As the music swelled and blossomed, the light of the torch by the staircase suddenly leapt out into the room.. the flame was deeper, richer than before, burning brighter and more fierce than seemed possible.. the small mirror on the bedside table caught a glimmer of the light and reflected it upon another mirror on the wall, which in turn spilled the light into the middle of the room.. the bed was now saturated with golden light, and the small bird itself glowed from some unearthly radiance. Light shone around it as a torch, but there was no flame on the sparrow, and yet the creature was illuminated.. Edward's hands clutched those of the princess, and he again buried his face into the blanket to stem the flow of tears welling up within him.. he could not stop weeping from the beauty of the miracle. Still the Song grew, and the bird's thousands of voices were as an entire army, together as one, praising the kingdom of heaven..
The light in the room became almost unbearable, as the music itself seemed to burst into flame like delicious fumes of melody and burn the air to a pure, brilliant white; and radiant hues and wisps of intense color in the light swirled and danced to no particular rhythm, but the Song WAS rhythm.. a singular perfection, a true expression of joy felt only to those who know what pure happiness is.. and the music grew stronger still, and the Song more powerful, as if to overcome all death and evil in the world, as it had overcome the darkness of that place.
The bird fluttered from the small table to rest on the pillow by Anique's face, and the white light followed the tiny figure, and still a myriad congregation of a million angelic voices poured from the tiny sparrow. The princess murmured in her sleep, as if in response to the choir of heaven in the shape of one small bird...
And the Song gradually quieted, and the bird ceased to radiate.. the voices grew fewer and the light faded, as the miracle slowly ended.. and Edward still feared to look upon the room, as he knew the shepherds on the hilltop must have felt at Gabriel's arrival.. and then the room was quiet again. The brightness of the music faded, but the torch still burned, and the illumination filled the room as it had not before.
The sparrow, satisfied, nestled down into the pillow by the princess' head. Edward looked up and saw that all was again quiet.. he wondered of the tears still streaming down his face were from a dream..
And then he saw that the frail hand in his, the white palm and fingers of Anique, were beckoning feebly to him. Startled, he looked at her and saw that her eyes were open.. the color was returning to her cheeks, as she seemed to slowly blush at having been discovered asleep.
"Edward..."ÃÂ was all she managed to say at first, softly, almost unintelligible, then "I knew you would be here.."ÃÂ and he nodded vehemently, at a loss for words. She smiled, and whispered again, "The bird.. I knew he was yours.. from the very beginning, I was sure of it"ÃÂ.
"No,"ÃÂ he said, "the bird is not mine...he goes where he pleases. But he is not a simple bird, I think.."ÃÂ and as he said this, the tiny creature rose suddenly from the pillow in a flurry of tiny feathers and flew towards the window. The princess raised a feeble hand in protest but the bird did not stop.. and as the brown sparrow flew out of the open window, Edward and the princess both saw the wings sprout into a glorious white canopy and the tiny body grow larger and more human.. and then the Being was gone, in a sudden flash of white light.
"...What.... well.. "ÃÂ is all Edward could muster at the moment. He looked at the princess, and she at him, eyes sparkling, and they both knew what had taken place.. and had they studied the night skies, they would have seen a single bright star twinkle to life once again in the apex of the heavens.
They sat together then, enjoying one another's company once more.. the princess was capable of saying very little, but could express so much with her eyes alone. Edward sat with her for hours that night, perched on the side of the ornate bed, holding her hand and telling of the amazing journey he had undertaken just to find her. His dream fascinated her, and the story of the ugly bruise on his temple drew a horrified gasp from the princess ( in which Edward felt a certain guilty satisfaction) and a tender kiss on his forehead.
After a time, they both slept.. he across her feet to keep her warm. Through the rest of the night, and all through the next day they both slept, she because of her quickly declining illness, and he from absolute exhaustion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ When he awoke late in the afternoon, the princess was gone. He was surprised at how speedily she had recovered, but then again, her heaven-sent cure knew no physical limits. Edward got up from the bed and looked out of the window... far below (he still was nervous at the sheer height of the tower) he could just barely make out the minuscule figure of a girl in the garden. He fairly flew down the winding staircase, kicking up billowing clouds of dust as he ran.. he burst through the door at the bottom of the staircase, sprinted across the ballroom floor, and out of the giant oak doors at the front of the palace. The palace gardens were still in full bloom at this time of year, oddly enough, and there, pacing through rows and rows of perfectly sculpted shrubs and rose bushes, was Anique. Looking weary from a long sickness, and dressed only in her pink nightgown, and a little disheveled at having risen not too long before, she was still the most breathtaking woman in all the world, Edward thought. The lovely statues and noble sculptures placed here and there and everywhere throughout the garden were nothing in comparison to her perfect beauty...
"Why did you not wake me?"ÃÂ Edward asked, feigning irritation.
"I thought you would need more sleep... you looked fairly awful last night,"ÃÂ was her smug reply, to which Edward gasped in mock offense and rushed forward to pick her up and sling her over his shoulder, much to her giggling protest.
After a time, the childish banter ceased and they sat quietly by a marble fountain in the courtyard, admiring the flowerbeds and acting very civilized.
An hour later found them atop a low hill in the middle of the apple orchard, watching the liquid orange sun sink lower and lower in the sky, giving way to the most beautiful sunset in recent memory..
She sat next to him, both of them leaning against the apple tree.. their arms encircling eachother, her head resting softly on his shoulder. As they spoke quietly of the last days' events and of things to come, she felt a familiar attraction to his kind words that had been absent from her life for the better part of a year...
Once again they found themselves in a familiar pose, face to face, talking earnestly of everything and nothing in particular. In their soulful conversations, they found a deeper, stronger love for eachother than ever before; more than any other storybook romance, theirs was built on something else...
The sun dropped below the horizon and he looked down at her, lost in her dark eyes, pushed her hair back from her face; Anique looked up at him, searching his eyes, and she smiled. He brushed her cheek gently with the tips of his fingers..she blushed lightly, and closed her eyes, as did he, and softly their lips touched...
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Indescribable through human terms, their simple, passionate kiss lasted beyond the realm of mere time... Their love would last, unbreakable and unblemished. Through all trials and hardships, Edward and his love Anique would remain as if forever locked in that one embrace. Together, they found all things to be possible, and over the years their love grew only stronger, and it knew no bounds. Neither distance nor peril could separate them for long, and their love was unfailing. By seeking the will of God, they had found the most perfect love; that which is unfailing, unselfish, and altogether beautiful.
And thus ends our story. The End Epilogue Anique later spoke of the mysteries surrounding her illness. Her affliction had at first been of a physical nature, that much was true... but after her uncle and all of his physicians and the miles and miles of medicinal herbs at hand were insufficient to bring about a cure, the sickness went deeper. She had been lonely. It was as simple as that, she said. Without Edward's company and soothing words, she had given up hope.
Her uncle had gone then, taking the wisest doctors with him on a quest to find a cure for his niece. They had been gone only a few days when some careless farm hands had allowed some cows to wander off. The beasts had died somewhere in the hills, and their decomposing carcasses poisoned the river flowing into the city.
With nothing to drink, the entire village had left in search of suitable water. Even the nurses and maids who were attending to the princess, although reluctant to leave her, finally moved on with their families. The princess, too sick and feeble to be moved, was left behind. The hope had been that she would recover on her own and be able to live off of the food and water stored in the palace kitchen, as there was enough to sustain one person for months at a time.
Indeed, the princess had managed to make her way to the kitchen, even in her weakened state, and gather up some food and water. The food did not last very long, however, and the water she took into the small tower room had run out a full week before Edward found her.
Without nourishment, the princess had drifted into a deep sleep... her heart slowed, and her blood cooled; It was as if she were dead. For almost a fortnight she slumbered, on the brink of death yet kept alive by a mysterious force, some higher love than she had ever known... and in the end, the tiny messenger from heaven had brought her out of the grasp of death when the time was right.
None could explain exactly how the princess had lived for so long without nourishment of any kind, but she knew, and Edward knew, in their hearts. A love, a passion stronger than either of them could ever describe, had gripped her and preserved her life for some higher purpose.
They were both eternally thankful for the gift she had received. They held it dearly, and treasured it in their hearts forever. Never did they take it for granted or forget that which had been bestowed upon them: a second chance to live, and love...