Welcome to the final episode of Once Upon a Time that is to be posted on this blog. Cate has plans now to turn the story into a novel in its own right!
By Cate McDermott
“Sure and ye won’t stay till the morrow, then, maiden?” the kindly young farmer with whom Princess Esther had hidden out for the past day inquired. His pretty wife smiled her corroboration of the suggestion. “Sure and it’s a bitter cold night ahead; better to travel during the day—plenty of undergrowth to hide your path, an ye wish.” He cocked one eyebrow quizzically at her.
Esther had no intentions of being “caught napping” in this way. She had promised Marcus that she wouldn’t reveal her royal identity until she had reached the court. But it had been harder and harder, the closer she had come to the capital of Tryfort; the peasants in this area were shrewder, living in the constant shadow of the oppressive royals as they did, and also naturally had had more information on the due-to-arrive princess who had so strangely disappeared on her way to the palace. Esther had no doubt that the vast majority of the people she had stayed with over the past two weeks had guessed who she was; but so long as she didn’t confirm that they were right, they couldn’t really do anything about it, could they? Even in Tryfort, mere guesswork couldn’t hold up in a court of law; not to swear to, you know.
“Sorry; but I’ve really got to get on, you know. My family may already be at the court, looking for me.” Esther hid her smile: she knew that at least some of her relatives were at the court all the time! “Can you direct me, then?”
It would have been inappropriate for the farmer and his wife to protest further. “Sure, and I’ll show ye the way, fair maid. Get up some stuff for her to take with her, wife, an ye please—and a stronger wrap that that’s she’s got; not hardly warm enough for this weather!” Winter was well advanced by now in Tryfort.
Wrapped in her new woolen cloak, and busily trying to think of how she could make some return for the gift without appearing arrogant, Esther followed the young man outside the farmhouse. But as he began to explain the route she was to take, she forced all other thoughts out of her head in order to pay the strictest attention. She could not afford to make any mistakes along her path, and the snowfall had made it very difficult to keep to the track drawn by Marcus, without the aid of larger landmarks known only to those who lived nearer them.
“Ye cross at the footbridge there, ye see. The path beyond it is snowed over; can’t even see the rocks at the sides, but there’s no trees growing in it, so if you keep to the clear ground, ye’ll get along straight enough. Even if ye were to stray a bit, ‘twouldn’t matter, for the next step is Graham’s Hill—and it’s the only hill around for miles and can be seen for miles. You go straight over the hill, using the stars to stay northwest—there’s brushy undergrowth but no trees to speak of on Graham’s Hill, so ye’ll be able to see the sky all right. At the peak, take a look round till ye spot the crooked pines: off a little to the left they’ll be, if ye’re going right. There’s three of them, around a well. Make for that, and from the well on to the court; there’s wooden posts along the path every half-mile, and the trees are thick on either hand, so the path should not be too deeply snowed in. Here, and I’ll fit ye with snow-shoes, me lass,” the farmer’s concern for the plucky young girl had overcome his sense of distant respect for the nobility, and he was addressing her more informally quite as a matter of course. He knelt down to show her how to fit the straps.
Feeling oddly light and unbalanced, Esther trod the front-yard in her new footgear, back to the house door. The farmer’s wife was waiting with a bundle of still-warm bread and cakes and cheese, plus a small bottle of home-brewed ale, “to quench yer thirst and keep off the chill together,” as the kind young woman explained, handing the bundle to Esther.
“Well, I just don’t know how to thank you enough . . .” Esther started, still not knowing quite what to do about her new cloak.
“Sure and ye’d do the same for us, maiden. ‘Tis our privilege to be so situate as to help those as need it deservedly,” the young farmer replied decidedly.
“Well, thank you. Oh, but could I ask one more favor of you, please? Could you keep my old cloak for me; I really don’t need it weighing me down.” She handed over the satin-trimmed garment. “And it’s such a bunch of rags by now, hardly worth keeping. But maybe you could get something out of it for your baby,” she suggested brightly, trying to make her proposal appear quite innocently off-hand.
The farmer and his wife exchanged smiling glances; whether they saw through Esther’s little generosity ploy was not quite clear, but the wife accepted the cloak and folded it up neatly. Esther’s last view of them, as she looked back at the yard-gate, was of them standing side by side in the doorway, waving a pleasant farewell.
Esther waved back and started across the footbridge. She would not look back again; they had better go in soon. She would not have them caught helping her and perhaps placed in an awkward position for questioning. She had initially been kidnapped; anyone she had stayed with before reaching the court might easily be portrayed as traitors to her aunt and uncle. Better that no one found out about it.
The snow on the path was deep indeed, but Esther barely realized it. Her snow-shoes skimmed the surface like twin sailboats—she was quickly getting the hang of how to work them swiftly. Perhaps she would reach the end of her journey tonight!
“Well, you certainly can see that hill for miles.” As Esther emerged from the overhanging trees, brushing a last branch back with her hand, she marveled at the prospect of Graham’s Hill before her, towering up into the star-spangled dome of velvet-black vastness above. Esther suddenly felt very small and cold, as though the enormous panorama might simply overwhelm her insignificant existence altogether. “Some queen I’d make!” The thought, as always, made Esther laugh, and she pressed on with renewed vigor.
The hill was further away than it looked—it was so large it seemed to swallow up the distance between you and itself on first view, but as you headed for it, you quickly realized just how far away you still were. Esther felt exposed in the snow-swept plain stretching blankly out on every side of her—anyone looking out from among the trees must see her skidding along! She was glad when she finally got among the underbrush along the underside of Graham’s Hill, at the start of her ascent.
Up, up, and up. The hill was steep, too. And the underbrush, though scrubby, was thick in places, and Esther had to choose between precariously zigzagging round, or wearisomely shoving through what seemed like thickly barred ten-foot wide walls of prickly branches. Up and up and up . . .
At last she was at the top. “My word, what a view!” Esther gasped, as she stood at the summit, her cloak wrapped closely around her. She was gasping from the cold as much as from admiration: on the top of the hill, unscreened by any brush or rock, the wind pierced her through with biting keenness. Glorious as the glistening prospect before her was, she wanted to get down and out of there as quickly as possible.
Which way, now? Esther looked alertly from one side to the other. What had the young farmer told her?—ah, yes, crooked pines a little off to the left. There they were, straight in front of her in fact, but then Esther had never been very good at navigating by the stars.
Speaking of which, they were very bright tonight, weren’t they? The landscape was all lit up below her, shifting masses of sparkling white and softer shadowed curves of drifts, almost as bright as day, and there wasn’t even any moon . . . no, wait, was that the moon, so low in the sky? It had to be.
Esther scrambled recklessly down the slope. The last thing she wanted was to be caught in daylight, plainly open to view on the bare side of this gigantic hill. There wasn’t so much underbrush near the top on this side. Esther tripped over her snow-shoes, getting them tangled up one with another, somehow pulled them straight again without falling, and headed on down.
Finally she did slip and fall, rolling over and over in the deep snow. That in itself slowed her descent, and when she reached the brushier place half-way down Graham’s Hill, she easily reached out and stopped herself with the aid of a branch. Panting for breath, she slowly sat up and then painfully raised herself to her feet again, swaying on her snow-shoes as she tried to brush as much of the snow from her clothes and hair as possible: the cold, powdery stuff clung tenaciously and chilled the marrow in her bones. Creeping in amongst the prickly brambles—where the ground was almost clear—Esther decided to sit down again and have something to eat and drink, to warm herself before she went on.
The rest of the descent was really too unpleasant to write about. Esther remembered scarcely any of it afterwards, anyway; she felt light-headed, and could only concentrate on taking one step without falling at a time. As she neared the bottom, the brush was higher and at length gave way to actual trees, so Esther was fortunately able to use them as support on the final leg of her way down.
At the foot of the slope, there was a break in the undergrowth; Esther was able to catch another glimpse of the three pines for which she was bound. Gratefully filling her lungs with the fuller air of lower ground levels, Esther set off again with renewed vigor. The path was narrow; she often lost sight of the trees; but the distance was not far and she soon came up to the well.
It seemed rather a waste not to drink when one came to a well: Esther had spent long enough of a time surviving the wilderness to know how scarce the precious resource of water could be when it was needed, and that it was rarely a good idea to pass any of it up when it chanced to come your way. But she had nothing to carry it in, and it would be foolish to drink cold water, even supposing the well wasn’t completely frozen over anyway, when she was chilled through already and the ale was a much better choice. She didn’t have much left of that, though, either; better keep it for later when she was colder still.
And she was. Stumbling along the path that hardly seemed a path at all—always fearful that she had lost her way until the next half-mile marker miraculously popped up in front of her again—Esther was partially shielded from the cutting wind by the tall, thickly-crowded-together trees on either hand. But even still cold is, well, still cold. And while Esther would hotly contest the well-established notion that the darkest hour is just before dawn, as she could see for herself that the air was in fact growing a paler gray all around her and that she could see further into the forest than she had earlier in the night, she would readily have agreed that the coldest hour of the night is just before dawn, with those chilling mists rising off the earth wrapping themselves around hapless travellers (didn’t they have anywhere else to go?), and generally increasing the misery of life by at least sixty per cent.
Esther was numb and weary and completely out of food and drink by the time the sun had come up entirely. She was out of the forest by now, and the path had widened to a well-paved, stone-bordered highway that anyone would have noticed Esther travelling along if they were also passing by, which seemed altogether likely to be the case in an hour or so. But Esther cared for none of these things now. As she came over the crest of a small hill the road ran across, she had caught sight at last of the lofty stone turrets and battlements that were her destination. The Castle of Tryfort! Esther stood for a long time gazing: as much as she wanted to get out of the cold and into a real house again, it still took her some time to gather her courage and sort out her plans for action once she had made it inside the castle. Esther had no delusions that her journey was really over now. Her foray into the realm of Tryfort had only just begun.
The End of This Episode