Cateline held her thick velvet skirts high and ran through the downpour. Horses hooves pounded in the dark behind her and dogs bayed above the sounds of the storm. She twisted to look behind her and lightning flashed, outlining the shadows of the soldiers on horseback less than two furlongs behind her. A rock rolled under her foot and she stumbled, but caught herself before she fell. Hot tears slid out of her eyes and joined the cold rain drops running down her pale cheeks. Her legs felt as if they were pushing through thick honey. She nearly dropped to the ground to accept her fate, but ran on, clinging to a thread of hope as fragile as a spiders web.
The enchanted forest loomed ahead on her left. She shuddered, the mere thought of it brought a chill to the bones of her heart, but now it held her only chance of survival. The soldiers, commanded by her uncle to kill her family so he could take the throne, wouldn't enter the enchanted forest. No one who entered the forest had never been seen again. But she had two choices, if she stopped outside the forest she would be executed like her parents and her older brother or she could enter the forest. One meant certain death, and the other offered a probable death.
Her breath came in heaving gasps while she slowed to find an entrance into the enchanted forest. A dog growled behind her and she screamed. The dogs paws hit her shoulders with a thud. She lost her balance and fell forward.
Cateline lay on the ground and waited with a pounding heart to be attacked by the dog, but after a few long moments she realized the ground beneath her was dry. A strong stillness surrounded her, and a cool musty smell, like wet wood and green moss pervaded her senses with a warm peacefulness. But, the relief was temporary, the grass rustled just ahead and to the right. She lifted her face and squinted into the dark searching for danger, but the shapeless shadows withheld their identity.
A pale yellow light rose above the trees and revealed tall slender Aspen’s with peeling white bark rising up from a carpet of bluebells as old as time itself. The light slipped silently through the trees and bent to kiss the sweetly nodding bluebells, then reached out and created a path of light through the wood.
Cateline hesitated to follow the path, but after weighing her options she decided that now that she had entered the forest she plainly and simply needed to find a way out. And whether for good or for evil a path had been provided. The peeling white Aspen’s gave way to an open field with a shimmering haze of bluebells melting into the golden hued horizon. The path of light ended at the edge of a lake as azure as the bluebells.
Three paths diverged from the lake and for three day's Cateline rose with the sun and followed a different path each day only to arrive back where she had begun just as the sun set. Every night she lay down in the arms of the bluebells and cried herself to sleep. It seemed as though the enchanted forest was determined to reject her attempts to escape. On the fourth morning the sun rose as bright and cheerful as ever, but fear and despair had risen in Cateline’s heart along with an empty aching in her stomach. Reaching into her small bag she removed the last dry crust from the loaf of bread she had hastily snatched when she fled the palace. Her eyes grew hot with tears as she imagined this might well be her last meal.
When her tears subsided to sniffles she heard a small whine. She followed the sound until she saw a small grey fox lying at the foot of a gnarled old tree. Normally she might have been afraid of a wild animal, but this was the only other living creature she had seen since escaping into the forest. The fox looked directly at her. She was mesmerized with his eyes, one blue and one brown. She slowly and carefully knelt down next to him. Instead of running away, the fox turned his head toward his leg. There she saw the reason for his whimpering—an open wound. “Oh you’re hurt. I wish I could help you.” Cateline’s tender heart was bigger than her empty stomach so she broke off a small piece of bread from her last crust and held it out to the fox who gently took it from her. Cateline then took a small bite herself. For a short time, the two of them sat together, sharing the single crust till it was gone. Though she had no more food, Cateline felt a sense of joy from having someone, even a hurt, wild animal, to share her last meal with.
After the fox licked up the last crumb, he looked at Caitline with gratitude in his eyes and quite unexpectedly spoke. “Thank you for your kindness, it will be returned to you with a reward you can not yet see, but has existed for all time.” The fox stood and ran off without a limp.
Cateline stared after the fox as he disappeared into the forest. Still trying to make sense of a talking fox, much less what he had actually said, she caught sight of a small door at the foot of the old gnarled tree. What was that the fox had said about a reward? Might this be it? Was she really going to listen to a talking fox? Shrugging off the absurdity of it all she opened the door. She reached in and pulled out a worn leather bag. Opening it she found a small black leather book and another leather bag. She pulled out the second leather bag and opened it. She had never seen anything like the small pieces of green paper. She pulled one of them out, there was a picture of a balding man with shoulder length hair on one side and the number 100 written on each corner. Intrigued she turned it over and read the words, “In God We Trust” written across the top, and on the bottom “One Hundred Dollars”. Intrigued, she pulled them out and counted them. 200 pieces of paper.
Cateline pondered what the “One Hundred Dollars” at the bottom meant. She remembered listening to her brother’s tutor explain mathematics to him. She looked at the “One Hundred Dollars” and multiplied it by 200, if she was correct she didn't have 200 dollars, but 20,000 dollars. She blinked back some tears, she wanted to be a math tutor, it would be ever so much easier than being a princess.
She tucked the dollars back inside their bag and pulled out the book. She flipped through the pages hoping for a map that would guide her out of the enchanted forest that seemed determined to keep her prisoner, but only stark white pages stared back at her. She shoved it back into the bag, was this the reward the fox meant? When she pulled her hand out she felt an extra seam on the side of the bag. She peered back inside the bag and found a pocket. She reached in and pulled out a crown of emeralds and diamonds, they sparkled in the dappled sunlight speaking in eloquent silence.
Disheartened, she flopped back into the arms of the bluebells and closed her eyes. What good was a crown of jewels if it only sat atop her emaciated body as she slowly starved to death in an evil forest. As she lingered on this depressing thought an image slowly began to focus in her mind. She saw the fox walking across the lake, he stopped to look at her and said, “Do not be discouraged. Take the book, stand at the edge of the water and open it to the first page. It will show you the way you should go.”
She picked up the worn leather bag and walked hesitantly towards the water. Planting the edge of her toes right next to the water she pulled the book out of the bag. She looked back to where she had been stuck for nearly four days. The bluebells nodded their heads in the breeze as if to encourage her towards her new destination. She turned back to face the water and opened the book with skepticism. A light, the color of a pink golden dawn, flowed from the edge of the book and over the water creating a golden path.
Cateline thought maybe she had fallen asleep in the comfort of the bluebells and if she
were dreaming it would be perfectly safe to step out onto the water. She took her first step onto the golden path and left fear standing on the shore. She laughed and twirled on her toes, dancing down the golden pathway until mid pirouette her fingertips grazed against something.
She stared at an ornately carved, dark wood door in the middle of the path. She laughed, things in dreams were always so odd and unexpected and full of things she could never have imagined possible. She peeked around one side and then the other, seeing nothing but the other side of the door and a continuation of the golden hued path. She lifted her hand and was about to knock when she heard a determined rapping from the other side of the door. “Cateline, Cateline, you must get up.” She felt herself drifting up to consciousness, but still floating in that land between dreamland and full sensibility. The door rattled, “Cateline, get up and open this door immediately. Why on earth are you taking a nap on your very own wedding day?”
Fully awake now Cateline pulled the pillow over her face and groaned. She remembered now, today was the day her father, the King of England, was marrying her off to a man she had never even met, all for political gain. She heard the voice of her mother again, “Cateline, if you do not get up and open this door immediately so you can be dressed and have your hair put up, I will go and get your father.”
Cateline rolled out of bed. She didn't want to upset her father, to hear him roar like a beast when he was angry was probably worse than marrying a man she had never met. She opened the door and in paraded the maids led by her mother, one to fix her hair, one to apply her make up and the other to dress her in layers of gold silk.
Cateline led the family’s procession through town and to the church. A group of minstrels filled the air around them with the twittering of flutes and the plucking of their lyres. Once at the church Cateline took her place next to the groom on the church doorstep before the bishop. She kept her eyes on the stones under her feet, barely whispering her vows when her turn came. When her groom begin to repeat his vows after the bishop, his voice sounded familiar. She peeked up at him and he was looking back at her with a quiet smile on his face. But, what caught her attention were the color of his eyes, one blue and one brown. She looked up a few more inches and saw his crown laden with emeralds and diamonds sparkling in their silent eloquence. Her heart leaned into his and when they stepped off the church doorstep the late afternoon sunlight cast a golden glow on their path.
She heard the voice of the fox, “Your reward lies in a place you can not yet see.” She smiled and realized how one small kind act created rewards into a future she couldn't see or predict.