See the little cottage in the clearing ahead. That is where we will take our repose tonight. We have walked for many hours; you are hungry and need to rest.
“Who lives here?” you ask.
No one now, but it is a place of welcome. You will find whatever it is you need. Food, drink, warmth. A bed to sleep in. Comfort and healing for everything from a broken heart to a wound of the flesh. See, there are lanterns lit in the windows. It is all ready for you.
How did they know you would come when you did not know yourself? Well, that is the magic; it is not to be questioned, just accepted with gratitude. Try the door. It is not locked.
The table is laid for us and the fire is dancing in the grate. Come. Sit and I will tell you how this cottage became enchanted.
Once upon a time, long ago and far away, a great king lived in a beautiful castle with his wife and their daughter. The land he ruled was peaceful and prosperous, for his greatness lay not in the battles he had won or the power and wealth he had accumulated but in his fairness, his honesty and his generosity. Merchants traded freely and fairly with the neighbouring realms. Farmers grew abundant crops and their livestock were healthy. Artisans and crafters flourished, creating both the practical and the beautiful. There was music and art, poetry and learning. People cared for each other and disputes were settled quickly and honourably.
Often the King would ride out amongst his subjects to share with them their fortunes good and bad. The Queen and the Princess rode by his side. As the Princess grew up, she learned justice and government from her father and healing from her mother. She knew herself to be truly privileged and wished only to become as good a leader as the King.
Now in that country there was a legend: that whosoever held the sacred jewels of wisdom, truth, justice and love was the true ruler of the realm, and that so long as the jewels were protected then so also was the land. The gems were kept safely within the castle. The sapphire of wisdom, the diamond of truth and the emerald of justice were set into the crown that the King wore during state business; the ruby of love was deemed so precious that it was kept in a secret hiding place.
Some had tried to take the jewels, by theft or by force, but none had ever succeeded.
Years passed. But In the shadowy forest at the northern edge of the kingdom, a dark force was growing, cloaked by malevolent magic. There lived a powerful sorceress, whose greed and hatred knew no bounds. All she saw she needed to possess; the wealth and abundance of the realm had drawn her to it and the jewels were her heart’s desire. So she plotted and planned and conjured all manner of evil to do her bidding. She sowed seeds of destruction and discord throughout the region; a fight here, a failed crop there, food spoiled in a tavern kitchen, missing coins from the notary’s pouch. Whispers of plagues and rumours of war spread and festered, making the people fearful and angry. They began to doubt the King’s integrity and to question his leadership. Into this cauldron of distrust the sorceress poured false promises of a better way, a new leader to protect them.
The King tried to reassure his subjects but he did not know what he was fighting. Turmoil and trouble grew until, at the state celebration of the Princess’s seventeenth birthday, the sorceress swept into the castle with her legions and claimed it for her own. The King was cut down instantly, and a spell cast on all present, immobilising them.
“Where are the jewels?” she demanded of the Queen, but the Queen would say nothing save “They are all here.”
So the sorceress had her minions ransack the castle and they returned triumphantly with the crown. Setting it upon her head, she seated herself upon the throne, saying “I am truly the Queen now, and you will kneel to me or die.”
With that she cast another spell; the guests knelt before her, whether or not they wished to. They found themselves back in their homes, still on their knees.
The Queen and the Princess stood, unable to fight the evil magic.
“Where is the last jewel?” the sorceress asked, but the Queen refused to speak. “Very well. You will pay for your stubbornness. Cast her into the dungeon with the brat.” She walked over to the Queen, spoke just before the guards dragged her away. “It will not stay hidden for long. You will tell me. She,” she indicated the Princess, “will make sure of it.”
The two women were bundled away by the guards and dragged down into the dungeon. It was dark and empty – it had not seen a prisoner for years. One guard lifted a set of rusty keys from a nail in the wall while the others cast them into a cell. The door clanged shut and the footsteps faded away.
Tears blurred the Princess’s vision. Her mother took her by the shoulders. “They will be back soon,” she said. “When they have searched again and failed to find the ruby. You must not be here when they return. I fear what she may do to you.” The Princess opened her mouth to speak but the Queen hurried on. “I have a charm. It will create a door for you to escape through. You will have to hide who you are but at least you will be safe. One day you will return. I know this.”
“You must come with me,” the Princess said desperately but here mother shook her head. She reached into her pocket and drew out a silver pencil. Holding it momentarily over her heart, she used it to draw a rectangle on the thick stone wall. A door appeared, light glimmering round its edges.
“Open it,” the Queen instructed and her daughter obeyed. On the other side was a room.
“I cannot come with you,” the Queen continued. “Only one may pass.” She embraced her daughter. “Be safe, my darling. May we meet again.” Then she pushed the Princess gently through the door. As soon as she was on the other side, the opening vanished and the wall became stone once more.
Thus the Princess found herself in a tiny cottage in the woods on the border of the kingdom. (This cottage). Scared and alone, she had little choice but to try and make a home there and learn to live off the land. She remembered watching farmers planting seeds and bakers baking bread, how the seamstresses sewed clothes and the maids lit the fires in the hearths. She recalled the knowledge she had gained from her parents and from all those who had lived and worked around her. Though her heart was well and truly broken, she would not give up.
As days became weeks and weeks became months, she began to carve out a new life, simple and quiet. She planted a garden and grew food and the healing herbs her mother had taught her. She collected fallen wood for her fire and water from the stream. Sometimes she would walk through the wood and onto the road, following it to the village nearby where she exchanged vegetables for bread, flowers for cloth, kindling for sugar and salt. She offered healing for those that needed it, balms, tinctures, liniments and syrups. These she gave freely.
“This is the gift my mother gave to me,” she would say. “A gift that I can pass on to you.”
But she noticed the change. A deep sadness covered the land like a blanket. The sun struggled to shine and the stars were dull in the heavens. Gales whipped the air and the rains were heavy. It was as if the very skies wept.
As one year became two and then three the people struggled more and more. There was little music or poetry. Smiles were rare, laughter rarer still. The new Queen, angry that she had not yet found the last jewel, ruled with an iron rod. Her guards searched constantly, leaving terror in their wake. She demanded tithes and tributes from everyone, even those who could not afford it. Fields became fallow, livestock sickly. Flowers would not bloom and children could not play. The Princess grieved for her parents and her beautiful country as she continued to offer healing for those in need. Her garden, somehow, seemed unaffected by the blight that cursed the rest of the land.
Word of her abilities and her kindness spread. People came from further and further away to seek her skills. One day a woman knocked at her door, hooded and cloaked. The Princess ushered her in, thinking that she must be very afraid to need to stay so hidden. Once inside, the woman lowered her hood and the Princess recognised her mother’s maid.
“I have come to bring you home,” the maid said. “For you have grown into a wise and strong woman and your kingdom needs you.”
“What can I do against the wicked magic of the sorceress,” asked the Princess. “I don’t have the power to fight her.”
“You have more power than you think,” the woman said. “You are the heart of this land. That is why your garden grows when little else will. Why you still heal others when all around you people fight and steal. You are the reason that the sorceress cannot find the last jewel.”
“I don’t understand. Please, sit. Tell me first of my mother.”
“She still languishes in the dungeon. The sorceress was furious when she realised that you had escaped. She keeps your mother prisoner to taunt her. She still believes that eventually she will gain the location of the ruby.”
“I do not know where it is. How is it that I keep her from finding it?”
The maid smiled. “Because it is in your heart. Unlike the other gems, the ruby chooses its own guardian. It chose you. That is where your healing power comes from, the strongest magic of all. Love. And that is how you will defeat the sorceress. The wicked cannot survive in the light of pure love. Come back with me now. Save your people.”
The Princess was aghast but she did as she was asked. Fearful as she felt at the prospect of facing the sorceress, she longed to see her mother again and bring harmony back to the land. She was shocked as they travelled, by the bare fields and dried up rivers where before there had been a velvet patchwork of crops and softly flowing waters. There were few people on the roads now and many of the buildings were in a state of disrepair.
The castle however was as beautiful as she remembered it. She wrapped her cloak around her and pulled up the hood as she knocked on the door and asked for an audience with the sorceress.
“On what business?”
“I have information about the missing jewel.”
That got the guard’s attention. She was shown into a small anteroom while he scuttled off to announce her. Finally she was shown into the great hall where the sorceress sat on the wooden throne, the King’s crown on her head. She walked toward her, suddenly unafraid.
“Why do you not bow to me?” the sorceress demanded. “And why have you not bared your head in my presence? I am your Queen.”
The Princess stood in front of the dais in silence.
“Your audacity astounds me. I should hang you from the tower as a snack for the buzzards. Tell me where the jewel is or that is exactly what I will do.”
The Princess calmly lowered her hood and stared at her. A shock of recognition crossed the sorceress’s face.
“The jewel is here,” said the Princess placing her hand over her heart. “It has come home but it will never be yours.”
“We’ll see about that,” the sorceress shrieked. She rose, pulling from her robe a sharp black blade. “I will cut it out myself.”
But the Princess stood fast and light began to shine from all around and within her. It grew brighter and brighter and as it did, the sorceress grew smaller and more withered until finally she was nothing more than dust. The crown fell to the floor, Truth, Justice and Wisdom glowing brightly in the light of Love. Her guards were shocked into stillness, not sure quite what to do. The Princess picked up the crown and turned to them; they bowed deeply, in awe of the gentle strength that emanated from her.
“Please free my mother.”
The two women wept with joy as they were reunited. The Princess offered the Queen the crown.
“It is yours now,” said the Queen, “but I would be honoured to help you in any way I can.”
That is how the Princess began her next adventure, rebuilding the realm into the happy and prosperous place that it had been before. And this cottage is the legacy that she left behind, a place of welcome and of refuge, where anyone may come to find food, rest and safety.
So, now we should eat and take the chance to sleep. We still have a long way ahead of us.