Once upon a time there was a princess that lived in a beautiful palace overlooking a simple but worldly village. She lived in the castle with her Father, the King, and a handful of faithful servants. Her Father doted over her, supplying her every need and most all of her wants. Over the years, she blossomed into a beautiful teenage girl, quick-witted, full of laughter and always obedient – but increasingly lonely.
Often, late at night, she would gaze from the window of her room, high in the castle wall, watching the people far away in the streets below. She would lean towards the gaiety, straining past the sounds of music and laughter, to try and pick out the words of the young people. No sad, lonely sounds ever reached her ears, and she began to believe that they must be the happiest people in the kingdom.
“Father?” she asked one evening as they worked together on what he called her preparation. “Do you think that perhaps I might one evening be allowed to attend one of the festivals at the village? Perhaps just for a short time?”
The old, but wise King laid aside the Book of Lessons and looked upon his daughter with compassion and concern. “My child, the village below is a worldly place full of sad people. The sound of merriment that you sometimes hear is their attempt to drown out the emptiness and despair of their lives. It is best that you stay in the castle.”
Though she loved her Father, it was not the answer she wished. “But Father, how will I ever meet…I mean…someday I would like to…Oh Father, you are so good to me, and I do so love it here, but at times I get so lonely!”
The King sat back in his chair, his eyes suddenly seeing his daughter not as the little girl she would always be to him, but as the young lady she was becoming. He then decided.
“It is time that I tell you.”
“Tell me what, Father?”
Standing to his feet, he walked to a window overlooking the countryside to the East. His eyes fastened onto the King’s Highway, a straight road that passed high above the village and led to the castle gate.
“Shortly after you were born, I foresaw the day when you would need someone special—someone with whom to spend your life. I set out to search; to visit other castles in the Kingdom; to find a prince for you. Not just anyone, but that special someone.”
The King turned to look at his Princess, her eyes full of wonderment.
“I have met him. I know who he is.”
“Oh, Father, where does he live? When do I get to meet him?”
“He lives far away, but not so far. In a castle not unlike this one. He, too, is being prepared as you are—both for the other. Come stand beside me, my child.”
She walked to where her Father stood by the window.
“See there? That’s the King’s Highway. When the time is right and not before, he will come on a white steed. You will know him.”
Then taking her hands into his, he looked into her tear-brimmed eyes.
“Princess. Never forget you are a child of the King. You are Royalty. The one being prepared for you is also of Royal Descent. Be patient. Prepare. And stay in the castle.”
She hugged the King, jumping into his arms, happy now and determined to prepare and wait. For many months, at night, she looked out her bedroom window, past the village and its sounds to the Highway above, watching and dreaming of the one who would someday come.
* * *
A year passed. Then another. The dream became harder to envision, and the night sounds of laughter and glee from the village below again began working their way slowly into her thoughts. It became harder to concentrate on her preparation; harder to be patient.
One morning while taking her breakfast in the Royal Kitchen, a knock was heard at the back door; the door where deliveries were made from the village below. She waited for one of her Father’s servants to answer, but when none immediately did, she decided to answer it herself.
“Hello,” said the young delivery man as he pulled off his crumbled hat and bowed. (It was an exaggerated bow, very low and lasting, followed by a winsome laugh.) She couldn’t help but laugh.
“Delivery for his Royal Highness, the King,” he proclaimed with just the slightest shade of irreverence. “And my, but I must say that he has hired some lovely kitchen help, a great improvement indeed!”
“Why, thank you, but I’m not the kitchen help,” she replied blushing, “I’m the King’s daughter.”
“I had heard that he had a daughter. But I was never told how beautiful she was! Do you live here all alone with your Father?”
“For now.” She replied, thinking briefly of the now fading story her Father had told her.
He carried the supplies past her into the kitchen. “You ought to come down to the village some night. The lads would be taken with you! Lots of friends your age and wonderful parties.”
“Tell me about the village.”
For an hour they talked—talked and laughed. Every story of the village life seemed so full of humour and excitement! He acted out the stories he told and sang a village favourite, dancing merrily to the tune. She could not remember ever laughing so much, and found herself resenting her Father for not allowing her to take part.
“You must come to the village this very night. The Fall Festival begins, and it is the best time of the year.”
She glanced awkwardly at the closed kitchen door. “I don’t believe my Father would allow me to attend.”
“Then sneak out after dark. I will meet you at the bridge this side of the village. You’ll have a great time!”
“Perhaps,” she hesitated. “But I can’t promise.”
“I’ll meet you there,” he said, then shut the door and gone before she could answer.
That evening, she sat with her Father in the Great Room, he reading aloud from the Book of Lessons, and she pretending to be listening. In reality, she was measuring the diminishing light from the setting sun. The distant music began to loft up from the festival below, her imagination going skyward with it. It took several moments before she realized that her Father had stopped reading.
“You seem far away tonight.”
She straightened her dress nervously, “No, just tired I think. Perhaps I should go to bed early.”
“Really, Father, I’m fine.” She said, quickly getting to her feet. “Good night,” she said back over her shoulder as she scampered up the stairs.
Two hours later, when it was believed that all in the castle were sleeping, a lithe, young figure stole out the kitchen door and disappeared into the night.
* * *
Three months later, a slightly older, but much changed Princess marched into the Great Room to announce to her Father the decision she had made on the previous night. Her midnight visit had increased in frequency since that first visit a lifetime ago. The village night life was more exciting than she had ever dared imagine. The people, though sometimes crude, laughed and sang and danced and chased each night into dawn. They were living! Living now! Not just waiting for a dream that might never come true.
The young man that had met her that first night had treated her, well, like royalty! In a hundred ways he had made her feel special. Then last night, the greatest of all nights of her life, he had proposed to her. She clutched the ring he had slipped onto her finger tightly in her palm, drawing courage from the pain it produced.
“Father, I have something to tell you.”
He sat in his chair, the Book of Lessons on his lap, its pages freshly stained with his tears. She almost lost her resolve.
“I’ve met a young man. I know I shouldn’t have gone without your permission, but…anyway, we are going to be married—right away!”
The King shut the Book and stared out towards the Highway. “I watched you go each night, wishing you back.” Then turning His eyes to her and through her. “This castle has never been a prison. This castle is a decision. I want you to know that if you leave here, things will never be the same again. My love for you will never change, but everything—everything—else will.”
She wavered for a moment, but only a moment, her head filled now with the village ideas.
“I know that this is what is right for me. He may not be Royalty, but I love him.” And with that she left the castle.
* * *
She woke with the dawn, not knowing that it was a year to the day since her departure. Her back hurt. “Just part of being in your last month of pregnancy,” the village women had told her. Rising with difficulty, her husband muttered something in his half drunken state. He had come home only hours before and they had argued—again. Oh, well, after the baby is born maybe things will get better.
There was still a house to clean and chores to do. Picking up a worn, straw broom, she walked outside to sweep the front porch. Their house was small. It sat at the edge of town, not far from the bridge where he had waited for her that first night. Her eyes followed the path up to her Father’s Castle. The King had still found little ways to show her that he had not forgotten her; that she was still loved. But what he had said was now true. Nothing was the same.
Her eyes wandered to the East to spend a few minutes watching the sun rise, a simple pleasure that she shared alone each morning. Its rays almost blinded her, distorting the trees and hills beyond. Squinting against its brightness, she returned to the job at hand, first glancing absently up the High Road.
Her heart seemed to stop, gripped as if by a strong hand. The broom quivered in her grasp. Far down the road came a white horse, its rider sitting straight and tall. He seemed to be coming straight out of the sun. The horse quickened its pace as it neared the castle, sensing the excitement of its master. Her heart began to beat again, now loud and in rhythm to the pounding hoofs. He reined his mount to a stop outside the castle’s front gate. She could not make out his features, but his stance spoke of honour and character. He knocked on the front door – her front door not that long ago. The King stepped out to greet him, and she watched as they conversed; watched as the King spoke with his hands, and then pointed toward the village. Involuntarily, she took a step back into the shadow of the porch.
The noble Prince listened carefully, his strong shoulders sagging in disappointment and sadness. Shaking the King’s hand and receiving from him a consoling hug, he mounted his horse. He looked toward her village home, his eyes finding hers in the shadow. For a moment they both stared. Then, pointing his mount back toward the sun, he rode away into its brightness.
She felt the hot tears on her arms and hands long before it occurred to her that she was crying. Nothing, she thought, will ever be the same.