A True Love Story
Once upon a time there was a fantastic kingdom run by a king and queen. They looked after this kingdom every day, tending to its produce, helping its people and serving one another. The castle where they lived was near the source of the river, and this river brought life to the rest of the kingdom. Fields were irrigated by its streams, and every household had easy access to its water for washing, drinking and cooking.
One day a man was riding in the forest to the north of the kingdom when he came across a pool of water. He stopped to refresh himself and then realised that there was someone else nearby. He spotted a fair maiden sat by the pool, looking at him. She seemed very distressed.
“What can I do for you?” he asked in concern.
“I am so lonely,’ the maiden answered. “I need someone to help me but I’m all alone.”
The man’s heart went out to her. He came alongside her and offered his help.
She began to tell him of the many woes that had happened in her life. She had come under great attack and was now living in fear of another. She was abandoned by all and now lived in this small woodcutter’s cottage by this pool.
The man’s heart was large and he was determined to do something for this woman who needed it. He pledged to himself that he would find a way to help her.
The next day the man came back to the pool and found the woman still there. She had food and she shared it with him. They talked again, for such a long time. She told him of foes who had destroyed her happiness, of family who had betrayed her, and of dragons whose dominion she lived under.
The more the man listened, the more he dreamed. He imagined himself finding her foes and serving them justice. He saw himself finding her family and demanding back what was rightfully hers. And his hand twitched on the hilt of his sword as he fantasised about slaying the dragon who was causing her so much distress.
Soon, visiting the maiden became the focus of his daily activities. Together they would sit by the pool and they would talk about her obstacles, and his valour. She would share the food she had with him, and they would drink water from the pool.
His heart yearned so strongly for her that he felt as though a fever had overtaken him. Nothing else in life brought him pleasure anymore. As he rode through the rest of the kingdom, it seemed less delightful than it had once had done before. The grass seemed less green, the flowers less colourful, the people less friendly. He was no longer interested in his duties as he had found a loftier purpose in his life.
Being with her reminded him of when he was younger, when vanquishing enemies had been his chief purpose, and how he had loved the thrill of chasing down dragons. He wondered why he had allowed other responsibilities to distract him away from this, and his heart yearned to return to the pool every day as quickly as he could.
Always she would greet him with delight. She would feed him richer and more exotic foods as the days passed. They would talk and tell stories about her trials and his bravery. He would describe in great detail about how he would slay her dragon so she could be free. They lay by the pool and went on a thousand journeys together in their imagination.
Eventually one day she gave him her most precious possession. She reached in and gave him her heart. He took it willingly, and wanted in exchange to give he his own.
But when he went to take his heart to give to her, he found that it could not be removed. He tried and tried with all his might, even when he feared it may be scratched and bruised beyond repair, but it could not be given. It remained steadfastly whole and unyielding.
He went back to his home that night and he was sad. He could not understand why he could not give the maiden the one thing he had wanted to. As he climbed the steps to the castle, and into his royal chambers, he was listless and distracted. As he got into bed, as he did every night, he saw that once again the queen was asleep before he arrived. He removed his crown, lay down beside her and dreamt of the beautiful maiden.
The next day the king and queen attended to their royal duties. He was distracted and sad; she was tired and busy. She showed him the growing list of needs within the kingdom. He accepted the responsibilities as he knew he must but secretly he was growing to despise them. They brought him no joy. As they went their separate ways to fulfill their royal tasks, he began to count down the hours until he could return to the clearing in the woods, and the water in the pool. Never had the problems of the kingdom seemed so arduous, the landscape so dull, the people so dissatisfactory.
On things went that way, day after day. He would spend more time by the pool and less time in the kingdom. He tried over and over to remove his heart but it would not relinquish. Instead, they played lazily with hers. They fed on the rich food that appeared every day at the woodcutter’s cottage, and they stared into the green pool as they created a future for themselves elsewhere. Each night he would come home to the castle, and fall into bed beside the exhausted queen.
One morning, he rose from his bed and prepared for the day. He steeled himself to receive the list of kingly responsibilities from his queen, but found her in their chamber empty handed. She was doubled over in the bed.
“What’s the matter?” he asked with concern.
Through gasps of pain, she raised her head.
“I can’t do it anymore,” she told him. “It hurts too much.”
In answer to his silent confusion, she turned and she showed him her heart. With a start, he realised it was covered in scratches and bruises.
“It’s been hurting for so long,” she said, “and I don’t understand why.”
He was indignant with rage and vowed to find out who was responsible for this.
“But dear,” she said to him with tears in her eyes. “It cannot be someone else. My heart belongs to you.”
He stumbled back in horror, as he recalled the attempts he had made over the past months to dislodge what was in the core of his being. He looked down at the heart within his own chest, unblemished, strong and somehow bigger than it had once seemed to be.
“I need you to tell me what has happened,” said the queen.
And, undone by the sight of her pain, he told her the truth about the pool, the maiden and the dragon he had committed to slaying for her. As he spoke, the heart within his chest flooded with a pain so great he thought he wouldn’t be able to stand it.
He stood in order to leave the room.
“Where are you going?” asked the queen.
“To her,” he said. “It’s over for me here now that you know the truth. She needs me, and I have promised to rescue her. I cannot break my vow.”
The queen rose and stood alongside him.
“I need you,” she whispered, “and you are already promised to me.”
And she began to recount her own tale. She reminded him that once upon a time, she was a princess trapped in her own struggles. She had watched a brave prince who fought real dragons and warded away foes and proved himself brave and true. He had come to her offering everything he had, and in return she had seen his wounds, his fears and his weaknesses and she had reached out to heal him. Together they had faced battles, defeated enemies and built a beautiful kingdom where other people could flourish and find life.
She opened the curtains so he could see the extent of their kingdom from the tower.
For the first time he saw how the river was running so low that people had to walk much further to collect water for their households. He saw that fields of crops were withering from drought, and that the grass had turned brown.
He thought of the clearing in the woods with its lush green grass and the increasingly green pool of water.
“How can I stay,” he asked, “when the kingdom is failing around me?”
The queen crossed the chamber and brought him to the window on the other side. High up on the hill behind the castle, the king saw that the source of the river, once flowing freely, was blocked. The water was no longer streaming in the direction it should have been, and as he looked again, he realised why. It was his duty to maintain the land belonging to the castle, especially the source of the river. In his passion for the lonely maiden, he had neglected his royal duties and the land was beginning to starve.
“I need you,” she whispered again, “and your kingdom needs you.”
“How can I carry on here?” he cried. “I have ruined everything and I am not fit to be king. I am the greatest fool that ever lived.”
He tore off his crown and fell to the ground in remorse.
The queen picked up the crown and brought it to his prostrate body.
“You are not a fool,” she said, “you are a king. You are not a knight in shining armour, you are the husband of the queen. You are a vanquisher of foes, a provider for the kingdom, a protector of the people, and a slayer of dragons. This crown belongs to you, if you choose to remain.”
As she spoke, he felt the heart within his chest grow so large he thought it would burst.
“But how can you ever love me now?” he wondered aloud.
“Because I have received the gift of forgiveness,” she told him, “and I am choosing to give that gift to you.”
And as he looked as the queen, her beauty seemed so glorious, so powerful, and so overwhelming, it was as if he saw her truly for the first time in his life. He saw her strong arms that had been carrying water for the people, her fingernails that had dug deep to help bring in the produce of the land and her radiant face that was lined where her smile had brought joy to all those who looked up to her. The memory of the pool, the woodcutter’s cottage and the fantasies that had filled his mind for months paled as he took in the woman stood by his side.
That day, their reunion was complete. As he confessed every imperfection without restraint and received her forgiveness, he watched as the bruising on her heart faded and the scratches softened in their harshness. He set about that very day on clearing the debris from the river source and on rebuilding the banks of the river.
Over the next few months he stood alongside his queen as they served the people together and they saw the land grow green and flourish again. Wholeness returned to the kingdom and the queen’s scarred heart grew stronger and larger day by day.
In time, she bore the king a son and there was great celebration in the land at the arrival of this prince who would know the power of love and forgiveness all the days of his life.
And by the pool in the clearing in the forest, the maiden waited longingly for the man who would never return to her. Early each morning before she rose from the cottage, the woodcutter would come and put out new food ready for her to eat that day. And as he passed by the abandoned heart, he would carefully clean it and tenderly return it to the door of the cottage, waiting and hoping for the day when it might once again become his.