Sitting straight with seven goose-feathered pillows supporting her back, Queen Saffi wondered when she would die. At last, her back was free from pain. She had no aches running up and down her spine, and no headaches from a terrible twist in her tailbone. With the kingdom in order, she could go into her long night’s rest—that is, of course, if she could convince her passion-crazed son Harald to forget that thought of finding a love match in that worthless country girl Abellona.
“That milkmaid has less sense than a six-year-old!” the queen projected. Her servants were used to Saffi’s outbursts, so they stood in their places waiting for orders to empty her royal chamber pot or to bring her favorite feline companion, Lenka, to the queen’s bedside.
“I have ruled this country twenty years without Erik, and I didn’t solve the problems of the starving serfs or the territorial disputes between the herdsmen because of the lovely curves in my bodice or corset,” the dying woman thought to herself. “Everyone thinks I’m so delicate! Shows what they know about running your own little piece of the world.”
At that thought, she tossed two of her brocaded pillows in spite to her longtime servant, Christoff. He blinked, but stood still upon impact. It was unlike the queen to act viciously, and so he muffled a trifling laugh so they could make a joke of it. Instead of apologizing or inventing a story, Queen Saffi asked him to fetch her Harald. She could feel her time was coming soon, and she was ready to see him. Inwardly, Christoff wondered why that sorry excuse for a prince was not at his mother’s side already, but indeed this had been a strange family to serve. He had served under Erik’s father King Felix and his mother Queen Lise, but ever since that fateful night when Saffi came to the castle door as a young helpless thing, cold and drenched to the bone from the winter rain, the house (and the kingdom for that matter) had never been the same.
Something changed, but he could never quite put his finger on it. It was certainly good, he thought, so why bother worrying about the reason? As Christoff walked down the long mirrored corridors of the east wing of the castle to find his Royal Highness Harald, he could not shake memories of Saffi’s effect on the kingdom from his mind. It wasn’t because he wanted to commemorate the rheumatic old beauty queen: it was because he wondered if Harald might be so good a ruler as his mother. She had something positively remarkable about her that she could sense just the place in the kingdom where she might need to send an extra reinforcement of troops to extinguish the flames of a rebellion or a bit of surplus grain to feed a struggling family. Christoff had been married for several years, and he had heard of women having a God-given intuition at least a thousand times from his wife, but Queen Saffi might have something more.
While Christoff mused about the mystery, he was not watching where he was going and ran right into the prince, whose sandy blond hair was quite rumpled with straw and field grasses. The prince, only a few days past his twenty-third birthday, looked like an overgrown toddler, dirtied with wild play.
“What a sight! And just before the queen is going to pass from this life to the next, she must see him like this—filthy from rolling in some heap with a low-bred hussy! She will be absolutely livid. Positively offended! Heartbroken!” Christoff thought.
As Harald brushed some horse hair from his riding cloak, he did not wait for the servant’s bow but inquired immediately about his mother.
“How is she?” he gasped, still out of breath from running up the steps.
“We have no time to waste. Your mother is ready to speak with you her last words. Don’t worry about your dress. Please, follow me to her chamber.”
When the two men entered the queen’s bedroom, she had thrown all her pillows to the floor and although she was asleep, she was propped against the headboard breathing shallow, quivering breaths.
Harald bowed to the queen, and even though he wasn’t an evil son who impatiently awaited his inheritance, his mind was still occupied with his afternoon with Abellona, whom he intended to make his bride in the next year after the proper amount of mourning. His mother didn’t approve of the match, but Harald believed the kingdom would embrace their new queen. She was undeniably beautiful, and with the right clothes and a few milk baths, she’d look as regal as any other handsomely made creature of the earth. Abellona was not like his mother in many ways, though. She was from the country and without noble heritage at all. She could milk a cow and bake pastries better than any specialist in the castle. After detailing all his beloved’s merits to his mother, Harald was shocked by her forthright refusal to bless their union, for he had thought she would appreciate such a modern and romantic marriage for love—and to love a woman so in-touch with the kingdom.
But alas, his ailing mother found fault with the peasant girl for some confounded reason or another. Her chief complaint was the girl’s lack of feeling. It revealed a fundamental flaw in her nature, she would say.
Each time she would say something like that, Harald would remember the tale inscribed in the courtyard walls about his mother’s dramatic entrance into his father’s family. Everyone in the kingdom and even in the surrounding countries across the sea knew of how his mother had moaned to her gracious hosts about being kept awake all night due to a backache caused by a small, hard uncooked pea hidden underneath twenty mattresses. She had passed his grandmother’s silly test of sensitivity and won her way into his father’s heart.
Pah! He thought. Abellona would never have been so absurdly impolite as to complain about charity. In fact, if Harald played dice, he would bet she wouldn’t even feel a green, unripe apple under only two mattresses!
Harald’s thoughts were interrupted by his mother’s rousing herself. She brushed her falling hair from her face, and asked him to bring her a cup of water. After drinking and handing the cup back to him, she requested that Christoff lead the rest of the servants from the room. Once the last of the servants had closed her heavy door, the queen patted the space on the quilt beside her, and she asked Harald to sit on the bed like he used to when he was roving around the castle in his little blue rompers.
After removing his boots, Harald jumped onto the bed, but with much less bounce than when he was a little boy. He laid his head to his mother’s laboring chest a moment, feeling her breaths rise and fall. She tousled his hair and kissed his head.
“Mama,” he said. “Do you have anything to tell me? Anything you have not already instructed me?”
Before she could say anything, she gasped loudly and clutched her lower back. It was the first pain she’d had in her spine for weeks.
Her attention shifted, and she was focusing on that one spot.
“Another achy back! There haven’t been any peas in this bed, for years!” Harald laughed. “All those tricks on you are done now. You’ve got your crown now, what’s to be worrying about?”
She ignored the jest, continuing to rub her back.
“To the South—just five miles from the border, you need to visit a little home there. There’s a farmer there with two young sons. He’s a widower, and I’d like you to send him a few new goats and ask one of the servants to watch his children so he can go to the market.”
Harald thought this command was some kind of odd fancy that comes to people just before they are about to die, so he patted her head and tried to comfort her with a sweet look sent from his eyes to hers, and he squeezed her shoulders.
But Queen Saffi wasn’t fooled. She knew he wouldn’t listen and that he had long since written her off as a woman subject to her whims.
Here, we get to know the unsuspecting princess who became a queen because of an ache in her back. This is the beginning of a long story about the princess who became a mother and had a son whose ideas were rather modern, and like all children, tends to think his parents made decisions based on old fashioned ideas without actually knowing the full story.
I was working on this in graduate school when I needed a momentary break from writing the thesis. There’s much more written, and much to be written and revised. As always, a work in progress.