Once upon a time there was a kingdom, with a great king and queen. They had a child, a beautiful little girl whom they named Leona. The king and queen were profoundly happy, and loved their daughter beyond words.
One day the queen said to the king, “Leona must some day rule in our place. But if she grows up in court, knowing only ease and everyone fawning on her day and night, how will she learn the wisdom she will need to be a wise queen?” The king, having no answer, consulted his mage, Merlin.
“I have a recommendation,” said Merlin. “Allow me to raise Leona as an ordinary subject of your kingdom, with no knowledge of her royal birth. I will keep her perfectly safe with my magical powers, but she will also learn the ways of the world.”
And the king and queen consented. So Merlin took the little child Leona to a shepherd cottage on the edge of the kingdom. And raised her to be a shepherdess, tending the sheep, caring for their injuries, easing their lamb-births, and being present to their deaths — sharing with them the bright, hot days of summer and the bitter cold nights of winter. And she learned to make cloth from their wool, and cheese from their milk. And Merlin taught her the ways of nature, as well as the ways of books and human knowledge.
In due time Leona grew into a fine young woman, wise from all she had learned.
The king and queen were of course very anxious for her to return to the castle. So one day they surprised Merlin and Leona at their cottage, arriving in their splendid gold carriage with their entourage of knights and trumpeters. Leona had never seen anything like this, and terrified, hid herself in the forest.
“What is to be done now?” cried the queen.
“We must introduce her to her royal station gradually, so as not to overwhelm her,” said Merlin.
And the king and queen consented. Merlin informed Leona: “The king and queen wish you to be a scullery maid in the castle, and as a subject of their realm you must of course obey.” And so she did. At first being in the castle at all was very terrifying, but after all, she was only a scullery maid, safely hidden in a little room for washing dishes down in the bowels of the castle. In due time she became accustomed to her new station, and of course executed her tasks with distinction.
“Now the king and queen wish you to be a cleaning maid.” Ah, this was a new challenge for Leona! For now she wasn’t hidden away, but in the great halls and rooms of the castle, dusting, sweeping and polishing. And oh how she shuddered, and bowed oh so low, when noblemen and ladies would happen to pass by. But they paid her no notice. In time she became accustomed to their presence, and the splendor of the halls and rooms of the castle, and although she still bowed low when nobility passed by her, she no longer shuddered. And, as always, she executed her tasks with distinction.
“Now the king and queen wish you to be one of the queen’s ladies in waiting.” Ah, now yet another challenge for Leona! For now she was in the presence of the queen herself! In her private rooms! Helping her dress, attending to all her needs. And she was in the presence of the king too! All of which she found quite terrifying.
But in time she became accustomed to her new state. And although she of course remained profoundly respectful of their majesties the king and queen, gradually her terror of them passed and she came to love them as the wise and compassionate monarchs they truly were.
One day the queen summoned her. “Please sit here, beside me, Leona. I have a story to tell you.” And the queen told Leona how she had been born their child, and how they had decided to have Merlin raise her as a subject of their realm so she would learn wisdom, and how they by degrees had reacquainted her with the life of royalty, starting as a lowly scullery maid and finally as a lady in waiting.
Leona’s head was swimming! “How can this possibly be?! Begging your pardon, your majesties, I can’t bring myself to believe this!”
“Ah, my beautiful daughter, I have the last proof for you. You were born with a birthmark over your heart — I’m sure you know it well. Look, you will see that I have the same birthmark over my own.” Leona looked, and indeed there it was — over the queen’s own heart — a birthmark exactly like her own. “You are truly flesh of my flesh, my own beloved daughter. Come, my sweet child, take your rightful place beside me as Princess of the Realm.”
And, of course, Leona did as the queen wished, with quaking knees and tears in her eyes. But in time she came to accept her new station, and to appreciate the wisdom of her royal parents, and to love them even more — if that were possible!
And in due time she did indeed become Queen of the Realm, and ruled her subjects with a compassion and wisdom that could only come from someone who had lived as one of them.