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The Queen's Quest

a short story by Joyce Marshall

Once upon a time there was in a small country a Queen who ruled her people well. She served their needs instead of her own. She lived simply and spent much of her time settling disputes, studying situations and making decisions for the well-being of the land and all its inhabitants. What troubled her was that so few of her subjects were able to see the larger picture. Most seemed to live their whole lives concerned only with their own immediate concerns. She questioned how good her own leadership was if folks had not become themselves leaders who took responsibility for their place. So, she decided to consult the Soothsayer. Such a quest meant walking a day and a night solitarily following the eagle to the Soothsayer's cave.

So on a Sunday she arose at dawn, put on her hiking boots and a rough tunic, and set out. She waited at the river for the eagle and when she saw it circling above her, she arose and walked, keeping her eye on the eagle. The eagle circled about enough to allow her to follow. She walked a steady pace, stopping only twice to eat an apple and rest a bit. At last the eagle landed in a tree beside the entrance to the cave of the Soothsayer.

"Thank you, Eagle," said the Queen. The eagle blinked. Otherwise he didn't move. The Queen approached the cave. She had been to the Soothsayer once before, when her country was on the verge of war, and he had given excellent council to avert the conflict. It was understood that you go to the Soothsayer only in dire need. Your very neediness helps provide the wisdom and the insight you seek.

As she approached the cave she heard his voice. "Come on in, dear Queen." She entered his cave. He was sitting on the floor near a rock. On the rock was a candle burning, lighting the cave with a warm glow. "Sit down," said the Soothsayer. And the Queen sat cross-legged across from the wise men, and as she sat down, she began to cry. The Soothsayer said nothing, just looked at her with understanding eyes. And she cried more and more, as if years of worries and disappointments and hurts and fears were being at last released.

Finally, the tears stopped, and the Soothsayer spoke. "You, dear Queen, doubt yourself. Your deepest flaw is your self-doubt." He paused a few moments and the Queen sat in silence. The Soothsayer went on. "You serve your people well. You are wise, just, unselfish. I see you adding confidence and firmness and detachment to your great skills, intuitions, and sensitivities. As this happens, your people will begin to depend on you less and become good leaders themselves. They will know on a gut level that you are no longer their Good Mother, but a Queen, who calls forth their own queenliness and kingliness — their own qualities of servant-leadership. Do you hear me?"

"Yes," said the Queen, "I hear you."

And the Soothsayer lay a pallet out for the Queen. She suddenly realized how very tired she was. She stretched out and fell instantly asleep. When she awoke she didn't know where she was. It was very dark. Then she remembered — the cave, the Soothsayer — but no candle was lit. She followed a patch of light to the cave's entrance. It was about noontime. She saw no sign of the Soothsayer. The eagle was gone from the tree. She headed out in what she thought was the direction of home. As she walked she tried to remember what the Soothsayer had said, but she remembered nothing. It took her three days. She stopped to rest frequently, to drink from a stream or to eat a piece of fruit or cheese from her knapsack.

When she approached her home, many people were waiting to see her. "Oh Queen," they all said, "we must see you right away."

"Hold it," said the Queen, putting her hand up for silence. She called in her Chief Minister and said, "I will bathe and rest an hour and then I will see three people. Select the most urgent. Set up appointments for the rest—no more that eight a day."

The Minister looked surprised. He made the arrangements. When he quieted the waiting group they were all surprised at his announcement. The Queen usually saw them immediately. He selected the most urgent situations for her to deal with. Several of the others decided to go on home and work out solutions for themselves.

As the Queen lay in her bath, she was thinking, "I feel very different. But what was it the Soothsayer said to me? Maybe I will remember it soon."