The sunlight filtered through the skylights of the great hall alighting the cold stones with a warm golden tone. Arthur, a silver-green dragon, was curled up with his head on a wrist sighing of boredom and wishing of some sort of excitement. A muffled bang on the closed doors sounded, echoing down the stone hall. Boots scrabbled outside as whatever it was that interrupted his previously boring day, banging into the doors several times.
Hauling himself up, he briefly wondered if he had locked the doors before noticing that yes, he did lock them. Shifting the large wooden beam that locked the doors off to the side, the forest dragon then opened a door, held it open and stood to the side when a prince barreled through. The prince tripped on a flagstone, landing with a grand clatter and sprawling of limbs on the hard stone floor.
Standing up so quickly, the prince almost fell over again, but he dusted off his trousers and mourned his breastplate's scratches when Arthur asked innocently, “Are you here for dinner?”
Backing up rapidly to the edge of the fire pit, the prince stared at Arthur with his eyes wide with fear and shock, “ 'Dinner'? Are you going to eat me?!”
“B-but what are the bones in this fire pit-place-thingy?” The prince stuttered.
Sighing, the dragon replied while looking disgusted and insulted at the prince's previous judgement of dragons, “Elk bones.”
The prince sagged with relief, “Oh.” He paused, drawing himself up to his full height, “Now let's get down to business.”
Arthur looked at the prince, befuddled, “ 'Business'?”
“Yes. I am here for the princess and I need three quests to complete before I can win her hand. You have quests for me.”
“I do?” The dragon was still confused.
“That is right. All dragons have quests for princes to complete.” The prince was looking very proud of himself, his chest puffed out and hands locked behind his back.
Poor Arthur stared at the prince, “They do?” he parroted.
“Yes.” The prince paused, “Now what are my quests?”
Arthur then stared off into space as he wracked his brain for tasks that could be called 'quests'. Then the proverbial light bulb turned on, “I know!” he exclaimed, “You can go into the Shifting Forest and find me a flower.”
It was the prince's turn to look confused, “But flowers are all over the place.” he protested.
Holding up a taloned finger, Arthur then replied, “This flower isn't be any old flower. This one has a singular bloom that is shaped like a sunflower, but the petals are a blue to indigo colour and the pollen is a rich purple tone. I don't expect you to have an easy time with catching the fellow, he is quite the interesting character.”
The prince left without another word.
Dark, gritty soil ground itself into his face while forest floor debris made its way into his clothing. Heaving himself up the prince once again took off running, trying to avoid the dangling tree branches the strangling vines and jumping over the roots that he could swear were moving. But then, he was chasing a little flower that was moving like a spidery-octopus-like fashion with its roots and limbs flailing, its bloom with blue to indigo petals and purple pollen occasionally looking over its nonexistent shoulder at him as it raced around.
Growling to himself, the prince pushed himself to run as fast as he did without his armour on, to breath deep breaths and to catch that crazy flower. On top of it all, he was a bit miffed that the forest actually moved. He knew that the tales said that the forest moved and that a lot of times, if a person went in, they never came out. But to witness brushes jumping into his path and feel the ground shifting under his feet as he wove through the obstacle course following that crazy flower, was totally over his head.
Just as the prince raised his gaze to search for any vines, a tree appeared out of nowhere and he got a face full of bark. Thankfully it was somewhat soft bark, but bark is still rather hard. Staggering backwards a few steps holding a hand to his aching head, the young royal groaned, his head was throbbing and he felt like he just got trampled by a stampede. Shaking his head to re-orient himself, the prince took off after the flower yet again.
As he was jogging, to be better prepared if a tree jumped in front of him, along after the flower, he heard a strange rustling in the trees. Cocking his head, he tried to place the rustling of the leaves and clack of twigs into why it sounded somewhat familiar. Dodging around another bush, this one was a holly of all things, he remembered where he had heard something familiar. It was laughter that he was hearing, or something at least like it. The prince frowned as he thought, “If I didn't know better, I would say that the trees are laughing at me!” Speeding up due to his irate thoughts, the prince sprinted onward thinking that the dragon was really sadistic.
little flower dashed down an old road, paved with massive slabs of
stone that had the occasional tuft of grass or smattering of lichen
or moss on it. Lining the road were trees planted in intervals
towards a village of stone buildings, crumbling stone walls and a
dusty sign with a foreign script spelling out Randa Xindawi.
Once proud buildings still stood in a somewhat haphazard manner around the few twisting streets of the village, their masonry still intact for the most part, a testament to the stone masons that made them long, long ago. Vines climbed up old trees and embraced the houses, stores and tavern while the old trees stretched up and branched out, casting shade on the street of ancient paving stones. As the little flower dashed through the village, people moved out of its way, others looked through windows, mildly surprised or amused by the sight of a flower running through.
As the flower bolted away from its pursuer, one of its roots got caught in a crack between the paving stones. Jerking its root frantically, the little flower cast about to see if the prince was there yet. Observing no-one resembling the prince, the little flower wrapped some limbs and leaves around its root and started pulling its root rapidly, its little stem taut with urgency and movements quick and stilted.
Just as the little flower got its root free, it started to run off again. Right into a young girl's arms. With a big smile on her face, the girl hugged the flower like one would a cat, wrapping her arms around the squirming plant's body and holding it there in a vice-like grip while the little flowers roots strained, limbs flailed and pushed against the unyielding girl.
Heavy bootsteps pounded out a fast rhythm on the aged paving stones as the prince raced towards the flower. Slowing as he neared the young girl, he opened his mouth to ask if he could have the flower when the girl held out a limp and drooping flower to him. “Xuwu iao sa.” the girl said, a blinding grin on her face, before racing off, the sunlight playing with her hair bringing out rich golden red tones.
The prince held the sad little flower, in shock that the girl not only gave him his quest item, but that she didn't speak Battav, the tongue of the Ten Kingdoms.
The prince showed up several hours later at the great hall, his once shiny armour, now caked with dirt and the materials of the forest floor and in his arms, the elusive flower. “Here you go dragon.” He growled out as he thrust the flower towards the being in front of him, “I hope this is what you were looking for.”
Arthur's eyes widened as he accepted the little flower before stating, “Thank you for catching this little guy. He ran away from my garden and as I can't leave this castle, I needed someone to get it for me.”
The teenager crossed his arms over his chest, brow furrowed, “What is the second quest?”
The drake thought about that for a little while before slowly stating, “A maple leaf!”
“Uhhh. . .What?”
“I would like you to get me a maple leaf.”
“A maple leaf?” the prince questioned, with a raised eyebrow.
The dragon huffed, “Well, does it matter what I ask you to retrieve?”
Shuffling his feet the prince replied, “No.”
“Well then?” Arthur asked, “What do you ought to be doing?”
The prince sighed as he walked out the doors to the great hall. As he exited the drawbridge, the prince started to look for the distinctive leaves of a maple. Finding on right off the bat, he reached up to grab a leaf, only to find it way above his head. Scowling slightly, he moved on, with the same result. Thinking that it was just that tree that was being infuriating as all he wanted was one, one leaf and there were many more trees out in this crazy forest that he could get another leaf from.
Several trees later he was just fuming. He stomped off in a huff and found himself in a clearing, that had a majestic maple sitting in the middle of the enclosed small grassy enclave. Stomping over to one raised root, the prince kicked it twice and then sat down in a quick, angered movement, only to slide off of it as it moved. Like all of the other trees in this strange, strange forest. “Excuse me?”
The prince fell on his butt a second time when a rasping alto voice asked again, “Excuse me young man?”
“Who's there?” He looked around the clearing anxiously, “Who is talking?”
Leaves rustled overhead, “Me, young one.” The voice sounded mildly amused and somewhat exasperated.
Turning around the teen stared at the trunk of the tree, “A tree?!” He clutched his head between his hands, “I must be going mad!”
Dry laughter filled the space between his ears, “No, you are not going mad.”
“Oh.” The prince relaxed, “Why can't I get a maple leaf?”
Roots shifted causing the ground to ripple, “Well? Have you ever asked for one?”
The prince looked at the ground and scratched the back of his head, “Uh. . . .no?”
“Well there you go.” The roots stopped shifting with that proclamation.
The prince stared at the maple, “Huh?”
“Are all teens as eloquent as you?”
“Hey!” The teenaged boy replied indignantly, “I've never talked to a tree before!”
“Fair enough.” The tree conceded, “What is thy name?”
“'What is thy name?'” the prince asked, “What does that mean?”
The leaves and twigs rustled in a manner of a sigh, “It means, 'What is your name?'”
“Oh.” The prince thought for a moment, “My name Brad of the Kingdom of Distant Pines. Uh, what is yours, um, fair lady?”
“My name is Sylvia.” The maple replied, “Now, what was it that you wanted?”
“A maple leaf?”
“Yes.” Roots shifted again, “What do you say?”
The prince thought about that for a moment, “May I have a leaf?”
“Very well then, have a leaf.” A branch lowered down to his reach, “Was that so hard?”
The prince went bright red at the question and grumbled before biting out the words, “I'll, take my leave of you. . .fair maple.”
Doors slammed open to the great hall, Arthur raised his head from his bored doze to see a somewhat sweaty prince storming into the room. “Here's your maple leaf.” The prince growled as he held out the maple leaf.
“Thank you.” the drake took the leaf and put it beside the fire pit.
Shifting his weight onto one leg, Brad frowned at the dragon, “What useless task are you going to send on me now?”
Arthur gazed steadily at the proud youngster, “Oh, these tasks are far from useless.” Brad raised an eyebrow. “I want you to find a willow and see its treasure.”
Brad turned on his heel and stalked out of the great hall.
Stopping at the front of the drawbridge, the prince wondered about how on earth he is going to find that willow. He wasn't even told anything about it other than it had some sort of treasure. Wonder what that is, maybe gold? Or how about some other rare metal? But. . .how was he going to find it. Brad recalled what Sylvia said and with that he headed off to see the maple.
A little while later, he stopped in front of a gnarled tree all bent in on itself. A creaking sound filled the air as a branch moved to point down a nonexistent path as the leaves rustled as if to say, “That way is the way to that which you seek.”
At a second glance, the so-called nonexistent path, he noticed it was an animal trail with little piles of feces spread out the way a rabbit would have it. Down the path the prince walked until he came to the end of it in front yet another tree. This one was a pine tree.
Brad approached the tree only to find himself ducking back out of range of a rain of needles that actually hurt. “Don't do that!” A young voice protested, “I don't like being snuck up on!”
“Huh?” The prince replied. After a long silence the prince walked up to the tree and poked its rough bark. Pine cones and needles fall in a torrent onto the prince. Hurriedly, Brad backed up out of the pine storm, “Is it dry around here?”
“Oh.” Brad screwed up his face, “Then why are you loosing needles so fast?”
“I told you! Don't sneak up on me!”
“How do you sneak up on a tree?”
“Grumble, mumble murt.”
Brad straightened, “What was that? I don't quite know what you said.”
“I don't want to talk about it.” The pine replied in a sullen tone.
“Fine.” the young royal addressed the young pine, “Can you answer a question for me?”
“What is it?” The pine asked, its needles chiming.
“Where might I find a willow with a treasure?” Brad asked.
“Follow the copse of cedar and fir. Head north along the river and stop at a spring. The mulberry vine should be able to help you.”
“Thanks.” the prince said to the pine before looking around for cedars and firs. When he spotted them and followed the instructions of the pine to the vine and then onto a birch followed by a ponderosa pine, the young man finally found a willow. And what a fine specimen it was, leaves a rich green with silvery backings hanging down on long branches that swayed in a faint breeze that was kicking up.
Startled, Brad noticed that he was at the edge of a wide, long field that was edged by the forest in the distance. Rolling hills covered with late summer's blooms crested with gently waving grass filled the landscape with more land unrolling past the forest to distant blue mountains.
The prince turned to the willow and brushed aside the curtain of branches somewhat roughly as he strode confidently into the inner abode of the tree underneath its draping arms. “What is this treasure that you have?” Brad asked the willow.
A tentative voice that sounded of silky strands of leaves in the wind replied, “Do you promise to just observe?”
Caught off guard at the strange request, the teen paused for a moment and then replied, “I guess so, sure. Why?” The young man didn't get an answer. Instead, the tree's roots shifted and then broke the surface of the soil, with a leaf wrapped box supported by three roots. Two branches drifted over to the box and carefully, reverently, unwrapped the leaves, letting none touch the ground. Another branch reached over and gently opened the small box that looked like it was made of woven willow branches, dried and sealed. A couple more branches reached into the box and pulled out a small stack of paper. Lightly touching the “paper” the tree shifted them around to rest on another couple of roots.
Two leaves carefully picked up the first sheet of “paper” and held it up revealing a charcoal painting of a young girl with wild reddish hair, coloured with quick strokes in some red pigment, laughing with glee at being held up by her grandfather, an older gentleman of proud bearing and a warm smile on his face. The willow carefully put the picture down and picked up a second. This one of the same little girl, a little older now, holding her grandfather's hand as they walked side-by-side down the river bank. After putting the picture down no less gently than the first, the tree picked up a third just like it did the first. A painting that showed the little girl and her grandfather holding three buckets of water, the girl had one and a large smile on her face as she beamed at her grandfather who held two more buckets. The next revealed the little girl, this time as a preteen, riding a horse in a paddock with her grandfather teaching her on foot.
Another was of the young girl just starting to mature into a young woman sitting on a bench across from her grandfather who was in a rocking chair, his hair more than a little white now and his hands spread in a teaching manner to his rapt pupil of a granddaughter. The next painting was of the the girl as a young teen, her grandfather and what looked like her dad all sitting on a couch. Following that was one of the girl as a teen, walking beside her grandfather beside the river bank, only this picture had her grandfather walking with a cane and slightly hunched over. After that painting was one of the grandfather, now gnarled like an old tree, walking beside his granddaughter who smiled warmly down at him holding two buckets of water. A drop of moisture drifted down from the tree and lightly touched Brad on his cheek as the willow slowly picked up the final painting. This one of the same girl, now a young woman sitting beside her grandfather's bedside, holding his hand and both of them smiling at the painter.
As the tree ever so carefully put the paintings back in their little box and started to wrap it up again, the canopy of the willow had little droplets of water drifting down, landing everywhere. Pulling the box down, the willow put it back underground held tightly by two roots crisscrossing over it like a human holding something or a pet close to them to its tap root.
The once proud stance that Brad had, had softened into a saddened posture. “Is. . .there a story?”
“Yes. Would you stay to hear it?”
The prince didn't hesitate in his answer, “Yes. I would.”
“Well then, I was just a sapling fresh out of the seed and haven't lived my first summer yet when an older man from the village yonder was walking by. He stopped by me and noticed my water parched state of being. He took pity on me and gently dribbled water from his own canteen onto my roots. Every week he would come by and give me a little more water, even when it was raining so hard my little leaves couldn't be held up under the torrent. A few season cycles passed and his visits became less frequent until he brought that little girl that you saw in the photos.
“By then I was about three feet tall. The little girl was delighted by both the view and me, her grandfather's little willow, as she put it. They would visit whenever they could. A few seasonal cycles passed by when there was a drought in the land. One that left the grass brown and brittle with the flowers straining to bloom. That was when they brought buckets of water to me every other week according to them. They saved me from the drought by trudging to the river and hauling water when they could've been working at the farm, that, from what I had heard from them, was something of a lost cause at the time.
“Seasons passed and the girl and her grandfather grew older, they visited less and less. Till, one day, the girl returned, she was now a young woman and she gave me all of those photos you just saw. She said, 'My grandfather would've wanted you to keep his-our memories. We know that you would. Thanks for all those fun afternoons.'
“It was then I realized that her grandfather had died. After she left, I haven't had any visitors. Until today. Thank you for coming and listening to my story. I was lonely and you came by and gave me company.”
Brad was choked up so much that couldn't talk, instead he bowed to the tree, from a student to a teacher. He slowly walked out of the willow's abode, gently lifted the branches out of his way and let them fall into the breeze that was blowing.
The doors to the great hall gently whispered open perking Arthur's ears when he noticed a humbled, young man standing in front of him. Arthur just looked at Brad until the teen spoke. “Thanks for the quests sir.” The teen fished his sword out of its rich sheath and held the sheath out to the dragon, “Do you have a plain scabbard?” Arthur nodded as he silently gave an aged, but well made scabbard to the teen. “Thanks. I learned a lot sir. You were right, those tasks weren't useless.” The prince departed to the far end of the great hall and started to race up the tower to the princess.
When he came down holding a bleary eyed young woman's hand, Arthur quietly said, “Remember the lessons you were taught today young man.”
The princess was rather lost when her groom nodded to the dragon who had a wise look in his deep green eyes.