Deep within the jungle, beyond the twisted branches of Cypress trees, lay a small quiet village. Mud huts scattered the ground and a relaxed stream could be heard flowing just beyond the edge of the settlement. The air was thick with humidity, the only source of light came from the moon that was noticeably full.
Cries broke the silence of the night, a small glow escaping one of the huts. Another cry rang out, interrupting the sleeping mammals that lay just outside of the jungle wall. Two figures emerged from the glowing hut, their voices soft within the darkness.
“Jojo,” whispered the taller figure, “go to the stream and bring your Mother some water.”
“Will Mother be alright?”
“Yes, Son. But hurry.”
“Yes, Father,” the shorter figure answered.
“Hurry, Jojo. The baby will be here soon.”
Jojo heeded his father’s words and grabbed the water bucket that hung just outside their doorway. He ran past many of the huts, his swift feet carrying him like the wind was at his back. Nobody was awakened when he ran by their homes, even as the bucket clanged beside him.
While he ran he thought about his father’s healing powers. He was comforted by them, knowing that his Mother and new sibling would surely be alright. His Father was strong in his power to heal. Jojo doubted that he had that same power within him.
Finally, the young boy made it to the edge of the jungle, the stream only a few legs down the path. The blackness of night was consuming, but Jojo was thankful for the fullness of the moon.
When he met the stream, he bent down and splashed some water on his face, catching his breath. Hastily he grabbed the bucket and dipped it into the cool tributary, filling it with water.
He worried about the journey home, as the bucket would be heavy with the weight of the water. But he knew that his Mother needed it, so he would have to press on.
Just as the boy stood up to depart back home, his eyes caught an unfamiliar yellow glow that was peeking ominously between the trees.
Two menacing eyes peered out at him from within the shadows of the night.
Jojo felt his heart begin to beat faster and faster as the creature moved out of the shadows of the trees and into the pale waning glow of the moon.
The mammal’s large intimidating mane moved about it as it crept slowly towards him, its paws hitting the ground noiselessly.
The boy stepped backwards and tripped on a branch, sending the bucket to the ground, spilling the water.
Still the lion crept closer, its large golden eyes never blinking.
Just as the great animal stepped over the stream, Jojo turned to get up and run back towards the village.
But the lion jumped over him and snarled, sending Jojo crawling backwards, now parallel with the stream. The lion’s eyes locked his again, their color almost hypnotizing.
Slowly it bent down and snarled again, looking as though it were ready to pounce.
Desperately, Jojo leapt up and began to run onto the path through the jungle, the light fading the farther into the trees he went.
He could not hear the lion behind him, but he knew that it was there. He could feel its hot breath running down his neck and his back. Vines and branches nicked his arms and legs, but he couldn’t stop. His feet were bleeding from the course rocks that adorned the path, but he had to keep running.
Jojo halted to a stop at a small cliff lined with trees. Just below was a small inlet of water, possibly the one that the village stream dumped into.
He turned around, the lion still there, still moving stealthily towards him.
Jojo backed up towards the line of trees, his breathing rapid.
The beast continued to move towards him until Jojo fatefully fell backwards into the pool just below the cliff.
Far away in another distant land, a young squire tended to the Knight’s horses in the stables. He combed the mane of one of the mares idly, his thoughts drifting thereabout. How he longed to have a horse of his own one day.
To be a knight! He thought.
The sun was about to rise, the sky painted a pale blue. The grassy hills were still covered with a dusting of rain that was common over these lands.
The King’s greed for land was obliged by the acres of pastures that lied behind the great castle. The old forest lined the edges of the pastures, moss-covered branches and trunks looming over the fences.
The boy moved over to Sir Garrick’s steed and patted his side gently. The brown and white tones of the horse’s pelt mesmerized the young squire.
I’ll be a knight one day, he thought to himself firmly.
Sir Garrick’s horse shook his mane and whinnied, startling the boy a little.
“Ah, I know what you want,” he coaxed the handsome steed. “I’ll be right back with your breakfast.”
The squire walked over to the barrels of oats and scooped some up into a bucket. After filling up the trough of Sir Garrick’s steed, the boy fed the rest of the horses in the stable.
When he finally set down the bucket, his eyes met a wooden staff that was leaned up against the wall. The boy gave into his temptations and took the staff, raising it between his eyes.
“Sir Aaren, Knight of the great King Leopold,” he whispered aloud.
In his mind he was far away, fighting alongside his fellow knights, policing the people of the villages, attending grand parties in the castle. He yearned to brandish a sword, to put on his armor.
One day, he thought to himself again.
Aaren sheepishly set the staff back down against the wall. The future seemed so far off.
He turned away from the wall, heading back over to Sir Garrick’s pen. Just as he turned to look in the pen, a white shape appeared in the corner of his vision.
The young squire snapped his head towards the open barn doors.
Standing there in doorway of the stables was a brilliant white stallion, still coated with rain, like it had traveled a long way. The fog had begun to rise from the hills of the pasture, mirroring the breath escaping from the stallion’s nostrils. Its eyes were a mesmerizing gold; ones that seemed to drag the boy closer.
Aaren’s heartbeat slowed, all of the hair on the back of his neck stood up.
The radiant stallion held Aaren’s gaze, beckoning him closer. The whiteness of its pelt and mane was exceedingly so, far greater than any he had seen before.
Aaren was just inches away from this magnificent creature when he outstretched his hand. The stallion did not falter, allowing the boy to touch his fingers upon its white coat.
The moment Aaren felt the steed’s pelt beneath his hand, a smile erupted on his face. The feeling of wonder coursed through his body as this existential being continued to allow him to run his hands over its coat.
When Aaren dropped his hand, he met the eyes of the stallion once more. He felt strength when he looked into this horse’s eyes, almost as if it had faith in him, and he in it.
Slowly, the stallion extended his neck down, lowering its head.
Somehow, Aaren knew what the steed was beckoning him to do. He moved to the side of the horse, placed his hands on its sleek back, and mounted the great beast.
The stallion stood up on its back legs and whinnied triumphantly, Aaren gripping its mane in desperation. It charged over the pastures, past the other horses, past the castle, and towards the hill at the edge of the fields.
The young squire felt the wind rush past his face. He loved the way the steed’s white mane felt between his fingers, the rhythm at which they ran. He'd never felt anything more natural in his life.
A golden light began to appear at the top of the hill, masked by the sunrise of the present day. The stallion kept charging up the hill, Aaren holding on for dear life.
As they reached the top, the light became exceedingly bright. So much so, that the boy had to take a hand and shield his eyes. When the stallion reared back on its hind legs again, braying to the wind, Aaren was thrown off backwards and the light completely enveloped the sky.
Across many dunes and plaguing deserts, lied a great palace. This palace was coated entirely in gold, and was adorned with thousands of jewels. The sheer size of the palace was so great, that it could be seen anywhere within the marketplace that laid just outside its towering walls.
Inside the palace lived a Sultan and his son, the crown prince. Also inside the palace worked many servants to the Sultan. One of these servants was the personal cook to the Sultan. She was young and beautiful, and she had a son.
“Jaul,” spoke a woman dressed in servant’s clothing, “the Sultan has summoned for me.” She hesitated, looking downwards. "Do not wait up for me, as I may be back late."
The young boy, who was similar to her in likeness, nodded.
She bent down to him, her face kind and soft. She then placed a hand beneath his chin and kissed him upon his forehead. “Promise that you won’t get into trouble.”
“Yes, Ma,” the young boy answered, his face shy and already worn, even at a young age.
The boy’s mother gave him a look of worry and forlorn before she went to leave their living chambers inside the palace. “I love you, Jaul,” she called as she opened the door, a small smile etched across her face.
“I love you too,” the boy replied, giving her a nod of good faith.
After the boy’s mother left he sat on the carpet for a while and listened to the bustle of the marketplace outside. Every once in awhile he heard the bray of a camel or the laughter of a drunkard.
It was just after dusk, about the time that the people of the market closed down their shops and drank and danced in the streets.
Quickly, Jaul reached beneath the table in he and his mother’s living chambers. He pulled out a wooden flute, one that his teacher had given him, planning to go out into the marketplace.
Jaul left the room, walked past the kitchen, and then out into the grand hall. The guards were not strict about letting him through the doors to go out into the front yards. However none of the servants were allowed outside the palace walls.
Jaul quickly and stealthily crept around the palace towards the eastern side. There was a large palm tree that peered over top of the wall. He scaled the side of the palm tree and leapt to the edge of the wall, crouched down between the branches.
A building on the opposite side of the wall was only 3 feet away, so all he had to do was climb down using both sides. There was a small gate with a hole beneath it that he crawled through to finally reach the marketplace streets.
The city was aglow with life and music. Men were cheerily drunk in the streets, some dressed in more fine clothing than others. Camels and stallions were lined up alongside one another, swaying back and forth and drinking from their troughs.
Jaul winded and weaved through people, bumping into a few before he found his usual spot on the wall.
Finally, the troubled young boy sat down, his back up against the golden wall. He brandished his flute in front of him and began to play, a raucous desert song resounding from the end of the instrument.
Several people stood by and watched him play, tossing a few coins here and there. Not that it was any consolation to Jaul, but he certainly didn’t mind the money.
A few bouts of laughter began to grow louder, but Jaul focused on playing. Men that had been down the street had wandered over drunkenly. They were dressed in fine clothing, some had large gold rings.
As soon as they arrived, the other people left, leaving Jaul alone with the drunk men. They began taunting the boy, laughing at him and encircling him, trying to make eye contact.
Jaul felt the blood rush to his cheeks in nervousness, trying to focus on his playing.
One of the men abruptly pushed him over and kicked his flute away.
Laughter erupted within the group of men.
“You okay, boy?”one of them taunted before he kicked dust in the his face.
Eventually they began to wander away and Jaul let himself lie there for a moment, blankly staring out across the street. The lowliness that he felt was overwhelming at times, but it was all the same. A single tear streamed down his cheek as he got up, splitting across his dusty face.
But then a chilling hiss seemed to break his thoughts.
Jaul looked around, his stomach flipping anxiously, until he spotted a long black shape slithering towards him. He backed up against the wall as the snake, its sleek black body moving rhythmically, cornered him.
The young boy stood up, touching the back wall with his fingertips. The cobra lifted its head and began to sway back and forth, its golden eyes glaring into Jaul’s.
A cool chill set over him, and the more he stared into the eyes of the serpent, the more he became frozen in fear. He wanted to run but found it nearly impossible to do so.
Unexpectedly, the cobra snapped at Jaul, causing him to slam into the wall, which abruptly rotated backwards, sending him on his back into a dark stairwell.
Jaul stood up quickly and put his hands on the wall that had now trapped him from the outside. He turned and looked down the dark stairwell, lit by torches hanging on the walls.
Something was drawing him down the stairwell. Something unexplainable.
Jaul walked down the stairwell carefully, passing the brightly lit torches as he went. Eventually, he came to a door; one that had a bright light glowing behind it.
Carefully, he placed his hand on the handle, turning it slowly and stepped into the bright light confidently.
Beyond a great lake and between two mountains lied a magnificent empire. The Emperor was a great man that ruled over many people. In turn, he had two sons, both of which he was equally proud.
As the sun shone brightly over the Emperor’s land, two of his sons lie sleeping in their beds. One of the brothers stirred quietly under the covers until he gazed out through the window. He watched as a Blue Heron flew by their room, the sound of the peaceful day breaking through the cracks of the wooden frames.
The boy looked over at his eldest brother, still sound asleep in his bed. He then looked to the ceiling, painted in various colors and patterns.
He thought briefly of his Mother, who was probably out by the koi ponds with her ladies in waiting. He was sure that his Father would be dealing with matters of the empire all day.
Sometimes he was glad that he was not the eldest child. Being the Emperor often seemed like a bland and demanding job.
The boy rolled over facing his brother.
But other times, he felt jealousy towards his eldest brother.
As heir to rule the Empire, his older brother was often given special treatment; special privileges, special gifts, special time with their father. He did not understand what made him so much better.
The boy relented on how he was faster and cleverer than his brother. He was just as smart and skilled as he was. Probably even better. He recalled their time out in the fields yesterday, walking around, setting traps, when they came upon a snowy egret that had accidentally been caught.
He had called to his elder brother when he came upon the egret. “Liwei! I found an egret in one of our traps.”
Liwei walked over to the trap and bent down, stroking the side of its neck.
“Should we kill it?” he asked.
But Liwei shook his head. “No Weisheng, it’s only his foot. He can still fly.”
Weisheng gazed down upon the bird and suddenly stepped on its neck with great force.
“Weisheng! Why would you kill the Egret?” His face was contorted in horror.
Weisheng just stared back at his brother, not feeling that his question deserved an answer.
Even now, Weisheng's eyes were still focused on his brother sleeping peacefully in his bed, consumed by his jealousy.
Suddenly, both of the windows blew open.
He sat up quickly and looked in that direction.
Sitting there perched perfectly on the window sill was a great Falcon. Its sleek feathers glistened in the sunlight that poured in from the outside.
Weisheng challenged its golden gaze, willing himself out of bed and walking towards the great bird. As he crept closer, the bird lifted its head higher than Weisheng’s. Just as he was about to reach it, the bird flew past him and out the bedroom door, down the hallway of the Imperial Palace.
Weisheng tore after the Falcon and followed it through the halls as it turned sharply through each corridor. Finally, it found an open room and soared inside.
A fireplace was lit within the far wall and the great bird made a bee-line straight for it. Weisheng followed desperately right after it until the bird darted straight into the fire, Weisheng only a few feet away.
Suddenly, the flames grew large and it sent Weisheng on his back. The boy could no longer see the Falcon, but a golden bright light erupted from the fireplace, consuming the entire room.