Promise in the Woods
By Allison Ziegler
The king’s son was a prince in title alone. Never caring much for the stifling atmosphere of life in the castle, he would spend his days practicing archery and swordplay, often on horseback. Of course, these skills were admirable in a prince; a king capable of riding confidently into battle was a fantastic asset for any kingdom.
However, the duties of a monarch did not end at aptitude of the physical variety. Politics and economics are also essential, though the prince paid little attention to them. With his love of thrill and aversion to sophisticated affairs, the prince could easily be mistaken for a mere knight rather than royalty.
Much to the chagrin of his father, the prince would often slip out of the castle after dark to seek such thrills. Despite the king's efforts to keep his son inside at night where it was safe–guards were posted at every door, magical shielding spells were cast in the halls, and the young prince's door and window were both soundly locked–the prince managed to easily escape every time he felt the urge to embark on a midnight excursion. He began to think of evading the guards and spells as a sort of game; one that he never lost.
It was on one of these escapades that the prince met her.
The night had begun as normal; the prince had picked the lock on his window, thus negating the need to use his door. In this way, he was able to completely bypass the spells the court mages had cast in the hallway. Fleet-footed and silent, he made his way across the sloping rooftops of the castle. His prized sword and shield were strapped to his back; immature as he was, he was not so foolish as to neglect defenses against any trouble he might run into.
When he reached the edge of the roof, he leaped from it to the sturdiest branch of the tree whose branches lapped at the castle walls. Almost immediately after landing, the prince slid down the trunk, boots making little sound on the soft grass. He lifted his head and a smile played at his lips. He was now in the forest, so close yet so far from the stiff regulations of the life as heir to the throne.
He was home.
While he ran, his chestnut bangs wildly struck his forehead, and his exhilarated laughter echoed through the woods. Though it was true that his being male gave him slightly more freedom than if he were instead a princess, he was still expected to act with noble dignity and poise when addressing the public. The prince had never wanted this life; he wanted to see the world, and to be a wild adventurer.
However, every adventure, no matter how attractive, possessed the looming potential to bring about grave danger.
The forest outside the castle was known for its wide array of fantastic magical creatures, the best of which frolicked in the day, and the worst of which skulked in the night. One of such species bore a simple name, but a fearsome reputation.
They were called Night Mares; named so in light of both their equine appearances and uncanny ability to strike pure, undiluted terror into the hearts of any who gazed into their burning amber eyes. All knew of them, and most were rightfully afraid of the beasts.
The prince, however, was not deterred by their presence. He weaved through the trees, relishing the wind on his face and the earthy scent of the wild. This was the one place the prince felt truly free.
Unfortunately, the night was not destined to be a usual one.
Suddenly, the prince stopped in his tracks, booted heels digging into the dirt as his chocolate brown eyes darted around the shadowy clearing in which he now stood. For the first time in his life, he felt afraid of the wilderness; afraid of the dark, even.
But why? he thought, mouth twisting into a bewildered frown. I’ve always felt more at home here than I do at even the castle...why do I suddenly fear the one place I seem to belong?
It was then that he saw the eyes in the darkness, and memories of the dark stories told at the witching hour came rushing back into his mind. Sure enough, the clopping of hooves sounded at the edge of the clearing, accompanied by the rasping of a demon’s breath. The prince, normally bold and valiant, was frozen in horror at the sight of the skeletal black mare prowling towards him. He couldn’t even summon forth the courage to draw his sword and shield to protect himself.
Luckily for him, this made no difference in the end. No sooner had the Night Mare reared up on its hind legs, aiming to bring its hooves down onto his head, when a blade of green light slashed through the air, dispelling the creature into a puff of gray smoke.
The prince was stunned at the sight of his rescuer.
She was a girl of about seventeen--his age as well--with a slight frame and rippling blonde curls. Her blue eyes were soft and her fair skin had a sort of green tint to it. She wore a flowing green dress, accompanied by no shoes or jewelry, and the girl held no weapon; the green blade had been summoned magically.
“A...A wood nymph…” the prince breathed. He had heard tell of the beautiful forest spirits that guarded pure-hearted travelers from the dangers of the forest, but had never had the privilege to lay eyes on one before this very moment.
Unfortunately, the moment, as all moments do, did not last long. The moment his words had left his lips, the nymph was gone, a small flurry of leaves marking the place where she once stood.
“Wait!” the prince called, eyes wide. “I did not thank--!” His voice trailed off, realizing that the girl would not return. “You…” he finished lamely, his tone at practically a whisper.
Though the prince swiftly returned to the safety of his castle, he vowed that someday, he would find the wood nymph that saved his life, in order to thank her properly.
Many years passed, and soon, following his father’s death, the prince became king. He married, and sired multiple heirs, but never once forgot his promise. He would frequent the forests during the day, searching for the wood nymph, but he was never able to find her. No matter where he looked, she seemed to have vanished forever.
When the king reached his thirtieth year, he decided to travel into the forest alone at night, just as he had in his youth. He took no weapons, hoping to attract the nymph to his side with his defenselessness.
No creature attacked.
He wandered the woods for hours, not caring how lost he now was. All that mattered was that he found the wood nymph and fulfilled his vow.
“You are a foolish man,” came a soft, breezy voice from behind him.
The king turned to see a very familiar being standing before him. She was partially hidden behind a tree, but mostly visible to him all the same. He took a tentative step forward, and was relieved when she did not flee.
“I...I wanted to thank you,” the king said softly. “For saving my life.”
“I know,” the nymph replied evenly, her beautiful and deceptively young-looking face betraying no emotion. “I know that ever since that day, you've wanted to see me again. I know of the vow you'd made to do so.”
The king opened his mouth to speak, but the nymph was not finished.
“But I also know that one such as you should not forever dwell on the past, or on fairytales such as me,” she continued softly. “You may have done well in benevolently ruling your kingdom, but you have allowed your promise to me to consume you to the point of near-obsession.” The wood nymph lowered her head. “You must go back, and never attempt another visit.”
“But why?” the king asked, a frown tugging at his lips. “Why is it wrong to wish to express my gratitude? Why is it wrong to dream of finding you again? Why...why did you not speak to me before?”
The nymph let out a light sigh. “Because I had hoped you would give up,” she murmured. “I did not realize that you were so stubborn as to venture through these woods so often to find me. Dreams are meant for those who are asleep. To you, I must be but a dream.”
The king was silent for a long moment. After what seemed like an eternity, he stepped forward and bowed to the nymph.
“I will heed your words,” he said softly. “I will live within reality rather than fantasy. I will no longer return to this forest.” The king straightened and smiled at her, the adventurous glow from his youth still lighting his eyes. “But I shall never grow up.”
To his slight surprise, the nymph returned the warm smile. “Good,” she said simply.
With that, she was gone.