The King's Forest - Here meets the fate of three races enshrouded in the mysteries of the pure white snow, the blood-red rose, and the golden dawning sun.
Chapter 1 – The Heart of a Child
"Mama, does he mean it? Does Papa mean to take us with him this time?" The stout woman smiled upon her child. "Yes, Heta. He says you are both to go with him to take the southern tour over the King's grounds."
The girl of ten looked to her brother with a blissful expression. "Will, I think we are the happiest children in the world! No one could be happier!"
"Shhhh, child. Do not speak in that way." The superstitious mother looked around the little cottage as she spoke. Her fear was evident to the children.
"Why, Mama?" asked Wilfrich. "Why is it not good to say we are happy?"
"You will understand one day…some things are not spoken in words or misfortune might come of it. Now, go and ask your Papa how long you will be away so that I will know what to put into the basket."
The children ran to find their father as he strapped his pack to his horse and called to his servant to prepare the children's beast. "Tell your mother we shall return before the fifth night falls," he responded. As the two ran toward the cottage, he called to them, "Do not forget to bring your reeds, Wilfrich!"
The sun had barely risen when Willifus, his two children, and his servant met with a caravan of two dozen horses carrying huntsmen of the region. The two children were together astride a large pack-horse behind their father. They smiled eagerly to one another. Willifus noted the excitement on their small faces and sighed to himself with relief. He had chosen to travel the southern border when he thought there might be those who would accompany him and was pleased to find the news of the village had been true; the king's huntsman were gathering the bounty for the king's feast. On the third and fourth day of his tour, he would separate himself from the hunt, leaving the depths of the forest behind. There the children could run about more freely before returning to home and hearth.
The first night, the two children settled down beside the fire, the chicken and pottage from home warming over the flames. "I am so hungry I could eat a bear!" vowed Wilfrich, smelling the aroma of his mother's efforts.
"How many animals does the King want?" asked Heta again. "And how can he eat them all?"
Willifus howled with laughter, and the hunters, having made their own camps, meandered over to know the reason for the mirth.
"No, my daughter; the king will not eat all of the animals himself. He is providing a great feast."
One of the men, Ekhyrt, who had come to listen, spoke to Heta. "Don't you know about the birth of the King's child, little maid?"
She shook her head as she passed her father his pottage. The man knelt down and looked across the fire. "A year has passed since our sovereign – long may he live – was given the gift of a child. Now, this is no ordinary child, lass, though she be naught but a girl." The men around him chuckled, and he continued. "Her birth was foretold by the Faere soothsayer, Alugona, and she was born when the moon passed over the sun."
"Why did the moon pass over sun, Papa?" asked Wilfrich, his mouth full of hot victuals. He had looked skeptical of Ekhyrt's narrative.
"I remember it!" interrupted Heta. "I remember the dark day. I was frightened."
The hunters smiled again, though they had all felt the same fear only a year past.
"Will they feed the girl the animals?" queried Wilfrich, after the hunters had supped in quiet for some minutes.
"No, boy. All who are invited to celebrate the child's birth will eat at the king's table. They will feed the King and Queen from Connara, the Nayar princes – if they will attend - the Queen Arisdona's sister-princesses of the Faere, and all the nobility in the land."
"Will we go to the feast, Papa?" Heta whispered wistfully.
"Now why would you want to go to the King's feast when we will have our own feast here?" her father retorted.
Heta shrugged. "I want to see the King's daughter. What is her name?"
"They haven't named her yet, child. They will name her during the ceremony."
Both children looked more confused than before, and having finished their repast, seemed ready with more questions. The father quickly quelled their tongues, telling Wilfrich, "Produce your reeds, boy, and give us a tune now."
The child of eight pulled out the panpipes he had in his pocket and proceeded to carry out the command. The lilting melody of the instrument uplifted the anticipating hearts of the men about them. Hunters from abroad had come to participate in the hunt for delicacies to set before the King and his royal guests. The forest of Abbon Dwin, the King's Forest, was known for its rare offerings.
Heta picked up her skirts and danced around the fire while Wilfrich played, his fingers swiftly moving over the reeds rapidly. The men turned to look at one another in delighted astonishment; for Wilfrich was a good hand at the ill-crafted instrument. His swift tune was finished and Heta fell down beside him giggling. He laughed as well, and the merriment of the children's voices seemed to echo in a thick silence around them. The atmosphere of the forest had changed and grown quiet. Even the crickets did not chirrup their rhythmic harmony. A wind blew across the underbrush and scattered leaves and other forest debris onto the fires. A feeling crept over the camp. The forest about them seemed to emanate a sinister opposition to the happy voices.
As Ekhyrt returned to stir his fire, he mumbled to Willifus, "Tis an evil land here. I'll not be looking forward to the view of the accursed wall. Ah, but that is where the mightiest of the beasts we seek will be found, eh? It'll be a plentiful hunt!"
Willifus settled his children on a pallet, stoked the fire, and made his own bed for the night. He felt the same as Ekhyrt about seeing the wall surrounding the untamed forest, but he had no intentions of staying to hunt there. The sooner he did his duty by the king and checked the boundaries, the better. The forest, an ancient wood encircled by the stone wall, was not the King's but touched the southern border of the Forest of Abbon Dwin. No one came within a foot of it but once a year during the tour. There was safety in many, Willifus believed. For, even though he had seen no one near the wall for the twelve years he had guarded the King's Forest, something had changed. He recalled the mornings he walked about early and felt the ominous quake of the trees as they were blown by a wind from that direction.
Wilfrich was the first to awaken, he knew not what hour. It seemed to him that it was early morn. The vapors of fog had settled over the ground and seemed to be rising as a thick blanket covering the sleeping encampment of hunters. He had the urge to lift his pipes and begin a triumphant tune; he thought it might force away the gloom of the lazy mist. "Will," whispered Heta sleepily, addressing her brother. "What has awakened you?"
"I know not. What you?"
"I am hungry."
Suddenly Wilfrich was aware of his own hunger and smelled the curious aroma about him. It was sweet and reminded him of the spiced bread his mother made for special celebrations.
"Mmmm…gingerbread, Will. Do you think Mama put gingerbread in Papa's bag?"
"I will look." He slipped out from under his cover and searched the bag beside his father's sleeping form. His hand felt for a soft, rounded package, and though he touched many packages of food, he wasn't tempted. The gingerbread was all he wanted. In frustration, he dropped the pack beside his father's head. Willifus never moved; his sleep was too deep.
"There's nothing there!" Wilfrich spat angrily.
"Oh, Will, I must have the gingerbread!"
"Yea." He sniffed the air again. "It is this way. There must be a hut." He strained his eyes to view where he thought the residence should be. All was shrouded in a dense haze. Heta was out of her bed, now, and together they began to follow the tantalizing aroma.
The prospect of freshly baked gingerbread caused them to increase their pace. "Will!" called Heta, as the boy broke into a run. "Wait!"
"Make haste. I won't leave any for you."
Heta huffed and began to sprint after her brother. The mist was so thick that Wilfrich could not be sure of his whereabouts and lost sight of his father's camp behind them. He halted his steps to peer about, as Heta, breathless, caught up with him. "I…" she gasped for air, "think we should…go back."
"No! It is near."
Heta looked around her in the fog. "I am frightened."
"You are frightened of everything."
This ruffled Heta, and she stated imperiously, "I am the eldest; I am responsible for you. I say we return to Papa, and you must heed my words!"
"You are not Mama!" scoffed Wilfrich. "I will not do as you say." And on he ran into the forest, thick with the gray blanket of mist. Heta called to him, but he would not return. Then the scent of the spices called to her. "Oh, if it must be so," she said to the fog around her. "But, when we return, Papa will be angry."
Heta tripped on into the depths of the forest for nearly two hours, worried and sick to return to camp. She came upon a stone wall, and from a gap in it saw a quaint little cottage, smoke billowing from the chimney. She never stopped to consider why there was a cottage. She knew only that her father kept the King's Forest, and she had never traversed deep within it. At the brink of crossing through the jagged crumbling stone, Heta hesitated. The hut glimmered in the distance as the sun's rays sprang to life through the trees behind her and shown on the small abode. She had never seen a house sparkle in such a way; it was as though a myriad of cobwebs had hit the light at just the right angle. The scent of gingerbread was very strong now, and Heta fancied that the entire house was made of sugar, sparkling in the dawning light.
She walked through the wall enclosure and instantaneously crumpled to her knees. Young though she was, she felt the aches and pains of an old woman. She looked toward the cottage to find that it had disappeared. A groan came from a few feet ahead of her. "Oh, Heta. I hurt," sobbed her brother, his body lying on the dead leaves that covered the ground.
"We must go back," instructed Heta, forcing herself to speak through clenched teeth. The sight of her brother enduring the pain that she felt was too much for her, and the tears began to slide down her cheeks.
She slowly reached toward him to take his hand as he asked, "How? I cannot find the way."
Heta looked behind at the solid, vine-covered wall. "Oh, Will," was all she could say before the sobs escaped.
"What is this?" asked a small, elderly voice. Between the trees came a hunched woman with a cane who hobbled up to the children.
"Please, old mother," began Heta, relief spreading across her brow. There was something so pleasant, so comforting about the old woman. She was reminded of the cripple in the village who sat dipping the twine in animal fat, forming candles and humming serenely; such a friendly, soft-looking creature she was. "Can you show us the way back through the wall?"
"Of course, my dears. But why do you lie on the ground and cry?" As though by design, the pain that wracked the children's limbs abated, and they both stood up quite sheepishly.
"You know, I was hoping for visitors today. I have been cooking, and I do not have anyone to share my treats with me. Do you like cake?"
"Yes, mother, but-," Heta was too chastened by the previous trial to care for the gingerbread now.
"But you look so tired. Let me feed you, and then you may leave a poor, lonely old woman."
Heta looked at Wilfrich; his eager pleasure at the anticipation of freshly baked treats was evident upon his face.
They followed the bowed woman toward the house; but the more they walked, the further the house seemed to be. "I am tired," Heta whispered to her brother walking beside her.
"So am I. I think it is because I am so hungry."
"I am fearful that father will wake and miss us."
"We will return anon. We can bring some of the cake back to him."
The old woman glanced back at them, but said not a word as they trudged onward. Suddenly Wilfrich caught the view of the hut again and was amazed to find it was larger than he had supposed. "Look Heta! It is a castle! A castle made of sugar! Have you ever seen such a thing?"
Heta eyed it ravenously. "It looks delicious."
"Come now, children. You are hungry, and my cake must be cooled by now. We must hurry." They ventured onward quickly, enticed by the sparkling tower before them. Soon they began to traverse the steep hill which wound around the thin, spear-like castle, when the old woman stopped before the sugary wall. It looked as though she would eat it. She leaned into it; the wall opened to her and she pointed to the entrance. "My cake is inside, children."
The dark hole looked ominous, and both Wilfrich and Heta hesitated. "What is it? Are you no longer hungry?"
"No, I am still hungry," Wilfrich told her. "But it is dark, like the inside of my mama's oven."
The old woman grasped the side of the entrance and withdrew a fist full of what looked to be a sugary substance. "Is this like your mama's oven, silly child?" She asked him and thrust the sweet bread under his nose.
Wilfrich knew it for what it was. "Cake!" she exclaimed, and reached out her own hand to touch the wall. She scratched the wall, but the cake was hard as rock to her small hand.
"There is more inside," the old woman beckoned. The children followed her, their mouths watering in anticipation.
Wilfrich – Wil'-frick
Alugona - A(like the letter)-loo'– guh– na
Connara – Con'-ner-uh
Nayar – No-vor'
Arisdona – A(like the letter)-ris-doh'-na