Once upon a time, in a long forgotten Kingdom, there was a king who was loved by all. Because he was not married, he had no heir. He ruled wisely until one day he’s time was up. It was on his death bed when he made a declaration that would change the fate of his kingdom.

“In the oldest, darkest and most frightful woods there this golden crown shall be. Whoever finds and returns it here, King or Queen shall they be. ”

With those words the King passed and the golden crown vanished into thin air. A great sadness fell upon the kingdom. Many came far and wide to pay their respects to the dead king, both rich and poor and the in between. 

A month later, the king’s declaration was made public. Many knew which woods the king had described. It was a cursed place that had belonged to a nobleman whose heart was as dark as the curse he put on his property before his demise. 

Albany woods was its name and all who ventured into it met some type of misfortune. Those who managed to escape it had lost their minds, their courage or their limbs. Even the witches, wizards and enchanters feared it to the very mention of its name.

The years that followed were filled with conflict, fear, uncertainty and economic crises. The king’s steward together with his two sons, watched over the castle and the land as directed. But his sorrow was great as many great knights entered the woods never to return.

After eight long years, a renowned and famous old knight who had just quested long and hard decided to take on the golden crown challenge. 

On his white horse he went, trotting a leisurely pace. He approached the entrance. An old rustic gate stood tall and ominous before him. Beyond it, a path hidden by dark, heavy and secretive trees. The knight dismounted and was just about to open the gate when…

“Stop!!!” cried a sharp stern voice.

“Who said that?” asked the old knight touching the handle of his blade.

“I am the right behind you”, said the voice.

The knight turned around slowly and saw a dwarf dressed in a dark green garb. He had a long hideous nose, a mole on his cheek and dark violet eyes. He certainly wasn’t young.

“Who are you? What do you want?” asked the stranger.

“I should ask you the same thing”, responded the knight.

The little man regarded him for a few seconds and then spoke.

“I am ‘the care taker of Albany woods. I take care of these woods.”

“Um, nice to meet you”, greeted the knight politely. “I am Sir Fredrick, a knight of this kingdom. I seek the Golden Crown beyond this gate.”  

The eyes of the little man grew wide with fear.

“Heed my words, DO NOT ENTER THESE WOODS”, cried the caretaker.

“I understand your warning but I must go”, responded Sir Fredrick.

The care taker shook his head. 

“No, sir knight. You do not understand my warning. I can tell you have a noble heart but Albany woods is a damned place. Forsake this task and live to see your children’s children”, he begged.

“I have no children. The love of my life went ahead of me. I have lived all the adventures you could think of and mentored the many young heroes you’ve heard of. Please…let me through”, said the knight softly.

At this point, the caretaker sighed and sadly opened the gate.

The knight urged his horse. It neighed and slowly trotted into the path that led into Albany wood. 

Sir Fredrick was never seen again.

Rumors spread across the land like a flood of the missing Knight. The most common was that Albany woods had swallowed him.

It didn’t take long for another victim to gather up their courage. It was a young woman on a broomstick quietly flying over the woods.

Her name was Agnes, barely 18 and out from her mother’s house in the far corners of the kingdom. She heard about the king’s declaration and was determined to find the crown with the help of magic.

“When I find the crown I will become queen”, she said to herself. “Won’t mother be proud?”

Suddenly, the sun was setting.

“Hold on, wait a minute! Isn’t this supposed to be morning?” She exclaimed once she realized what was happening. “Why is the sun setting?”

She heard her own conscious say “Leave Albany woods before it’s too late”. 

“No, I won’t. I may be scared but I’ll find that crown”, She muttered.

As the last rays of light disappeared, a fog materialized and in it a shadow of wings…coming from the woods itself.

Agnes pulled out her wand and pointed it at the approaching threat. Her heart raced, her hands became sweaty and shaky. Whatever was coming for her was fast and furious.

She raised her wand when the cloud of wings was just close enough and casted her lightening spell. 

“Ah, they were just angry bats”, she said as the creatures of the night fell. “Mm, what’s that?”

Something else drew her attention back to the woods, a golden light further north.

“Could it be…?” she said to herself.

She glided gently towards the light oblivious to the danger ahead. Just as she was about to see the source of the light, WHAM! Something knocked her off her broom. As she fell through the trees, she lost consciousness. Albany woods had her in its grasp.

Now before we continue with the unfortunate victims of Albany Woods, there is one exception. It was the son of the King’s steward, Rohan. He had just celebrated his 16th birthday and after several months of having the same dream of a beautiful fairy urging him to go Albany woods, he finally made up his mind to go.

Rohan did not tell his father nor his younger brother about his plans but waited patiently for an auspicious day.

“Father”, he said. “May I go hunting in with the huntsmen in Baldur Forest? It will just be a few days.”

The steward regarded his son. He was dressed in his hunting gear and wore a red cap. He was tall and already looking manly. “Ah, if his mother were alive she’d be proud of him”, thought the steward with a tear in his right eye.

“Father?!” asked Rohan sensing his father’s distraction.

“Sorry, son. I was just thinking of your late mother”, replied the Steward.

“I understand, father. I miss her too”, said the boy sadly. “But about my leave…?”

“Oh, yes. You can go. You are a man now. Just don’t do anything stupid”, answered his father cheerfully.

“Alright, then. See you soon in a few days.”

It was hunting season. The group of huntsmen consisted of about thirty to forty men each with their own horse and three horse pulled carriages filled with supplies. The group started off in the early hours of morning and was being led by a man called Bram. Even though the King was no more, the traditions of court were still observed.

Because the group was so large it was easier for Rohan to slip away un-noticed. He followed a path that led out of town and quietly led his horse close to the shadows so that no one would notice him.

By the crack of dawn, he’d arrived at his destination. He met the same dwarf and was given the same warning.

“Please, sir. Could you help me find the missing treasure in these woods?” asked the boy.

“No! That I am not allowed to do”, the caretaker answered.

“Then won’t you advise me at least?” Rohan pressed.

The caretaker sighed. 

“Fine it’s the least I can do. The woods did not shut my mouth”, he reluctantly replied. 

“Thank you, sir.”

“Now don’t thank me just yet”, said the care taker. “Listen well lad for what I’m about to say may be of good use to you. Albany woods was bad before the demise of our late good king but got worse right after. I myself have never led eyes on the golden crown however I know it’s in there. The danger you face you do not face head on. If you sense something or someone is behind never look back. You must turn to either your right or left. A path will open. If the danger is in front of you question its existence and if it answers it will turn into its true form.”

“What if it doesn’t answer my question?” Rohan asked.

 “Strike with your sword or something”, answered the dwarf. 

“…Okay”, the boy said quietly.

“Once you find the crown, return the same way you came or else you wander for eternity under the curse of Albany woods”, finished the dwarf.

“I know you said I shouldn’t thank you yet but I do appreciate your advice”, said Rohan. 

The little old man smiled. This lad felt different and considerate. 

 “Well see you soon but come back in one piece”, said the care taker.

Rohan begun to ride fast. And just like the clock work, the path became narrower. The overgrown trees and bushes grew close creating an inescapable fence. Rohan noticed but took care not be afraid. 

The sun had already set but the youth dared not slow down even though it was deathly quiet and his horse was getting nervous.

“Wasn’t it just sunrise?” Rohan remarked.

He barely had time to think about the bizarre phenomenon when he heard another set of hooves other than his horses behind him.

“Don’t look behind”, he said to himself remembering the caretaker’s words.

He turned to his left and magically a path opened up which he took without hesitation. The sound of mysterious hooves pounding the ground died away.

“Great”, he said to himself.

The ridding continued and nothing new appeared until a strange blue silhouette of a man on a horse blocked his path. He was dressed in full amour, his skin was as pale as the moonlight, his face was old but his eye sockets were filled fire. 

“Who are you?” Rohan asked.

“I am he that will serve you” replied the ghostly knight.

“Then so be it. Do you know where the golden crown is?” 

“Yes”, answered the knight. 

“Please show me the way.”

“Yes, my lord”, responded the knight as he turned around and led the way. 

Minutes felt like hours and hours felt like an eternity. Rohan begun to wonder about many things like why his horse was calm and not complaining. They had traveled for quite some time.

Suddenly, the knight stopped and so did the boy.

“What is it?” He asked the knight.

“Behold, the garden of Albany”, declared the knight.

Right before them was a beautiful garden bathed in sunlight, filled with exotic flowers and orchids. It was a so beautiful that Rohan almost forgot why he was there.

“What do we do now?” asked the knight.

Rohan frowned and thought carefully. Albany woods was still up to its tricks. So this had to be some form of test.

“We shall pass through, keeping an eye out for anything unusual”, he finally answered.

At this point the trail had widened. They continued but at a leisurely pace but their path was blocked this time by a strange ugly old woman. Her long shocking white hair lay on the ground, she had a long hooked nose, and moles all over face. Her skin was so wrinkly and thin that it hung loose on her arms. She was dressed in a long white gown and was smiling toothlessly.

“Won’t you eat my apple? It’s the best apple in the world!” she claimed.

“No”, answered Rohan. “But I will ask. Who are you? What is your purpose?” 

At this the old woman wringed her hands and her expression darkened.

“Please, don’t ask me that” she begged.

“Tell me who you are!” demanded the lad.

“I said DON’T!” She screeched.

Immediately, she grew big and turned into a very ugly creature with a scorpion’s tail, eagle’s wings and the head of the lion.

“A manticore” Rohan whispered.

Before he could prepare to strike, the knight threw his sword at the chest of the monster.

“Now master cut its head off”, cried the knight.

Without hesitation Rohan pulled out his sword and struck the monster, cutting off the head clean.

The creature collapsed into dust leaving the body of a girl.

“Is she alive?” Rohan asked.

“Of course, I’m alive”, she coughed. 

Rohan dismounted and helped her to feet.

“Um, who are you?” he asked for the third time.

“I’m Agnes…I’m a witch…are you the one who cut my monster head off?”

“Yes, I am but it’s thanks to my friend…”

“What friend?” Agnes asked.

Rohan looked behind him only to see the knight had vanished. 

“Looks like he did what he was meant to do”, muttered the lad. “So what exactly happened to you?”

Agnes explained how she ended up in the woods and the last thing she saw. She told him that something knocked her off her broom and now all she wanted to do was go back to home.

“Let’s work together. If we find the crown we will be able to leave this place”, Rohan told her.

“I didn’t catch your name by the way”, she said as they started leaving the garden.

“It’s Rohan.”

For once, the path remained wide enough, the trees were less overwhelming and the sunlight felt real. Was the power of Albany woods weakening? 

The girl and the boy became fast friends and went along the path when suddenly they found themselves at the entrance of the woods.

“This can’t be right”, cried the boy.

“What to do you mean?” asked Agnes.

“This is the same gate I came through”, Rohan explained.

Suddenly, a shadow quickly swallowed the horse.

“Dana!” yelled the startled boy.

Agnes grabbed Rohan’s hand but a shadow swallowed her too leaving Rohan by himself. 

All was quiet and night had descended. He heard a growling from behind and nearly turned around when he remembered what the care taker had told to him do. “Turn left or right” 

He turned right and to his surprise there on a pedestal just inches away from him. On it was a shabby golden crown decorated with emeralds, rubies and sapphires, covered in weeds and moss.

“Is this real? Should I really take it?” He asked himself. “Nothing tried is nothing gained.” 

He reached out and picked it up. He looked at it hesitantly and then placed the crown on his head what happened next was astonishing. 

The light that filled the woods could be seen as far as the castle. Many who were under the curse of the woods were set free but those who died could only rest in peace. Agnes with her broom and Dana appeared at the real entrance just in time to meet Rohan. 

“Wow!” she gasped. “You look so different. If I wasn’t a witch, I could almost marry you in a heartbeat.”

“Don’t be absurd Agnes”, laughed Rohan. “I’m still same old me you met before the crown.”

“What are you talking about?” exclaimed the caretaker. “You broke the Curse of Albany woods. YOU ARE THE NEW KING!”

Rohan’s face turned red. He just wanted to honor the memory of the king who had treated him and his family as if they were his own.

Weeks later, Rohan had his official coronation. His father was furious at first when he found out what his son had done but was immensely proud of him. King Rohan went on a country wide campaign unifying the kingdom once more. Agnes returned to her mother who banned her from using her magic and her broom stick for month. The care taker went to live the remainder of his life in town and decided to open a curiosity shop.

As for Albany woods, life returned to it. The sound of woodland creatures, flowing streams and rustling trees filled the air. Even at night, the dark had some warmth in it. 

November 22, 2019 19:55

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