Note- 4th in the South Wood series
“Lexie, it itches!” Barrie was scratching at the collar of his shirt, “Why do I have to wear these? Why can’t I wear my usual clothes?”
“You only need to wear them for a little while,” I told him as I fought to finish tying up Maki’s dress, she was squirming and trying to get away from me. “We need to look nice for the prince’s speech.”
Though I couldn’t show it for the twin’s sake, In all honesty, I was just as miserable. As soon as I’d gotten back from gathering the berries for mother’s pies, she shoved the nicest clothes she had managed to find at me and ordered me to get the twins presentable.
She didn’t seem to care that the only reason these clothes weren’t dirtied or torn was that they no longer fit right. Barrie’s pants were well above his ankles, Maki’s dress barely buttoned, and my own dress was rather tight in the chest area. The last time I had worn, this was well before I hit puberty.
It was good that we were going to be in a crowd of other villagers. We looked good from a distance, at least. While the twins were busy teasing each other for their ridiculous outfits, I quickly snuck off to my room. I had to let Thaddeus, my hedgehog friend, know I’d be leaving, and I also slipped the dagger in the drawer with him for protection. I could ‘t risk taking it into town with me. I wish I had had time to ask him any of the questions I still had.
Still, he was safe in my drawer, and eventually, the craziness of the last few days would end, and I would have the time to ask him about the magic in the world.
I entered back into the main room, glad to see that the twins had behaved themselves while I was gone. Then Father entered the room, buttoning his overcoat. His greying brown hair was brushed back.
“I see you managed to wrangle the twins.” He winked at me. He looked around for signs of mother before his grey eyes met my own. She was in the other room, getting ready herself. “I want to thank you for helping your mother with everything. I know that she can be… short with you kids when she’s stressed, and having to prepare the royal feast is really stressing her out.”
I smile at him as Mother came rushing out of their room. She had on her fading wedding dress, it was yellowing with age, but she still looked beautiful. Mother had her blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun. Her blue eyes scanned over all of us, we must have passed inspection because she nodded and looked at Father, “We must get a move on. We don’t want to be late.”
Soon enough, we were at the village square, the entire village had gathered in anxious anticipation of the Prince’s arrival. I spotted my friend, Zachary, distracted by a little bicker that started over which of the village girls would theoretically marry the Prince. I waved to Solis, the butcher with his wife and boys. Mother’s friend, Aliva, had that boy of hers, Burton, by the scruff of his neck, trying to keep him from dirtying his too-short slacks. I see we weren’t the only ones who hadn’t dug out their finery in a while.
Upon the newly built stage, I could see all four of the elders and a bunch of people I did not know. Some of the Prince’s guards or servants I assumed. I could see a tight knot of people at the back of the stage. I guessed that is where the Prince was.
I wonder what he is like. Is he strong and kind, or just another full of himself, idiot boy? I know that he is my age, eighteen. Other than that, I don’t know much about him. I know the other girls in the village swoon over him, but I can’t even remember his name, to be honest.
The girls would say that if the Prince ever came to South Wind, he would fall madly in love with one of them, and they would be Queen. I always had to roll my eyes at that. The Prince of a whole kingdom, falling in love with a girl who didn’t even have a dress that fit. What a ridiculous notion.
“Silence!” Elder Kazik bellowed from the front of the stage, his boney hands waving in the air. “The Royal Prince will now address the village. “
The group at the back of the stage parted, and a young man started to approach the front. I couldn’t really see him through the crowd. I could see his shiny leather boots, and to my surprise, he had on sensible traveling clothes. I was expecting jewels and silks, not leather and metal.
His blonde hair peeked out from above the shorter figures that surrounded him, a simple gold crown with some small gems adorning it was perched on his head.
“Citizens of South Wind, I am proud to present, Prince Ravi,” Elder Kazik said, bowing low as the Prince passed him.
My blood ran cold as the Prince finally came into full view. Gods help me…It was Fish. How can the Prince be… Fish? Someone must be playing a trick on me. This couldn’t possibly be the same foolish boy I met at the stream just the day before! This boy must have swapped places with him …that’s it. I’m dreaming... I must be dreaming.
Fish is the Prince, I can’t risk being in denial about this, he saw me with my dagger. I shuddered, I saw him in his underwear! He knows I entered the South Woods.
My heart was pounding. I am in so much trouble. I could be put in prison for having the dagger, never mind what punishment he could enforce just for entering the South Wood. He had also seen the Forest Spirit. Was that why she had shown herself again? Not a message for me but a message for him?
I didn’t hear whatever the Prince had said in his speech. I was to busy trying not to have a break down right there in front of my family. My mother yanking on my arm, broke me out of my thoughts.
“Lexie!” She hissed, “Are you listening? We need to get to the kitchen and get ready to serve the feast.”
In a daze, I followed her into the kitchen of the Town Hall. We had finished most of the work already, So I wasn’t sure what she was so anxious about. Mother dashed from one end of the kitchen to the other, checking on various dishes. She ordered me to do this, and that, I followed her directions, still in a daze over the Prince.
As we moved in sync, putting care into each dish, our flow was interrupted by someone in the doorway, clearing their throat.
It was the other boy from the stream… Fish’s friend, Tyrie. He was also dressed in riding leathers, with a sword strapped to his hip. He seemed so much more regal than the last time I had seen him. Then again, he was wearing clothes this time.
“Lexie of South Wind.” He stood at attention, his brown eyes locked on the wall behind me. “The prince requests an audience.”
Requests? I wanted to laugh. Who in their right mind would say no to a prince, he might as well say he demands an audience.
“Lexie.” Mother’s voice was low and tight, with questions and fear in her eyes.
I didn’t know what to say. How do I explain why the Prince would want to see me? There is no reasonable explanation for why he would want to see a random village girl.
In deep confusion, Mother stepped forward. “Surely you mean me, sir. Lucia, the scullery cook, at your service.” She curtsied in an attempt to deem proper. “Lexie is my daughter…if the Prince has any questions or concerns about his meal, I’d be happy to…”
Tyrie cut her off. “No ma’am. This isn’t about the meal, which looks lovely, by the way…” His eyes wander to the pies, but mother’s piercing stare brings him back into focus. “I really must insist Lexie come with me right away.”
Mother grabbed my shoulders defensively. “I’m afraid I really need to know what this is about first.”
Tyrie turned to look at Mother, “I promise you no harm will come to your daughter, Lucia of South wind, The Prince, and I encountered your daughter on the outskirts of town this morning. The Prince wishes to make apologies for not telling Lexie of his true identity.”
Mother still did not look happy, but she nodded approval, and I followed Tyrie out of the town hall. My stomach was in knots. Maybe if I ran, I could escape before the guards were called to put me under arrest. The sword on Tyrie’s hip bounced as we walked, almost mocking me. I’m sure he would know how to use it if I tried to escape.
The Prince was surprisingly staying in a tent outside of the village instead of taking one of the village’s homes. He was seated on a log by a fire pit.
“Lexie,” He smiled at me, “I’m glad you accepted my invitation.”
“Of course, your highness,” I attempted to curtsy, but I became aware of how tight my dress actually was.
He threw back his head with a laugh, “Oh, Lex, don’t worry about the formalities. Not only did you save my life, but you saw me in my underwear. Just call me Fish or Ravi.”
Right. Call the Royal Prince, Fish. That just seems like a splendid idea. “What do you want.” I crossed my arms just so he couldn’t see how bad I was shaking.
Ravi and Tyrie exchanged a glance. “I have a proposal for you.” He sighed, staring at the fire. “Things are not well in the kingdom. Ever since my mother died a few months ago, my father has not been the same.”
We had all heard when Queen Elia had passed. The village mourned for months, and mother was up to her elbows in work, making stew for the entire village. That’s how we grieved in South Wind. We ate. There were rumors that she had been killed, but nothing was ever proven as far as I knew.
“My father has been convinced by his royal adviser that her death was not by natural forces, and something magical had a hand in her death.”
I gave him a puzzled look. Magic isn’t very well known or really accepted. I had spent my whole life in a village bordering this magic forest and had only really learned about it a few days ago.
He smiled that devilish smile and added, “Oh yes, the entire royal family and all with ties to us are familiar with the existence of magical beings. The tree from the other day was quite the surprise, though. “
His smile faded as he continued, “Father has been on a crusade to destroy all the magical creatures from the kingdom ever since. He wiped out the Northern Forest a few weeks ago.”
“I know, we have had an influx of magical creatures fleeing from the Northern Forest and coming into our woods.,” I told him, thinking of the Gnomes who now lived not far from here.
“It’s why I am here. The South Wood is going to get the attention of my father soon enough. I was hoping to find a way to protect it, but it seems the forest has already taken care of that.” He gestured to me.
“Are you telling me that you want me to go up against the KING and his knights to protect the South Wood?”
“In a word? Yes. But not just to save this forest. I need your help to protect the magical creatures throughout the whole kingdom. “
Tyrie began shuffling in his bag, and I jumped slightly. I was so lost in this moment with the Prince, I had forgotten he was even there. Tyrie pulled a book from his bag and handed to me,
“This tells of an ancient myth that there are magic talismans that can be earned by the protector of the kingdom. It does not go into detail on that protector, however. According to that legend, there hasn’t been one in thousands of years. I thought it a child’s tale myself…That is until we saw you in the woods yesterday, Working your magic on that tree.”
I looked from the book to the boy. “Wait, you think I am this protector?”
“I know so.” Ravi leaned forward, his green eyes aglow, “You can’t deny the Forest Spirit has named you the protector of the woods. Tyrie and I heard it from her ourselves. That is not something to be taken lightly.”
Tyrie gestured to the book. “The book says the protector will earn the blessings of the wood, the stone, the water, and the air. You already have the first.”
I handed the book to Ravi, “Look, I know Lightfoot claimed that I am some protector, but I am not. I can’t believe I’m saying this but, I just want to get back to helping my mother cook.”
“I didn’t want to say this, but your family is also in danger.”
I wish I hadn’t left my dagger with Thaddeus, “Are you threatening my family?”
“What? No, nothing like that.” Ravi put his hands up to calm me.
“When my father’s forces attacked the Northern Forest, between his knights and the fleeing creatures, all of the villages bordering the forest were destroyed. ‘Just the price of keeping the kingdom and the royal bloodline safe. It’s their duty to their King’ my father said. I don’t know how many people were killed. If we don’t do something. That could happen here too.”
He trailed off, took a deep breath, and started again. “My mother always had a soft spot for the magical creatures of the kingdom. She considered them our subjects too. She would always say that if we only tried to understand, we wouldn’t need to fear them. And I agree with her. My father is killing them out of fear. I need to protect all of the subjects of my kingdom. “
The Prince looked back up at me and held out his hand “What do you say? Lexie of South Wood, will you join me?”