It started long ago, back further then our memories can stretch, to when our two worlds were no longer one.
In a kingdom, long ago, in a forgotten city, in a castle, long since torn down by time and nature, was a king. This king was not like the kings who had gone before him. They were wise and brave and merciful, but he was cunning and foolhardy and cruel. Yet, the kingdom prospered, the city grew and spread, like an ink stain on parchment, inching closer and closer to the forest, until it was only a stone’s throw away from the city walls.
If the kingdom was old, the forest was older. It had been there when the first dwellers had built their hovels and it was there now. This forest was a place of shadow, where trees, gnarled with age, towered above the city. No one entered this woodland. They could not say exactly why. Some said that they felt watched, as if unseen eyes stared at them from its recesses.
The sentries who patrolled the walls, never let their gaze linger for long on the forest, especially at night, when odd cries rent the air and made even old veterans start and stare in fear.
Yet, as winter approached and the stores of lumber and fuel dwindled, thoughts turned to the wood. But it was not until the wells froze over, the cobblestones became slick with ice and the chambers of the palace grew chill and dark, that the decree went out.
“Cut down the forest.”
Even with this royal imperative, the people hesitated until they approached the forest in the moonlight, axes in hand and stood, in massed ranks, as if about to march to war with the still, silent forest. One man, brave, foolish or both, squared up to the tallest tree at the forest's border. His hands shook, yet he told himself it was the cold. He swung, the axe biting into the frost hard bark, sticking in the flesh of the tree, until he wrenched it free. Bright red sap seeped from the wound.
Emboldened, others took up their axes and blades and began chopping, cutting, hacking, until dozens of trees creaking, splintering, fell to the ground amidst the flickering torch light. All the while, unseen eyes watched from the shadows.
The next morning, the town slept, worn out from the revelry the night before. Of the raging bonfires, only smouldering heaps remained. Bunting hung limply in the grey light of dawn, which revealed the detritus of last night’s festivities, along with the slumped figures of dozing revellers. Whilst the town slept, a strange procession stepped amongst the stumps and ash heaps. the early morning mist shrouded the blighted, desecrated ground which used to be an ancient wood.
Soon, bare feet threaded the cobblestoned streets, which had never trodden there before. Bells jangled with every step, flutes piped a dawn chorus of swooping, fluttering notes, and drums were beaten in simpatico rhythm. Bleary eyed townspeople awoke, expecting to see some new entertainment, but instead looked upon wild beasts marching alongside horned people, their skin the same hue as the leaves which adorned their hair.
Down the streets they cavorted and capered, dancing to the beat of the music. So intoxicating were the sights and sounds, the scents of spring flowers and new growth, which wreathed the parade, that some of the townspeople joined the merry throng and were whirled along by their strange new companions.
Parents held on to their children and husbands and wives clung to their partners in vain. And so the procession continued, until it was circling the palace at the centre of the city. The guards looked on, awed and subtly ashamed of their bared weapons and gaudy uniforms, in the face of the joy and splendour of the celebrants.
From the top of the tallest tower, ensconced in his throne room, the king vieweds the parade with shamefaced fear, loathing and confusion. Wishing to see the antic throng massacred, yet unable to with no open threat, the king stared until, out of the cloud of birds which now circled the tower, two eagles swooped through the open window, causing him to sprawl in a heap on the floor. Whirring wings filled the room until they changed form into no less imposing figures.
A man and a woman, tall and regal, now stood before the king. Their skin shared the same hue as autumnal leaves, their hair, which hung down to their waists, was as white as thistledown. Their eyes were golden, bright and piercing. The king shrunk under their scrutiny.
Eventually, he came to his senses, emboldened by the presence of his dumb struck guards. He jabed a bejewelled finger at the regal interlopers.
“How dare you enter, unbidden!” Frantically, he gestured to his guards who, caught between fear of the king and the intruders, where erring on the side of obedience, until the woman lifted her hand, stilling everyone. Even the clamour outside ceased. Her face broke out into a smile, one which even
thawed the embittered king.
“We beg your pardon for this intrusion. We noticed that you were celebrating the winter solstice. There was a time when your people would revel with ours, but that time has long passed. Perhaps that is why you have begun desecrating our homeland. Our land has long been sacrosanct, since our people and your people agreed to this treaty.”
She withdrew from her robes a roll of parchment, which she slowly unfurled. A dense scrawl, written in the kingdom’s old language, filled the page. At the bottom was the king’s family seal.
“I sealed that treaty with your forefather many generations ago,” the man pronounced in a deep, yet melodious voice.
“You will find your own copy in your archives, no doubt. We agreed that no one from your kingdom would take or harm anything within our borders. Yet, as it seems that time has wiped this from your memories, we will give you until dawn tomorrow to leave our forest alone.”
“And if I do not…?” The king asks sardonically.
“Then you will have a kingdom with no end,” the woman pronounced, “rule over citizens beyond number, never know hunger or thirst. You will be crowned eternally in gold, ruby and emerald. Your subjects will reap without sowing, harvest without labour. We do not take without giving.”
The king sat dumb struck, like one of the many statues which adorned his sanctuary..
“How, how dare you bring this… This mummery, this pack of lies into my presence!”
He gestured wildly at his guards.
“Why are you standing around like statutes?”
But before they could summon the courage to overcome their reticence, the strangers had gone, in a flourish of their robes, their forms flowing back into that of an eagle and they soared, back towards the forest. As if answering a silent command, the wild parade began their procession back towards their homeland. The townspeople merely looked on, in dumbstruck wonder. As the last of the celebrants wended its way out of the city gates, the king burst forth from his stronghold, his courage seemingly returned with the withdrawal of the people of the wood. He mounted his fastest steed and flew towards the ancient forest, trailing his guards and retinue in his wake, as they struggled to keep pace with his reckless haste. Yet still he would not dare enter the shadow shrouded woodland. Instead, he wrenched an axe from the hands of one of his guards and hacked at one of the smallest saplings, which fringed the border of the woodland, its boughs bent deferentially towards the ground. Each blow reverberated in the still, watchful silence, which hung about the forest, until the tree fell, with a creaking crash to the ground. The meagre crowd gave a ragged cheer. That night, the king sat alone in his chambers, warmed by the burning remains of the felled tree, until he fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
The king awoke to the sound of rain. But, as he looked out the window, he saw that it was a still, cloudless night. Yet, the hissing, rushing, sound continued, this time, he realised from without his chambers. He stumbled towards the door, his tired mind struggling to make sense of it all, when he was sent sprawling to the floor. In the dying embers of the fire, he could see that the dismembered remains of the tree he had felled had sprouted new growth. Tall, tender, budding stems reached towards the ceiling and long roots stretched thirstily across the floor. His mind now in revolt, he wrenched open the door to pandemonium. The floor of the hallway was covered in a seething, skittering carpet of rats, mice and other animals, which flowed over the startled guards, scuttling into open visors and through the gaps in their armour. They desperately swung halberds, which had begun to lengthen and twist like ivy, as they sprouted reaching, grasping stems, which wrapped themselves around the startled sentries.
Outside, the cobbled streets themselves began to heave and crack, as grass and weeds forced themselves up from the ground, scattering stones everywhere. The flowers and vegetables, which the townspeople tended in their meagre patches and pots, bore fruit in abundance, which swelled to almost grotesque proportions. The horses in their stables kicked their doors to splinters and bolted, trampling anyone foolish enough to try and stop them.
But through this all, the people of the town did not hide or tremble with fear. Instead, they walked serenely amongst the chaos, the invading army of nature, which had come to reclaim what once was theirs’, unmoved by the once docile hounds which ran amok and the screeching owls which swooped and dived around their heads. As one, they made their way towards the city gates, which framed two regal figures, whose hair, as white as thistledown, almost shone in the bright moonlight.
All of this, the king watched from the window of his crumbling citadel. He went to cast open the casement, to either climb to safety or cast himself into oblivion, he did not care which, yet he could not move, no matter how much he willed himself to do so. He turned his stiffened neck to seek his reflection in the mirror which hung above the fireplace. There he saw that the limbs, which had sprouted from the felled tree, had now entwined themselves about him in a tight embrace, holding him fast. As they did so, their buds opened to reveal leaves of gold, ruby and emerald.