A girl ran barefoot, light as a whisper across the forest floor. Her long caramel hair bounced in their pigtail braids, the sun shone in her happy forest green eyes as it peeked around trees.
She was running with the deer, leaping over logs, climbing quickly in and out of fallen trees, splashing through the river, laughing, smiling with her pearly teeth, joyfully splashing into the mud, and finally landing in the meadow.
With one hurdle, she rolled down the hill, landing at the foot of a stag. His graceful head raised, immediately recognizing his empress. He bowed his head, closing his eyes.
The girl stood, curtsied, smiled, and walked away from the herd. She knew they would be grazing there until sunset, and that was in a few more hours. Until then, she could occupy herself with other things in her kingdom.
In the heart of the lush forest there was a treehouse. It was held up by a beautiful weeping willow, surrounded by wildlife, a river to it’s left, a muddy area behind, a sandy spot to the right, and a beautiful garden in front. Flowers filled the cute little house, along with occasional songbirds and little critters. It looked as if it had come straight from the nearest fairytale.
“Oh, poor thing,” the girl softly murmured as she passed a smashed purple and white lily flower outside the garden. As soon as she touched it, the flower seemed to grow back, rising up and healing—a more than natural ability of the girl.
“There you go,” she said with a sweet smile. Her head tilted to the left ever so slightly, her eyes slowly glancing downward.
She climbed up into the treehouse, wandering right to the bay window overlooking the river.
As her smile slowly faded, a bird came in through another open window. An oriole.
“Hello, there,” the girl sat up a little and put her hand out. The small bird flew over and landed on her finger, chirping.
“I don’t look sad,” she glimpsed at her dress, with its beautiful floral pattern that looked as though they were real, moving flowers. The navy background brought out her fair skin. The green leaves brought out her eyes.
“Yes, I know I’m in control of the forest, and no, I’m not lonely doing so,” she replied as the bird kept tweeting. Even though she was lying, telling such meaningless lies aloud almost made them feel true.
But birds were experts at catching lies, just as good as they are catching air currents. They saw just about everything from the treetops.
“Even if I did feel alone,” the girl added, “it would be for no reason. I have everyone in the forest with me. There’s the plants, the animals, and myself. I shouldn’t feel alone here.”
Convinced, the bird chirped once more and flew off into the trees.
If only what I said was true, the girl thought, sighing. She looked at a dead tree not far away. Focusing on it, she began to restore it to health. As a thank you, the wind blew gently through the window, cooling down the hot treehouse.
“Anytime,” the girl smiled.
Looking back at her dress, her breathtaking eyes filled with desire. If only she could have a companion. Yes, she knew her kingdom very well. The herds of deer, horses, flocks of birds, packs of wolves, even groves of trees were her greatest friends.
But none of them were human.
Though she wasn’t entirely human either, she basically wore the look of one, it would have been nice to have someone that looked somewhat like her and spoke her language—or even spoke at all.
The flower crown on her head began to slide and she pushed it back on. Her mother had given her the crown right before she died.
A fierce and beautiful empress her mother was. She ruled the forest with dignity, never letting harm touch or simply look at her homeland. She lived and died protecting it.
“Take this, Czarina,” was the last thing her mother said to her. “Take this crown and never, ever give it up, okay? You will always be my sweet little butterfly, a born empress of this land. I know you can do it.” She tapped her young daughter’s nose and mounted the mustang next to her, charging to the east after a group of hunters.
Czarina had never seen her again.
She missed her mother’s warm touch, her smooth hands that she so dearly wished she could hold just once more. Shedding tears now, she thought of all the things her mother had taught her. Powers, responsibilities, everything that Czarina had to manage as she lived here as empress crossed her mind. Yes, of course she knew them and had taken care of everything, even as the young teenager she was, but she still felt lost.
Without her mother’s stabilizing presence, Czarina felt lost in her own kingdom where everything should have felt found.
Still sitting alone in the treehouse, Czarina was almost falling asleep when a loud crash echoed. It was coming from the south and, startlingly, was very loud. The flowers growing on the outside of the treehouse shook.
Darting out an open window, Czarina was caught by a tree branch, which gently lowered her closer to the ground.
“Thanks,” she said in a hurry as her bare feet splashed across muddy ground and towards the mustang awaiting her. Galloping off to the south, excitement and anticipation filled Czarina’s thoughts up to the brim.
It was a fallen tree. Laying on it’s side with it’s roots up in the air, it looked like a baby getting his diaper changed.
“Poor thing,” Czarina said softly as she dismounted the loyal mustang. She stroked the bristles of the evergreen, saying things softly to it. The tree was old, very old, and very tall. The trees around it were lucky it crashed down upon an open shady spot.
There were neighs nearby. Not neighs from the mustang, it was another horse.
Alertly, Czarina leaped onto the trunk of the fallen tree. “Who’s there?”
More distressed neighs, stomping, jingling, and a tiny voice saying, “Please help. I don’t wish any harm.”
A speaking being! Czarina couldn’t believe her ears. Was she so desperate that she had just imagined it?
Walking around to the back of the tree where the roots were erected in the air, Czarina was met with the face of an unusual being.
A human being.
It was a boy. He was about Czarina’s age, maybe a little older. His messy brown hair complimented his kind blue eyes, which were filled with worry. “My horse,” he said desperately. “Her reins are caught on the root.”
Czarina looked at him for a second longer. He was thin yet muscular, polite yet fearful. He was strange to Czarina. He was the first human she had seen in her life and they seemed so much more powerless than she had imagined.
The boy motioned to the horse. Had she really been staring for that long?
The horse was unlike the horses in the forest. Its body was thinner and its legs were longer and its head was slightly dished. The thing that distracted Czarina the most was the strange coverings the animal had. Sometimes the mustangs would wander with leaves on them or mud covering their legs or other silly things, but this was wrong. The animal couldn’t get them off. Black ropes and shiny rings were controlling the horse’s head while a large black padded object strapped itself around its back.
Did the horse care? We’re these natural human ways? Is that what they were all about? Control?
Without speaking, Czarina put one hand on the spooked horse’s muzzle and one hand on the twist of roots that held the creature captive. Within seconds the roots shriveled away and let the rein free.
The horse stepped backward a ways before coming back, drawn to Czarina’s presence, the same as all nature.
“How did you do that? Who are you?” the boy managed to say, astonished.
Czarina looked up but continued stroking the beautiful horse. “What are these terrible controlling objects?” she replied, ignoring his question until hers was answered first. Her mother had taught her that for when unwanted intruders came.
“Reins,” the boy breathed heavily, “reins, bridle, bit, saddle. They’re used to control the horse so they go where you want. They aren’t terrible unless you abuse the power of them.”
“And is that what you do?”
“I would never abuse that power.”
Czarina nodded, glad he sounded sincere, but hoped he wasn’t just a good liar.
“Where do you come from, what do you want from my forest or myself?” she asked, tilting her head to the left.
The boy looked confused. “I…” he spoke slowly, “I was just going for a ride to clear my mind and got lost. Little do I know, I’ve ended up in this forest with my horse spooked—“ he cut himself off when he noticed his horse just about falling asleep while Czarina stroked its face.
“You have a way with nature,” the boy nervously laughed.
“You could say that.”
“Where am I anyway? Who are you?” he looked more frightened this time when he asked.
Putting her free hand on his shoulder, she smiled. “There’s no need to be scared of my kingdom. As empress, I invite visitors—but only ones who abide by my rules,” she lightened up a little when the boy looked like he was about to faint. “It’s peaceful here. And very fun. There’s quite a lot of things to do!”
The boy looked at her perfect hand on his shoulder. “You still haven’t told me your name.”
“And have you come with any visitors, Jack?”
“I told you, I went for a ride by myself to clear my head.”
“Alright, alright, I was just checking. My mother taught me to always ask things like that.”
Jack looked around. “Where is your mother, might I ask?”
Czarina sighed and looked down, dropping her hand from his shoulder and back to the horse. “You won’t find her anywhere. She died a few years ago.” A familiar heavy rock sat on her shoulders like always when she thought about her mother.
“You’re alone here? But you’re so...young.”
As much as she wanted to say yes, Czarina cleared her throat and said softly, “No. This forest is filled with nature, therefore I am never alone.”
“So...you talk with nature? You’re kind of like an earth god?”
Czarina was a little speechless. “If that’s what you humans call it.”
Jack obviously had a million more questions, but Czarina wasn’t going to stand there all day to answer them. While Jack watched her, she fiddled with the ‘reins, bridle, bit, saddle,’ trying to get it off of the horse even though it didn't seem to mind.
“Here,” Jack stepped over and took off the equipment as easy as if he were still standing doing nothing.
“Thank you,” Czarina practically whispered. She was lost in his eyes again. They were so full of wonder, curiosity, fear, kindness, she could look into them for hours and never get tired.
“It’s really not bad, you just kinda, you know,” Jack made motions with his hands that reversed the way he had taken off the equipment. He was trying to find something to say while avoiding Czarina’s intense eye contact. “And you know you never told me your name, right? You’ve avoided the question twice.”
Jack listened for a moment, taking in every syllable, sound, letter. “Czarina. That’s beautiful and unique. I like it,” he smiled. For the first time since Czarina met him, Jack smiled a big, goofy smile.
It was contagious, as Czarina couldn’t help smiling. “Thanks,” she blushed a little and looked back at the drowsy horse head in her arms.
Making an awkward motion with his shoulder, Jack suddenly inhaled and Czarina looked at him.
“My shoulder,” he stammered, pain spreading across his face. “A root must’ve got me.” He turned and there it was. A patch of blood the size of Czarina’s hand on the back of Jack’s right shoulder.
Czarina winced. “Come with me. Get on your horse, follow me.” She helped Jack onto the back of his horse and walked to the mustang still standing at the front of the tree.
“Tell everyone to welcome our guest,” she whispered as she started walking back to the treehouse with someone new following.
The wound was deep, but not bad. All it was was a slice from a sharp root. It had stopped bleeding after a while and was at least somewhat clean.
Jack’s shirt, on the other hand, wasn’t so clean. It was covered in dirt and had a blood stain on the back that made him look as though he was stabbed.
Jack sat at the bay window, shirtless, his back to Czarina, who was gathering oils from a shelf. He flinched when she put them on.
“I’m sorry,” Czarina said pitifully. She hated seeing anything in pain. “You’re all done, though. I’m only putting oils on it for now. I can get you more if you need it. Does it hurt?” It was crazy to think about, but Czarina was starting to really care for this human.
Jack turned to look at her. “Thank you,” he smirked a little. “You’ve helped quite a lot, Czarina.”
The young empress smiled brightly. “I think you’ve helped me more,” she said excitedly.
The girl looked more alive and happy than she had in a long time.