I must admit I struggled to come up with a different take on this one, I found it difficult to get past the primeval idea that the shadow was a reptile or arachnid, poised to strike. Let’s just say I spent a little too long staring at this hole.
Summer was gone, seemingly, almost overnight. The forest had started to turn its usual autumnal rich tapestry and there was an undeniable chill in the air as the Prince rode into the misty glade.
“You there, stop what are you doing?” he shouted at a hooded figure. It was pretty obvious even from across the clearing that the vagrant was up to no good with the rabbit traps. The stranger either didn’t hear him or ignored the Prince’s demand. The Prince rode over, ready to confront the thief. “That is the property of the King,” he bellowed at the stranger. A freed rabbit limped off into the undergrowth.
“What’s this about?” the king said finally catching up with his headstrong son. His impressive white steed snorted thick clouds of mist with the effort.
“Father, I’ve found this peasant, stealing,” the Prince said pointing at the tatty stranger.
His father rode up slowly, “What do you have to say for yourself peasant?”
“Who’s forest?” the stranger hissed turning his attention from the empty trap. The hood hid his face in shadow. “This is nobody’s forest.”
“The impudence of the fellow,” the Prince mocked, hardly able to believe his ears. He threw himself down from his horse ready to teach the fool a lesson.
The stranger ignored him, instead, he threw back his hood back and stared up with piercing blue eyes at the King. The King practically fell off his horse. It was impossible. He hadn’t seen a druid in over fifty years,. He’d assumed they’d passed away, gone the way of so much superstition. The oak tattoo on the druid’s forehead brought back chilling memories, terrors he’d hoped had died with their order.
“We have an agreement,” the druid said firmly.
“Why you …”, the Prince started, unsheathing his sword.
“Put your sword away, now!” his father yelled at him. The tone of his father’s voice took the Prince aback, and with barely suppressed anger he slid the sword back into its scabbard.
“You’ve clearly failed to keep your side of the bargain,” the druid continued, he did not take his gaze off of the squirming King.
The King jumped down from his horse and approached the druid, unsheathing his sword with earnest intent. He stared at the druid closely. The druid stared back. The King dropped down onto one knee and bowed his head.
The Prince was unable to contain his outrage, “Father!’
“Quiet boy!” the king roared, laying his sword on the ground at the druid’s feet. “I’m sorry I have been remiss. Please let me rectify…”
The druid made a small hand gesture and the King ceased talking. “I think it’s best if I deal with it now,”. The King was about to beg but the druid cut him off. “Or you can answer to our master..”
The King was aghast, for the longest time he considered the druid’s choice, before reluctantly nodding, his head fell heavy on his chest.
“Boy, come with me,” the druid said, as he turned and headed towards the tree line.
The Prince just stared, gobsmacked, his gaze torn between the receding druid and his father. “Father, what the hell is going on!”
The King could not look him in the eye. He had failed to prepare him for this, he had failed him as a father, he’d failed his people as a King. “My son,” the words stuck in his throat. “You must go with him. Go with him or none of us will see another dawn.”
The Prince still couldn’t fathom how his father was powerless in front of this dirty peasant. “I’ll kill him.”
In a rage, his father leapt up and grabbed his son squarely and shook him. “You can’t! If he dies, we all die – you, me and every man, woman and child in the kingdom. You will not touch him. You will do EXACTLY what he tells you.”
The look of terror on his father’s face left the Prince in no doubt of his father’s conviction. He’d never seen him scared, let alone terrified. He had little choice but to begrudgingly comply with his father’s wishes.
“Who the hell are you?” said the prince, he’d been following the druid for several minutes deeper into the forest.
“I am the keeper,” the druid said, ducking under some low hanging branches.
“The keeper of what?” the Prince inquired, his voice still dripped with arrogance. He’d do what his father asked but he didn’t have to like it.
“Of the natural order,” the druid replied, suddenly stopping he ushered the Prince into a small clearing.
More like a keeper of fleas thought the Prince. They were stood at a hole, staring into it he could make out the top of a mossy granite obelisk. A dark shadow danced across it, his own. The early morning sun, struggling to climb in the autumn sky was shining directly behind him casting the ominous shadow.
The druid led him down well-worn carved steps, down into the dark depths. What little illumination was reflected from the glinting sun-kissed obelisk. He stumbled in the gloom, each unsteady footstep echoing in the dark, as they wound their way down. Reaching the base of the obelisk, he looked up, the suns rays now illuminated most of its length, reflecting enough light to reveal the true scale of the monstrous cavern. He could see the runes clearly now, intricate and ancient they covered every inch of the obelisk.
The druid rolled up his sleeves, “This is the heart of the forest. It has been here long before us and it will be here long after.”
The druid pulled a knife from his robe and holding it tight he ran his palm along its edge. Thick blood oozed from the cut as he closed his fist, red drops fell onto the base of the obelisk. He gestured to the Prince, who reluctantly held out his hand. The druid didn’t hesitate. The Prince winced, more in surprise than pain. The blood flowed from his hand and onto the base of the obelisk.
“For a thousand years, we’ve given our lifeblood to the sleeping forest. That was the peace brokered a millennia ago. That is the peace we MUST maintain now.”
There was a gust of wind like the cavern had taken a breath. Half heard half felt he sensed a deep pulsing rumbling, a monstrous slow heartbeat.
“WE are the keepers, lest the forest ever awake,” said the druid, dramatically tracing a bloody finger around the oak rune on the obelisk.
The Prince’s stomach knotted, he was sweating in the cool air. He looked down at his shaking hands, at the base of the now fully illuminated obelisk. Something was scrabbling, dragging itself from the gloom. He recoiled in terror as vines crawled from the shadows, eager for blood, they whipped and twisted across everything. Looking back at the druid, his face was a bubbling decomposing mess of dead leaves and insects. The Prince staggered backwards, his heart beating out of his chest.
“You will keep your forefather’s oath,” the druid said, a centipede twisting from his mouth. “You will be a King of men, only because the forest allows it. Never forget that.”
It was too much for the poor Prince he scrambled for the stairs, staggering and tripping he pulled himself from the horrors of the pit.
“Remember who you serve,” were the last words the Prince heard as he fled. He couldn’t bring himself to look back. He could only imagine the slavering hungry horrors that oozed and crawled out of the earth.
The Prince stumbled through the forest, a thousand eyes viewed him hungrily, sharp claws ripped at his clothes and the trees, oh god, the trees would not stop whispering to him.
The druid looked on bemused, feeling just a little guilty. The Prince had been stumbling around in a circle for an hour now. Maybe he’d overdone the mushroom toxin this time, perhaps he’d cut too deep, either way, he’d had to be sure. The King hadn’t heeded his lesson, he had to be certain that his son would. He watched on as the poor boy tore at his face screaming, he’d have some permanent reminders. With some luck though, he’d have a different world view come the morning, Maybe one with a little more humility? Definitely one with a new-found respect for nature.
It was always hard to teach environmentalism in the dark ages, the druid thought, popping another mushroom under his tongue.