I must admit I struggled to come up with a different take on this one, I found it difficult to get past the primaeval 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. (~1370 words)
Summer had gone, almost overnight. The forest had turned its usual autumnal rich tapestry and there was an undeniable chill in the air as the Prince rode into the misty glade. Across the clearing a hooded figure tampered with the traps. “You there, stop what you’re doing!”
The stranger either didn’t hear him or ignored the Prince. Riding over he prepared to confront the thief. “That is the property of the King,” he bellowed as a freed rabbit limped off into the undergrowth.
With a thunder of hooves, the king burst into the clearing, finally catching up with his headstrong son. Sat upon his impressive steed he surveyed the scene. “What’s all this about?”
“Father, this peasant was poaching,” said the Prince pointing to the tatty stranger.
His father rode up slowly. “What are you doing in my forest, peasant?”
“Who’s forest?” the stranger hissed turning his attention from the empty trap. A hood hid his face in shadow. “This is nobody’s forest.”
“The impudence of the fellow,” the prince mocked, unable to believe his ears. He climbed down from his horse, ready to teach the fool a lesson.
The stranger ignored him, throwing back his hood he stared up at the King with piercing blue eyes. The King nearly fell from his horse. It was impossible, there hadn’t been a druid for fifty years. 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 archaic order.
“We had an agreement,” the druid pressed.
“Why you-”, the prince started unsheathing his sword.
“Put your sword away, now!” his father yelled. With barely suppressed anger, the prince slid his 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 from the squirming King.
Jumping down from his horse, the King approached the druid slowly, unsheathing his sword with earnest intent. He stared at the druid closely. The druid continued to meet his gaze, until the King took a knee and bowed his head.
“Father!” screamed the prince, unable to contain his outrage.
“Quiet boy!” the King replied. Laying his sword at the druid’s feet. “I’ve been remiss. Please let me rectify-”
The druid made a small hand gesture. The King ceased talking. “I think it’s best I deal with this matter now.” The King went to beg, but the druid cut him off. “Or we’ll both be answering to our master!”
The King was aghast, for the longest time he seemed to be considering options. Before nodding, his head falling heavy on his chest.
“Boy, come with me,” the druid growled, turning and heading 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 at his son. He had failed to prepare him for this. He had failed him as a father. 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 could not fathom how his father, the King, was powerless in front of this dirty vagrant. “I’ll kill him.”
In a rage, his father leapt up and grabbed his son 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, do you hear me. 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 conviction. He’d never seen him scared, let alone terrified. Begrudgingly he complied with his father’s wishes.
The prince had been following the druid for several minutes as he delved deeper into the forest. “Who the hell are you?”
“I am the keeper,” said the druid, ducking under a low-hanging branch.
“The keeper of what?” the prince inquired. His voice dripping with arrogance. He’d do what his father asked, but he didn’t have to like it.
“Of the natural order,” the druid replied, ushering the prince into a small clearing.
“More like a keeper of fleas,” the prince muttered under his breath. In the middle of the clearing was a large deep hole. Staring down into the abyss he could make out the top of a mossy granite obelisk. In the early morning sun, his shadow fell ominously upon the ancient stone.
The druid led the prince down well-worn carved steps, down into the dark depths. The only illumination reflected from the 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 at the sun’s rays now illuminating the full height of the monolith, revealing the true scale of the monstrous cavern. Countless runes decorated the walls and they caught the light like quicksilver.
The druid rolled up his sleeves. “This is the heart of the forest. It was here long before us and it will be here long after we are gone.”
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, dripping onto the base of the obelisk. He gestured to the prince. Reluctantly the prince held out his hand. The druid did not hesitate and the prince winced, more in surprise than pain. The blood flowed from his hand and mingled with druids at the base of the obelisk.
“For a thousand years, we’ve given our lifeblood to the sleeping forest. That was the peace we brokered a millennium ago. That is the peace we must maintain now.”
A gust of wind blew through the cavern as if some mighty beast had stirred to take a breath. Half heard, half felt, he sensed the deep pulsing rumbling of its monstrous slow heartbeat.
“We are the keepers, lest the forest ever awake,” said the druid, tracing a bloody finger around an oak rune on the obelisk.
The prince’s stomach knotted. He was sweating in spite of the coolness of the air. Looking down at his shaking hands, he could see 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 towards him. He looked to the druid, his face had become a bubbling decomposing mask of dead leaves and skittering insects. Staggered backwards, the prince’s heart threatened to beat out of his chest as he tried to scream. His mouth was too dry his tongue numb.
“You will keep your forefather’s oath,” the druid said. A centipede twisting from his mouth. “You will be the King of men, only because the forest allows it. Never forget that boy.”
It was too much for the prince he scrambled for the stairs. Staggering and tripping over the chasing vines he dragged 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 after him.
The prince limped through the forest, a thousand eyes viewing him hungrily. Sharp claws ripped at his clothes and the trees! The trees would not stop whispering to him.
The druid looked on bemused, feeling just a little guilty. The soon to be King had been stumbling around the clearing for an hour now. Maybe he’d overdone the mushroom toxin this time, perhaps he’d cut too deep, either way, he had to be sure. The current King hadn’t learned his lesson. He had to be certain that his son would. He watched on as the poor boy tore at his face, screaming. He would have some permanent reminders but with some luck, he’d have a different perspective come the morning. Maybe one with a little more humility? Definitely one with a newfound respect for nature.
It was always hard to teach environmentalism in the dark ages, thought the druid, popping another mushroom under his tongue.