Prince Austen's POV
We arrived at last! The woods were in clear view beyond the village. I had seen these woods before but this time I felt a strange hope leap within my chest at seeing Her woods. I had never felt this way before. Maybe, just maybe, I could see her again.
Because of our numbers, all of us would not be able to stay at the village inn. Sir Gareld offered to have me spend the nights there, but I told him a true Prince would rather rough it with the men than rest in comfort at their expense. The men gave a small cheer at that statement.
Since the town was not an option, we set up camp on the outskirts of town in a convenient field near the woods. Our company spent a lot longer clearing the debris from the campsite than we usually did on our journey here. For some reason, there seemed to be more downed branches than typical in the area.
Once camp was set up we prepared and ate our dinner, a simple meal of soup and bread that was much harder than I thought could be made. This would not do. After the meal I sent several of our soldiers into the town to resupply. Hopefully the bread tomorrow would not be so... old.
Evening was coming on as Sir Gareld and I met to counsel in front of my tent. As we talked, I watched the flowing banner of the Franklin Dukedom, a large green tree on a gold background, that marked my tent.
“Now that we’ve set up camp, we can set about our errand here,” I said to Sir Gareld. I fiddled with the cuff of my loose sleeve, suddenly anxious to start searching this vast woodland for Lady Laurel.
“Indeed,” said Sir Gareld. “But now that I see how broad this forest truly is, I wonder how we will ever be able to find the elves within it.”
“Ah.” That’s right, we were supposed to be counseling with the elves about the attack on their… (Laurel’s?) woods. “I see your point.” I looked at the overhanging boughs of willows and rowans, wondering how I would ever find her. I felt my heart sinking into the earth. “How do you suggest we begin, Sir Gareld?” I turned to him and saw his mouth agape as he stared toward the wood. He quickly composed himself.
“It would seem the answer to our question may have come to meet us,” he replied.
A small man, only about a hand high, very cautiously flew toward my tent, holding something metallic in his hands. When he got close enough to Sir Gareld and I, he made an interesting sort of half-bow in the air and asked, “Are you the prince?”
“I am,” I replied, and he turned his gaze from Sir Gareld to myself.
“Ah! I am Rine, the leader of the Fairies of Laurel Wood. I was sent by Laurel to tell you a good place to meet with the elves,” he said while looking around nervously. “I have been watching your camp today, figuring out the safest- I mean the best way to approach your tent.”
I found that I had one eyebrow raised. Sir Gareld put in, “How can we know you are truthful in this?”
“Well, for one thing, why would I come here if it weren’t the truth? I would much rather be safely concealed with Ivy. But also, Laurel told me to show you this,” he held up the metallic thing and I recognized my cufflink. “I think her exact words were if they do not listen I will know they were not sincere in their desire to help.”
I swallowed hard against a sudden lump in my throat. “Of course we want to help! I am ready for you to lead the way any time.”
Did Sir Gareld just groan? Never mind that.
“Excellent,” Rine said, “but for now, can I take a rest in your tent? This trinket is now feeling very heavy for me.” He didn’t look all that tired to me. But at a hooting sound of an owl nearby, he visibly startled and darted into the tent without waiting for further answer.
Sir Gareld made some comments about how we could trust the fairy especially enough to sleep in my tent but I waved it off. He was trusted by Laurel. That was all I needed to know. The fairy was not a bad guest. It seemed that he really was tired as he went to bed quickly and, besides some small squeaks, was quiet all night.
The next morning, a small group of my men joined me and Sir Gareld following our unusual guide. I tried my best to follow the fairy, but frequently as we walked I would hear him say, “Is walking really this slow?” Or something similar. In a clearing a few miles into the woods, we stopped. I followed the pointing hand of the fairy and saw a group of elves coming out of the woods. They came toward our group, looking as elegant and graceful as cats. They stopped a few strides from Sir Gareld and I.
“Forest Mother told us you were coming to visit. How may we be of assistance?” The elf who spoke to us seemed to be the oldest one present, which meant by human standards he was probably ancient.
“A-actually, we came here to ask you the same question.” What a time for my stutter to act up. I cleared my throat and began to deliver the message my father had sent. “As Second Prince of the Franklin Dukedom, I have been sent as an envoy to ascertain the status of your domain, concerning alleged aggressions from an unknown party. His sovereign majesty, the Duke, wishes to know what assistance we may offer in your distress.” I was glad I had this memorized. I didn’t have to think as I rattled off the official inquiry statement to the elves.
When I finished, the elves looked at each other, murmuring quietly between themselves. The oldest elf spoke out, “We appreciate your father’s interest in our well-being. The council of elders will be best suited to answer your enquiry. They will be convening tomorrow to discuss their recent meeting with Forest Mother.”
“Who is this Forest Mother?” I looked at Sir Gareld, but he shrugged.
“She is the guardian of the forest, the mother of all things green and growing. She is the oldest and the first of all. She is our goddess and ruler.” And with that statement, all the elves present nodded their agreement.
Wow. They were really over the top for this lady.
“She sounds important,” I said into the awkward silence that followed.
Sir Gareld, however, had a shrewd look on his face. “Your highness, may I speak to our elven hosts?” I nodded and he continued. “Sir, is this Forest Mother known by another name?”
“Indeed,” said the eldest elf, rising from his bow. “She is the mother of this forest and all forests, and this mighty wood bears her name.”
“The Laurel Woods,” said Sir Gareld, giving me a pointed look.
“Even so. She dwells in these woods and we are the guardians of her sacred home.” The pride in the elves’ eyes was clear to see.
So, this Forest Mother was Lady Laurel? And the elves seemed to think of her as far and above beyond royalty... I shook my head to clear these thoughts. They felt a little depressing.
“I see,” I began. “So this… Forest Mother.” I cleared my throat. I found myself fiddling with my one loose sleeve cuff. I had not given up hope and was carrying the cufflink in my pocket ready to return it to her. Realizing I was showing my nerves, I put my hands behind my back to stop my fidgeting. “Will she be at the council of the Elders tomorrow morning? Or perhaps she will be in attendance at some of our other discussions? It would be a great honor to make her better acquaintance. Maybe we could share a banquet in her honor….” I felt my face grow hot under the continued scrutiny of Sir Gareld.
The elf spokesman shook his head. “I will bring your suggestion to the council. But the Forest Mother does not usually dabble in the day-to-day affairs of our realm, as she spends her days and nights lending her glorious energies to the well being of us and all the forest around her.”
I did my best to keep the sorrow that these words brought me from showing on my face and said, “Very well. Then where may we meet your council of elders on the morrow?” It ended up being much more monotone than I meant it to be.
The elven delegation arranged for some of their group to guide me and several of my men to the council site in the morning. Then they said their goodbyes and disappeared back into the forest.
I mentioned to Sir Gareld as they were departing, “That was rather unexpected.”
“Your highness, I think this confirms something,” Sir Gareld told me.
“What is that, Sir Gareld?”
“With all due respect, sire, you are in over your head,” he said looking at me with pity in his eyes.
Yes, I always love an underdog Votes: 5 17.9%
No, he's in way over his head Votes: 11 39.3%
Maybe. But only if there are cookies. Votes: 10 35.7%
Chocolates, anyone? Votes: 6 21.4%
Would she be offended with cut flowers? Votes: 14 50.0%
How do you answer the previous comment in the poll? Votes: 3 10.7%