Short Story – The Trees Heard

Once upon a time, a handsome prince rode into a forest clearing. You could always tell a member of royalty – the word “resplendent” was made for them. 

The clearing appeared empty, but eventually the darkness stirred. No. Not the darkness. A woman, dressed all in black. With dank, black hair that stretched to the ground, and dank, black breath that misted in the air.

Of course the prince didn’t notice her breath. And he didn’t hear her eager chuckle.

But the trees heard.

“Are you the one they call the Dark Mother?” asked the prince, with the false confidence that only comes from ignorance.

“I’m known by many names, and honour that amongst them,” she said, with the humbleness that only comes from true confidence.

“Good. I’m here for your help,” said the prince.

“I warn you, I don’t give gifts. I trade. So unless you have something to offer…?”

“Madam, I’m the prince. What could you possibly want that I can’t offer?”

The witch (for of course that was what she was) smiled. The typical arrogance of the rich – this would be easier than she’d thought.

“Not riches,” she said. “I require more.”

“More? More how?”

“We shall see. Firstly tell me what you seek. Then I shall tell you its value.”

“It’s not what I seek. It’s what I’ve found. Love. True love.”

“If you’ve found love, it sounds like you have everything you need. So why seek me out?”

“It’s my mother, the queen. She will never let me marry a commoner.” 

“So run,” said the witch. “Flee into the night, hand-in-hand. Rejoice that you’ve found that which all seek, but which so few find. Love.”

“I can’t. My mother gave me a choice – keep everything I own, or give it all up for this girl”. 

“I don’t see the difficulty. You’d be giving up trinkets to gain treasures.”

“But they’re my trinkets,” he said, with a sudden fire in his eyes. “And besides,” he added, almost as an afterthought, “my love deserves them.”

“Ahh,” said the witch, nodding sagely, “if she is a woman who only seeks riches, maybe she isn’t the woman for you?”

“Oh she doesn’t care, but that’s only because she’s never known any better. She’s only a commoner.”

The witch smiled a cold smile. A plan was starting to form.

“I see”, she said, with feigned sympathy. “Here’s my offer. I can’t give you the objects you desire, but I can give you an opportunity to get them, and with it the chance to flee with your love. Under the light of tonight’s full moon, take what you seek, and pay the price.”

“What price?” asked the prince. He was a fool, but an educated one.

“Your parents. You steal from them, and they’ll never see you again. You’ll take from them more than just riches. You’ll take their only son. And they’ll miss you until their dying breaths.”

“Is that all? A pittance to pay. I never plan to see them again. I never want to see them again. That’s not a price, it’s a gift. I accept.”

And so the prince rode away, not hearing the cackle that floated on the air.

But the trees heard.

***

Later that day, with dusk fast approaching, another figure rode into the clearing. 

This time it was a finely-dressed woman. She looked far more apprehensive than the prince had. Maybe she’d heard stories he hadn’t. Or maybe she was simply wiser than he was. 

“A dangerous time to be out,” came the witch’s voice on the wind. “The forest grows dark at night. And not just from the lack of light.”

“You. You’re the one they speak of?”

“To be spoken of is nothing. To have your words heard when you speak them is the real test.”

“Yes. Well, I wish to hear your words regarding my son. I believe he visited you earlier? Pray, tell what he sought.”

“He sought a deal, and with it, discretion.”

 “I command you to tell me. I am your queen!”

My queen you say? Well, best that I heed your words then,” said the witch, her voice dripping with condescension. But the queen, unfamiliar with such a tone, didn’t hear it.

“Your son seeks a new life”.

“A new life? Why?”

“To spend it with his true love, of course”.

“The fool! But… there must be something that I can do. Some way to stop him?”.

A dagger-blade smile spread across the witch’s face.

“There may be one chance. Your son plans to leave by this road. Tonight, tomorrow… I’m not sure. But he intends never to return.”

“Then I will wait. He cannot ignore a queen’s command.”

“Indeed. But the forest grows dangerous.”

“Danger be damned. I am the queen!”

“Yes you are. Your… Highness.” And with that, the witch faded into the growing darkness.

So the queen waited. The night drew in, and with it the darkness. The danger.

The wolves.

The wolves did not heed the commands of the queen as they tore the life from her. They did not hear her words.

But the trees heard.

***

That night the king rode out in search of his missing wife. Reports said she’d ridden into the forest alone, though no one knew why.

He emptied the castle of all his men to join the search. He had to find her. She was his everything.

In the darkness of night, the king rode into a clearing where he saw the form of a woman. He breathed a sigh of relief as he approached but… no. It wasn’t his wife. 

“Well met, my king,” said the witch. “I’ve been expecting you.”

“Have you seen my wife? Have you seen the queen?” he asked, his voice trembling with fear.

“I have, your Majesty. I tried to warn her of the dangers the forest holds, but she wouldn’t listen. The last I saw her, she was stood by the old yew tree.

The king said nothing. He approached the spot.

And his heart broke.

Before him was his wife. Torn. The woman he’d loved his entire life. 

Gone.

The king’s men were too scattered, oblivious to their king’s pain. They couldn’t hear his sobs.

But the trees heard.

***

The sun began to rise. Everything was still, except for two figures leading a heavily-laden mule. It was the prince, and with him his beloved. 

The prince wore a thick cloak and an unrestrained smile. The lady wore a light jacket and a confused look, as she shivered along behind him.

“Tell me where we’re going,” she said (and not for the first time).

“Forwards, my love,” he replied (and not for the first time).

“But where?”

“To freedom! There’s nothing to stop us anymore. Nothing to hold us back.”

“You mean, your mother… she gave us her blessing?”

“She gave us nothing. But what I needed, I took. And it would take a thousand men a thousand lifetimes to spend all that I needed. We’re free to go wherever our hearts desire!”

His beloved stopped suddenly. The prince barely noticed.

“But… we’re only going for the day?” she asked.

“We can stay for a day, of course, before moving on to the next place. The next adventure! Why, where would you like to go?”

“I’d like to go home.”

“Well… anywhere but there.“

“But I can’t leave my family. They’re everything to me.”

“Everything? More than gold? Than jewels? Than treasures most men can only dream of?”

“Well, as you can see, I’m not most men.”

“No, you’re a foolish girl. I offer you the world, and you want a hovel.”

“No,” said the girl with dawning realisation, “you never offered me anything. I was just a prize to you. A trinket for you to possess. You don’t love me. You never loved me. You desired me.”

She looked at the prince and, perhaps for the first time since he’d swept her off her feet, she saw what he really was – a weak, selfish boy.

With great sadness for everything that the prince had lost, she left, ignoring his angry shouts. 

Over his own cries the prince couldn’t hear the lady’s gentle weeping.

But the trees heard.

***

The prince walked through the forest. And walked. And walked. He wasn’t sure how long for. He had nowhere to be. No one to meet. 

He was free.

But for all the items he’d grabbed, all the treasures, he hadn’t thought to bring any provisions – tools for fire, sleeping equipment, food and water.

The prince had never known true hunger before. But he was learning.

As he slept the first night, the mule wandered off. He hadn’t thought to tie it in place – after all he’d commanded it to stay.

Days passed, but the prince remained lost, unable to find a destination, or even a direction. It was almost like the trees themselves were moving, shifting while he slept, aiming to cut him off from other people.

Eventually the prince came to a familiar clearing. Full of joy that he might find his way home now and apologise for everything, if only to be fed, the prince rushed in. He was so tired. His running slowed to a walk, which turned into a crawl, which turned into a rest. His energy was gone. This was it. He knew it was his death.

He found a bundle of ragged, stained clothes on the floor beneath an old yew tree, and rested against it.

He rolled onto his back, determined to look into the sky as he passed from this world into gods only knew what awaited him in the next.

As he laid back, he saw a figure in the tree. A man. Hanged. From the looks of it by his own hand. A man in a resplendent coat, for resplendent was the right word.

Even in his drained state, the prince recognised who it was. What it meant.

No one was around to hear the prince’s whimper as he died in the shadow of his father’s corpse, resting against the bones of his mother. 

Just as no one was around to hear the cackle that came from the darkness.

But the trees heard.

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