Autumn’s King

No prompt. Written 25 December 2020

On the first true day of fall, when the leaves have turned but not yet fallen to the forest floor, the King begins his search. He is unmistakable, shrouded in a cloak and carrying an oak staff. His antlers curl around his head to form a crown that cannot be removed, and his eyes hold the mysteries of what sleeps beneath the earth.

Tonight, when the moon is high and bright in the sky but not yet full, the King will take his staff, march into the center of the forest, and strike it against the seven trees that stand in a circle around him. From these trees will emerge seven maidens. He will ask just one question.

The maidens will join hands and dance a reel around the king, singing of his past journeys and his future demise. The king will ask his question again. The maidens will raise their voices until none else can be heard, and then they will drop to just one voice, the voice of the oldest maiden. As they finished the reel, she will tell the king the first of his clues, the first step he needs to find what he seeks. He will swiftly commit this clue to memory as she sits down and the second maiden reveals the second clue. They do this in turn until the seven maidens are sat in a ring on the forest floor. They will say no more, whether he rails or begs or cries or does none of these. The king will thank them, and they will return to their trees without a glance at him.

As he leaves, their spell will take hold and the king will be left with only the first of the clues in his memory.

It will be well into the season before he leaves the forest, glamoured in the guise of a common traveler. He will move from town to town, searching first for a boy who Sees, then a woman who Makes, and hopefully, finally, the woman he seeks. He will reach the uppermost corner of the land and he will sail into the horizon until the sun sets and rises again.

Now a king outside his kingdom, he will reach an island no other can sail to, and here his trials truly begin.

Armed with only his staff, he will next face a many-limbed goblin, who holds a different item in each hand. The items vary from a sewing thimble to a soldier’s blade to a crown. The king has one chance.

He will not remember his past decisions. He will not remember the right choice. But he will examine the hands and the items they hold, and he will see which items the goblin seems to hide, the ones he stretches out, and he will find the one that the goblin will not look at. He will take the flute, carved from the heartwood of an ancient and magical tree. The goblin will speak his spell and the next clue will be returned to his memory.

He will make his way further inland and reach a place where the path splits. Two of the paths look identical, leading into the woods. One follows a stream that becomes a roaring river, and the last leads up a hill and vanishes into the distance.

He does not remember that the woods are home to vines that would drag him beneath the earth he elsewhere would find his home. He does not see the creatures lurking beneath the water, waiting to drag him under. He knows only the clue, and it is this which he follows.

As winter falls and his yearly journey comes to a close, he will be greeted at last by the one he has searched for this and every autumn.

She runs to him, gossamer skirt billowing, and he catches her in his arms with a gleeful cry.

It is at this very moment that the first winter snow will start to fall, and the couple will make their home for the coming season, until spring ends and they are separated once more.

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