A/N: The long awaited chapter one! I've written and rewritten this sucker about a million times. It has seen various drafts, each one not satisfying. This draft is probably the most satisfying and reflects which direction I want to take this story. I wonder how many more years people will have to wait for Chapter Two…?
Chapter One: The Wolf Prince of the Ancient Forest
The Wolf Prince of the Ancient Forest was angry. In the small village barely out of reach of His outskirts, a man who as a peddler of goods by trade had, on his way back from the Village-on-the-Other-Side-of-the-Forest, trespassed on the Wolf Prince's property and stolen a rose – precious and rare, unlike any other in the entire land – from His garden. The Prince had not seen the man stealing the rose but knew something was amiss and followed the scent that lingered on His property. He now stood, in the form of a large wolf, at the outskirts of the town, warded off by thick spells woven by the village priest but ready to attack anybody who dared to wander in His reach at night. As gods are often silent and not obligated to give their reasons for their actions, nobody knew why the Wolf Prince of the Ancient Forest had decided to visit his wrath down upon them, save for the man and the priest, who, armed with spells and talismans to keep the Prince from harming him, had spoken to the large wolf during the Transient Hour at twilight, when by the decree of the Higher Gods, neither the Wolf Prince nor the men of the village could inflict harm upon each other.
"I only wanted to give the rose to my beautiful youngest child," sobbed the man.
The priest and the town elders stood in the man's hut, discussing what should be done. The man's three children were not present. The oldest was attending his father's small business, while the middle child was apprenticing the blacksmith. The youngest was out in the fields, gathering wheat and barley with women and their children. The sun was at its zenith, so the wise men of the village had all day to deliberate and come up with a solution.
A week had passed since the Wolf Prince had laid siege to their village. The road through the Ancient Forest, which lay to the South, was their only connection to the rest of the realm of the Old Kingdom; without the road, they were cut off from their allies and trade partners. To the North were roving bands of barbarians; to the East were the borders of the Opposing Realm; and to the West were the Unknown Lands, in which it was rumored witches, fey, and monsters presided.
"The Wolf Prince demands compensation for his lost property," said the priest, "something of equal value and trade for the rose that you plucked."
There was stirring and murmuring and muttering among the elders. Some argued that asking compensation for a rose was preposterous, while others surmised that it was not so much about the rose, but, rather, that the man had stolen (they emphasized) from somebody else – a god, too, for that matter. Therefore, the Wolf Prince of the Ancient Forest was entitled to His portion of justice.
"It's just a rose!" protested the eldest of the elders, jumping from his chair with a vitality never thought possible for a man his age. "What superior value could it have to any other weed out there?"
There were gasps and angry rebukes among the elders. They debated the value of a rose. A few men recalled how they had won their lady loves with a precious rose; they praised the flower for its Sentimentality among women. Some men told how their wives, wanting a garden of roses, tried hard to grow the flower but with little or no success; these men cursed its Stubbornness. An elder or two agreed with the eldest elder: the rose was as useless as any other plant that did not bear fruit, grain, vegetables, or a cure or poison. The man, hearing the divided opinions of the sage leaders of the community, hung his head in shame for ever plucking the rose from the Wolf Prince's garden. The priest, weary of the noise and anxious to get onto the real business of ridding the Wolf Prince from the village border, pounded his staff on the ground for order.
"The rose is a rare flower, a gift from a powerful witch many years ago," he explained. There were murmurs in the elderly audience; the priest made it a point to silence them with a glare. "The Wolf Prince would only tell me that much. It's obvious that the flower has sentimental value."
"Of course!" One of the elders interjected, much to the priest's ire. "The Wolf Prince must have been in love with the witch!"
There were many nods around the room. "Or else why would He cherish it so much?" another elder ventured.
"So," began the eldest elder, "if the flower is a symbol of the love between the witch and the Wolf Prince, therefore the compensation must be a gift of love between you-" he pointed to the man, "-and your beloved."
The man blanched. "My wife is seven years dead, and I have not remarried since. All the gifts between her and me I piled onto her pyre in her honor and my love."
The priest spoke again: "The Wolf Prince has told me that He has spotted your daughter working in the fields from afar. She wears His rose in her golden hair. It is she whom He desires as compensation."
Silence fell in the room, thick and heavy like a fog on a sultry summer morning. The man averted his eyes to the floor, and the elders seemed to shift uneasily on the ground where they stood or sat. Words condensed on the man's tongue, hesitantly forming. He pushed these words out of his mouth slowly.
"I do not have a daughter. My youngest child is a boy."
This encouraged the elders to speak. "Perhaps he gave the rose to a girl?" "He's at that age when he should be considering marriage, right?" "With looks like that, your boy must be popular with the maidens!"
The man shook his head in slow movements that matched his apprehension. "My son is…very feminine. My wife raised him as a girl to spite me for having gifted her so many sons." Many of the elders visibly winced and muttered amongst themselves. The man continued. "My wife wanted a daughter so badly and was disappointed when her last child turned out to be a boy. It's not as bad as some may think, though. After my wife's death, my son took up the housework and the cooking, while I worked and his brothers apprenticed. His skills around the house have been…invaluable to mine and my other sons' survival."
The priest nodded. "Such a sacrifice would be heavy on your family," he said, "but the Wolf Prince has stated his conditions: your child for the rose. We are at the mercy of a god, so, for the survival of our village, we must comply."
The elders agreed, though with some reluctance and many reservations. Once upon a time, in the youngest days of the oldest men, the village would every once in a while sacrifice a maiden or a criminal to the Higher Gods. "Those were bloody years," they would recall around the fires in their hearths as they shook their heads and pulled their furs closer for warmth. Handing over the man's youngest son was really no different from the old ways they had forsworn many years past. Just one boy for the preservation of the entire village – there wasn't a better deal.
The man, on the other hand, protested silently, opening his mouth once, twice, thrice, but never finding the right words to oppose the priest's decision. Finally, the man wept frustrating and bitter tears.
"My youngest child is surely dead! When the Wolf Prince finds that he's not a girl, He'll kill my son!"
To which the priest replied: "If He finds out the child is a boy."
The sun was halfway between its zenith and the horizon when the man's youngest son returned home from the fields. Of his three sons, his youngest was by far the most beautiful, taking after his deceased mother. His hair was as golden as the wheat he had harvested that day with the wives and maidens in the fields; he wore it long and unbound, like the young unmarried girls of the village, and sure enough the rose, deep crimson in color, was tucked behind one ear. The man's wife had named the boy "Julian," in substitute for the original name she had wanted to give him had he been a girl. It was a joyful name, reflected in his light brown eyes and the broad grin that he gave the man when he entered the hut.
"Father, you are not at the shop today?" he asked, approaching the table, where the man sat.
"The elders and the priest were here today, my son," said the man, pushing himself up.
Concern danced across Julian's face, on his brow and in his frown. It was an unnatural expression for his beautiful son. "Father, what's going on? Did something happen?"
The man grabbed him by the arm and lowered the boy down in the chair opposite of his own. Then, he sat down, folding his hands in front of him, fixing them with a stare. "Son," he said, the words thick and heavy in his mouth, "do you know why the Wolf Prince stands at our village border?" Julian shook his head and uttered a silent no. "A little over week ago," continued the man, "I became lost in the Ancient Forest, coming back from the Village-on-the-Other-Side-of-the-Forest. I strayed from the main road to take what I thought was a short cut, but in doing so, found myself deeper in the Forest than I had ever been in all my seasons. It was nightfall and there was no hope of retracing my steps, when I came across a decaying hall, which at one time or another must had been grand to behold. It was there that I rested.
"In the morning, just before the dawn, I awoke and departed from the hall. At the side of the hall, which I had not noticed before in the darkness, there was a magnificent garden, full of what must have been every flower in the world and plants that not even the old midwives had ever seen. In the center of the garden, growing from a thorny bush with green leaves fringed with gold was a single rose – the most beautiful of all flowers in this garden. Thinking only of you, my son who told me to bring him nothing more than a rose from the Village-on-the-Other-Side-of-the-Forest, I plucked the rose. The next evening, the Wolf Prince seized our border."
The man finished his tale. In between him and his son silence hung in the air, until finally, Julian spoke. "But, Father, what does the Wolf Prince have to do-" Julian's skin, tan from harvesting under the autumn sun, paled by a few shades. "Father, the hall – it belongs to the Wolf Prince, didn't it?" The man nodded but remained silent. "Then the garden and the rose that came from it..."
The man closed his eyes tighter and rested his forehead against his laced fingers. "Yes, my son. Because of my transgression against the Wolf Prince, our village is under siege."
"Is that why the elders and the priest were here today?"
The man said nothing, but instead stood up. He crossed the room to the farthest corner, filled by a chest covered with miscellaneous items from his trade. Though he had told the elders and priest that he had burned the mementos belonging to his wife, he had held onto sentimental objects from their days as maiden and boy and filled the chest with them. Opening the lid, the father began to pull out these objects one by one, placing them on the ground with care. Julian watched him with curiosity as he withdrew item after item, from a dried and carefully preserved garland of flowers to hand-carved figurines of animals and people to folded scarves and shawls. The man spoke as he searched the chest.
"The elders," he began, "were debating the value of a rose. Some of them said it was as worthless as a weed, and others cherished it for all the love they had received from their wives for having brought them a rose. Your mother," by this point, he had pulled out the garland, in front of which was set a rose, "like any other woman, loved roses. Unlike other women, she loved them for their rarity, not their beauty. A rose is an incredibly difficult flower to come by, my son. It is too stubborn to grow everywhere and too beautiful to grace its presence in any garden." He paused to look at the garland and heaved a sigh, heavy with reminiscence, before placing it down gently away from everything else. "The priest told us that the rose had sentimental value to the Wolf Prince. He has seen you in the fields with it in your hair, my son."
Julian's hand drifted up to the rose, his fingers brushing against the petals. Even after a week since it had been plucked from its source, the rose was still full and alive. "He wants it back then?" the boy asked.
From the bottom of the chest, the man pulled out a square of coarse fabric and began to unravel it. "He demands compensation for what I have done. For stealing something so precious from him, I must repay Him with something precious to me." From the unraveled fabric, he pulled up a linen dress, similar to what the maidens wore at feasts and festivals. It was off-white with age, but otherwise in good condition. Julian recognized it as his mother's dress from when she was a maiden. Years ago, when she had been alive, she had shown it to Julian on one occasion – when she was relating how his father had won her heart by showing up to the Midsummer festival after having been missing for over a week with a rose.
"You're giving the Wolf Prince mother's old dress?"
The dress unfurled as the man stood up. It had many layers overlaying one another. "The Wolf Prince saw you from afar."
Julian's face fell into another unfitting expression – shock. "You mean-"
"But the dress-"
"There's been a misunderstanding."
Julian's eyes drifted from the dress to his father. "What sort of misunderstanding?"
The Wolf Prince stalked the border of the village, His way barred by the wards and spells woven into the trees and wild bush on the edge of the wood by that damned priest. During the day, in His vulnerable shape, He laid under the brush, hiding from the villagers and waiting for the moon to return. It was during the day that He saw her, the daughter of the thief, wielding a sickle to reap the wheat. In her hair, she had braided the rose, but without it, He would have know who she was; the heavy scent of the rose – His rose – clung to her skin, marking her as His.
An old emotion stirred in the pit of his stomach and ran deeply to his loins. As His Self, he salivated at the thoughts of possessing, controlling, and devouring the maiden, that precious flower under the sun. Yes. She was His, by all rights. Even if the thief had not agreed to give her up, He would have found a way to take her.
"Give her a day to say goodbye," the priest had implored when he had visited Him at the Transient Hour.
At night in the forest, the Wolf Prince prowled and waited and watched. Anticipation mixed with His lust and His greed and grew, consuming His patience. One more day. The thought taunted Him. One more day until she came to Him.