Prince and the Forest Boy
by Winter

Spring would soon conquer winter, and the first hints of buds could be seen here and there among the twigs and branches of the trees. Snowdrops grew among the brown, dead leaves of yesteryear. Birds sang every morning to greet the sunny dawn, then flew away, too busy yet gathering strength to call for a mate. Deep in the forest, though, snow still lay on the ground where the sun's rays failed to touch, and the air in there was crisp and chilly in the early morning.

Yet even here could be seen a touch of colour; bright red patches of cloth sewn into a suit of the finest white fur, soft as any silk yet strong and tough so as to withstand whatever rough games a child's mind might conceive. Blue borders around the red told that here walked a prince of the realm. It was nothing unusual for the king's children to wander off on their own, but the young prince knew he would be scolded if anyone found out just how deep into the forest he had wandered. Yet he had to go there; had to find out if it had all been a dream.

When he closed his eyes, the prince could see that haunting face just as clearly as he had during the night. The face of a boy, no older than himself. A boy so eerily beautiful the prince knew he had to see him again. The boy had stood inside his bedroom that night, a smile playing with thin lips, green eyes sparkling with mischief and... something else.

"Come into the forest," the boy had said with a voice so clear and sweet it had been like music to the prince's ears. "Come and I'll play my flute for you, but you must come alone."

So as soon as he could excuse himself to go out and play, the prince had hurried to the forest, where he had now walked for almost an hour without seeing hide nor hair of the mysterious boy. Maybe it had all been a dream. The thought awakened a sadness in the young prince, a feeling of loss that he had never felt before. As if something important had just slipped through his grasp. All he knew for sure was that he wanted to meet the boy again, wanted to hear him play. Yet the forest was cold and quiet, and he was utterly alone. His head hanging, the sadness tearing at his heart, the prince had just decided to turn around and head back home when he heard the faraway sound of a flute. A warm smile found his lips, and he took off at a run towards the sound.

Before long, he dashed into a small clearing, where he stopped. There on a small rock sat the boy he had seen that night. He was playing a soft tune on a wooden flute, and now that a ray of sunlight shone upon him he seemed much less a mystery and much more a normal boy. A lean, tanned body, clad only in cotton shorts and a short-sleeved shirt despite the chilly air, a boyish, slightly freckled face framed by unruly dust-coloured hair. The green eyes were hidden now, since the boy was playing with his eyes closed. The prince's heart skipped a beat. He had never before seen someone so beautiful, and he knew right then and there that he needed to make friends with this boy, no matter what.

Slowly, hesitantly, he entered the clearing until he stood only at arm's length from the forest boy. How he yearned to touch those thin arms, to hold those delicate hands! Feelings he had not yet known in his short life welled up inside the prince, and they left him confused and wondering. What was it about this boy that attracted him so? Not really knowing what to do or what to say, he decided to wait for the song to finish, and soon found himself lost in the intricate tune. There seemed to be a repetition to the song, but every time the prince thought he had found it, the melody or the rhythm changed and he was lost again. For all he knew, hours might have passed when the forest boy finally stopped playing and looked up, his piercing green eyes meeting the prince's brown ones. They looked at each other for a good while, until the forest boy smiled.

"I'm glad you came. And that you waited for my song to end."

"It was beautiful," the prince said in honesty. "You play so well."

"Thanks." The boy blushed slightly and smiled, sending a new wave of warmness through the prince's body. "Do you like my glade? This is where I always come to play. This place makes me calm and gives life to my melodies."

"It's a magnificent place. I wish I had known of it before." He looked around at the various bushes and grasses growing there, wondering what it would look like when the season of flowers arrived. At one point, a fox peered out through the undergrowth, but disappeared again just as quickly. "It's almost warm as summer here, even though spring has barely come to the rest of the land."

"Yes, it is a magical place. Do you play music, my friend?"

"Some. Could you lend me your flute? I didn't bring one."

"I'd... prefer not to." For the first time, the forest boy didn't seem completely sure of himself. "Although you could bring one next time you visit."

"Why did you come to me last night? How did you get past the guards?"

"Oh, I turned into a little bird and landed on your windowsill." The boy laughed. "As for why, I wanted a friend. Will you be my friend?"

"I would love to!" The prince smiled warmly. "Ever since I first saw you, I've been hoping it wasn't a dream. That you were real, and that you would be my friend."

"Well, then, what do we do?"

"Do?"

"My friend, my prince, sometimes you don't know much." The boy giggled, setting off the prince as well. "Friends do things, they play or talk or just... just spend time together."

"Well, let's spend some time together, then. And talk. I'd like to know more about you, my friend."

"There's so little to tell, my prince." The boy took a couple of dance steps, swirled around and sat down on his rock, indicating for the prince to sit next to him, which he did. "I'm just a forest boy, who loves to play music and has longed for a friend for ages. And you are a prince of the realm, fair-haired and brown-eyed just like your father. But sweeter to the eye."

"Thank you." The prince felt himself blush at the praise. "You... you look good, too. Your eyes... they're so... it's like staring into deep wells."

"I'm glad you want to stare, my beautiful prince," the boy whispered, laying his arm around the prince's shoulder. "You may, of course, look at me as much as you'd like. But we've talked enough. Let's play!"

With that, the boy pushed the prince off of the rock, then took off with bouncing steps, laughing his crystal clear giggles. The prince gritted his teeth to keep from lashing out angrily at the indignity, and instead gave chase. They ran back and forth across the clearing, one chasing the other, and when someone made a catch they wrestled on the ground for a while. Always laughing and smiling, always happy. Hours passed as they played; for once, the prince felt like he was both so much more and less than his title. For once, he was nothing but a boy having fun. A boy with a friend. They ended up lying side by side on a bed of soft moss, facing each other, arms around one another, their eyes parlaying unspoken words.

And eventually, their lips met in a brief, hesitant first kiss. Both blushed deeply and pulled away slightly, yet this new discovery soon brought them back again, this time with more confidence. A third kiss ensued, then a fourth, and after that they both stopped counting. Tongue met tongue as their hands stroked and caressed every inch of the other's face, bodies pressed tightly together even though it was so warm in the clearing that they didn't need to share heat. Before either knew it, the sun began to set, and they sat up reluctantly.

"I... I have to go home," the prince said, his voice slightly strained. "Will you be here tomorrow?"

"For you, my sweet friend, my lovely prince, I will be here."

"I'll bring a flute, so we can play together."

"You do that." The boy grinned. "When I see you, I will kiss you again."

"Unless I kiss you first." They hugged. "Good night, my forest boy. I will dream of you."

"As will I, of you. Good night."

As the prince turned and left the clearing, the beautiful music started again. Listening to the complicated melody, trying in vain to learn it by heart, the prince walked slowly. He had hated to say good bye, even though he knew he would soon see his new-found friend again. Yet, if he stayed out after sunset he might be grounded. It was better to leave in time and be able to come back tomorrow. As soon as the melody was out of hearing range the prince started running, and he ran all the way home, his young heart galloping inside his chest with joy, and with other feelings he had no name for.

That night, the prince went to bed with a smile upon his lips. Thoughts of the day brought out more of that special feeling, and he found that he liked it. The feeling told him he needed to see his friend again, the sooner the better. It said that their kisses went beyond just the feeling-good of the moment, that they had a deeper meaning he had yet to discern. It made him puzzled, yet still felt good.

Before dressing down to sleep, the prince lit a candle in his window, just in case a little bird should see it and pay him a visit. As he stepped out of his clothes, a sound made him turn around in time to see tiny wings flutter away from the window. He smiled and waved, then went to bed. As soon as his head touched the pillow he was asleep, and in his dreams he played his new friend again, and even kissed him some more.

Without waiting for the young prince's dreams to end, morning came, and with it came duties that could not be delayed. Visiting dignitaries had to be entertained, court rules had to be obeyed, politeness and chivalry ruled even for a boy as young as the prince. All the while, his thoughts were with his newfound forest friend, and he grew ever more irritated even as he tried his best to be sweet and charming to everybody. Not until after the midday meal was he allowed to have his own time, but before he could run off to change into outdoor clothes he was stopped by his father, the king.

"Stay within the town walls today, son," the king said in a tone of voice that would bear no argument. "Your mother gets worried when you stray off on your own."

"But father..."

"Do as you're told, or take a guard with you outside. Don't you know the woods are unsafe? Who knows what kind of creatures run around there? Both natural and unnatural."

"Father, please..."

"Do you want to stand face to face with a witch? Or a werewolf? Or the Roe, who'll turn you into wood if you fall for her lure?"

"No, father, but I found someone. A... a friend. A boy my own age who knows a lot about the woods. He wouldn't let me get hurt."

"Provided he is not up to foul play himself, that is." The king sighed deeply, then sank to his knees so that he and the prince were at eye level. "Son, it's no good for royalty to associate with common folks. Can't you find some friends among the court's children?"

"They're all so boring..."

"That may be so." The king laughed heartily. "All right, go and see your friend, but take a guard with you."

"But father, my friend is a bit shy. He wants me to come alone."

"That will not happen. Don't argue again or you will not even leave the castle."

Feeling defeated, the prince made himself no hurry to change clothes. He knew, without knowing why he knew, that he would not meet the forest boy that day. Yet he brought his own flute, in case a wonder should occur.

It did not. The forest was cold and dreary, with none of the warmth and joy that the prince had felt yesterday. Even the clearing where he had met the forest boy seemed to be gone; though he searched all morning, the prince simply could not find it. The guard who accompanied him shook his head, having long ago learned to take the whimsiness of royalty for granted.

That night, the dejected prince sat for hours at his bedroom window, staring out into the black night. His heart ached with a kind of longing that he had never felt before; it was as if even thinking about the forest boy hurt, yet felt good at the same time. If only they could get together, the prince knew, things would be all right again and the hurting would go away. But how could he find someone whose name he didn't know? He sighed, tears welling up in the corners of his eyes, and he was just about to give up and go to bed when there was a gentle tapping at the window. The prince's heart skipped a beat, and he hurried to open the window. A small bird, no bigger than a sparrow, fluttered inside and settled down on the prince's shoulder, where it chirped happily. Its feathers were the colour of dust, and its tiny eyes were bright green. It chirped again, and the prince smiled warmly.

"I was hoping you would come."

"Why weren't you alone out there?" The prince gasped. He had expected the bird to change into his forest boy right before his eyes, but instead the boy just suddenly stood there and the bird was gone, as if the change had happened while he blinked. "I couldn't come to see you while that man was there."

"I'm sorry, I couldn't help it. My father... He doesn't want me to..."

"I understand." The boy touched the prince's shoulder, and they came together in a fierce hug. "Fathers can be like that some times. They don't understand you, so they force you to do what they think is best."

"Is it really that easy?"

"Yes, it is. But he is not here now, my sweet prince." They walked over to the fireplace and sat down on a soft rug. "We are, and that is all that matters."

"I... I don't know..." The prince swallowed hard, trying to find the words he needed. He took the forest boy's hand and brought it to his face, where it gently stroked his cheek. "I don't know what it is that you make me feel. It's like... like I'm all sad when I can't see you, then all happy now that you're here."

"It's love, my prince. I feel it, too."

The prince felt his cheeks burn, and his heart started beating faster. Could that really be it? Then a cold dread gripped his heart, and he almost cried out. His father! How would he react if he knew...? Surely it was not allowed for a prince of the realm to fall in love with a boy? A boy of common origin, no less! A shiver ran through the prince's body as he felt this new and wondrous dream begin to fall apart. The forest boy seemed to sense this, because he hugged the prince again, whispering into his ear.

"Don't worry about anything. It will be all right, you'll see." They shared a brief kiss, then the boy sat up on his haunches. "Meet me in the forest tomorrow, alone, and we'll play our flutes."

"But I'll be assigned a guard again."

"Then trick him. Get away from him somehow. I must meet you alone."

"But why?"

"Tomorrow." They kissed again. "Alone."

"I will be there," the prince said, following his friend over to the window and opening it for him. "Alone."

Then all of a sudden the forest boy was gone, and a tiny bird flew out into the night. His heart at ease for now, the prince undressed for the night and crept into his bed. He could still taste the forest boy on his lips, and he licked them over and over again.

"Love," he muttered to himself as sleep began to overtake him. "I do love you, my mysterious friend."

The next morning, the king confronted his son before they had even had their breakfast. He seemed in a good mood, yet something in his face and in the tone of his voice made the young prince feel uneasy. They chatted about this and that for a couple of minutes, then the king decided to get to his point. He began by telling the prince about a treaty that had been signed the day before, between their kingdom and their powerful neighbour empire, a treaty that would ensure their independence and safety for many years to come. The prince grew ever more wary, until he could no longer keep his silence.

"Father, why are you telling me all this?"

"Because you are a part of the treaty, my son." He opened his arms in a wide gesture. "Tonight, you will leave for the imperial capitol, while one of the emperor's heirs will come here. You will study their ways and their arts, and when you are of age you will marry the emperor's youngest daughter."

"No," the prince whispered. Tears started flowing from his eyes, and he backed away from the king. "Father... father, I can't..."

"What? What are you talking about? This is a great honour, not only for you and me but for all our kingdom! You will be wed into the empire's own family, and his heir will be wed into our family. It's a treaty that will last for generations. Some day one of your descendants might even become emperor himself!"

"But father... I've already met someone... Someone I love..."

"Well, that matters little." The king smiled warmly, patting his son's shoulder. "Young hearts... So easily they fall in love. Luckily they fall out of it just as soon."

"No, father." The prince backed away until he reached the door to the hall. "Father, I can't! I won't! I've only just met him, but I still love him!"

"Him?" The king's eyes suddenly turned dark, his eyebrows furrowing. "Are you saying you would wed a boy?"

"Y-yes, father."

"Is this the commoner you played with the other day?" The prince merely nodded, too scared to trust his voice. "Well, I forbid it. Royalty weds royalty, that is a simple law, even you should understand it! You won't see him again."

"I have to, father." The prince was now crying openly. "I made a promise. I love him."

"You cannot only think of yourself!" the king roared, slamming his fist against a table. "Would you leave the world without producing an heir? It's unthinkable! I won't have it!"

"I don't care what you think!" the prince yelled, his voice shrill with anger. "I love him!"

"See him again and I will put him to death," the king said darkly, and the prince felt as if a blade had pierced his heart. "And you with him. You will obey me, or even your regal blood won't save you."

"Then I will die with him!!!"

With that, the prince turned and ran. Before the king could even open his mouth to speak, he was out of the castle and heading for the town gates. Shouts could soon be heard all around, and when he was no more than fifty yards from freedom, the prince could see guards moving in to block his way. Behind them, the drawbridge began to rise swiftly. Running as fast as he could, he managed to dodge the first two guards, then slammed into a third. The man grabbed him around the waist and swung him up, but the prince hit him in the face, causing him to let go. More hands touched him but no one got a good grip, so the prince was able to throw himself off the edge of the rising drawbridge. The cold water of the moat stunned him, and he gasped for air as he surfaced. An arrow hit the water no more than a foot from his head, and another struck him in the arm. He cried out as the pain hit him, but still kept swimming the last few yards to the edge of the moat. By then, the drawbridge was down again, and more guards came running his way. Yanking the arrow out of his arm, he dashed for the edge of the forest, and made it just before his followers could reach him.

Once among the trees the still near-dark morning light kept the prince well hidden, so he slowed down. He was shivering with cold, his heart ached because of his father's rejection, and his arm was throbbing with pain, yet the young prince strived for the clearing, hoping that he could find it this time, and that his friend would be there.

It was well past midday when the prince began to recognise his surroundings. At first, he had been forced to run away from the castle to stay clear of his followers. Every now and then he had stopped to hide as the searching guards got too close, but now it had been over an hour since he had last heard or seen anyone. He was in a part of the forest that he knew quite well, yet he still had to be wary as he had to move towards town in order to find the place where the clearing had been two days ago, and where it hadn't been yesterday. The forest was dense around him, and as the prince strained his ears to listen for danger he could hear all the sounds of the wilderness that he usually just ignored. Now, they scared him. He was all alone, numb with cold and his wounded arm had bled a lot. If some predator caught his scent he would most likely get killed. He dreaded the thought of spending the night out there.

When the prince finally stumbled into the clearing, it was beginning to get dark, and he was at his strength's end. He sank to the ground at the base of the rock where he had first found his friend. There, he closed his eyes, wondering why the warmth he had felt on his earlier visit was now gone.

It was still dusk when he woke up with a start. There was a rustling of leaves, and then two bright green eyes peered out of the undergrowth at him. The prince tried a smile, but was too weary to make it more than a grimace. The forest boy, too, looked haggard and worn as he crossed the clearing and fell into the prince's arms. They stayed close together for a long time, sharing each other's warmth but not talking. Finally, the forest boy leaned back and kissed the prince, a kiss that was returned and turned into their most loving yet. The sun had set by the time they broke apart, but a bright full moon gave them enough light to see each other.

"What happened to you, my sweet prince?" the forest boy asked, wincing at the sight of the prince's blood-stained arm. "Where are your clothes?"

"I had to run away," the prince answered, his voice hoarse from the cold. "My father... he has sentenced us both to death."

"As has mine."

"What?"

"Things are not as you thought..." the forest boy began, but his voice failed him as tears started flowing down his cheeks. "This is not how it was meant to be."

"What do you mean? Talk to me, my love."

"I am one of the forest people. You would call me a Roe." The prince tried to say something, but could only shake his head with disbelief. "Yes, it's true. My father is king of the forest, and I would be a prince, too, if my folk used such titles. This was to be my final test before becoming an adult, to seduce a human and use my magic to turn him to wood."

"But why me?" The prince was now crying, too. "I thought we were friends! I thought you loved me!"

"I do! I wasn't supposed to, but I do. You were so kind and so trusting, and you are so beautiful. Nothing like the horrible stories my people tell their children about humans. I was supposed to kill you, but I couldn't. In my world, that means I cannot grow up, and since I cannot stay a child I have to die." He reached out to the prince with a shivering hand, which the prince took into his. They hugged again. "But I ran away. I just had to see you one last time."

"Just like I did," the prince sobbed. "I don't care if they find us now, though. My heart is glad because we could meet again."

"As is mine, my prince. My sweet prince."

They sat in silence for a while, looking into each other's eyes and marvelling at the love they could find there, in spite of everything. In the end, it was the prince who broke the serenity with a soft giggle.

"So, you are a Roe." The forest boy nodded. "But I've hugged you over and over again, and your back isn't hollow."

"Is that what you humans say about us? No, my friend, my back looks pretty much like yours. And your teeth are just like mine, not sharp to tear the flesh from forest children's bones."

"I guess all the stories aren't true." The prince coughed as his breathing was becoming ragged. "But you were going to turn me into wood."

"Yes, I was. But no more! I love you, my prince."

"And I love you, my forest boy. My Roe boy."

They kissed again, their hands gently stroking and caressing each other's backs, hair and faces, leaning against the rock while the cold overtook them and their strength faded. Both had stopped crying now, had ceased to care about the world around them; to the prince and the forest boy, all that mattered now was them and their love, and nothing would ever be allowed to interfere. The night slowly came to an end, and pre-dawn light began to spread among the trees. Then suddenly, the forest boy leaned back, fear in his eyes.

"My father is coming." The prince got to his feet and tried to listen, but could hear nothing. Then he heard the noise of people moving through the forest. "As is yours."

"What are we going to do? I'm too weak to run." The prince's head sagged. "They are going to kill us."

"Will you trust me, my sweet prince? Will you trust me, one last time?"

The prince nodded, and followed the forest boy's lead as they both sat down again next to the rock. They huddled closely together, leaning cheek to cheek. A warm, tingling feeling seemed to emanate from the forest boy, and the prince smiled, understanding what was about to happen. With the last of his conscious thoughts he decided that it was a good thing.

Seconds later, two very different groups burst into the clearing. King of forest and king of castle glared at each other, their followers reaching for their weapons. But before violence could ensue, a beam from the rising sun broke through the trees and lit the ground in front of the rock. An oddly shaped tree grew there; a young sapling that when they looked closer seemed to have two trunks, strangely intertwined with one another. The two powerful men met eyes again, and both stopped their men from attacking each other. Silence followed, as understanding grew between them. Then they nodded, once, and turned to leave, both with the dawning sun's light setting off reflections in the corners of their eyes. Reflections of something that might have been tears.

For many years, the clearing and the part of the woods that surrounded it was declared a forbidden place, both for men and forest people, but with time the tale of the young lovers turned into campfire lore or bedtime stories, and the taboo wore off. People begun to travel through that part of the forest again, and now and again someone would pass through the clearing. There, they will find a tall, wide old tree with a strangely shaped trunk. If it is spring, then the tree will bloom with two different kinds of flowers; one red with blue edges, the other the colour of dust with speckles of bright green. Later, as they fall to the ground, the flowers will leave behind them berries red as blood, which are the sweetest anyone could ever find, even though they do have a slightly bitter aftertaste. If someone stays for the night in the clearing, they might hear something in the wind as it passes through the branches of the tree. Maybe it is only the rustling of the leaves, but it might just as well be the voices of two young boys, forever whispering of their undying love.