The Prince

It was shortly past sunset, and the prince had just curled up beneath his cloak, when something wet and cold nudged his naked neck from behind. His reflexes honed from years of combat training, the young prince was up on his feet in a split second, sword drawn and at the ready, only to pause in consternation ā€“ there was no one else in the clearing but him, the boulders to his back, and his dying campfire.

The prince's eyes darted around the clearing as he whirled around and around, anticipating an attack though there was nothing to attack or be attacked by. Bewildered, the prince lowered his sword a fraction before swinging it at the tugging on his leg. He heard a yelp and some muffled cursing before the tugging resumed, this time from a different direction.

As the prince swung with his sword again, the tugging ceased, only to be taken up again from yet another direction. This time, however, the tugging was accompanied by words.

"Down here, you blind boy!" came the voice, sharp and slightly panicked. "Stop twirling around like a deadly maple seed and follow me."

The prince shielded his eyes from the glare of his weakly burning fire and peered into the deep shadows at his feet. Eventually, he was able to discern a flash of white lashing back and forth through the air ā€“ the blaze of a fox's tail, the prince finally surmised.

"Hurry, human!" yipped the fox, tugging insistently at his pant leg. "This place is not safe."

"Not safe? What dā€”" The prince was cut off as the boulders behind him began to rumble, the grinding and gnashing of stone upon stone shaking every bone of the prince's body. As he watched in horrified rapture, the stones rose higher and higher into the night sky, pushed up by columns of pure gold.

After reaching a predetermined height, the tangle of precious metal and ordinary stone rearranged itself into a entranceway, revealing to the prince a marvelous spiraling staircase wrought of silver and sapphire, gold and ruby. From far below, the chorus of a rowdy song drifted up the steps, preceding even the lamplight of company that sang it.

As the fox quailed and moaned about trolls, the prince could only stare transfixed as the music drew closer and closer; so utterly entranced was he by the magic of the escalier. He would have gladly walked forward to his doom had the fox not bitten him firmly on the leg, the sinking of sharp teeth into his calf wakening the prince from his thrall.

"Foolish human! Run!" With that, the fox darted off into the trees without looking back.

Pausing only to grab his bundle of supplies, the prince ran after the fox, following the white tip of its tail. They had run perhaps fifty yards when a great bestial cry came rolling from the clearing, quickly followed by feverish chants of "Human! Human!"

Spurred on by the promise of pursuit, the prince did his best to ignore the pain of his leg. Keeping track of the fox's glowing white blaze helped distract him, as did the effort it took to not impale himself upon his naked sword. When at last the fox paused for breath, the prince took the opportunity to finally sheathe his blade and place his pack properly on his shoulders.

"Have we lost them?" the prince panted, watching warily over his shoulder.

The fox stood still, its ears cocked in the direction they had fled from, its nose high in the air. "No," said the fox, and off it ran again, the prince stumbling close behind.

"Where are we running to?" wheezed the prince, heavily favoring his right leg and nursing several cuts from whiplashing branches.

Without pausing in its stride, the fox answered, "A safe place."

"And where is that?"

"You will see," came the curt reply. "Save your breath for running."

And so the prince ran after the fox, the crashing of undergrowth the only sound in the otherwise silent forest. For the prince, time seemed to have slowed down, thickened, coalesced; he no longer knew if he had been running for minutes or hours. In either case, his scrapes burned and itched as sweat flowed over them, his lungs were being crushed by fire, and his leg blazed with pain from the bite and the cramping of abused muscles. The prince was at his limit, and desperation tinged his voice as he rasped out, "How much further?"

"Almost there. Look!"

The prince looked up from the fox's tail and saw before him an abandoned church, decayed from long disuse. To its left was a small and overgrown graveyard, it's sole monument, a simple stone cross, weathered away by the work of wind, water, and moss. The yard was equally overgrown, the accumulation of decades worth of dead plants forming a gnarled and tangled net of grasses which threatened to ensnare the prince as he ran through. The chapel itself, with its flagstone floor, had not weathered the elements much better; everywhere were loose stones dislodged by tree roots, the roof had long caved in, and several of the walls had crumbled into treacherous piles of rubble.

"To the altar," the fox barked encouragingly. "To the altar, and then we can rest."

The prince raced past shattered and rotten pews, his eyes fixated upon the altar ā€“ his salvation. Of all the things in and around the church, the altar alone remained wholly intact. The simple slab of granite stood stoutly at the head of its congregation, unmarked by the passage of time and the destructive hand of neglect. Looking upon its pristine state, the prince's heart swelled, and he knew that if he could reach that altar, he would be spared; he would be safe.

Just as he passed the last pew, however, the prince's beleaguered leg finally gave out, sending him crashing to the cold stone floor. Dazed by his fall, the effects of fatigue began to overtake the prince, and he began drifting off into exhausted sleep.

The fox did not take kindly to this. "Get up, human!" it snarled, nipping at the prince's ear, fingers, hand, nose, anything it could reach. "You are too close to give up now! Get! Up!"

Through the haze of weariness that clouded the prince's senses, the pain flashed through, scattering the fog of fatigue long enough for the prince to move one leg, the other, his arms, his torso, and so on, and so forth, until eventually the prince had dragged himself up the dais and behind the altar.

The last coherent thing the prince heard before he finally fell into sleep's greedy embrace was the fox repeating, "Good boy, good boy," as it licked clean his face.