Chapter Seven: The Forest Princess

Once Lance had left, the man returned to his desk, only to find Lily standing beside it. "Oh, can I help you?"

"Where did Lance go?" she asked. In her hands was a collection of loose papers, all of them bearing marks from where they were folded over themselves. "I wanted to show him something."

"He... He got the idea to earn a little extra coin before the day of the feast," the man answered honestly.

"Oh, I see," Lily said, her disappointment clear to see. "Do you know when he will come back?"

"Well, in cases like this, I'd say he's going to be back at the perfect moment." The store owner's eyes focused on Lily's papers. "Are you working on something there? Let me see."

"Oh, it's probably no good right now," Lily explained, though the bookkeeper's interest was unaffected by her claim. "I love reading those fairytale stories so much, I wanted to write one of my own." Lily set the papers down on the desk. I also... There are some pictures as well."

The young man looked at the title page. "The Forest Princess..." he read aloud. "Once upon a time, in a kingdom hidden in a vast forest, there was a beautiful princess, beloved by all she met. She loved to wander the forest that surrounded the castle, even though her father, the king, feared for her safety. One day, while walking through the forest, she spied a young fox caught in a trap. The creature was badly wounded, and very frightened. The princess, moved by the pitiful beast's plight, freed the animal and wrapped its wounded foreleg with a piece of her favorite riding cloak."

"..." Lily watched in silence as the man read her story.

"As the air began to cool, the princess tried to hurry home before dark, but on her way back, a large wolf blocked the road. It stared at her with hungry eyes, taking slow, deliberate steps towards her." The man paused and glanced up at Lily as he turned to the next page. "Hmm... a forest-loving girl, a timid creature, and a ravenous wolf? Now that sounds familiar."

"Well, I-" Lily stammered as she tried to think of a defense for her story.

"No, no! There's nothing wrong with that," the young man laughed. "Most of these types of tales have some kernel of truth at its core. Now where was I? Ah!" the man placed his finger on the paper and continued his reading. "The wolf snarled as it drew close to the princess. Just as the beast was ready to pounce, another animal rushed onto the path, halting the wolf. The wild beast glared at the princess, then at the intruding creature. After a moment, the wolf growled in frustration and fled to find a simpler meal. The princess stared in awe as she looked upon her rescuer. Before her was a fox with a piece of her cloak covering part of one of its front legs..." The man turned the page, then frowned. "And that's the end for now, it seems." He chuckled slightly as he took a look at the drawings that accompanied the story, mainly a picture depicting the princess wrapping the cloth around the leg of the fox. "I see a lot of potential here, if you manage to finish it."

"Really?" Lily asked, full of hope. "I wish Lance would have stayed; I could have showed this to him as well. After all, the fox was his idea."

"Is that so?" the man laughed. "Well, I hope you can keep working on that story." Lily gathered her things and returned to her desk, while the bookstore owner turned his attention to the window.

Lance trudged through the forest with a strong sense of urgency. Most of the smaller animals had already retired to their hidden homes, leaving the desperate hunter with little luck in his search. "Still nothing. At this rate, I'll never get enough." As the hour grew late, he thought to make his way towards the hidden cottage for the night, but his planning was cut short by the howling of a wolf. "That's close!" Lance grunted as he began to walk faster. His walk quickly changed into a sprint as the predator seemed to be getting closer. Thinking quickly, Lance spied a large tree and climbed up it, in hoping to evade the animal. Not long after he found a branch to sit upon, a brown wolf stopped at the tree and looked up at him. "That wolf..." Lance locked eyes with the beast. "Is it the same one as before?" It held his gaze for a moment, then...

"Leave," it growled. Lance blinked in astonishment. The wolf spoke to him? "I allowed you to hunt only for meat; nothing more!"

"Allowed? What do you mean? What are you?" Lance responded, still unsure if the words he heard were truly from the wolf.

"I know not my name, only my purpose; to protect this forest from those who wish it ill," the wolf answered. His tone was gruff and unusual, but not completely foreign. It almost sounded as though Lance had heard the wolf speak before. "I will not allow you to ravage the forest in the pursuit of wealth. Leave now, and I'll forgive your greed."

"I don't hunt for greed!" Lance argued. "I hunt for redemption. I hunt to fix a stupid mistake that harmed a dear friend."

"Enough!" The wolf jumped high into the air, much higher than Lance thought possible, and slammed into the hunter, sending him tumbling down to the ground. Lance slammed into the ground, his left leg absorbing most of the impact, followed by the wolf. "If you will not heed my warning, then I will have to-" The wolf's ears twitched as a stray wind blew through the forest. "Hmm... You are to be tested, boy. Stand up, if you still have the strength."

"Te- Agh!" Lance winced in pain as he struggled to lift himself up. His leg, while unbroken, was too sprained to support his weight without further damaging itself. Lance hobbled to a nearby tree and cut a large branch from it to serve as a temporary crutch. "What kind of test?"

"One that few humans have undergone, and none have passed," the wolf answered bluntly. "I do not expect you to be much different." The wolf and the hunter walked in silence until they reached a clearing in the center of the forest. "Here we are. Go forward, boy."

"Very well," Lance crept forward, his eyes on the ground in front of him. I was not long before he stopped at the body of a man, too ravaged by time and scavengers to be recognized. In its hands was a bow, and in a nearby quiver rested several arrows. Lance shivered as he saw the cause of the man's demise, a large hole in the forehead. He paused and looked back at the wolf, who only glared back at him. Lance turned his head forward and walked a short way until he saw a skeleton with a few javelins. Beside it there was a gap in the skeleton's ribcage where bone was broken off, nearly the same size as one of the javelins. "What were these men slain by?" he asked aloud. A strange growl in front of him left him facing a black bear. It did not appear to be an adult, but it was much bigger than the bear cub he ran into the first time he stumbled into the forest.

"Hah!" Several thoughts poured into Lance's head as the bear seemed to glare at him. The creature seemed to look healthy, and more than capable of killing him in his state. "If I turn back now, it will chase me down," Lance thought as he reached for his bow. "It looks strong, but I have to slay it. Otherwise, Mom will be all alone, and Lily...I have to make it, for them." He knocked an arrow and prepared to fire, but as he drew back his bow, he instinctively stood on both legs. Wracked with pain, he let the arrow fly wildly before falling backwards from the pain. As he fell, a sharp wind sailed over his head, slicing off a few hairs. "What?"

"And so it ends..." the wolf sighed. "Huh?" The beast watched as the boy hunter struggled to stand once more. "Hmm..."

"What was that?" Lance grunted as he looked for the bear. To his surprise, the bear seemed to struggle to its feet. "Did I hit it?" One of its hind legs seemed unable to support the animal, but there was no visible injury. "But if I missed..." Lance attempted to charge at the bear, who responded in kind, but before he could reach it with his knife, his inured leg gave out on him, sending him stumbling into the ground. To his surprise, the bear also lost its footing and fell, landing almost directly in front of the boy. "Hah...Hah..." Lance gasped for breath as he attempted to get back on his feet. From this distance, he noticed the bear breathed in sync with him, causing him to stop halfway. In a moment of curiosity, he lifted his left arm, and the bear did the same. "It's... imitating me?"

"Well!" the wolf said, both amused and astonished. "This is interesting."

"What is?" Lance asked defensively. "Was this the test?"

"More or less," the wolf told him. "You humans sooner try to slay the beast before you realize the truth. Such foolish aggression cuts short your own lives without you even realizing it." As the wolf spoke, the bear began to fade away, proving it to be more than just a wild beast. "They will want to meet with you. Come." Lance swept across the field to find his walking stick, then followed the wolf, still wary of its intentions.

"A guest?" An aged voice mumbled, causing Lance and the wolf to stop. An old man ambled out from behind a tree. The first thing Lance noticed about the man was his almost inhumanly pale skin. "Then he has passed the trial?"

"Barely," the wolf answered. "His good fortune surprised me, as his injury spared him several times."

"I see," the elder droned as he looked over the hunter. "You look familiar, lad. What is your name?"

"L-Lance. Lance Faustus." As the boy gave his introduction, the wolf walked away, leaving the two alone.

"Faustus? Then..." The old man shook his head and let his thoughts pass. "What brings you out so far, Lance?"

"I hurt a dear friend," Lance admitted. "I had scorned a knight, who decided to punish her for my foolishness instead of me, so I came into the forest hoping to find a way to make amends. I did not mead to cause offense, Sir..."

"Oh, I haven't introduced myself, have I?" the man chuckled. "I am the chief of this village, Elder Gyoho."

"Grandpa Gyoho!" a small voice cried out as a small creature, a human-shaped being with wings, flew down to the now worried old man. "Look, I'm flying!"

"Th-" Lance was nearly speechless. "Wow..."

"Oh, dear," Gyoho grimaced. "Go inside, Willow."

"But Grandpa, I finally got my wings! You told me to see you when I was able to fly."

"I did, didn't I?" Gyoho said with a frown. "Well, I had a gift for you, but that will have to wait until after I've dealt with our guest." The girl flew away, leaving Lance alone with the man. "I'm sorry about this." Gyoho put a hand behind his back and gathered energy for a killing strike.

"It's alright," Lance said, still distracted. "My father told me about fairy folk before. I always believed him, and wanted to one day see them for myself, to thank them in his place."

"T-Thank them?" Gyoho gasped. "What for?"

"Well, many years ago, there was a harsh winter in the land. My father hunted for food, but game was scarce, and he could not find enough to provide for the three of us."


"My mother. She's still at home as we speak," Lance explained. "My father refused to give up, and one day, he found a creature in one of his traps. He told me it was a fairy, and she begged for him to free her. Without hesitation, he did so, and the fairy flew away. He was nearly ready to give up for the day when the fairy returned with friends, each one carrying as much food as they could lift."

"So that's where they went..." Gyoho chuckled quietly. "Sorry, keep talking." The old fairy allowed some of the built-up energy to dissipate, but he still stood his ground.

"All the food they gave my father lasted until just a few days before the spring. Ever since, my father wanted to find those fairies again. He wanted to thank them for saving not only his life, but mine and my mother's as well. But one day, he was found dead in the forest. The knight told my mother that he ran for his body to recover it, but when he did, a large-" Lance gasped in revelation. "No!" Lance turned around and ran as quickly as his injury would allow him.

"Stop!" Gyoho warned, but they boy was no longer listening. The wolf ran to the old man's side. "Stop him!" The wolf nodded and ran after Lance. "The village must remain safe, no matter the cost."

Lance sat over the remains of the hunter he saw before. Before him was a tiny hole he had dug with his hands and his staff, and behind him, he heard the growling of the wolf. "I'm not moving from this spot. Please bring the old man here."

"You are in no position to make demands boy!" the wolf snarled. "I came all this way to silence you, on the elder's orders."

"Then allow him to be present," Lance countered, not even bothering to face his aggressor. "You can think of this as a last request, if it pleases you."

"I'm already here, Lance." Lance didn't turn to face the old man as he approached.

"This was him. My father, Leon Faustus; a caring and selfless man. He came seeking to express his gratitude, and this is what became of him." He glanced at Gyoho for only a moment, then turned his gaze back to his father's body. "Did he deserve this? For wanting to say thanks?"

"That was his fault for failing the test," the wolf growled. "If he was truly such a great man, why is he dead now? Because humans are natural killers. He saw the creature, and his first instinct was to draw blood."

"You're wrong!" Lance shouted, closing his eyes. The two bystanders watched as tears began to pool on the corpse's tunic. "He didn't come here to kill that bear! Once he saw it, it would've returned the gaze and faced him, like mine did. He thought it was going to attack him first, so he did the only thing he could think of, and tried to kill the bear before it reached him. He wasn't thinking of murder, he was thinking of survival."

"Is there a difference?" the wolf grunted. "It was a selfish sense of self-preservation."

"Was it? Can you truly be so quick to judge, or is that just your way of justifying all this?" Lance cried. "When I saw the bear, I did fear for my life, yes, but there was more than just that primal fear. I thought that if the beast killed me, my mother would be left all alone, with no way of supporting herself. And there's also Lily; if I were to die, she'd be devastated." Lance finally stood and faced the wolf, with tears streaming down his face. "And if your test means that I'm wrong for wanting to live for her sake, then I want nothing to do with it!"

"You accuse our methods?" the wolf snarled, baring his fangs. "I'll kill you where you stand!"

"Hold it!" Gyoho shouted. "There's been enough death on this field." Lance turned to the old man. "The boy has every right to his words of grief and anger. Our people have closed ourselves off from the human world, erecting countless spells such as the phantom beasts to keep humans away. There was no test, Guardian."

"No test? Then why did you tell me to bring him here?" the wolf asked.

"To scare him off, or if that failed, to let him be the one to end his own life. That was a task too much for you to bear." The elder returned his attention to Lance. "I would rather avoid killing you, if possible. What will it take to keep your silence?"

"I want nothing of yours," Lance grunted. "Just leave me to bury my father's body. He deserves at least that, wouldn't you agree?"

"I see," Gyoho sighed. "You are not bound by anything, but I would ask that you return to the village before you leave. Come, Guardian."

Lance waited until the old man and the wolf were gone, then continued his work on the makeshift grave. Each minute spent in the clearing seemed to last an eternity as the boy placed the remains of his father into the earth. Once the hole was filled, he took his father's bow and quiver and planted them in the ground in place of a stone. At the edge of the clearing, he found an assortment of colorful flowers. He took them and placed them around the bow and quiver and stepped back. "Dad...I know you waited a long time, and this is far from a proper burial, but it's a nice field. I can come by and visit you often." His words began to choke him as his tears drowned out his anger. "I might even bring Mom by once or twice; she deserves to find that you've finally been put to rest." A weak smile briefly crossed his face. "If only you could have seen how much I've grown, though I probably still look like a crybaby right now. If there were a way for you to come back, even for just a day, oh, the things I'd show you. I made new friends, including Sedric, of all people, and one special friend you would have loved to meet. Her name is Lily, and she is amazing! She's kind, gentle, fun, and almost always smiling; sure, she'd share her tears during hard times, but there's just something about her that just..." Lance gave another smile. "Listen to me, going on and on like this. Rest well, Dad; I'll be back soon." Lance grabbed his branch and hobbled back to the village.

"..." The wolf, unbeknownst to Lance, had returned to the site of the clearing in time to listen to the boy's farewell. Even though the dead man meant nothing to him, he still felt a tug at his heart. Once Lance had gone, he approached the grave. The strange feeling intensified as he stood where Lance once was, as if his words remained in that space. The wolf began to shed a few tears, and howled as the last rays of light sank behind the trees.