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Moving into the forest was not my first plan.  Or my second.

It was my fifth, actually, because there are enough old wives tales and scary campfire stories about that place to ward any sane person away.

And yeah, the place is weird.  The trees never quite stay in the same spot, although they are very slow and usually good at avoiding key structures.  Fallen logs are always occupied, and that goes for bramble bushes as well.  Firewood is strangely hard to come by for a place that’s crawling with trees.

Literally.

Hundreds of flowers carpet the forest floor, and they make beautiful bouquets as long as I don’t pick any that the fairies have claimed.  They used to be hard to spot, but now I know to look for fairy dust clinging to the pedals.  If I see a marked flower, I usually go find a different patch just to be safe.

Angry fairies are a hassle and, quite frankly, annoying.

The creeks and streams that run through the forest are gentle, perfect for soaking weary feet and washing away troubled thoughts.  I’m careful to not let myself get lulled to sleep there.  I’m not sure I’d ever wake up.

I met Trissa the day I entered the woods, and if I hadn’t, who knows what stupid things I might have gotten into.  She knows her way around, and she was the one who showed me the way the forest lives.

Trissa doesn’t speak, but it seems she doesn’t need to in order to be heard.  Not in this place anyway.  Her hair is as brown as the rich soil beneath us and her eyes are a little darker.  She has a few freckles across her nose that spread whenever the sunlight finds her face.

The animals love her.  It was an exuberant squirrel, in fact, that brought her to me.  I have yet to spend much time with her, really, that didn’t have some other animal snuggling close to her or sticking a curious head into our faces.

I like animals, I do, but these are wild things and I think we both don’t quite know what to do with each other.

Once, when I was in the cottage alone, a fawn wandered in.  Apparently, we caused enough of a ruckus to send the birds soaring after Trissa.  When she arrived, she found the poor fawn prancing in circles and myself crouching behind the couch, armed with a pillow.  She had her hands full calming the both of us, but after a cup of tea and a bowl of salad, we came to an understanding.  The fawn and I are good friends now, I call him Carl and he headbutts me whenever he gets the chance and Trissa regrets ever introducing us to each other.

I was not born for this kind of life, but I am growing to love it.  I think the forest, in its own way, is growing used to me.

When I get lost, the trees slowly part to make a small path back to the cottage where I live.  It’s gotten to the point where if I see a path in the trees, I just follow it.  They take me on wonderful walks.

If I get hurt, a fairy inevitably shows up to sprinkle fairy dust where it hurts.  It doesn’t make the pain go away, but it does make it heal faster.  I’ve stopped wondering how they know when I’m in pain.

Trissa stops by for tea a couple of days a week, and she’s teaching me to knit.  The chipmunks have gotten wind if this, and they stop in to ‘help’ me; which means I’m learning to knit with five chipmunks snuggled on my lap ceaselessly chattering in what I think are supposed to be encouraging remarks.

I might have become a tale to tell around campfires by now, but whatever they say about me, I know they have it all wrong.  Yes, the forest is strange and wild and different, but it has adopted me as one of its own.

And I like to call it home.

 

Ruler

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A ruler is someone who must fight.  This I have been taught since childhood.

The night is dark as I climb over the palace walls to the waiting city below.  A few stars peek through the clouds to shed a faint, pale version of their light.  I let myself drop the last couple feet, my boots make hardly a sound as they land on the dew covered grass.

From the moment the crown touches a ruler’s head, they must fight to keep the peace, to rule the kingdom, to stay on the throne.  There will always be someone who would rather wear the crown.  There will always be someone ready to tear apart the peace and set chaos loose.  There will always be someone who disagrees with the rules.

I keep to the darkest shadows as I slip through the city, my heart pounding against my chest so hard I think it might bruise.  The satchel slung over my back seems heavier than before, and it digs into my shoulder.

To wear a crown means every day is a struggle, every hour a close call.  Rulers surround themselves with guards and advisers, but it never quite sets them to rest.  Advice must be weighed with caution and searched for alternate motives.  Paranoia seeps in, questioning the loyalty of their soldiers.

I glance over my shoulder, my imagination running wild with tales of killers in the darkness, or someone waiting to drag me back.  A cold sweat breaks over my skin, and I run.  I run to the edge of the city, then slip past its gates.

The road ahead of me is dark and I cannot see where it goes, but that does not matter.  It will take me away and that is enough.

A ruler can never let down their guard.

Not when they sleep, not when they eat, not when they speak with friends.  Assassins love the dark, food is easily poisoned, and betrayal only comes from the ones you trust.

A ruler must know the feel of a blade and how to use it, for they will carry one at their side until the day they die.

At the crest of a hill, I glance back one more time.  The city is barely visible, a dim glow from taverns and inns outlining its edges.  Looming over it all, dark and cold as the stone that built it, the palace waits.  It never sleeps.  Not even in the dead of night, when every light is out.

To wear the crown means to fight alone.  It means playing mind games that will cause insanity.  It means never trusting, never resting.

I would rather run for the rest of my life then walk those gilded halls again.

I turn away, facing the night before me.  A flicker of excitement sparks inside my chest.  The possibilities have sunk into my pulse, beating stories of what might be, of I only reach out for them.

I plunge into the darkness and shed my royal skin.

The prince is no more.

 

Storyteller

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I often walked the streets in the late afternoon, when the sunlight becomes golden and the shadows reach for me.

There was one street in particular that I frequented.  Behind the shops, branched off from the normal bustle of that city, I would walk until I came across the people who lived there.

Not inside the buildings, but on the streets.

Huddled against walls in the winter to keep a little warmth to themselves or standing in whatever shade they could find to keep cool in the summer.  Their eyes looking up with fear, or mischief, or hate, or emptiness.

I never had much to give them, and I didn’t know what I could do to help.  I’d said as much to a man who lived there, who said his name was Frank, and he’d nodded his head. “Just tell me something to hope for.” he’d said.  There were tears behind his hollow voice. “Leave me with something to hold on to, so I can rest for once.”

That was when I knew I’d be back.  I told him the same story every time, and by the end I usually saw a glimmer in his eye.  Not enough to define it, not enough to last long, but there was something.  It could be my imagination, but I think that glimmer grew stronger as time wore on.

I met an old woman there, who everyone called Sly.  I learned to watch her hands to keep from losing my things.  She was good at slipping through a conversation, at moving subtly so that she might afford to eat.  Once I got her to stop moving and cut through her tricky words, once her restless eyes settled on me, she became as fragile as my grandmother’s crumbling china.

I didn’t always tell her the same story.  There were some days I would tell her something beautiful and soft, and feel her grip become firm in my hands.  There were other days when she shook so hard I was sure she’d shatter in my hands.  That was when I’d tell her something brave and hopeful, staying with her long after I was done to wipe away her silent tears.

There was a boy there that called himself Ace, and beneath his cocky grin lay a simmering rage.  I didn’t see him very often.  When I first met him, I’d been at loss for words, because what can you say to a rage you haven’t known?  So I’d asked him, what kind of story did he want to hear.

I still remember how his eyes light up with green fire. “I want to hear about justice.” he’d said. “Tell me about the bad guys getting what they deserve for once.”

So I told him.  I told him of a young criminal, so fed up with guilt and strife, who turned himself in so justice would let him rest.  I remember sweat slicking my palms as I watched the green fire sputter and glow.  Ace had walked away in a daze, and I was certain I’d never see him again.

He showed up about a week later, leaning against a brick wall and flipping a coin.  This time, when I asked what story he’d like to hear, he’d merely said, “Make me think.”

It’s been his request ever since.

There were two old sisters whose names were Sue and Mary, and they were always hiding away in some corner or other.  They would have been difficult to find on my own, but one of them always called out when they spotted me.

They never tired of fairy tales, and they would request their favorite ones over and over.  I could have told them those same stories for days, and when I finished they’d still beg for one more before I left.

Stories were all I could give, and after a time, stories were what I received in turn.  One by one, they all reached out for my hand and ask if I wanted to hear their story.  I always said yes.  And I always ended up in tears.

Theirs were stories of heartbreak and hardship, of sorrow and crime, of burdens and sacrifice.

By the end, our roles ended up reversed, and they held my hands and I listened.  Every one of them, even Ace, locked their eyes with mine and finished their story by saying, “Then I met this storyteller, and for the first time in a long while, I didn’t feel alone.”

“Thank you.” were Frank’s final words.

“Remember me.” was Sly’s only request.

“Don’t stop.” Ace told me solemnly.

“One more.” Mary asked.

“Please, before you go.” Sue added.

I never forgot them, and I haven’t stopped.  When the sun’s rays turn golden and the shadows stretch out to touch me, I walk the streets and look for the people who live there.  I have so many stories to tell.

So do they.

Letting Settle

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The shop is filled with a faint scent of old books, honeysuckle, and leather.  I take a deep breath as I make myself comfortable in the spot behind the register and pull out my knitting.  The days I work here are often quiet, and I like to knit while I sort out my thoughts.

I love this place.  It’s as though time is different here.  Neither slower nor faster than usual, but just not in such a pressing hurry.  Time that lets you breathe as it marches on.  I think it’s because this place is so old it has learned to be patient and not a busybody like everywhere else.  It has its own cares to deal with.

It’s fifteen past the hour, and I hear the time marked by our tall grandfather’s clock.  He is so set in his spot on the floor, between a bookshelf and a saddle-rack, that I wonder what would happen if someone tried to buy him.  He may be too old to be moved at this point, becoming as much a part of the store as the windows and floor.  Filling the silent hours with his chimes every hour, half-hour, and quarter-past.

Sometimes I like to wander through the store a bit, though never too far from the register.  I can’t afford to get lost when I’m working, and I’m not completely sure there’s an end to this place.  There are times I wonder what the back wall looks like, and what sort of treasures I’d find there.  I always ask customers if they made it to the back.  So far, no one has seen it.

One of these days, I’ll come in on a day off and be the first.

The bells at the door are ringing, announcing the first customers of the day.  A trio of older ladies walk in, and I smile.  They wave when they see me, before disappearing into the store.  I’m sure they’ve told me their real names at some point, but in my mind, they are Sugar, Spice, and Nice.  They come in about every other month, and theirs are always the best finds.  Last time they found a chest of keys, a stack of old fairy tale books, a teacup, and a beautiful music box.

I think the store loves them.

Though I can’t wait to see what they’ll end up with today, I know it won’t be for hours.  One of these days, they won’t be back by closing time and I’ll have to go on a search and rescue mission.  If anyone finds the end to this store before me, it would be them.  They have a knack for searching, and it makes me wonder if they’ve ever found what they look for, or if they simply make do with other things instead.

My knitting takes shape under my fingers as the store creaks and groans, trying to settle.  It’s been trying for years.  I reach out and pat the countertop in sympathy.  This place is has too many old things full of memories for it to settle properly.  It does what it can.

We all do.