They say he died in the middle of that small, small pond. Defending a human child from some wild beasts. They say he died valiantly against a manticore—or maybe it was a drakken. They say that, when he died here, the pond grew. Ten feet longer, eons deeper. A small island sprouted in the midst of the pond, right in the center. Right where he took his last breath. A small island formed, and then, atop that small island, an oak tree grew. Tall and grizzled looking. Branches reaching outward, arms open, as if ready to embrace any who tread upon that small island.
That’s not true, is it?
That small island was not meant for just anyone.
It was meant for only a special someone.
Only meant for one.
One who seeks.
He was kind.
That’s what I’ve heard.
The faerie prince was the kindest of his kind they say. A Fair Folk with a heart had been unheard of before the prince’s time. Before him, people thought that faeries were irredeemable. Despicable, conniving creatures. Inherently selfish, and, above all, destructive. Before the prince, people thought the Fair Folk were a lost cause. Creatures to be killed, or dismissed. Not to be trifled with. Not to be given things like kindness or mercy.
They were wrong.
That’s the one thing that all the stories agree with.
The prince proved them wrong.
The pond is a bluish green hue. Strange for this time of year. The leaves on the oak tree are full, green. Also an oddity. It seems the area surrounding the pond is impervious to the fall as well. All of the foliage is still full, green. Lively, I notice, as I push my boat into the pond’s water. Watching the fish dart away from the fine-cut wood.
I push off. Begin my float toward the small island with the oak. My boat bounces into the pond, rustling the water. Creating ripples that flow from under the small bow. I row then, gently dipping my oar. Wanting to do the least damage to the sanity of the pond’s tenants. Disturbing them as little as possible as I go, my oar dipping lightly. I push only as hard as is necessary.
In under a few minutes, I’m there.
The prince’s island.
The oak tree.
The Well of Wisdom.
That’s what they call it.
This is a long shot.
I know that, even as my boat hits the edge of the small island. Even as I begin to slowly climb from the boat. Even as I begin to tread through the mushy, wet grass that lines the edges of the small island. I know that this is a long shot.
It’s all I’ve got.
I climb ashore. Feet dipping, sinking into the wet earth on the outskirts of the small island. Finding purchase and dry land three feet up the small slope of a shore. All of the island is green, lush. Beautiful. A few different types of flowers seem to grow here. A few that I’ve never seen before. Their petals are lighter colors. Soft blues and purples. A white flower that blooms to look like a small hand. A gray flower whose bloom makes it look like a sour face. All of the flowers seem thoughtful. Intent. Placed here. And not by accident. They seem to add to the atmosphere. Speaking up as they sit before the tree. Looking happy, sad, mournful.
All the emotions you’d expect from the wild’s loyalty to the departed.
The dearly departed prince who was killed.
Right here, on this island. Right where the oak stands, they say. That was where he took his last breath. Where the faerie prince’s spirit rests.
And they say…
If you listen close enough…
And, if you find favor with the oak…
You’ll hear him.
You’ll hear his voice.
You’ll hear him speak.
They say the prince only whispers to humans. That the prince will give wisdoms if you’re worthy enough to hear them. They say he doesn’t see into the future, but he does see all that is. And all that was. He knows much, they say. That his roots run deep into the earth. The waters of the pond pulling from the oceans, bringing knowledge to him from afar.
This one spot.
Just this one.
It has centuries of wisdom stored. Thousands of voices converging here, singing songs of understanding. Of peace. Here, the voices of the wind hold court. Considering all the things it sees, all the things it hears.
And the prince’s oak is privy to all of it.
All of it.
It collects the wisdom, they say. That the prince’s wise, kind spirit dwells within it. That he, above all his kind and my own, knows.
He knows what I want to know.
Knows what the answer will be.
What it should be.
I stand before the oak, awed. Quiet. Nervous, if I’m being honest.
I’ve never spoken to a wise tree before.
Never spoken to a forest spirit.
Never spoken to an oak.
In fact, I’ve never spoken to one of the Fair Folk at all. Living or dead.
I don’t quite know where to start. What I, a mere human, am allowed to ask. A simple princess such as myself should never have made it this far. A banished princess. An outcast now. Powerless, helpless.
Where do I begin? What do I do?
What can a failure like myself possibly be worthy of knowing?
When I approach the tree, the thoughts fill me. All the turmoil turning the tides as I touch the oak. As I press my hands to the bark, I realize:
I am not worthy of his wisdom.
I am not.
“Show me,” I say to the tree, my voice ringing true. Desperation filtering through as I say it again. “Show me, please. Show me the way.
“I wish to free you.
“I am in desperate need of your guidance.”
I expect nothing. Not because I think of stories as stories, but because I know.
I am unworthy of response.
A royal who was dethroned.
A princess who can do nothing for her kingdom.
An orphan without a single star to guide her.
I am not worthy of a response.
But, as my hand sits on the bark of the oak, I see it. Turning my fingers a glowing red. Filtering upward, through my splayed hand.
Voice filters through me. Drifts gently on the breeze.
Can you not hear me? What ails you, young princess? I can be of assistance here, in this form, can I not? Or do you not believe in me?
I shudder. The voice fills my bones. Pulls through my lungs as if I, myself, am saying the words. A trick of the wind, I know, but.
It makes me hear the voice loud and clear. Understand its words as if they were my own.
I shudder, but I don’t run. Don’t pull my hand away.
Instead, I reply.
“I believe you. You can tell me all the wisdoms in the world—until your bark is rotted and this pond is desolate in muck—but that won’t change what I am. Won’t change what I don’t know. You can tell me, here and now, but I am not only troubled by the now. I am troubled by the future—by forever. Does my rule end when I step off this island? If I take your wisdoms to my castle, heed them, apply them to the current issues at hand—will there not be more issues down the road? How often can a royal visit the countryside? I trust your wisdom, wise oaken prince, and that is why I wish to free you. Surely your wisdom is greater than mine. Surely, I will need it in the future. Wisdom such as yours belongs in a castle, does it not? If there were more kind rulers—more rulers who listened to wisdom—there’d be less strife for the people.”
Do you wish for me to take over then? Rule in your stead? One of the Fair Folk lording over a human nation?
“No,” I tell him. “Your kindness is well-known prince, but still. People will not take kindly to a Good Neighbor ruling.”
Quite true. So then, young ruler—what do you wish for me to do?
The oak is burning my hand. Not unpleasantly, but, rather, more like holding your hand to a hot rock. The feeling of being burned—the threat of it—is building, growing. Soon, I will not be able to keep my hand against the oak.
So, I decide.
“I want you to stand by me. Help me. Teach me. Be my leader, so I can lead my people. Show me the way, so that I might not fall to darkness. So that my people will be free.”
A plea spoken to an oak, on a small island, in the middle of a pond.
A tired plea. A desperate plea.
A plea, not for myself.
But for others.
A whole kingdom.
A selfless plea.
One made to bring peace, not just one person, but to a whole nation.
The plea of a queen.
The prince seems pleased. His tone agreeable as he speaks into my lungs again.
Very well. I will guide you, but only because you truly want to be guided. I will stand by you, young ruler, and I will aid you as best I can. Not because of your lineage, or your worth, but because of this truth:
Wisdom lies in reaching.
And you, young ruler, have held out your hand.
How could I reject such an honest plea?
Before I can reply, the oak begins to creak. Cracking and splitting down the middle, light bursting from the places where it’s coming apart.
But it’s too late.
The oak splits down the center, and I stagger backward. Fall flat on my ass, hands splayed on the grass behind me as I stare at the shattered oak. And, out of the light that erupts from the trunk, steps the legend himself.
The Oaken Prince.
He stands tall. Taller than me. His skin is the same shade, but his features are sharper. Much, much sharper. His ears are pointed, and his eyes are like a cat’s. He smiles and it sends a steadying feeling into my core. Eyes full to the brim with images. Knowledge. I see those eyes and that smile, and I know.
This was a wise choice.
Very wise indeed.
He holds out his hand to me, offering me his help.
I take it.