Fractal Myth

The Forest Pool.

[Michelle Chapman ©2001]

Once upon a time, a long time ago, when the deserts were green and full of flowers, there was a pretty, peaceful land rich in fields and forests. This lovely land was cared for by a beautiful Princess and a handsome Prince, who lived happily together in a gleaming castle, with tall spiralling towers, which shone and shimmered and glimmered in the sun reflecting back all the colours that can be imagined. This castle stood on the top of a gently sloping hill, surrounded on all sides by pleasant scented gardens and orchards overflowing with fruit in all seasons. The Prince and Princess were very much in love, and their people adored them for their courage and grace.

One bright and cheerful morning the Prince went looking for the Princess, to ask her to come hunting with him. He had a new horse, and it was a perfect day for a ride. The Prince soon found his Princess picking roses in her garden, and talking to all the little birds who had come to sing "Good Morning" to her. The Prince kissed the Princess, and stooped while she tucked a perfect pink rosebud into the band of his red velvet cap. "Are you going out?" She asked him, looking at his hunting clothes. The Prince explained, and asked the Princess to join him for a ride.

Unfortunately, the Princess had to refuse. They were expecting important visitors at the castle. All the Kings and Queens and Princes and Princesses who ruled the neighbouring lands were gathering at the castle for a meeting to discuss the strange happenings in the countryside. Lately, there had been increasing rumours of some supernatural disturbance - people had been disappearing without a trace, and strange animals appearing just as mysteriously. The people had become extremely superstitious and were refusing to leave their homes, which meant the crops in the fields went untended, and firewood went uncollected from the forests, so the people were cold and hungry and demanded their rulers fix the problem. Which was why the Prince and Princess had called their royal friends together.

Most of their guests were not expected until the next day, but the Princess's godmother was expected to arrive early, to help them make sure that everything went smoothly. This meant that the Princess had to stay near the castle to meet her, but she could see no reason why the Prince should be cooped up as well. Besides, he was eager to check the local countryside for disturbances and perhaps hunt down some meat for the feast they were expected to provide. The Princess kissed the Prince tenderly and wished him luck, warning him to be careful with his new horse, and to avoid the dark wood where the worst disturbances had been reported. The Prince hugged the Princess tightly and told her she worried too much. He faithfully promised to look after himself and his horse, and to be back with his bounty by nightfall. Then he was gone, leaving the Princess alone with the twittering birds and soft scented flowers.

Within moments, the Prince had reached the stables and the boy was leading out the Prince's new brilliant white horse, with its long flowing mane and tail, and its trappings of blue ribbons and tinkling golden bells. Instantly, the lithe young Prince was in the saddle, with his well-strung bow behind him and the sun to lead the way. As the polished silver hooves of his horse carried him through the living green arch that was the castle gate, and they rode forth into the blossom-filled meadow, the Prince felt as though he were setting out on a new and exciting adventure. He touched the rosebud the Princess had given him to his lips, settled his cap back firmly on his head, moved his heels against his horse's side, and cantered away from the castle. If he had looked back, he would have seen the Princess, high up in one of the towers, waving a bright shawl out the window in farewell.

For three hours, the Prince rode steadily without seeing any game or anything unusual. Finally, just when he was about to give up and turn back, from the corner of his eye he caught sight of a huge stumbling bear, larger than any animal the Prince had ever seen before. While he knew his knife and bow, the only weapons he had, were no match for such a massive creature, the Prince was also very brave, and after all, he had promised to bring something back to his Princess and this was an incredible target. Thinking carefully, the Prince decided to follow behind the bear at a safe distance, until he could choose the right moment to trike. Already the bear looked confused and tired, and the Prince on his fine white horse had no trouble stalking his prey.

It was only after he had been following the bear for another three hours that he realised that the animal was much stronger than it looked, and that it had no intention of stopping in the near future. Just as he pulled on the reins to turn his horse's head for home, the Prince noticed a dark patch on the horizon that seemed to be rushing towards him. As it came into focus he blinked and rubbed at his eyes, for the dark blur was a forest with immense trees waving leaf-laden branches in the wind. Within seconds, the Prince saw the bear he had chased for so long vanish into the woods. He waited a little longer, but once he had assured himself of the trees' solidity the Prince threw caution to the winds and spurred his horse after his quarry. The moment they passed through the first ring of trees, however, the Prince's horse began to dance nervously, flaring his nostrils against the damp, dank, sour smell of moss and rotting leaves.

Despite all the Prince's urging, the horse would go no farther, so he was forced to dismount and enter the forest on foot, carrying his bow and its quiver full of arrows on his back, with his hunting knife ready in his hand. Not that there was any sign of danger. If anything, it was too quiet. The Prince was an experienced hunter, and it did not take him long to notice the absence of birds and other twittering, scurrying, hurrying creatures which normally inhabited any wild collection of trees. There were a few broken branches and crushed herbs which showed where the bear had entered the woods, but the trail stopped almost as soon as it began. Of the bear itself there was no sign.

Looking around him, the Prince became aware that the few steps he had taken had somehow carried him deep into the dark woods. Here the trees were close, and the air was hot and stifling. The Prince began to feel a desperate thirst and though he could hear running water on every side he could not find the source of the sound. The longer he looked, the thirstier he became until he was half-crazed for want of a drink.

Suddenly, he burst through a tangled clump of shrubs and found himself in a small well-lit clearing. In the centre of the clearing was an ugly, squat, old house, poking like a pimple out of the smooth green lawn. Emanating from this strange dwelling-place, the Prince could hear a mumble and a murmur, like many voices all talking at once, though several of the sounds he heard convinced the Prince that the voices were not all human. Still, he was a Prince, and he was brave, and his now raging thirst added impetus to his bravery. He knocked at the tiny wooden door which hardly reached his waist. Instantly all sound ceased. The Prince knocked again, but this time there was no response at all. On the third try the Prince kicked at the door with his foot, and called to the house's inmates, "Come out. I know there is someone in there. I need water!"

The door flew open so fast that the Prince, still swinging his foot to contact it again, fell headfirst across the threshold and landed at the feet of a wizened, twisted, cramped-up old lady, with a long, hooked nose and stubble on her chin. This was the witch of the dark woods and it was she who had been causing all the trouble in the surrounding countryside, just as she had compelled the bear to lead the Prince to her, and filled him full of the burning thirst which had made him so forget his manners. If the Prince had stopped to think, things might have gone differently for him, but by this stage the desperate dryness in his mouth and throat made him incapable of thought. He was conscious only of his need, beside which all social niceties seemed irrelevant.

Dragging himself to his knees, the Prince grabbed at the dark, coarsely-woven skirt of the old woman, meaning to plead with her for aid. Before his fingers could even brush against the fabric which was so close in front of his nose that he could smell the mingled woody scents of soil and smoke, she was gone. Bleary with pain, the Prince staggered to his feet. He could just make out the witch on the other side of the room. Although diminutive on the outside, inside, the cottage seemed to stretch and grow until it could easily have contained the largest chamber in the Prince's palace, with room to spare. The Prince felt his anger grow to similar proportions and a confusing frustration filled his head - how dare she play with him? Did she not know who he was? He deserved better than this, and he was suddenly resolved to make her pay for her insolence - just as soon as his thirst was quenched.

"Water!" he demanded, and when there was no response forthcoming, he lowered his head and charged across the vast space separating him from the witch, roaring uncharacteristically "Give me water, or I will destroy you and your house and this whole bewitched evil forest." Normally the Prince was very even-tempered, but ever since entering the woods he had felt increasingly and uncontrollably furious. Everything that happened to him seemed only to make things worse. As he charged, he tried to draw his sword from the scabbard at his side, but for the first time ever it failed him, remaining firmly sheathed despite his struggle.

Abandoning the attempt to arm himself, the Prince threw all his energy into the effort of moving across the room. With every step, the air seemed to become thicker and more viscous, until the Prince was choking for want of oxygen as well as water. His desperation increased as he lost his footing again, and now as he crawled forward his hands formed tense claws, and from his parched mouth and aching tongue flowed a stream of curses and threats directed at his tormentor. And yet, with every agonising movement the room magically expanded and the witch remained as elusive as ever.

Finally, however, the witch appeared to tire of this game and waved her hand towards the Prince, dismissing him with an elaborately arcane gesture. Sparks flew from the tips of her fingers as she chanted, and the Prince instinctively closed his eyes.

"Be gone, you rude impatient fool!
Your temper I will gladly cool.
Until you learn the golden rule
you will stay an unquiet pool.
You must find help from loving hand
~the only thing you'll understand."

Within seconds the Prince felt a welcome relief as though he had been plunged into deep, cold water. He revelled in the sensation and for the moment needed to know no more than that his terrible thirst had ceased.

Slowly, the Prince began to realise that things were not as they should be. Although his body felt intact and as it always had, his ability to perceive his surroundings did not. He tried to puzzle it out. Moving his arms and legs had no effect, no matter how violently he threshed and thrashed. He could touch nothing, and there was absolutely no resistance to his movements. No matter how hard he tried to move, there was simply no change. At first, the Prince believed himself to be blind and deaf as well, but by experimenting he realised that he was still holding his eyes shut tight against the witch's spell.

As his sight returned, the Prince discerned a leafy canopy high above him, swaying in a gentle breeze. Instantly he relaxed. Of course! He must have fallen asleep, exhausted after chasing the bear, and dreamt the whole episode. Now, here he was, lying on his back gaping up at the trees like a madman, when there was absolutely nothing to worry about. To prove his theory, a small flock of birds landed twittering in a tree above him, breaking the unnatural stillness the Prince had noticed when he first entered the forest.

The Prince had almost convinced himself that everything was normal, when the impossible happened. A small furry face with long ears and ticklish whiskers appeared directly above him, and as he slowly recognised it as a rabbit, it lowered its soft twitching grey nose, stuck out a tiny rosebud pink tongue, and began to drink him.

With a shocked gasp the Prince discovered that he was no longer a Prince. He was a pond. And, to add insult to injury, he was a pond being drunk by a rabbit. It was too much, and he snarled at the startled rabbit, telling it to find a pool to drink from that did not contain a royal personage.

No sooner had the rabbit fled than the witch returned. "You have failed your second chance," she said in her rasping voice. "Despite your recent suffering from thirst, you are too proud to share even a skerrick of yourself with a harmless, helpless creature that needed you! To be cured, you must complete this quest:

First, journey towards the sunset
'til you find the end of the day.
Only truest love can save you
for love alone may find the way."

Without another word the witch was gone, leaving the Prince-who-was-now-a-pond alone and frightened in the forest glade. For ever it seemed he stayed there, wondering how he was ever supposed to fulfil the witch's command and follow the sunset, if he could not leave the gentle green glade which now formed the boundary of his horizon.

Meanwhile, high up in the castle's highest tower, the Princess anxiously questioned the keen-sighted man she had sent to watch for the Prince's return. The man had nothing to report - the only traffic in any direction all day had been the departure of the Council of neighbouring royalty. No resolution had been reached, and many of the rulers had resented the Prince's absence. He was their host, after all, and surely their problems were more important than a hunting trip and a new horse.

The Princess had at first made light of his disappearance, for she expected him to return at any moment. Her guests were not so sure. All were worried about the strange happenings they had met to discuss, and most could report a missing scout or messenger who had failed to return from a mission. Half of the royal company, knowing the Prince's reputation for brashness and bravery, had expected him to instantly organise an expedition to rid the land of its supernatural enemy. When he failed to attend the Council, however, they were quick to turn against him, accusing him of craven cowardice and of manufacturing his reputation by paying the minstrels to praise him. Others, who knew that his reputation was well-earned, suspected him jealously of sneaking off to face the danger and attain the glory by himself.

Through tact and gentle persuasion, the Princess managed to calm both parties and get them to agree to increase the scouts and patrols through their lands, in an effort to discover the cause of the disturbances, and to discourage them from the various drastic actions they suggested. Although she appeared outwardly composed and controlled, adroitly directing the Council proceedings with poised flair, by the time the royal visitors had left the Princess's emotions were in turmoil. Never before had she and the Prince been separated for more than a day. Ever since they first pledged their love to each other, they had simply delighted in each other's company, equally sharing their duties and their pleasures in joyful harmony. The Princess believed neither of the accusations brought against him at the Council, but she was extremely worried about him. She knew with all her heart that the Prince's failure to return was not his free choice. With her godmother behind her, she had ascended the long, narrow, twisting staircase of the tower, her pulse racing with a fury that owed nothing to the physical exercise.

Suddenly, a sharp cry from her godmother interrupted the Princess's questioning of the watchman. They turned and found her precariously leaning out of the window. There on the horizon was a dark splotch of a forest that had not been there seconds ago. With an urgency she had never felt before the Princess turned and, without a word, ran at full speed towards the steep stairs. Her godmother had anticipated her, however, and she blundered straight into the watchman who was standing stolidly in the doorway.

The Princess hit him with such force that, despite his considerable size and strength, the watchman staggered dangerously close to the gaping opening as he struggled to maintain his balance. "Beg pardon, my Lady," the watchman gasped as he set the Princess carefully back on her feet. She turned to scold him for holding her back, but once again her godmother got in first. "Slowly and sensibly," she said, in a voice of quiet reason that the Princess had always relied on. "Your death through carelessness will not help the Prince." The Princess felt suitably ashamed, and graciously thanked the watchman for his loyal protection, but she remained unwavering in her determination to go instantly to the aid of her Prince. As usual, however, she could not resist the commonsense of her godmother's advice, so now she took the time to think and make plans for the running of the castle while both she and the Prince were away. The Princess gratefully accepted her godmother's offer to stay until she returned, and, before she knew it, she had changed into sturdy travelling clothes and was standing at the castle's gate.

In the two days during which the Prince had been gone, the mingled wisteria and climbing roses that formed the arched gate had begun to bud and were rich with the promise of scented splendour. Having kissed her godmother goodbye, however, the Princess did not look back as she left - something which she had never before failed to do, for she loved her colourful crystal castle, with its gleaming turrets, waving pennants and scented gardens, where she and the Prince had spent many happy hours talking and laughing amongst the flowers.

Now, with an effort of will, the Princess kept her face firmly turned towards the strange, dark forest that had appeared so mysteriously only an hour before. She went on foot, for she did not wish to take another innocent creature into danger. Although filled with trepidation, she was armed with nothing but her wits, for the scouts she had consulted had reported being told that those who entered the forest for peaceful purposes, and took no weapons with them, were permitted to safely enter the forest, and, more importantly, were allowed to leave again. Indeed, the children of villages that the forest had appeared near told tales of a fantastical abundance of nuts and berries that fell from the trees when they held out their hands, bringing home proof that bulged their pockets to the limit, with purple faces showing the traces of evidence they had consumed. As far as she could ascertain, no child ever suffered any ill-effect from the forest, but adults did not seem to be so lucky.

Long before she expected it, the Princess found herself at the edge of the trees. They were incredibly tall, mossy and gnarled with age. In the dim shadows beyond the first ring of trees she could see something shining, and listening carefully the Princess could hear the tinkling of familiar bells. Slipping along the narrow path, the Princess was soon standing nose to nose with her Prince's horse. The Princess was relieved to see that the horse was tidily tethered, its smooth snow-white flanks were unmarked, and all the bright blue ribbons and glistening golden bells of its harness were as neat and as tidy as when the Prince had so cheerfully ridden from the castle. Remembering the cause of her quest, the Princess was almost offended by the horse's calm air of normality as it made soft welcoming sounds and tried to nuzzle its whiskery nose into her neck.

"You silly horse! What have you done with my Prince?" she asked it, as she pushed it away in exasperation. The horse looked at her, its big brown eyes moist with reproach, and the Princess was instantly sorry. Her scouts had warned her that the air in the dark forest had unusual side effects - people found themselves becoming strangely irritable and aggressive, and only those who made a conscious effort and were pleasant and polite to every living thing they met ever returned to tell their story. There was one other piece of advice her scouts had given the Princess which had sounded fussy and overcautious in the safety of the castle, but which now returned to her, carrying all the ominous weight of the dark forest around her. "On no account", the scouts had said, "and for no reason, never, ever, damage any part of the forest". Only an hour ago it had seemed ridiculous to be cautioned against breaking twigs and disturbing rocks as you walked, but now the Princess remembered and heeded their warnings with all her heart. If she were going to bring her Prince home safely, she must be more alert and agile than she had ever thought possible - but her adored Prince was depending on her, and she was determined not to fail.

The Princess had been stroking and consoling the horse while she thought, until finally the restless jingling of its harness bells reminded her that she was wasting time. There were three paths leading from the clearing where she had found the horse, four if you counted the narrow trail on which she had entered the forest. Or was there? Turning around to check her bearings, the Princess found that the first trail, the one she had followed into the clearing, had disappeared completely. There was no trace of it - not even a footprint to mark her passage.

As she watched, the Princess saw that tiny tornadoes constantly swept the soft sand of the small clearing - at least, that's what she thought they were - it was just that every time she got a good look at one it immediately turned into a scattering of shapeless dust. It was only out of the corner of her eye that she could glimpse them, whirling busily back and forth, imparting a pristine smoothness to the sand. As she watched, while trying simultaneously to look as though she were not watching, the Princess noticed that the whirlwinds seemed to be consciously teasing the horse - spinning in close to its heels, tunnelling in and between and around its legs, and vanishing in a puff of dust directly under its nose. The poor horse held itself totally tense and still, only the tautness of its muscles and its flared red nostrils betraying its desperate desire to flee.

The Princess was mesmerised by the fantastically complicated dance that was weaving around her until suddenly her trance was broken as one of the whirlwind dancers leapt a little too high and left his camouflaging coat of dust behind. It took him a few moments to notice, so caught up was he in the rhythm and movement of his cavorting, and the Princess was able to get a good look at the little creature. What she saw astonished her. There, spinning and twirling like a maniacal merry-go-round, was a little man, no bigger than her hand. He was wearing the uniform of a herald from one of the neighbouring kingdoms. With a start, the Princess realised that she recognised the tiny face above the tiny uniform as belonging to a somewhat impatient and officious messenger who had delivered his King's acceptance of her invitation to the Council of Rulers, several weeks ago. That King had questioned the Princess closely about his missing herald during the Council, but she had known no more about his fate than his ruler did. Now that she did know more, she was certain that the King in question would not believe her. Besides, the herald looked much happier now than he ever had as a messenger.

His clothes were rumpled and torn and stained, but he had a huge smile and his eyes sparkled with energy. The Princess hesitated to disturb his joyful dance, but there was a possibility the herald might know something about her Prince. "Excuse me," she said softly, making her voice as polite as she could. The little figure spun around three times like a top before craning his neck upwards to find the source of the interruption. "Can't stop. Very busy. In a hurry. Must go. Goodbye!" he gasped, the words spilling out and jumbling over each other. At the same time, he reached down and drew a cloak of dust around himself with a flourish. Instantly he was lost in the hundreds of other whirling tornadoes that had been gradually gathering to fill the clearing. "Oh, if only I knew what to do!" the Princess exclaimed, but there was no response from the dervishes down below, as the Princess resolutely turned to face the three paths in front of her. Only now there was only one path. Pondering this new turn of events, the Princess found that the dust at her feet was now still and silent as well. The horse at her side relaxed visibly, and she had the feeling that teasing it had been a favourite amusement for the little dancers.

The single remaining path was a wide, welcoming avenue, lined on either side with tall straight trees whose broad high tops arched to meet each other and blot out the sky. A carpet of soft, bright green grass covered the ground, studded at intervals with dainty little daisies which painted the path in pastel colours. The Princess untied the horse's bridle from the branch, being careful not to scrape the tree's bark as she did so. Then, with a tight grip on the horse's reins, she led it out of the clearing onto the path. As soon as the hungry horse's hooves touched the thick, juicy grass of the path it started to fight against the Princess's hold, straining its head down to reach the sweet tempting blades. The Princess did not know whether eating the grass counted as 'damaging the forest', but she was not prepared to take any chances. She struggled bravely, but the horse was strong and determined. This was not helping her to find her Prince. "Oh, I wish you'd turn into something useful!" she snapped in frustration, as she tried to drag the horse towards her. Instantly, the pressure on the reins ceased, and the Princess went tumbling over backwards into the flowers. "What did you do that for?" she asked, getting to her feet and brushing herself off - but the horse was no longer there to answer. In its place was a very handsome wooden bucket. It was white, and its golden handle was tied with bright blue ribbons. The Princess could hardly keep from making a sarcastic comment on the usefulness of this transformation, but she wisely decided it was better not to look a gift-horse in the mouth. At least the bucket wouldn't try to eat the grass! Picking it up by the glittering gold handle the Princess turned again to face the wide grassy path - only it wasn't there.

During the few moments when her back had been turned, a dense, messy tangle of vines, thorns, creepers and climbing plants had sprung up between the flowers and festooned the trees. As she watched, they continued to grow, twining and weaving around each other to form an impenetrable barrier. The Princess began searching back and forth along this new wall, bucket in hand, until finally, down near her feet she found the entrance to a small tunnel that seemed to wind off through the rough undergrowth. She was glad now that she had thought to wear her strong leather hunting suit and bring thick gloves, for she could just fit inside the tunnel if she crawled, and there were sharp spikes and prickles on every side. There was another problem though - she couldn't carry the bucket and squirm through the tight tunnel as well. Nor could she consider leaving the bucket-that-used-to-be-a-horse behind. There was only one thing to be done. Suppressing a grimace of distaste, the Princess took the gold handle of the bucket in her mouth and dropped to her hands and knees.

As she crawled cautiously through the sharply turning tunnel, the Princess began to notice that she was changing. At first the change was subtle. Her skin tingled as soft golden fur began to grow on her face and arms. Her ears started to expand and flatten out, and sensitive whiskers sprouted from either side of her nose. She had only just noticed the beginning of this change when, suddenly, it was complete. In less than the time it took to draw a breath, the Princess found that she was no longer crawling labouriously on her hands and knees. Instead, she was padding softly along the forest path on four large velvety paws. Where moments before there had been a dishevelled princess trying to force a passage through the tangled vegetation while simultaneously trying not to disturb a single leaf of this strange environment, now a strong and beautiful lioness stood, grooming broken twigs and thorns from its thick fur. The Princess was greatly surprised at how easily and quickly she adapted to her transformation. It felt quite natural, and was much more comfortable given her already unusual circumstances. After one last shake, from the tip of her ears to the tuft of her tail, the lioness-who-was-also-a-princess took the gold handle of the bucket-that-was-once-a-horse into her mouth and set out again on the trail before her. Despite the inconvenience of the bucket her path was easier and she could move more quickly now, as her new body shape allowed her to slink past the thorns and prickles that had so continuously caught at her clothes. As she ran, the Princess-lioness gloried in the sense of freedom that came with strong supple muscles and the wind of her passing rippling through her golden fur.

With every pacing movement of her paws, the Princess's memory of her Prince seemed to grow fainter, lost in a primitive desire to simply run forever. Then, roaring in exultation, the Princess-lioness burst through a final barrier and found herself in a tiny clearing. The trees and tangled vines ceased suddenly, giving way to a perfectly flat, smooth, emerald green lawn. Nestled in the centre of the velvet-soft grass was a small pond, glistening like a mirror in a frame of moss and lichen-covered stones. The Princess-lioness edged carefully forward to examine her feline reflection, leaving the bucket beside her on the grass. Her throat was parched and dry, but as she bent down to drink something stopped her. There, floating only centimetres below her whiskers, was a perfect pink rosebud. Instantly, memories of her Prince came flooding back to the Princess-lioness. She remembered tucking the very same rosebud in the band of the Prince's cap, and she remembered him riding jauntily from the castle on his shining white horse. Now, the Prince's white horse had been changed into a bucket, she herself was a lioness, and it looked as though her beloved Prince had been transformed into a pool of water. This forest was definitely a place of enchantment, but it did not feel evil. In fact, the little clearing where the water-Prince lay was the prettiest, most peaceful place the Princess-lioness had ever known. There was no time for her to rest and enjoy it, however, for her Prince needed her help.

Taking the bucket's handle in her mouth, the Princess-lioness awkwardly managed to dip it deep into the pond, bringing it back brimming with water. Despite her determination to be ready for anything, the Princess-lioness nearly dropped the bucket when the water suddenly spoke to her. "Who are you? What do you think you're doing, you overgrown mouse-catcher? Stop that! You'll spill me!" The lioness made no reply, except to carefully place the bucket between her fore-paws, as she turned to consider the clearing where she stood. The tunnel through which she had arrived had closed seamlessly behind her, but in its place had opened three very strange paths spiralling out from the pool in the centre of the glade. The first path was a wide, green-velvet avenue lit by a brilliant midday sun directly overhead, so that not a single shadow disturbed the smooth expanse. The second path was as wide as the first, though surfaced with a rich damp leaf mould which smelled enticingly cool to her bewhiskered feline nostrils. She didn't know how, but the light falling on this path was the chilly clear light of early morning, flooding in from a source somewhere behind her, sparking off crystal shimmers in the calm pond which were echoed in the bucket at her feet. The third path, however, was completely different. It was a narrow, cramped, tortuous, twisting way forming a tunnel through a tangled mass of thorny brambles. Where the other two paths appeared to be welcoming her for an easy stroll home, this path looked dangerous and difficult, even for a lioness. Then, glinting through the thick, tangled thorns, the Princess-lioness glimpsed a magnificent sunset, a gorgeous array of shifting, burning colours that seemed full of the promise of a perfect tomorrow. Glancing back towards the easier alternatives, the Princess-lioness found herself no longer even tempted. The hard hot glare of the first burnt into her eyes, even through her tightly clenched eyelids, while the cold, dismal greyness of the second left her shivering inside.

The correctness of her choice was confirmed the moment the Princess-lioness picked the bucket up in her mouth and set her paws upon the prickly path, as the thorns on all sides immediately blossomed with the same pink rosebud she now only dimly remembered as being significant to her quest. The longer she spent in her changed form, the more natural it felt and the harder she found it to remember who she was and what she had to do. The transformation seemed to have had the same effect on the Prince, except that he had spent more time as a pond, and his memory loss was almost complete.

Not that this encouraged him to keep quiet, however. This deranged lioness had somehow got it into her head to lug him about in a bucket, but the could not see why he should cooperate. After all, he had been happy and comfortable enough in his calm crystal pool - he could spend his days staring peacefully into the sky, while the animals that came to drink from him were only minor ticklish annoyances. But this - this was something different altogether. It was bad enough that he was cramped precariously into a flimsy wooden bucket that swung sickeningly and threatened to spill him at every step, but now the mad animal had deliberately walked past two admirably inviting paths in order, it seemed, to send him sloshing out wasting his life force on sharp bare stones. At least, he thought, if she'd tripped on one of the other paths he would have done some good and watered a tree or the grass or something. As it was, the creature's perversity only increased his frustration at the situation, and he did not fail to make the big cat aware of his feelings. She remained silent, as she had from the start, patiently trudging along the stony path that seemed to become steeper and thornier with every step. Soon, the Princess-lioness was beyond even basic thought, knowing only that one paw must always be placed in front of another incessantly, forever, and that her nose must constantly follow the setting sun.

There was no way of telling how far they had journeyed, or how long she had been plodding forward in this trance-like state. The royal water in the bucket kept up a ceaseless murmur of irritated complaints and snappy sarcastic comments. At times, the exhausted Princess-lioness felt like dropping the bucket with its precious cargo on the hard dry road. Hours before, the tangled thorns had abruptly given way to a desolate desert slope, up which the path crawled like a somnambulant snake. Ahead of her, the fantastic sunset the Princess-lioness had first glimpsed through the dense thicket still filled the sky with glorious colour - a delicate sweet rosebud pink shot through with golden darts that rang in her heart like bridle bells. She listened, and in the unending grumble emanating from her burden the Princess-lioness began to hear clean, fresh running water which soothed and revived her spirit, and helped her to take a firmer grip on the bucket handle.

On and on she walked, trying to minimise the sway of the bucket, until the complaints reached a new intensity and the Princess-lioness could no longer pretend it was simply the babbling of a brook. Despite her changed condition, the Princess-lioness could not ignore human feelings of resentment welling up in her at the unfairness of the criticism emanating from the contents of the bucket. After all, she was sure that if their positions were reversed she would have been a model of patience and good nature, offering only gentle encouragement to her rescuer. Rescuer. The single word reminded the Princess-lioness instantly of her former self and the seriousness of the task at hand. It was not her Prince's fault - even she had been affected by the forest's enchantment, and she had been thoroughly warned. The Prince had been taken unawares and she could not imagine what experiences might have brought him to his present predicament. The only thing she knew for certain was that her love for him was true and would not fail. Putting all her trust and faith in love, the Princess-lioness tried to ignore the pain in her mouth and paws and to bear her burden with hopeful heart.

The incline was becoming steeper, and the path now ran straight up the barren rocky mountain. When she stopped to rest her jaw that ached from the swinging of the heavy bucket, the Princess-lioness found she could no longer see the foothills they had travelled through, where the track had wound so smoothly in comparison to its current arduousness. Then there had been small grasses and wildflowers to distract her eye, but now her surroundings seemed totally lifeless and she had to struggle to keep her footing, even when stopped. She dare not let the bucket go even for a second, for she could find no level place where she could set it down.

Peering awkwardly into the bucket, the Princess-lioness could see only the ripples in the unreflecting water that was her Prince, way down in the bottom of the bucket. When she had left the glade where the pond was the bucket had been full to the brim, but the long hard journey had taken its toll. Even the unceasing voice of complaint coming from inside the bucket seemed weak and feeble now, which worried the Princess-lioness. For many hours, only that perpetual grizzling had kept her going - an annoying spur to her pride, which would not let her give in and fail. Sighing, the Princess-lioness wearily lifted her head and prepared to set off again. With her first step the watery Prince sloshed violently in the bucket and began complaining again with renewed vigour. "You stupid, clumsy creature. What do you think you are trying to do to me, you moth-eaten beast? You are trying to murder me. I know. I wish you had left me back in my pond. At least there my Princess might have found me. She would be more careful and not have treated me so cruelly. Why did you have to interfere, you dumb animal?"

This was too much for the weary Princess-lioness, and the dam of burning tears she had been holding back for so long suddenly burst. Big bright drops like diamonds went rolling down her furry nose and splashed into the bucket. Her tears blinded her, but she no longer cared about where she was going, simply placing one footsore paw in front of the other out of habit. It seemed to her now that she had known no other life. All that existed was the bucket of water she must carry and the mountain she must climb. Her brain now refused to even consider why she climbed. It just didn't matter. And all the time her tears plinked and plonked into the near empty bucket until eventually it overflowed. The water-Prince, mingled with the hot salty tears of the Princess-lioness was having the opposite problem. He was suddenly remembering. Like a tidal wave, memories came flooding back to the water-Prince, forcing him to relive his cheerful, carefree goodbye to the Princess, his rudeness in the forest, and subsequent downfall, till at last he was permitted to recognise in the patient and courageous lioness his own brave sweet love.

Looking up at the Princess-lioness from the bucket, the water-Prince felt as though his eyes had been freshly washed and he was really seeing her for the first time. Now he noticed the lurching of each step and was able to realise what the effort of carrying him had cost her. As he looked, he noticed that the Princess-lioness's mouth was cut and bruised from the golden bucket handle, while her protruding tongue was dry and swollen. With a feeling of joy, the enchanted Prince realised that he was not completely helpless in the situation. There was something he could offer her that she really needed - himself! Summoning up all his willpower, the water-Prince began to separate the small amount of cool, clear, fresh water that was himself from the warm salty tears around him. Then he pushed himself to the top of the bucket. He tried to call to the Princess-lioness, to tell her to drink, but she was beyond hearing anything. He would have to do it himself. Despite her condition, the Princess-lioness was still managing to move slowly forward up the incredibly steep incline, and the water-Prince realised that if he just judged the swinging of the bucket correctly he could possibly slosh towards her and at least moisten her tongue. Of course, anything that was left of him would simply soak into the dry, cracked stony ground, but considering what his Princess had gone through for him, he could do no less for her. When the Princess-lioness next falteringly stepped forward, setting the bucket swaying alarmingly, the water-Prince pushed with all the strength he could muster for this desperate effort, and leapt towards the Princess-lioness's mouth.

The Princess-lioness stumbled in astonishment when she felt the drops of water on her parched tongue, her weary legs buckling as they refused to hold her up a moment longer. The last thing she saw before closing her eyes in exhausted despair was the golden-handled bucket with its bright blue ribbons tumbling and bouncing rapidly down the mountainside, finally coming to rest at the base of a large tree, near where their uphill journey had begun. When she next opened her eyes, it was to find that her ordeal was over. She was lying cushioned on thick velvety grass near a sparkling crystal pool. For a confused moment she wondered whether she had simply been asleep the whole time, but when she turned her head she saw her Prince looking back at her, his eyes glowing with love.

The Prince helped the Princess to her feet before hugging her tightly in an embrace that neither wanted ever to end. They were interrupted, however, by a strange blue-green shimmering light which descended on the clearing. In the midst of this halo appeared a fantastically beautiful winged creature whose garments were petals and leaves, overlapping like iridescent scales and fastened together with softly glittering spider-silk. The wings of the creature filled the clearing with sparkling opalescent rainbows, so bright that the Prince and Princess were unable to see the creature's face. When it spoke its voice was sweet and tinkling spreading the sound of silver bells through the forest.

"When love is strong and hearts are true,
there's nothing that you cannot do.
Your realm is safe, your people free,
you have no more to fear from me.
If you protect my trees so green
please call on me when times are lean.
Wend your way through my forest cool
~float a rose on this crystal pool."

The Princess began to open her mouth to question this delightful apparition, but was stopped by the Prince. He recognised instinctively that the exquisite, gentle, colourful creature in front of them was the same as the crooked old witch he had met before, and so should be treated with extreme caution. With his hand on his heart he faced the fairy, for he could not call this beautiful apparition a witch, and pledged to defend the forest with his life. The Princess, being somewhat more practical, promised that messengers would be sent all over the kingdom, warning people about the special nature of the forest. All those who entered the forest with a peaceful intent would be welcome to explore, to innocently take what they needed in berries, flowers or fallen firewood, and leave unharmed. Anyone whose purposes were otherwise, or who ignored the warnings and came armed with metal, would be left to the justice of the forest, of which they had both already had a taste.

The glistening fairy beamed approvingly at the couple in front of her, then, describing an arcane pattern in the air with her long delicately unhuman fingers, she sent a shower of silvery-purple sparks floating gently over the Prince and Princess and was gone. Hand in hand, the Prince and Princess were now able to walk easily from the clearing along a broad tree-lined avenue, carpeted with pastel daisies. Before long they reached the forest's edge, where they found the Prince's horse patiently waiting for them, contentedly cropping the grass, with its reins trailing. It was apparently none the worse for its time spent as a bucket, and the only evidence the Princess could find of its roll down the mountain was that several of its tiny golden bells were dented, and some of the blue ribbons were dusty and torn. To make sure the faithful horse was all right, the Prince and Princess decided to walk together, leading it slowly back to the castle. They still could not see the world beyond the trees, but as soon as they could they found that they did not have far to walk. During their adventure the enchanted forest had brought them home, and now lay peacefully against the castle's east wall. With hearts light and joyful, the royal pair bid farewell to the forest and made their way to the Princess's rose garden, where they could be alone. Those inhabitants of the castle who saw them would have rushed to congratulate them and welcome them home, but were tactfully prevented by the Princess's Godmother, who seemed to know what had happened without being told.

In the quiet, sweetly scented garden where the heavy blooms of the roses tumbled over arches and framed a secluded romantic bower, the Prince and Princess found themselves calmly discussing whether the gaily coloured pennants decorating the spiralling towers of their castle needed to be replaced, and other mundane, familiar domestic details. At one stage, the Prince attempted to apologise to the Princess for being so obnoxious while he was under the forest's enchantment, but the Princess stopped him from speaking with a loving kiss. The whole experience seemed to have been designed to test them, to discover whether they deserved their reputations as rulers who were fair and honest to their people and devoted to each other. They appeared to have passed with flying colours. All that remained was to begin the rest of their lives, living happily ever after. Having satisfied herself that the castle was running smoothly, and that the Prince and Princess were enjoying an uninterrupted reunion, the Princess's Godmother made her way up to the tallest of the castle's spires. With long, elegant fingers she wove a net of blessing and cast it out over the grounds of the castle and the forest which cuddled close to its walls. Then, with an arcane gesture of enchantment, she was gone.

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