Scroll past my preamble to read the story
Fairy tales are a tough genre. Their demand for simplicity seems so restrictive, and it’s only made worse by the prompts and the word count restrictions. As an author, you want to delve into rich character detail and description, you want to run away with the flow of interesting dialogue, you want a rich setting, you want natural pacing, you want to have multiple arcs and artfully crafted themes. But you really only have the real estate in 2k words for like, three of those things. And if two of those things are already picked out for you, what can you do? Even a re-imagining of a classic is still bound by keeping the original story recognizable.
It was sort of kismet that I got assigned this genre: I’ve been researching fairy tales since the start of the year for a novel I’m writing. However, even with the benefit of research I still found this prompt quite challenging. As soon as I recalled the things other stories have that a standard fairy tale doesn’t have it went a lot smoother. I realized it was natural, in Grimm fairy tales in particular, for characters to exist as nameless archetypes. Not the most fun thing in the world, but I embraced it. Other things, too: broad strokes of good being rewarded and evil being punished, simplistic motivations, magic from nowhere, a title only marginally relating to the subject. You get the idea.
By the end, I think I got it. Even sketching in black and white, you can still illustrate depth.
Prompts for Heat 5
Genre: Fairy tale
Character: a park ranger
A new fairy tale presented in the style of a Brothers Grimm classic. The warden of the king’s wood must go above and beyond his job’s expectations to protect the ones he cares for and unwillingly sets an example for those in the seat of power.
The Green Prince
Once upon a time, there was a golden kingdom called Halcyon. The kingdom had been won in a siege, and the nobility had named it for the years of peace expected to follow the long, toiling war that came before.
Halcyon bordered a vast tract of forest. This was claimed as the king’s wood, and only the king and his vassals were allowed to hunt within it. It was guarded by a young warden, who himself was forbidden from hunting in the king’s wood. The warden lived there and stalked the forest day and night, protecting the land from poachers.
One day, the warden met a bear in the woods. This bear was unlike any the warden had seen before: its shaggy hair was russet-red, and its eyes were a deep, unending green. Even more unusual, the bear could speak and was bright and pleasant to talk to. The bear knew a great many things about books, poetry, wars, and far-off kingdoms. The warden knew about the forest and the city, and happily answered the bear’s many questions. The two became fast friends, walking together nightly on game trails as the warden made his rounds in the king’s wood.
“Is your job difficult?” the bear asked.
The warden shrugged. “It could be worse. My sister is a washwoman in the king’s castle. Whenever the princess throws a party, my sister works so hard that she is too tired at home to even hold her own children. So it is with her life.”
“And her husband?”
“He died in the king’s war.”
The bear was silent, thoughtful. “Could you not help her?”
“I gladly would, though I cannot leave the forest unless the king comes to hunt. If I came and went as I desired, I would lose my post and thereby lose what little coin I can bring to her and my nieces. It has been some time since I saw her last.” He shook his head. “So it is with my life.”
“Perhaps I could think of a way to persuade the king to hunt more often.”
The warden stared. “And let you become another trophy of his, stuffed and dressed in the castle? No. As I’ve said before, it would be safer for you to leave this place, my friend.”
“And as I’ve said before, I never would, even if I could.”
The warden smiled. “So it is with you.”
“So it is,” said the bear.
One day, the warden received a visit from the king.
“My daughter tires of the ballroom, so I have invited suitors from far-off kingdoms to hunt her in my king’s wood,” he told the warden. “He who catches her will marry her, and all this suitor nonsense will be finished for good.”
The warden was happy to hear this—not for the princess, but because it surely meant he could have the day to visit his sister.
“However,” the king went on, “it is my wish that you remain in the woods during this hunt. My daughter thinks she is fleet and quick, but I know she is soft and fair. I would have you track her and ensure that she is unharmed from the beasts in the forest. You must do so in secret so you do not give an advantage to any of her suitors.”
There was no arguing with a king. Sadly, the warden bowed his head. “It will be as you wish, your majesty.”
On the day of the hunt, the warden watched from afar as the princess streaked into the woods. She kicked off her shoes and pulled her skirts high as she sprinted out of sight, following the game trails. The warden’s astonishment caught him off his guard, and the princess soon discovered him following her.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded.
It was the first time the warden had ever seen the princess up close. Her hair was wild auburn, and her eyes were the same unyielding green of the woods.
“I am the warden of the forest, milady,” he explained. Perhaps she didn’t know what that meant. “I protect the king’s wood—”
“I know what a warden is,” she snapped. “Your sister is a washwoman in my castle. She thought that with the hunt you would be able to visit her today!”
The warden’s heart sank. “I was asked by his majesty to ensure that milady remain unharmed by the beasts of the forest.”
The princess sighed. “You have your work cut out for you, then. Here come the beasts now.”
The warden turned. A dozen well-dressed suitors thundered past on horseback. The warden dropped to his knee, as all were expected to do for nobility. Two of the suitors took notice of him and broke off from the pack. The first, a prince dressed in red, stopped in front of the warden. He was resplendent and proud, the most impressive of the group.
“Warden, tell me where the princess is hiding.”
The warden glanced over his shoulder. To his surprise again, the princess had disappeared.
“I cannot say, milord.”
“Nonsense,” said the red prince. “You are clearly only here to protect her from the woods. Track her; tell me which way she went.”
“I am sorry, milord—even if I knew, I am commanded not to aid her suitors in any way.”
The prince scowled. “Very well. I’ll find the princess on my own, then I’ll marry her and become king, and you will be left penniless when I hire a new warden.” He swung his cape over his shoulder and rode away.
The warden remained kneeling as the second prince approached, dressed in blue. His shoulders sagged under his armor, but his eyes were alight with cunning.
“Warden,” the blue prince said, “I’ve little interest in marrying the princess for Halcyon. My brother, the red prince, will surely win the day here. But I won’t return to my kingdom empty-handed. Where might I find a beast easy enough to kill but big enough to impress my people?”
The warden thought of the gentle bear, his heart twisting. “I know not, milord.”
“Certainly, you do. Your life belongs to the king’s wood. There must be something special worth killing around here.”
“I know not.” The warden kept his head low. “I am sorry, milord.”
The blue prince’s voice turned icy. “Very well. But if you are deceiving me, I will tell the king I witnessed you poaching his own stock. He will take my word over yours, and you will be thrown in the dungeons to rot.”
With that, the blue prince galloped away. The warden was still stunned and kneeling when the bear approached him, padding quietly through the brush. “Are you all right?”
The warden explained to his friend all that had just happened. “I don’t know what to do!”
“If only you had been able to visit your sister!” the bear said.
“Whatever the outcome happens now, I lose,” the warden despaired. “If I am seen guarding the princess, the red prince will be rid of me. If I do not guard her and harm befalls her, the king may have my head.”
“Let me guard the princess,” the bear said. “I saw her hiding behind the waterfall. She is not as soft and fair as she appears.”
“But if the blue prince sees you, he will kill you!”
The bear snorted. “The blue prince has cunning, but he couldn’t kill a fly. I’ll stay hidden so he can’t frame you. You keep clear of the waterfall; I will keep the princess safe.”
The warden did so and passed long hours into evening with his heart knotted in worry. At dark, he made his way near the base of the waterfall, wondering if he should check on the princess. He heard a rustling, and his friend emerged from the undergrowth.
“The princess remains safe and hidden behind the waterfall,” the bear promised. “Most of the suitors have given up!”
The warden relaxed a little. “You should stay hidden, too.”
The bear shrugged. “I wished to see you. I’m used to us walking together this time of night, you know.”
Just then, an arrow landed in the ground between them. The blue prince stood atop the waterfall, struggling to notch another arrow. “A talking bear!” he said. “I knew you were deceiving me, warden. It’ll soon be the end—for both of you!”
The next arrow missed them by a good ten feet. The blue prince cursed his bow and threw it to the ground.
“A poor huntsman blames his weapons,” the bear teased.
“Then perhaps you deserve better,” said the blue prince, looking behind them. The red prince, following their voices, appeared weary and wearing his usual scowl.
The blue prince bowed to him. “Brother, I humbly concede defeat. I beg you, future king, do me the honor of slaying the bear on my behalf, and I will tell you where the princess is. I just heard these two speak of her hiding place.”
The red prince drew his bow. The warden put up his hands.
“Wait!” he pleaded, “I’ll do anything—please don’t harm my friend!”
The red prince shook his head. “You already had your chance to aid me, warden.”
The warden didn’t think—he leaped in front of the bear, and the arrow pierced his heart. The warden fell to his knees, everything fading terribly fast. The red prince, who had only scowled when he missed the bear, now looked terrified—as did his brother.
“Princess?” both princes squeaked.
Who will help my sister now? the warden thought. He toppled back, expecting to fall against his shaggy friend—but it was human arms that caught him and held him close as his vision grew dim. The last thing he saw was his friend weeping, her eyes as green as the woods.
The warden awoke in a golden room with no wound, no pain. He thought at first that he must be dead—until he saw the princess sitting beside him. He puzzled to remember what had happened before everything went dark.
The princess explained that her red and blue suitors had been sent packing—their attempt on her life, even in ignorance, had not been received well by the king. And after so long and so recent a war, none of the kingdom’s neighbors were eager to break the otherwise idyllic peace.
“And what of… the bear?”
The princess shook her head. “I was granted that power following many prayers to escape my vile suitors. But I’m done hiding from my problems in the woods. I gladly gave that magic up—in exchange for your life.”
The warden said nothing.
“My friend, you’ve showed me that this kingdom is not run as it ought to be,” the princess said. “People toil too hard for too little, just as you did to save me. My father says I must have someone at my side to rule. I must have one who puts the needs of others before himself.” She took his hand in hers. “I desire you as my prince.”
The warden was stunned.
“And the king’s wood—?”
“I will open it. No more wardens or poaching. The woods are for all.” She looked away. “I only proposed this hunt so that you might visit your sister. It was my start to try and make things right.”
The warden peered at the princess. It was difficult to believe that she and the bear had been one in the same. But this beautiful stranger from the golden city was—always had been—his dearest friend. As he was caught in her wild green eyes, he understood it to be true.
“So it is you,” he said.
She smiled. “So it is.”
And so it was that with the warden and the princess together at last, the kingdom of Halcyon was finally able to live up to its name.