The stillness was unnerving. Armand hadn’t ventured into the Red Forest since he became of age, nearly fifteen years ago. The rite of passage each twelve-year-old male in the realm must endure slipped into his memory as if his journey happened yesterday.
A blanket of mist hung in the canopy of red leaves, never allowing the sun to reach the forest floor, bathing the rebeus trees in diffuse light. Through the shadows, he spotted the blue water of the Serpent Lake, its surface still as the air. Armand consciously took every breath as quietly as he could to avoid disturbing the silence.
The Regent unexpectedly invited the king of this red world to his daughter’s wedding and dispatched Armand to accept the king’s response. He was the logical choice to meet representative of the king. Armand was the captain of the Regent’s Guards and the only male in the realm to complete the rite through the forest. He returned with the flower of the Licas plant, now encased in crystal and hanging from a woven gold chain around his neck. The flower protected him from the evil lurking in the forest.
Behind him, a twig snapped followed by a soft giggle. Armand whirled finding a horse-sized dragon standing a few feet away. He stumbled backward, his hand on the grip of his sword only to hear the giggle again. A beautiful face framed by a thick mane of wine colored hair peeked from behind a tree.
She twirled a strand of hair, “You’ve returned.”
“Who are you?” Armand slipped his sword a few inches from his scabbard as the dragon took a step closer.
“I am Cassia, daughter of the king. I know you don’t remember me, but I remember you.”
She stepped from behind the tree, and Armand gazed upon the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her flowing hair caressed her alabaster shoulders, her curves covered by a gown made from layers of diaphanous amethyst-colored fabric. Cassia stood before him, and the fragrant scent of the Licas flower drifted toward him.
“You are the only boy to journey through the forest without being frightened away. I watched you, and I was most impressed.”
“You watched me? Why?”
“I watched a lot of boys try but you, you were cunning and resourceful. I like that.”
Armand was close enough to see golden flecks in her dark-green eyes and unconsciously leaned closer, only to have her spin away from him, her skirt swirling about her. The dragon took another step toward him and he unsheathed his sword.
Cassia laughed, “Put that away. Ieci is curious, not dangerous.”
“We allowed you to think so.”
“What do you mean?”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
“I’d like some answers.”
“I only learned the truth very recently. My father was heartbroken one of the boys was hurt badly when he fell into the lake during his quest. I suppose you thought the wounds he suffered were caused by serpents in the lake.”
“That is what we believed.”
“There are no serpents. The razor-sharp barbs on the roots of the water plants along the edge caused his wounds. We treated him and returned him to the entry gate.”
Armand reached out, grasping her arm, and pulled her close, “Tell me the truth.”
“Centuries ago, the regent and the king began a feud. The king challenged the regent to send a warrior through the forest, overcoming the obstacles placed there. If the warrior was successful, the feud was over. Eventfully, the test became known as the rite of passage in the realm and instead of warriors, young boys were sent. On our side, the kings began to provide more dangerous obstacles, except they were not threats. Our dragons are gentle. They do not attack or breathe fire. It was a simple trick.”
“Some trick, the dragon that attacked me looked ferocious enough.”
“Poor thing was skittish for weeks after you left.” She touched the crystal pendant, “The agreement to end the feud was forgotten over the years, when you were successful no one realized it was over. After the boy was injured, my father searched through the archives until he found the original agreement. He wants this to end, for our people to become friends again.”
“I would think the regent’s invitation indicates he would like that as well, not to mention a lot of boys under the age of twelve. I’m assuming I can inform the regent, the king and you will attend the wedding.”
“Of course, but I will need an escort.” Cassia ran her fingers through the short beard along his jaw. “I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have escort me than the only champion of the Red Forest.
Armand smiled, “I would be honored, Princess Cassia to escort you and your dragon.”
I could not resist this writing exercise prompt from MJ Bush on Google+, such a magical setting. MJ has a wonderful blog Writingeekery which offers excellent advice for writers.
Photo “Sacred shivers”: http://bit.ly/1iGu8cu by Janek Sedlar.