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Sunlight drifted between the branches overhead like snowflakes, brushing the party on the path below with light and shadows. The man leading the group, Prince Nazir, turned to his new bride, Rana, and crowed, "This will be a most magnificent site for my, I mean, our, new palace, will it not?"
Rana brushed a strand of her long, brown hair away from her face and said, "I could not have asked for a better wedding present."
Nazir, a tall, powerfully built man, was the son of King Alberon, the wise and just ruler of Larenta. However, Alberon had reached such an advanced age that he could no longer fulfill his duties. Thus, the power of the crown fell to Nazir, whose first act as ruler had been to plan a new palace. Prince Nazir had promised Princess Rana and the people of Larenta that he would build the grandest palace the world had ever seen, a palace whose construction would require the destruction of the mighty forest, thus proving the Prince's power over all he ruled, as well as his love for Rana. Today, the Prince was scouting for the best location to begin building.
Slowly, the brilliant sun set and drew a blanket of twilight over the forest, causing the menservants in the Prince's entourage to light their lanterns to help guide their way on the trail. Rana stopped to admire a young tree's leaves, which seemed to glow a translucent green against the fading sunlight. It had only been a moment's pause, but by the time Rana turned around to rejoin the group, they had already disappeared.
"Perhaps they are just over this ridge," she thought to herself as she picked up her long skirts. "I should hurry to catch them- it wouldn't do to get left behind in these woods."
Rana dashed to the top of the ridge and peered all about her, searching for the glow of her group's lanterns. In the distance, she spied a cloud of golden lights bobbing up and down. She ran down the hill, tripping a little, trying her best to catch them. Strangely, as she drew closer, the lights did not get any larger, and she did not hear the voices of her party as she had expected; instead, her ears caught the faintest melody of a harp.
Finally, Rana reached the golden lights and was crushed to discover that they were nothing more than fireflies. "Now I am truly lost," she thought. "There can be no hope of finding my way back to the path now!"
The lost princess slumped to the forest floor in despair, but noticed something odd. The fireflies were flying in a line, traveling to one location together. Rana followed them, but as she walked, she noticed that the harp's song was becoming louder.
After what seemed like a long walk, Rana and the fireflies stopped at a gently murmuring stream that sparkled coquettishly under the light of the rising moon. Rana looked around, expecting to find something. Unfortunately, she could see nothing but deep, glistening water, and could hear nothing but the harp's melodic voice. In frustration, she threw a small rock into the stream, making a dissonant splash.
Instantly, the music stopped, as though she had broken a spell. The forest became silent except for the sound of the water.
"You finally found me," said a resonant voice.
"Nazir, is that you? Where are you?" called Rana fretfully.
"I am no Prince," the voice replied. "Look across the water, Princess Rana."
Rana looked, and saw for the first time a man dressed in a long, brown robe sitting cross-legged on a rock on the other side of the river. He cradled a silvery harp in his arms as the fireflies formed a halo about his head.
"Come and sit with me, Rana. The water is not too deep to cross," the man beckoned with one hand.
"Who are you?" she called back.
"Someone who has been waiting to meet you for a very long time."
Rana's curiosity overwhelmed her desire to stay safe on the riverbank, so she tentatively crossed the stream. Though she once nearly lost her footing upon the stream's slick, mossy rocks, she made it to the other side. When she reached the boulder, the man held out one strong hand to help her up. Rana was shocked to discover that his deep brown skin was rough just like tree bark, and was freckled with green, too.
"Who are you?" Rana repeated, this time with more awe than curiosity.
The man smiled slightly. "I am the Guardian of these woods. It is my sacred duty to care for the trees, the river, and everything between them. As for my name, you can call me Acario. But there are more important questions to answer. The trees have been whispering to each other tonight. Do you know what secret they have to tell?"
Rana shifted her weight on the rock to look into Acario's face more clearly. She could see that instead of hair, his head was crowned with ivy, matching his green eyes.
"They have told me that the men you came with intend to tear down this kingdom and build one of their own, partly for your sake. Is this true?" he asked.
Rana was taken aback, for though Acario's voice was placid, his face had taken on a stony, protective cast.
"My husband Nazir wants to build a palace in your forest to show the might of Larenta," she carefully explained, "as well as to honor me."
"Are you honored by destruction and greed?" queried the forest guardian.
"Of course not!" exclaimed Rana, squaring her shoulders defiantly.
"Good. Because you, Princess, are the only one who can stop this tragedy. Do not be deceived by your Prince's supposed intentions of paying homage to you through this new palace. The forest has judged your prince, and knows that he does not mean well. If anything, this palace will be a monument to him and to his ego, and the forest will have to pay the price," Acario said cynically. "Even now, he is devising plans to disrupt the natural order. This is why you must halt his schemes."
Rana looked up at Acario with disbelieving eyes. "What, then, must I do? Nazir has already set his heart on these plans, and he will not be swayed now."
"Princess, you have so little faith in yourself. If you cannot find it in your heart to help me, then there is nothing regal about you except your title," stated Acario firmly.
Rana sighed and stared into the water. "Fine. I will do my best to talk to Nazir. But he is not a man who takes advice easily."
"Excellent. What I need Nazir to hear is so much more important than advice."
Rana stood up on the rock. "I don't even know the way back to my camp," she said. Earlier that day, luxurious tents were pitched on the edge of the forest, but she had no idea how to find her way back to them, much less to the trail.
"I will show you the way," he said, pulling Rana to her feet.
Rana felt lighter than air as she ran through the forest with Acario. It was as if his feet never even touched the ground. Despite their speed, Rana didn't even feel short of breath by the time they reached the fields of tall grass at the forest's edge. Only a few hundred yards away, Rana could see the fires of her camp burning bright against the darkened sky.
"Remember what I have asked of you," said Acario. "Your role is more vital than you can imagine." He raised a hand in farewell as he melted back into the trees.
Rana shook her head, wondering if she had simply dreamed Acario's presence. Whispering softly under her feet, the grass parted like water as she made her way to the camp.
"Where on Earth were you?" exclaimed Nazir as Rana entered his tent. "I sent Ghazi and the others looking for you!"
Of course, thought Rana, he doesn't want to go out in the dark woods by himself, even to look for me.
"You left me behind, and I got lost," she replied, "and I just now found my way back." She felt sorry for Ghazi, Nazir's senior advisor, who surely didn't want to be stumbling through the woods at this time of night.
"I knew I shouldn't have brought you here," Nazir muttered. "This forest is more dangerous than I thought . . ."
Rana immediately interjected, "which is why we shouldn't build here!"
"What did you say?" asked Nazir softly.
"I mean, these woods are too wild, and the capitol city is grand enough. We needn't waste our money and manpower on building here," Rana explained hesitantly. She could feel Nazir's temper souring rapidly.
"You addled dullard! That's exactly why I will build here! I will dam the river, cut down each tree, and remove every last wild beast until there is no doubt in the world that Prince Nazir has accomplished the greatest feat of architecture our world has ever seen!" he fumed. "Do you see these plans?" he screeched, shaking a fistful of blueprints at her, "these are the key to my legacy, and I was doing it for you. But you have proven to be just another spoiled, ungrateful, princess," Nazir sneered.
"Fine! Ruin one of the greatest treasures of our nation, but don't feel sorry for yourself when the neighboring kingdoms laugh at your foolishness," Rana spat back. She knew that she had said exactly the right thing, for Prince Nazir's pride was more precious to him than all else.
"Stay in your tent for the rest of the trip! These woods have bewitched you, and I can't let you get any ill-advised ideas," Nazir glowered.
Rana stormed out of the Prince's tent and into her own, fuming at her husband's stubborn ego. But as she fell asleep that night, her thoughts drifted with Acario.
Rana woke with the first light of dawn. The men in the search party had long since returned to keep watch over her as Ghazi and Nazir met with the royal engineers to plan the construction of a dam. Since Nazir's men were exhausted from the night before, it was an easy matter for Rana to slip away into the forest.
This time, she found Acario wandering at the forest's edge as if he had been waiting for her.
"Good morning, Princess. Have you accomplished your goal?" Acario inquired.
Rana shook her head in frustration. "I told you, Nazir is a willful man. He refuses to listen to me."
Acario grasped Rana's shoulder firmly. "Don't worry. You will find a way to sway his mind," he reassured her. "I want to show you why this forest is so important to me," he said. "Please, follow."
It took all of Rana's effort to keep up with Acario as he slipped effortlessly between the trees. They followed the river through the woods until it disappeared behind a steep, rocky bend. Strangely, Rana could hear a deep rumbling coming from the other side.
"Take my hand," beckoned Acario, and he whisked her not through, but over the water. Rana screamed as the water suddenly dropped off beneath them. Acario was taking her over a waterfall.
Gracefully, Acario and Rana landed on the rocky shore below. "I hope I didn't startle you too much?' he asked, arching his eyebrows in amusement.
Rana let out a burst of laughter. "Last night, I shouldn't have asked who you are, but what you are! You can fly?"
"If the occasion calls for such a thing. I merely let the wind be my guide and see where it leads. Today, I knew it would take us here," he patiently told Rana. "This waterfall is just one of the forest's thousands of hidden treasures. But Nazir wants to build a dam over it. Do you know what that will do?"
Rana gazed at the water gushing down the rocks, crashing freely into the pools below. She furrowed her brow and asked, "What will happen?"
Acario sighed mournfully. "Well, these falls will most likely become no more than a trickle, so the animals that drink from the river will have to find a new source of water. The migration of the river's fish will be cut off, and eventually, the insect population will expand in the stagnant water and spread disease."
"All that, caused by a dam?" Rana asked incredulously, surprised that something supposedly helpful could cause such damage.
Acario nodded solemnly. "Now, do you see why Prince Nazir must be stopped?"
"I understand. It may take a while, but I will stop him. Yet why must I do it alone?"
Acario looked down at the ground and said, "I cannot leave the forest. You see me as a human, but I am really nothing more than a spirit, bound to the trees. It is my gift and my curse. I may take any form I please, read the signs of the forest, and even fly, but I am otherwise quite powerless in this fight. Nevertheless, I knew from the moment you set foot in the forest that I had a friend I could trust. Rana, you are my only hope to preserve my home. I will guide you along the way, but this is in your hands now."
Rana blushed, flattered and overwhelmed by the enormous trust Acario had shown her. No one had ever done such a thing for her before.
"I am your most loyal soldier," she jested, mock-saluting Acario.
"I believe base camp is missing their only female lieutenant," Acario joked back. "Would you like an escort?"
She nodded and looked up the cascade of diamond water one last time.
The princess spent the next few weeks avoiding Nazir, devising a way to stop his plans, and sneaking out to see Acario when she could. Little by little, the forest's guardian unraveled the mysteries of the woods, revealing hidden trails, rare plants, and other hidden gems. Rana discovered why Acario loved his home, and gradually began to care for him. At the same time, Nazir's engineers were making frighteningly rapid progress on the dam. Acario was growing more anxious each day, but Rana was no closer to finding a way to stop her husband. She tried talking to Ghazi, his most powerful advisor.
"Can't he see that this will ruin everything?" she pleaded to Ghazi, explaining the folly of destroying the woods.
"Princess, your husband has devised the grandest plans for a palace in our nation's history. Are you not happy for him?" the wizened advisor replied.
"These woods are so beautiful, though. They mustn't be torn down," Rana begged.
"He will not tear down all of it. I'm sure he will leave enough so that his lords and dukes can still hunt in the woods for sport," he assured Rana.
"Ghazi, this is not right. How can you let him do this? Tell Nazir that this is a bad idea–he will listen to you!" Rana urged, knowing that Ghazi had the full trust of her husband. However, the old man would listen no more.
"Princess, I cannot help you, though I wish I could. I am sorry," he said, bowing his head. Rana knew that Ghazi recognized the tragedy of destroying the woods, but was powerless to stop it, too.
That night, Rana tried talking to Prince Nazir once more. She found him standing atop the nearly completed dam, gazing triumphantly into the water below.
"See, Princess, what I have accomplished? Do you still harbor doubts of my power?" he asked sarcastically without even looking at her.
"Nazir," Rana began, "I am begging you, please tear down this dam. Leave these woods alone and return to the capitol with me. There is still much you can accomplish as king."
Nazir turned, shaking in anger. "You still presume to question my plans? You still can't see that this is for the good of our country? I have conquered the river, and I will tame the forest next. Now, I command you to apologize!" He took a menacing step towards her.
"No!" shouted Rana over the sound of the water.
Suddenly, Nazir grabbed Rana by the arm, yanked her closer, and slapped her face with all his might. Rana gasped in pain, feeling with surprise a hot trickle of blood running down her cheek.
"Let me go!" she screamed, shoving Nazir with a strength she did not know she possessed.
With a look of surprise, Nazir stumbled backward and fell over the edge of the dam. His yell of disbelief was lost under the roar of the river. Rana rushed to the edge, shocked at what she had done. She looked anxiously for his body, realizing that he surely did not survive the fall. The treacherous rocks at the base of the dam assured as much.
Numb with the gravity of her actions, Rana dashed into the woods. "Acario, I need you!" she cried.
Acario appeared at her side, frowning slightly. "What is wrong, Princess? It seems you have lost your way."
"I solved your problem," Rana began bitterly, "Nazir is dead. I pushed him off the dam, but it was an accident! Look, he hit me, and I defended myself." Rana traced her wound.
He reached out and took her hand. "This problem should not have been solved with violence. You must go back and face what you have done."
"Acario, couldn't I stay here? The forest is safe now, and I could be happy here, with you," Rana suggested.
The forest's protector sighed and leaned against a tree. "The plans of mankind have already been put into motion. Only truth will stop it now. As for you, you would not be happy here forever . . ."
"Acario, I think I love you! I will stay here forever!" Rana interrupted. "I have become enchanted by you and your home. Please, let me stay."
He shook his head slowly, closing his eyes. "Rana, you know this is impossible. You are part of the human world, I, the forest. We live ages apart. Though, if you love me, you will save what I love. Please, do what I asked of you when we first met."
Tears slid down Rana's cheeks, mingling with the coagulating blood. She straightened her back and turned away. Marching out of the woods, Rana could not bring herself to look back at Acario. As she approached the tree line, she felt an odd fluttering sensation in her hair. Reaching up, she pulled out a tiny, glowing firefly. This final gesture gave Rana the courage she needed as she continued towards the campsite.
The camp was in disarray. Obviously, it had been discovered that the Prince was missing. Forming a plan, Rana knew what she had to do. She found Ghazi in Nazir's tent directing the search for the lost prince. He looked up at her dirty, bloody face in shock.
"My lady, we thought you were lost for good! Have you seen your husband?"
"Ghazi, he's dead. I killed him."
Rana was unsurprised that the old man showed no grief at the loss. Nevertheless, he spluttered, "But . . . how, Princess? And why?"
Rana reached up and touched her injured cheek. "I did what I had to," she whispered.
"Princess Rana, you know that this is a very serious matter. You must be taken back to the capitol and tried for regicide, at the very least. In the end, we will all get what we deserve," the old man said as he looked at her gravely.
"Thank you, Ghazi," Rana replied.
Just a few months later, Rana returned to the forest once more, escorted by an armed guard. Overall, she was quite pleased with the outcome of her trial. As Nazir's top advisor, it fell to Ghazi to oversee the proceedings and issue a verdict.
"Rana, former Princess of Larenta, your actions caused the death your husband and sovereign Prince Nazir. However, this court believes that you never planned this outcome. Therefore, you are banished to the Larentan Forest."
At this point, the courtroom gasped, for many other Larentans shared Nazir's trepidation of the forest.
"Furthermore, to ensure you are not comforted in your banishment, the Forest will henceforth be forbidden to all citizens of Larenta," Ghazi proclaimed as he glanced at Rana. She gave him a small grin, which she quickly changed to a look of horror for the benefit of the courtroom.
As Rana entered the forest for the last time, she couldn't stop herself from looking back at her escorts who were retreating from the trees as quickly as possible. Smiling to herself, she dropped the bundle of personal items she had been permitted to take with her at the base of a tree. Empty-handed, she now felt free to revel in the forest. In the distance, she could hear a bird's song, the rumbling of the river, and one more familiar sound. "I have all I need right here," Rana thought to herself as she followed the ethereal call of a harp.