nce there was a prince who enjoyed taking long walks through the woods near his father’s castle. He found these excursions to be both relaxing and a welcome break from courtly affairs. Over the years this prince had become quite familiar with the woods. He knew the brooks and dells. He knew where to find the oldest, most beautiful trees. And he could identify by sound and track many of the animals that lived there.
But one day, towards the end of spring, this prince wandered into a part of the wood he did not recognize. The sun was shining and he knew the way home so he was not worried. Rather, he gazed about at length, trying as best he could to soak in as much of Athena’s kingdom as possible.
After a time the prince came to a small stand of elm trees encircling a clearing. As he approached this stand he heard the chirping of many birds. Some he had heard before. He could even name a few: there was a blue jay, and at least two robins, one male and his mate. There was a sparrow and a mockingbird, and even an old crow. But there were many others this prince had never before heard. Together they all sang. Eager to glimpse this spectacle, the prince approached the stand. He came from downwind, so the birds would not catch his scent, and moved slowly and silently as he had learned.
At last the prince came to an opening in the brush and branches which surrounded the clearing and he peered through, carefully remaining out of sight. What he saw took his breath and nearly his wits.
In the clearing the prince saw a girl. She was slender and young. By her dress he could tell she was no princess, though if princesses were chosen by beauty and not blood he swore she would be royalty indeed.
She had long dark hair, past her shoulders. And dazzlingly dark eyes that sparkled as she smiled, as she often seemed to do. Her skin was smooth and fair. The prince was hypnotized.
As the sun shone clearly overhead, the maiden danced about the clearing to the rhythm of the chirping birds. Her feet were bare so that she might better feel the young grass that carpeted the clearing. She moved so gracefully and fluidly and beautifully that the prince thought she might have been practicing this dance since the forest was young.
Wishing a better view, the prince crept slowly closer. Taking great care to remain unnoticed, for he believed that this fair feminine figure may be a nymph or some other chimerical creature, which, as we all know, are quite flighty, he worked his way to the edge of the clearing. Still the birds sang. Still she danced. And still the sun shone. The prince did not know which was more beautiful, the sunny spring day, with its clear skies and cool, fresh breeze, or this flowing image of a girl?
Closer he moved, his eyes transfixed, watching her every choreographed movement.
And then he tripped.
A malicious oak had caught his princely boots in a gnarled root and sent the pre-king sprawling. With a loud crash the prince fell… on his face… into the clearing. Immediately the birds bolted and the female fled. By the time the prince had regained his feet, she was no where in sight and the clearing looked as though it had always stood silent and alone.
Dejected and slightly bruised the prince made his way home. On arriving at the castle, the prince told no one what he had seen. Who would believe his far-fetched fairy tale? A goddess dancing to the choir ornith? Instead he kept the tale to himself, as much as he was bursting with the desire to describe the wonder of his ordeal to another.
So he spent the rest of the evening in thought, replaying over and again what he had seen. As night fell, and the prince drifted off to sleep, the nimble dryad visited him again in his dreams. For weeks the prince awoke from dreams of this dancing dame and for weeks he could not strike her from his mind, even had he wanted to.
By day the prince returned to the forest, searching in vain for the girl. After a week he found once more the clearing. But it was empty this time save a single sparrow.
Each day he returned to the clearing where first he had seen her. Each day he sat, hoping for her return. Then, one day, as he approached the clearing, the prince heard the singing of birds just as he had on the first day he had seen his muse. Slowly he inched closer until he could see the clearing, and there she was: dancing as before. So perfect. The prince watched, transfixed by her beauty and fluid movements. He wanted to move closer, to enter the clearing, to talk to her, to touch her. But the prince feared he would frighten her as before. Eventually, desire overcame caution and he moved forward until he was standing at the tree line. Still she danced. The fair fairy had not yet seen him. Gathering his courage, the prince took a step into the clearing. Suddenly the birds ceased singing and the girl turned, staring at him.
In an instant a thousand thoughts rushed through the prince’s royal head. He wanted to tell her to wait. He wanted to tell her to stay. He wanted to tell her everything: that he thought her beautiful beyond belief and that he had been haunted by her immaculate image in his dreams. He wanted to tell her he loved her. But none of this came out. All he could say in the presence of this deity was a single word: “please”. But she saw in his eyes all the rest. And she smiled. Such a gentle smile that at once set the prince at ease and quelled his fear that she would flee. At that moment, and in many moments yet to come, she meant more to him than anything else in the world.
Then she laughed. Because she knew that love like this was the stuff of legends. It was not real. It never works. And she turned to go. The prince’s heart shattered. He fell to his knees, watching her leave the clearing. There are no happily ever afters.
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