Long, long ago, there was a country where seas of mist covered its green meadows, where dark woods still preserved the ancestral secrets of our forefathers and where the rumor of dragons still terrorized the hearts of those who ventured near the high mountains which rose to the sky. In this country, there was a Kingdom.
It was an important Kingdom, always vigilant before the eternal menace of their neighbors beyond the Northern High Mountains, those from the Western Hills, and those from beyond the Sea or Winds at the east and south. In addition to their foreign threats, there had been many a civil war and fights over who should possess the crown and rule the realm, but in the end one scion of the royal family came up victorious, though through means of treachery and conspiracy. Despite how he reached the throne, the new King ruled the land wisely, and the Kingdom flourished during many years like it had never done before.
But treachery always gets paid with treachery, and those who helped the now old King to attain the golden crown got tired of not being granted as much power as they had desired, for power is like a potent wine, and the more men drink from it, the more they crave. Thus, their eyes and their son's eyes turned icy towards the King and his four sons (for the beloved Queen died not too long after seeing and blessing her fourth child). The King's eldest son, the rightful Heir to the throne, was the only one who suspected all this, and felt afraid for his life and his brothers'. He knew that his cousin (for the quarrels for the crown always involved one single family) would stop at nothing to grab the golden circlet from his father's hands, be it by means of iron or poison. But he knew that, as the Heir, he might have the solution to their predicament.
After much thinking, the young Prince resolved that their rivals would leave him and his brothers alone if they thought that the future King was useless and scatterbrained, easy to be manipulated. That way they would let him ascend to the throne and, when they least expected it, he would banish them from the kingdom forever, if he didn't have to put them to death for treason.
To look like he was an incompetent Heir, he had to lead a life accordingly to that, so he would surround himself of vulgar company -the lower, the better-, and abandon every hour of seclusion on which to learn the arts of war and diplomacy that a King so much needed. This he was thinking while he strode through the forest in the lands of the royal palace and he despaired.
"If I abandon every study," he was saying to himself. "If I spend every hour of the day that I should bestow on learning and instructing myself to dallying, to vulgar company, to every inclination that seems loathsome on someone of so high dignity as me, won't I turn into the very thing that I was supposed to imitate, but not be? Oh, what shall I do? I can't do one thing or the other! There isn't enough time in a single day to do both!"
The Prince sat by a stream, still troubled by his dilemma and still talking to himself. His bow and quiver he let on the grass at his side, for he had said he would go hunting, but the truth was that he only wanted loneliness as his companion that day.
He looked around him, and thought he saw a piece of cloth hastily disappearing behind a tree near across the water.
"Who goes there?" he called out, drawing his sword. "Have you come for my blood? Come and face me then and let us end this like honorable men!"
The stranger came out from the hideout, and the young Prince lowered his sword, for it wasn't a man who had been watching him, but a maiden.
"I heard someone talking and came to see who he might be," she said. "No one ventures this far away in this forest."
The Prince sheathed his sword and offered his apologies, for in his life he hadn't seen such a fair and delicate creature, and upon her presence all the riches and glories of the kingdom seemed mere trinkets and petty things.
"I should be the one to apology," she said, inclining her golden head. "For it was I who came here to listen without my lord knowing it. My lord was having a quarrel with Time itself, was it not?"
"Is it, fair maiden," he answered. "Time is a cruel god who never alters his pace. Every man knows it, yet I must run faster than him and attain what two normal men should at the same time."
"How strange my lord is! So hungry for glory art you to covet what two men would attain? Is it not enough what one single man can achieve?"
"Nay! My dilemma is not an ordinary one! I must wear the rags of stupidity before the rest of the world while, in secret, dress myself in the robes of scholarship as I acquire the wisdom that I shall need one day."
"Is it your blood what my lord protects? For no other reason I could think for a man of such good carriage to don such unbecoming garbs before others of much less importance."
"It is no cowardice what leads me, but love. Love for my brothers, who are yet too young to wield a sword. Love for my father who, though still a vigorous lion, the snow hath begun to touch his mane, and love for my nation, she who has yet to cleanse and cure the deep wounds of family quarrels."
"Time is like the wind, my lord. No one knows where he was born, or when he will die, or what his paths are. A river can be held or have its path altered, but only for a time. It is impossible to govern the wind like one would try to do with a river."
"I do not seek to govern Time, my lady. I wish he could only slow his pace for me, so that I could be the scholar in secret, and the riotous, defiant Heir before everyone."
"That is still an extraordinary exploit, my lord. Time is ruthless and would never bend willingly to anyone."
"Then I'll travel to where he lives and plead for this favor to him! I know he's King among kings, and that everyone succumbs to his rule. If he demands any price, by God! He shall have it!"
The maiden smiled at his youthful vehemence – for the Prince was merely a lad – and took out from the folds of her pristine robes a small, golden hourglass suspended on a golden chain.
"Your gentle eyes betray the honest heart behind them, my lord," she said. "Your path is paved with struggle and perils, but your courage shall surmount them. Time bends briefly before those possessing this jewel. Turn it as many times as hours you want Time to regress. Do never speak of this to anyone, lest Time itself punish my lord, and when you have attained what your heart longed, you must return it to me."
The Prince gave his word to the maiden, and only then she let the jewel fall into his extended hand over the stream.
"I thank you, my lady," he said. "But, shall I ask by what name my fair maiden is known?"
She laughed, so prettily that the Prince found impossible to take offense on it.
"What purpose a name would serve me, if my Prince will find me when the time is due? Farewell now, my Prince. May your inborn prudence guide you to the path of triumph."
The Prince was about to ask her name a second time but, in the blink of an eye, he found himself outside the forest, where he had left his horse, his bow and quiver at his feet, and the golden hourglass in his hand.
From that day, the young Prince would seclude himself with his books without anyone knowing it, then, when the moon was low on the sky and his eyes were weary, he would turn the hourglass and be again at dusk, the hour when he would go out from palace to the nearby city, where he would spend the night drinking, gambling and seeming to do everything that was considered shameful on someone of his condition, while his other self remained at home.
Thus, the Prince achieved so appalling a reputation that his father the King became ashamed of such a son, while his cousin achieved great fame in foreign wars and the King's regard for him grew as fast as his contempt for his own offspring. Great was the pain that the Prince suffered when he knew that he was causing the King so much sorrow, but he took solace in knowing that he was doing what it was best for his father and brothers. Even so, his body began to feel weary of the stretched out days and he would sleep soundly during day, until a lark would come every noon to his window and sing until he was awake and up.
"Doth thy mistress, the Lady of the Forest, sendeth thou?" he asked the bird after a week had gone by this routine, but the lark merely looked at him through its beady eyes, ruffled its feathers and flew out.
Months and years went by and his company of petty thieves and cut-purses grew. From them he learned more than he had expected. Hence, his education was double for, if a King must know of war and peace and of the matters of state and laws, every man must know how to read in other men's hearts, and that there can be much deceit behind a smiling face and honeyed words.
But there came a day when the hungry wolves finally grew too tired to wait for the King to die, for he was very old now, though still vigorous and strong, and they began to plot a rebellion with their neighbors from beyond the Northern High Mountains. When the offending lords disappeared from the court and their castles, the Prince, now a man, knew that war was at hand, as was the day of his reveal.
He rode to the forest the day before the battle and, finding the stream, he began to call the maiden for the name he had given her in his heart: Lady of the Forest.
She appeared before him just like the first time. The Prince couldn't believe his eyes for, though years had passed, Time seemed not to have touched the maiden, who remained as radiant as he remembered. She, however, saw how much the Prince had changed; she saw him grown into a man, and she beheld in his still honest eyes the wisdom and the strength that Time had bestowed upon him, for he had lived and learned more than anyone of his age, as if, indeed, he had lived twice the same life.
"My task is done, my lady," he said, offering the hourglass. "Alas, it is before I wished it to be. I hoped I could have ascended to the throne and banish those traitors without shedding a drop of blood, but their greed is too great for their hearts and they let it spill upon the land. They have declared war and we must respond."
The maiden took the hourglass and said nothing, but the Prince saw that there were tears in her clear eyes. From her hand, a small branch from an almond tree raised and touched his chest.
"May your heart be courageous to the end, my Prince. You have come wise beyond your years, and your wisdom will be your guide from now on."
"What manner of creature are you?" he said in surprise. "For witches are said to use wands to weave their magic, like you hath done now. They are famed too for being horrendous beings but, by God! Mine eyes have not seen such heavenly creature before or after seeing you in this forest, many years ago."
"Believe what my Prince hath seen with his eyes," the maiden said, her rosy cheeks bathed in tears. "That I came to his help when he most needed it, when no one would have given him shelter or counsel. Now, like the newly full-fledged eagle he will rise and, like the Sun after a dark night, he will be marveled at by those who had lost any hope on seeing a new day."
The Prince stretched his hand to take hers. He cared not if she was a witch, a fairy, or a normal woman, for his heart swelled with gratitude and love for that beautiful and virtuous creature and, now that he had looked at her with the eyes of a man and not with those of a boy, he desired her as his bride.
His gloved hand clasped thin air: He was again at the entrance of the forest, near his horse. The trumpets and drums called from the palace to war. Such a dreadful sound after having listened to the maiden's melodious voice!
With his heart oppressed, the Prince marched to war, for he felt that he might not meet her again but, upon seeing a lark soaring the sky over their heads, bestowing its songs to the army like a blessing, his spirit rejoiced, for he recognized the bird that came to his window every day, and took it as a sign that his Lady of the Forest was with him.
He fought with the strength and bravery of a lion and, though he was wounded and bled much, his sword never rested until all the enemies laid around him, and only his fated rival remained. They dueled until the swords were nicked and the shields dented, but in the end the Prince was victorious and the rebellion came to an end.
The Prince returned to the forest many times and searched for the maiden, but she never appeared again, nor the lark came back to his window ever again.
Time kept flowing like a river, and came a day when the old King died and the Prince was made the new King. He forsook his past relations with cut-purses and thieves, dressing himself in the robes of wisdom that he had been wearing in secret for many years already. Like the Phoenix the new King rose and all marveled at this so great a change. He was advised to take a wife as soon as possible, but the King's heart was saddened with the memory of his Lady and he saw no woman who could equate her in beauty and wisdom.
Soon he turned his eyes to war and conquest, for word had come to him that he was the rightful heir to the throne of the nation at the south and east of the Sea of Winds. The southern prince answered to his messengers with a cruel mocking, and the King prepared his army for war. But the southern king was not like his son, and he offered his own daughter and some lands, trying to avoid the invasion. The King refused so insufficient an offering and war was declared.
Treason was being woven on his court, though, for there were nobles who sold their services to the southern king. Death awaited the King, and perdition to his nation, hadn't the letters on which each lord accorded his price appeared on the King's window on a full moon night. Thus he extinguished the fire of revolution even before the first sparkle appeared.
Like a winter gale the King arrived to the coasts and, even when famine and illness decimated his forces and even when they were outnumbered by the defenders, the King's army stood victorious on a bloody and violent battle, where the southern prince was killed and every knight and every nobleman from the south country was made prisoner. The southern king had to pledge to his demands and, while he himself didn't leave his crown, his daughter had to marry the northern King (for war had almost erased the memory of his Lady), and their descendants would be kings of both the north and the south.
But upon seeing the Princess, the King nearly fell to his knees, for in front of him stood a maiden of clear eyes and golden locks, so similar to the Lady of the Forest that they could have been sisters. The love for his Lady rekindled inside his heart, hardened and cold until that moment by the incessant conflicts. Offering his hand to her, he, who had the right to take the Princess regardless of her desires, asked her tenderly and full of honest love to be his Queen.
Thus they married, and the Queen bore him a son, but disease preyed upon the King and he perished before he could know the child. Many tears were shed for him and great was the grief of his people when his King returned to his country to be buried with his ancestors.
Time kept flowing, witnessing the rise and downfall of many kings and countries, but the tomb of the King was left untouched by it. Many hushed voices talked about a ghostly figure that visited the tomb on full-moon nights; others spoke of sights of a woman kneeling in front of the grave during day light, shedding white flowers on the engraved stone, but that, upon being called or approached, she would disappear in thin air. Many feared the apparition and avoided the place but, as Time passed, the sights ceased and the white flowers never appeared again over the tomb's cold marble.