The prince watched the sun begin its downward journey from the meadow he had reached at last, weary after the long flight. He did not know how many days it had been since he had left his father's land, since he had fled the serpent's lair and crossed inhospitable savannas and yellowed grasslands where the sun burned from the sky like the merciless, all-seeing eye of a wrathful God.
In his folly he had set out to fight the serpent, had tried to, and in the end, all that had been left for him was to run, for it seemed the legends had spoken the truth and the serpent could not be slain by a mortal's hand.
He had cut a branch from the tree that grew in front of the creature's lair, for of this the legends had spoken as well, yet it seemed that here the old tales had been wrong. There had been no magic powers in the oak's wood that would have enabled him to vanquish the serpent. Still, he had carried the branch with him on his flight, half hoping that there would be a miracle and that he would be saved - yet there had been nothing, and now all that he owned was what he carried on his body.
How would he find his way back - did he even want to find his way back to his father's realm? There had been nothing for him there, something had been missing for as long as he could remember, something... He knew not what.
He had not found it on his journey, nor had he found it in the serpent's lair. He did not even know what it was that he was missing, only that he had felt its absence for all his life, and that to find it - to find it would mean to find himself, what he was, what he wanted to be, could be, should be, and it was not something he would ever have found in the realm ruled by his father.
For a long moment, he looked at the branch in his hand - oak wood, still young, yet strong and sturdy. But what good could it be? He could carve arrows from it... or maybe make a sheath for his sword.
The sword that had splintered when he had tried to slay the serpent...
For a moment he was tempted to throw the branch away, deny all that had led him here. There had been no glory to be found in the serpent's lair, no magic in the famed old oak, and maybe, there would never be an answer for him.
And how could he find an answer when he had failed time and again to find the right words to explain this force that drove him onward, the question he could not put into words and which yet had never let him rest long in one place?
"What do you bring into my wood?" a soft voice asked so that he started and took a step back, raising the branch as if it were the sword he had lost days ago. From the shadows beneath the trees that surrounded the eastern side of the meadow, a maiden stepped forth, dark hair curling and spilling in soft waves over her shoulders, brushing against cheeks as pale and lovely as untouched snow. Her eyes were merry as she watched him, and yet, although he knew not how or why, he felt that she was no naive innocent like the maidens of his father's court, although the garment of burgundy velvet girdled with a golden chain bespoke noble blood. She was as fair and fine as any of the princesses he could have had his choice from, and yet there was a difference; the curve of her mouth was not vulnerable, but gently amused, and her eyes... Her eyes had a depth, an air of silent expectation that all of a sudden made him think that just like he, she knew what it was like to be endlessly driven by a question that could scarce be understood.
And maybe, just maybe, if two were to meet who were both searching... Maybe there already was an answer hidden there?
"Lady," he said and bowed, and her laughter rang like silver bells from the dark places beneath the trees.
"My mother would rule this forest," she murmured, although he could hear her as clearly as if she were standing by his side. "And yet I have often thought that it is too small a place even to contain two women such as me and my mother."
"Lady, if you were mine, I would find you a realm to rule as vast as the night sky!" he swore in sudden fevered passion, and she stepped towards him with a smile and rested her fingers against his cheek.
"Princess of the Night," she murmured as if tasting the title on her tongue, and all of a sudden a light seemed to grow in her eyes so that he felt small and humble all of a sudden, and sick with jealousy, for he knew, though he could not have said how, that somehow, he had shown her the way to find the answer to the question, the yearning her heart had known since her birth.
"Queen of the Night!" he declared, taking her hand in his and holding it almost too tightly, greedy for that sudden purpose which had kindled in her eyes and yet continued to elude him.
"Yes..." she breathed, then took a sudden step back, playful as a maiden at court once more as she gave the branch he still held an inquiring look.
"And what is that, my Lord? Have you brought me a gift?"
He took a step towards her, and she took another step back, eluding him as surely and gracefully as a doe fleeing the hunter's arrow. Passion rose in him all of a sudden and he pursued her into the dark beneath the trees from where she had appeared, grasping her pale wrist at last and pushing her against a tree as if to punish her - taking a kiss forcefully as if it were revenge.
She laughed against his lips at the end, breathless and strangely pleased so that he grew uncertain once more, but now it was she who gripped his wrist and raised his arm until the branch of wood was pressed between their bodies.
"It is no weapon," he said somewhat bitterly, unable to forget how this branch he had risked his life for to cut from the ancient oak had been more useless than a child's toy when he had faced the serpent. "But if you desire it, Lady, I will gladly give it to you - carve you an amulet from it, or a comb."
"Carve me a flute, my knight, and my heart shall be yours while you stay by my side. Together, we shall rule the night," she promised, eyes aglow with a fire that drew his soul, that woke envy in the depths of his heart so that he drew her close once more in answer. Her kisses did not soothe his questing heart, but they promised respite from fretful dreams, and anger and desire grew in equal parts within him at the knowledge in her eyes.
"Queen," he murmured and kissed her again, tumbling her onto the cool moss in the dark beneath the fir trees while somewhere behind him, the yellow sun bloomed into a wrathful red before it sank and shadow gathered all about them.