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The Erl King

Fairy tale tragedy, or, a lesson in courtesy and logic

A retelling of the story-within-a-story of Patricia A. Jackson’s short story “Uhl Eharl Khoehng” (Tales from the New Republic, 1999).

Once upon a time, there was a city fair to look upon in a black forest. It was ruled by the strong and just Scion Prince, who was beloved by all the townsfolk. But one day, as with all men, the Scion Prince was no more. And so there was much weeping and rejoicing for the old Prince and his son.

“Long! Live! The Prince!”

The new Scion Prince busied himself in the affairs of state, and public improvements of the land and city, and for a long time it seemed his reign would be more lustrous than his father’s.

But one wet day, the Prince learned that the roads leading through that black forest to and from that fair city were not enough to convey the thronging merchants, and sent his best woodsmen to mark trees for felling—the wood would provide a sound foundation for the new road.

While riding through the streets, the Prince was accosted by a most curious stranger, tall and thin and of wan complexion, clad in garb of dark damask with green highlights. He was a traveler lately returned after a great span of time, and though he was but temporarily the Prince’s subject, asked the noble for shelter that night. The Prince reviled him as a lowlife or vagrant, and made to move on, when he spoke again:

“Courtesy costs little, Scion Prince—and discourtesy can rob even the greatest of all they call their own.” “Indeed? Then dress me in rags and let me be the Prince no more! for as I live and breathe, I would not spend a night under the same roof as a filthy beggar.”

The foreigner bowed, and with a smile replied, “Come, be not angry. Behold, I make you a gift; a gift of prophecy! Know, O Prince, that what is not growing must be dying; this is true of cities as well as forests. Which is it here, I wonder?” Speaking thus, he turned and vanished.

The next day, as was his custom, the Prince met with and took the counsel of his advisers on the weird foreigner. To a man, they advised enlarging the land by reclaiming areas overgrown by the black forest; this would surely save their cherished city. But the Prince’s old tutor dissented. He advised caution, preparation for defense or flight, and seeking far and wide for further knowledge about the mysterious danger that uncanny person had warned of.

During the dispute, three messengers arrived. They had been sent to the camp of the woodsmen to learn why none had reported back on progress but on their arrival had found the camp to be utterly deserted, the woodsmen vanished. Indeed, the messengers would have reported sooner but they were nearly lost making their way to the camp and returning—the woods seemed thicker than the oldest courier remembered from his youth. One mentioned that the old people were muttering of the Erl King, the fey monarch of the black forest who ruled long before humans ever arrived.

The Prince disregarded this. There were many dangers there, many sensible reasons they could have gone astray without inventing supernatural ones; had he ever seen any Erl King in all his hours in that black forest? So the Prince ordered search parties, and other woodsmen to finish the task that their erstwhile brethren began. The search parties found nothing and no one, and soon themselves were missing with all the woodsmen. The Prince barred the gates and sent the guards and townspeople out in large groups to assail that black forest, and then an entire company, and then after them a battalion of soldiers.

But every warm spring night, the blackness under the trees pooled nearer the fields.

Soon the old people had ceased to merely mention and were telling all and sundry the tales they heard in their swaddling youth of the Erl King, and how he would one day rise from the sleeping black forest and reclaim his own. Enraged at the disloyal tales and predictions of his downfall, the Scion Prince ordered them driven out of the city. All the younger people had been expended earlier in the campaign. Their might had sufficed to clear a few acres of wood; no more.

But every hot summer night, more leaves blew against the shell of the city, and the blackness under the trees pooled nearer the houses.

All that remained were the Prince, his advisor, and his picked legion. The old tutor attempted to dissuade his pupil, pointing to the folly of pitting himself against events, against believing that war would be the salvation of his city—but to no avail. The Prince brooded in his city and the soldiers carried on their martial exercises.

But every cool autumn night, the blackness under the trees pooled nearer the walls.

They rode out in those days, the prince at the head of the legion and his advisor following behind. All in white rode they, caparisoned in gleaming armor, and their smiling hounds crouched before.

They followed the traces of the road and halted in the depths of the black forest. A man appeared out of the shadows. A trifle taller and ruddier, perhaps, but the Scion Prince immediately recognized the prophecy deliverer.

The weird spirit mocked: “I am the Erl King, prince. As one noble to another, I offer you an exchange: safe passage, shelter, and supplies, in return for one thing only—your troop. For what need of soldiers has a prince without kingdom?” For a time all was still, until the prince slowly nodded his crowned head. In a trice, his surrounding men had changed all into a copse of oaks.

The prince continued, but the road no longer led anywhere and footsteps bent in directions the head had not conceived.

For long years he wandered beset by the many snares and delusions set in the path. The Erl King was true to his word. Not once was he harmed nor did he want for shelter or food, although the prince be reduced to the level of savagery feeding on the abundant acorns or sleeping in the crook of a tree’s roots, and discomfited by the slightest change in circumstances. Betimes the prince would glimpse the mouldering white stonework of the city, or during those long years he would find himself amongst strangely familiar boughs where the sighing winds seemed to speak to him though he lacked the wit to decipher the soft susurrations; more often he was spoken to by his unquiet ghosts.

But one dry winter night, the stumbling prince lifted his bearded head and finally saw the Erl King. They walked to the edge of the black forest together, and the Erl King spoke.

“Cast your crown at my feet, prince, worship me as your King and master—and I shall give you all you can survey, from here to the furthest extremity of mine black forest, to call your own.”

The prince paused for a time, his eyes gleaming as he considered the desolate domain. And he replied: “You are a cheat, a liar, and a thief. But are these not the greatest virtues of any king?”

Declaring thus, he rent his rags and cast his crown at the Erl King’s feet. With the tatters for a torch, he ran flaming into the trees crying “This is the only kingdom I deserve to rule!” Blazes broke out where he went.

And soot-covered, heat-dazzled, the prince came again to the still erect figure of the Erl King amidst the dying black forest. He staggered nearer, collapsed at the feet, and knelt before. In a high despairing voice, he croaked:

“Long! Live! The King!”

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