Deep in the forest, someone was sleeping. Covered in leaves and moss, with a windbreak lashed snuggly in the bracken, he was dreaming of a king, a curse and a drumming in the dark.
In another part of the forest, a young boy was disguised as a fox. He heard the pounding of hooves behind him. He ducked under a tree root, but was soon surrounded by baying dogs. The horses approached, and their riders were holding bows and arrows. Their velvet cloaks were lined with fur, and one wore a silver crown. Donal stood up fast, and threw off his fox hood before an arrow could be nocked. His costume had a real fox tail dragging on the ground, and it must have drawn in the dogs.
“You’re no fox!” laughed the King with the silver crown. “Who are you to be on my land? Trespassers are made into slaves here.” The King’s face turned dark.
“I am Donal the Wily!” Donal proclaimed loudly, hoping to avoid this fate.
All the gathered horsemen laughed. “King Tygen!” a noble called out. “He is trespassing and his freedom is forfeit!”
“If you are wily enough, you can solve my riddle and win your fortune. He who sleeps in secret holds the key to breaking the curse on this land. Find the key, break the curse, and you’ll win your fortune.” Donal was silent and thoughtful. The horses bore their riders away, toward the castle on the hill. King Tygen called out one last gruff threat before cantering away: “Come to the castle with the key by noon tomorrow, or you become my slave for trespassing on my land.”
No one wants to be a slave. Donal had been dared to cross the forest in the fox suit by his cousin Justin. His cousin was always teasing him, and Donal had hoped to silence him at last. “The rat!” thought Donal. “Now what am I going to do? The King believes I cannot solve his riddle, but I’ll outwit him yet. I will find the secret sleeper.” Donal had powers that only he knew. He could listen to the wind, and talk to the animals. He had convinced others that he was wily, but in fact, his secret powers gave him a big advantage. He had believed he could cross the forest with no one the wiser.
Now he raised his nose, just like the fox he had pretended to be. The wind sighed, swirled and sighed again. He headed north, and crossed from maples into pines and then to birch. Mountains rose in the distance. Soon the ground was covered in bracken between the thin silver birch trees. He stopped and listened, and the wind turned his ears pink with cold, gusting by in rushes. There under a bracken windbreak was a pair of feet in dirty shoes.
“You there!” Donal called and called, but no one answered. Finally he saw a squirrel high in the trees. The squirrel chittered and chirped.
This is what Donal heard: “Hush, you loud lout! Can’t you see he’s sleeping? The king and his horsemen chased him all night. He crawled into cover with the dawn, and there he lies. Let the poor man sleep. The king will catch him soon enough and make him a slave. He would enslave the animals if he knew how.”
“I need him to give me the key to break the curse that oppresses this land. Then the king will not make me a slave, and instead will give me a fortune.” Donal made human words in his mind, but his mouth magically translated them into chittering and chirping, and the squirrel understood. Even better, so did the deer that had been hiding in the bracken. The deer moved forward.
“This man has the key, and he doesn’t even know he has it.” The deer’s language sounded like teeth clicking to Donal’s ears, but his mind magically understood. “He is the brother of the king’s love, and he must give her permission to marry. He’s fallen on hard times, and no one believed he really is Prince Stefan. You must make them believe. Then the king can marry and the curse will be broken.”
A raven hopped down. “He is Prince Stefan. My wife and I have traveled with him from far away. His sister, Sylvahnna was injured and separated from him when they were set on by robbers. My wife stayed with her, but I hear her voice on the wind. The king fell in love with Sylvahnna. She will not marry him without her brother’s approval. King Tygen has turned cruel and angry, and he has taken to enslaving everyone who strays on his land. His anger is the curse that must be broken.” His language sounded like coarse cawing, but again Donal was able to understand.
Donal cawed his thanks. He clicked his teeth, and the deer bowed his head. He chittered and chirped, and the squirrel ran through the bracken, gently tickling the man awake. Donal explained quickly, and soon they were headed for the castle.
“But how do you know all this?” The man was still sleepy, but seemed willing to believe the young boy in the fox suit. “I am Donal the Wily!” Donal found his usual answer satisfied the man, and they skirted the bracken. After a long hike back through the pines and maples, they were soon striding over the drawbridge into the castle. They were shown into the great hall by the guards.
“Have you come to be my slaves?” King Tygen raised his goblet in a toast, his mouth grim. “And you a wily one?”
“I have the key!” The great hall fell silent. Noble and slave alike stopped their eating and serving. “Here is Prince Stefan, brother of Sylvahnna.” Even the hounds were silent, so much tension filled the air.
“How do I know this is he?!” King Tygen demanded.
“Bring her to me. I will know her, and she will know me.” Soon Sylvahnna was hugging Prince Stefan and crying her joy for all to see. They exchanged quiet words that only the draft from the fireplace heard.
“Well? Will you give your sister to me in marriage,” demanded King Tygen, coming down from the high table and approaching fast.
“If you release the slaves and open your kingdom to travelers she will have you!” Prince Stefan looked like a beggar, but his voice rang in the rafters. The king stopped in his tracks and drew in a great breath, seeming to drag in all the oxygen in the room. Everyone felt breathless.
“Agreed!” He shouted, and everyone began laughing, and hugging and drinking toasts to Prince Stefan, Sylvahnna and King Tygen. The slaves became free again, and sang and danced. The treasurer paid them all wages for the years they had worked. The King also fulfilled his side of his bargain with Donal, who received his fortune, and everyone was happy except his cousin Justin who was horribly jealous ever after.
Copyright 2013 Brenda Davis Harsham