6. Protector of the Zuries
Ayron shut his eyes tightly and prayed in his heart. My God, please help me. Please save my life and take me to my mother’s people. His body felt light against the cold air pushing against it, and the loud swooshing sound of the wind brushed against his ears. After a few seconds of eternity, his body started to move in a different direction, held up by something warm and soft.
What happened? Did I hit the ocean already? But it’s not wet and cold. Ayron nuzzled his face against the warm and soft surface. This must be my bed at home! I just had a bad dream. He rolled around and hugged his warm soft bed. My blanket must have fallen off. It happens often when I have nightmares. Mother and father looked so sad in my dream! I want to sleep a little longer and have a nice dream.
“Jimmy, could you please close the window?” A chilly breeze brushed against Ayron’s face. He was afraid to open his eyes, so he pictured his room in his mind. It must be midday by now, judging by the brightness of the sun. Why has no one come to get me yet? Perhaps Jimmy didn’t hear me. He raised his voice and called again, “Jimmy, are you there? Could you please close the window?”
“My name is not Jimmy!” A voice thundered beneath him. “I am called the Phoenix, the protector of the Zuries.”
Ayron jolted out of his warm bed. “What?” He opened his eyes abruptly and saw a bright orange fire surrounding him and fluffy white clouds moving next to him. What’s going on? I’m sitting on top of a giant burning flame in the sky? Is this another dream? “Did you say you were called the Phoenix? The kind that’s found in storybooks?”
“Hahahahaha!” The Phoenix let out a laugh like a rumbling thunder. “So people think I live in storybooks now.”
“But you can’t be real! This is a dream.”
“This is certainly not a dream! You fell from a great height and I was summoned to save you.”
“You heard my prayer?” Ayron couldn’t believe it.
“No, the Firestone on your dagger called out to me.”
“The Firestone?” Ayron glanced at the dagger sitting in its leather sheath. “But stones can’t speak.”
“Of course they can!” The Phoenix chuckled. “The stones on the mountains sing praises to God all day long! This one is special though, it’s made from the same piece of sun dust as me.”
“What? Sun dust?”
“Look, she is trying to speak to you!”
“But I don’t hear anything.”
“Put your hand over it.”
“It’s warm!” Ayron placed one hand over the hilt of the dagger.
“The first king of the Zuries chiseled it in the Valley of Tears when it was still hot like burning fire! His descendants have since tamed it to obey its masters.”
“What? Stones can be tamed?”
“Yes, very much so! She knows her rightful master and would never obey a stranger.”
“I still can’t hear it though.” Ayron pressed the dagger against his ear.
“You must listen with your heart, Prince Ayron.” The Phoenix explained.
“Listen with my heart…” Ayron thought about it for a moment. “How…how do you know my name?”
“I’ve been the Protector of the Zuries for as long as they’ve been around! I know the name of every prince when he’s born,” the Phoenix answered proudly.
“But I’m a prince of Orr.” Ayron was puzzled. “The Zuries are my mother’s people.”
“That’s correct. Your mother was a princess of the Zuries, which makes you a prince of the Zuries.”
“Hmm, I always thought my mother’s brothers’ sons are the princes of the Zuries?”
“That’s usually the case, but your grandfather is a little different from most kings. You will understand when you see him,” the Phoenix answered. “Do you see the Valley below us? That’s the Valley of Gor, and the Cliff of Death is to our right.”
“Wow…I didn’t know the Cliff of Death was so beautiful. I had never seen it from my father’s kingdom.” Ayron marvelled at the deep red sedimentary structure that descended into the white marshlands below.
“God made all things beautiful. The marshlands below us are called the Field of Ecstasy, because the waters in it are thought to grant people eternal life. Many valiant men have lost their lives there in search of eternal life.”
“Can people really live forever?” Ayron wondered.
“It’s only a myth. No man has ever returned from the Field of Ecstasy alive.”
“If it’s only a myth, then why do people still go there?”
“Eternal life is the dream of men, is it not? Some men are willing to sacrifice everything for it, since there’s nothing more important in this life for them than to live forever.”
“Hmm, that’s very sad.” Ayron glanced downwards and saw the moving landscape below. “Why is everything white on the ground? Did it snow here?”
“This place is too warm for snow.” The Phoenix was happy to change the topic. “The Field of Ecstasy used to be golden and the ponds were the colour of fresh spring. Everything has turned white since the curse, and the Emerald Forest became the White Forest.”
“The White Forest?”
“It’s just yonder, ahead of us. It’s hard to see the trees of the forest from here because everything is white. There’s neither birth nor growth in the forest, only death. If the curse doesn’t get lifted soon, the whole forest will die, and all its inhabitants with it.”
“What’s the curse of the White Forest?” The hairs on Ayron’s back stood up. This is more exciting than all the stories I’ve read.
“It’s quite a long story…” The Phoenix mumbled to herself. “Let’s see, where should I start…”
“Please start from the beginning,” Ayron requested.
“As you wish, my Prince.” The Phoenix let out a gentle sigh and cleared her throat. “The story took place almost three hundred years ago. The eldest son of King Rollan, Gorman, was a valiant warrior and mighty hunter in the land of the Zuries. He fought many battles for his father and won them all. But when his father was old and wished to pass on the throne, he refused to become king because he loved roaming in the wilderness more than ruling his people. He convinced his father to make his younger brother Rurek king, so he could spend his days hunting in the wilderness.
“Gorman hunted all kinds of beasts in all the lands of the Zuries, from the Valley of Lolaville to the Bearinton Mountains. His wife, Zylina, was of one heart with him and followed him all the days of her life. The people respected them because they protected them from the wild beasts and their enemies in the surrounding lands.
“At that time, God consecrated the Emerald Forest and forbade men to enter it. Gorman and his wife, however, set their hearts on it when they grew bored of all the land of the Zuries. Gorman said to his father one day, ‘father, I have tread upon all the lands of the Zuries, from the Valley of Lolaville to the Bearinton Mountains. I know every inch of it by heart. I have also protected our people from the wild beasts and our enemies all the days of my life. Now, please give me permission to explore the Emerald Forest, the land which God has kept from us. Perhaps there are ravenous beasts lurking inside the forest, which could one day rise up and destroy us.’
“King Rollan answered, ‘my son, I can see that you have set your heart firmly on the Emerald Forest, even though I have warned you many times of the severe punishments of trespassing God’s commands. If you must satisfy the wild desires of your heart, then swear to me that you alone will bear the punishments of this deed.’
“‘I swear to you, father. I alone shall bear the punishments of my deeds.’ Thus Gorman and his wife forced their way into the Emerald Forest. They killed the creatures that guarded the entrance of the forest with diamond arrows, which could pierce through any metal. They tread the forest on their wild horses and hunted the wild beasts for game. The creatures of the forest were appalled at their behaviour and complained to God.”