7. The Curse of the White Forest
“God was angry with Gorman and his wife. He sent an Angel to speak to them. ‘Gorman and Zylina, what have you done? Did you not know that the Emerald Forest is forbidden ground? Did not God give you all the wild beasts in the Valley of Lolaville and the Bearinton Mountains? Why did you come into the Emerald Forest and bring harm upon the creatures here? What harm have they done to you? Therefore, God’s anger burns against you and your wife for the ruthless deeds you have committed.’
“Gorman bowed himself on his wild horse. ‘Angel of the Almighty God, I have sinned against God by disobeying his command. I dare not beg for forgiveness, for I know that my transgressions are beyond pardon. My father warned me many times not to enter the Emerald Forest, but I could not resist the desires of my wild heart. I had to see this forest with mine own eyes, and now I have no more regrets in life. I only ask you to spare my father and my people from the grave punishments I deserve, for they are guiltless of my deeds.’
“The Angel of God answered, ‘death is not a just punishment for your deeds. God has commanded for a curse to fall upon you and the Emerald Forest. All the creatures of the Emerald Forest will put on the garments of winter and fall into a deep sleep. You shall take the form of a creature that befits your nature. You and your offspring shall dwell in this forest all the days of your life. For when you step out of it, you shall be hunted by men as wild beasts. You shall no more eat of the creatures of this forest because their flesh will be poison to you, but you shall find food in the Pearl Sea.’
“Gorman pleaded earnestly, ‘I am deserving of all the punishments decreed by God, but the Emerald Forest and my offspring have committed no offence. Please plead for me to God to have mercy on the Emerald Forest and my offspring.’
“The Angel of God looked at Gorman with compassion. ‘Gorman, what has been decided by God cannot be changed. However, if you repent of your sins and teach your children to do the same, God will one day send a young boy to lift this curse. He shall come in garments of snow, and you shall see in his eyes the beauty of the Emerald Forest.’
“‘God is truly merciful! He has not condemned me to death. I will do everything in my power to teach my offspring to walk in the way of righteousness.’ Gorman and his wife bowed their heads in worship. A lightning struck them and their upper bodies merged with the wild horses. Gorman cried out in great anguish and beat his chest in sorrow, but it was too late. He became a centaur, who must change his heart inside a beastly body.”
Ayron held his breath when he pictured the transformation of Gorman’s body in his mind. Are Centaurs real too?
“Gorman and his wife live in the White Forest today with their many children. Much to his grief, many of his children have succumbed to their beastly instincts and refused his goodly teachings. They have made themselves a stench to the inhabitants of the White Forest. Only one of his sons, Floyden, took his father’s teachings to heart and taught his children the hope of changing back to man.”
“So the boy hasn’t come yet…” Ayron was disappointed.
“The young boy is on his way,” the Phoenix answered cheerfully. “My Prince, please try to remember the name of Gorman’s goodly son Floyden, and the names of his children Drysten, Corvan and Garvin.”
Floyden, Drysten, Corvan, and Garvin. Ayron repeated in his mind. “They have such unusual names.”
“These are the names of the Zuries. Your mother also named you according to the traditions of the Zuries. ‘Ayron’ means the ‘exalted one’.”
“Hmm, mother did mention that…” Ayron was pleasantly surprised that the Phoenix knew so much about him.
“Prince Ayron, do you see the mountain ranges south of the White Forest? They are the Bearinton Mountains. The Valley of Lolaville is just behind them.”
“Wow!” Ayron marvelled at the lofty snow-white mountains that reached towards the Heavens. “The Valley of Lolaville…that’s the land of the Zuries!”
“Yes, my Prince. Can you see the stone castle atop the highest summit?”
“I can see a tiny square jutting out.” Ayron pointed to the highest mountain peak. He could barely distinguish the white stone structure from the rest of the mountain.
“It’s difficult to spot the castle now, since the mountains have turned white. It used to look like a white spider guarding a dark grey nest.”
“A castle that looks like a spider? It sounds like a creepy place.” Ayron shuddered at the thought.
“The architect would be very disappointed to hear that.” The Phoenix let out a gentle chuckle. “He actually intended for it to be a beautiful fortress, but the original design was not practical for such high altitudes. So the Sage added a number of ducts that look like spider legs in order to draw up water.”
“Is there a curse on it too?”
“You could say that…all of us are cursed in some way.” The Phoenix sighed. “The great warrior, Mahon, built it for King Zuriah many years ago as a place of refuge during times of war. But the king refused to live there because of his fear of heights, so Mahon moved into it himself with his family. He only realized how difficult it was to live in such an isolated place after he moved in, but he was too ashamed to move out because of the huge amount of money he spent on building it.”
“What a strange man!” Ayron was amused.
“He took every opportunity to leave the castle, be it war or important events in the king’s court, and left his wife and children to occupy the castle. They endured extreme cold in the winter and heat in the summer, lack of nutrition and isolation from civilization for many years. As soon as he passed away, they moved back to the Valley of Lolaville and called their former home the ‘Forsaken Castle’. It was left empty for twenty-five years, until Sage Rufus decided to occupy it with his family.”
“So that’s where the Sage lives.”
“Indeed. It has been his home for more than two centuries.”
“You mean he’s more than two hundred years old?” Ayron pictured in his mind a hunched-over skinny man covered in untamed white hair and beard, shaking uncontrollably.
“He will be three hundred and fifty-eight years old next month.”
“What? I’ve never heard of anyone who’s more than a hundred and five years old!”
“You’re still very young, my Prince. There are many things you have not yet seen.” The Phoenix shook her feathers gently. “Sage Rufus is the oldest and wisest man alive today. He will instruct you on many things when you see him.”
“Are we going to him now?” Ayron was excited.
“I’m afraid I cannot take you farther than the entrance of the White Forest. You must walk through it to get to the Bearinton Mountains.”
“You mean by myself?”
The Phoenix nodded.
“But how could I find my way in such a grand forest?” Ayron hugged the Phoenix’s warm feathers tightly. “I’ve never gone anywhere by myself before…”
“Take courage, my Prince! Walk along the Crystal Creek and it will lead you to the other side of the forest.”
“What should I do when I get hungry and thirsty?”
“You may eat of the Snow Mushrooms and drink from the Crystal Creek.”
“Are the Snow Mushrooms real too?” Ayron recalled them from the stories his mother told him.
“Of course! They are shaped like snowflakes and hang from the branches of the great oak trees. You’ll recognize them when you see them.”
“And what shall I do if I encounter wild beasts?”
“The God of your mother and father will protect you from all the evil forces of this forest.” The Phoenix reassured Ayron. “There is, however, one danger I must warn you of.”
“What is it?”
“There’s nothing more dangerous than the thoughts of your mind. Therefore, pray to God constantly for peace in your mind, and meditate on His promises. That’s the only way to pass through the White Forest safely.”
“I will guard my heart diligently, but I’m still scared…” Ayron’s voice trailed off as they descended towards the giant sequoia trees, which guarded the entrance of the White Forest like vigilant soldiers.
“You will understand the kindness of the White Forest once you get to know its inhabitants. The ancient trees and Mother Earth will be delighted to see you.” The Phoenix made a soft landing and gently placed Ayron on the ground.
Ayron saw the magnificent creature face to face for the first time. He marvelled at her size and awesome beauty. She was covered with saffron feathers and glowed with the radiance of the sun. Her head had the form of a well-groomed peacock and its golden crest was like a flowing diaphanous flame. And her eyes flickered like a burning fire.
“This is the entrance of the White Forest. The Crystal Creek is just yonder.” The Phoenix pointed her beak towards a half-worn path between two sequoia trees. She cast a vermilion glow on the whiteness around her. “My Prince, go directly to the Sage after you pass through the White Forest. Do you understand?”
Ayron nodded hesitantly. “Please don’t go!” He threw his arms around the Phoenix’s neck and buried his face in her soft feathers.
“The God of your father and mother will protect you from all danger.” The Phoenix nudged Ayron on his head affectionately with her beak. “I must take leave now.”
“Wait!” Ayron stepped back so he could see the Phoenix’s face. “I haven’t thanked you for saving my life today.” He placed his right fist over his heart and clasped his left hand over his right. Then he knelt on his right knee and bowed his head towards her. “I grant you my utmost and heartfelt gratitude as the Prince of Orr.”
The Phoenix recognized the royal gesture and bowed her head in return. “It is my duty to protect the Prince of the Zuries.” She lifted her wings and took flight in the direction of the Bearinton Mountains. “If you lose your path inside the forest, look to the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars for guidance. But most important of all, listen to the voice of God.”
“Will I see you again?” Ayron shouted after the Phoenix.
“In the time of the Great War, I will fight for the people of God by your side.” The Phoenix’s thundering voice drew farther and farther away. “Farewell, my Prince.”
“Farewell.” Ayron watched the Phoenix’s silhouette longingly as it disappeared into the setting sun. He picked up a glowing feather on the ground and caressed his cheeks with it. Hmm, it’s still warm, and feels just like her. He kissed it and tucked it inside his white robe. She is right. God will protect me from all danger. I must take courage… Father and mother are waiting for me, I cannot let them down! My God, please help me…I don’t know how to be brave, please help me… He collapsed on his knees and wept for a long time.