Naomi Sky saw the forest as one big patchwork quilt, stitched together by magic, and she knew for a fact that there were a lot more creatures in there than the townspeople of Hylan Hills knew or wanted to know. There were gentle, kind-hearted creatures, beautiful and graceful and there were dangerous, ugly creatures that slashed and bit and kicked. And then there were the in-between creatures. The ones who weren’t ugly, but also weren’t exactly kind-hearted. The Forest Prince was one of those creatures. He looked a lot like a Wildling… only he wasn’t one of them. The Forest Prince was something else entirely and something far more wild than the fair creatures who visited on the first day of Fall in their masks. He was a creature of the woods through and through with orange skin and brown eyebrows and a brown nose. Whenever Naomi ran into him, he always wore a giant crown woven from twigs and branches and leaves and berries. And he never, ever wore a mask. He said that wearing a mask would hide him from his subjects and that his subjects were the entirety of the forest. When Naomi told Robin that though, he said the Forest Prince was wrong. The Forest was the Green King’s domain and that everything inside were his subjects.
Naomi and Robin walked on the path until they were so deep in the forest Naomi could no longer see her house or backyard or any kind of human civilization. She grabbed his hand and led him off the beaten trail and into the woods. Her converse cracked over fallen branches and stomped over the grass. “Do you ever take your mask off?” she asked, peering curiously at Robin.
He nodded. “Yes. But not in the human realm. Faces and eyes and names hold power.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that you should not have given me your true name and that you should not give anyone in these woods your true name. Your true name holds power and the people of the forest can use it against you.”
“So, what you’re saying is… Robin isn’t your real name?” His eyes suggested that he was smiling under that mask. “Yes.”
“Yes, it’s not your real name?” Naomi asked.
“Yes, it is not my real name, but it is the name I give people. The name I am known as,” he explained.
Naomi thought about that, and swallowed as she realized something. “The Forest Prince knows my real name but he always calls me Sky.”
“Then that is what I will call you, Sky,” Robin said.
Naomi had a forest name now, a Wildling name. Sky and Robin. She liked that. The thought put a spring in her step and she skipped past trees until they came to a stream that Naomi had named Gildar’s Brook, after the troll who lived on the bridge that went over the stream. Most of the time Naomi just trudged straight through the stream so she wouldn’t have to pay the troll’s price, but this time she didn’t feel like soaking her socks and shoes.
“That’s a troll bridge,” Robin said.
Naomi nodded. It was less of a bridge and more of a plank of wood that had been there since Naomi was a very little girl. She stomped on the plank and not a minute passed before Gildar’s furry head appeared. Unlike the goblins who had green skin and glowing eyes and mischievous grins, trolls were big and lumpy and lumbering. If the whale shark was the gentle giant of the sea, then the trolls were the gentle giants of the magical world. They got a bad rap for reasons Naomi couldn’t comprehend. Trolls were covered in mossy, algae colored fur with big soulful blue eyes and flat noses and big, careful hands. Gildar however, was much smaller, to go along with his tiny plank of wood. One of his hands reached over the side of the plank and grabbed hold of her ankle. Naomi laughed, but Robin rushed over, grabbing her hand, his own hand reaching for his side as if he expected to have a sword waiting there. “No! Trolls are dangerous, get back before he devours you,” Robin shouted.
Naomi laughed as she bent down and patted Gildar’s head, his blue eyes peering up at her and his lips stretching into a lazy smile. “Trolls aren’t dangerous Robin. Gildar isn’t anyways. He’s my friend and he wouldn’t hurt anyone.”
“That is untrue,” Robin snapped.
Naomi shook off his hand from her shoulder, ignoring him. “May we cross? I’m helping Robin get to the Forest Prince.”
“Be careful Naomi Sky. Wildlings are untrustworthy,” he said in his deep, growly voice.
Robin huffed behind them and Naomi just smiled and patted Gildar on the head once more. “I’ll be careful and next time I’ll come with treats. Promise!”
Gildar’s smile widened, showing off moss covered teeth, then he slunk back down under his plank of wood and disappeared. Satisfied Naomi grabbed Robin’s hand and led him across. “You have a way with trolls,” he commented.
“No, I don’t. Everyone in the forest has been nice to me. They all like me.”
“I don’t know why,” Robin said back.
Naomi shot him a scowl and he shrugged. “I mean, most creatures of the forest are vicious and dangerous and liars. Yet they seem to like you very much. No one has tried to snatch you or stop us.”
“Why would they? I’m kind to them and they return my kindness, or at least that’s what the Forest Prince says,” Naomi explained, leading him further into the woods. They turned at Grandfather Maple, went left around the Weeping Rocks and stopped in front of what the Forest Prince called, The Forest Palace. His palace wasn’t so much a palace as it was a huge clump of bushes and trees surrounding a big meadow, obscured from the rest of the forest and his mischievous clan of boys, made up of an assortment of creatures in the woods from young trolls and goblins to People of the Forest and Changelings.
Naomi stopped in front of the bushes and let out a shrill whistle, calling for someone to let her in. “Just let me do the talking. They don’t really, well, they don’t really like Wildlings,” Naomi explained.
Robin scowled. “The feeling is mutual. I don’t much care for a pretend prince and a bunch of ruffians pretending to be something they’re not.”
Naomi frowned just as three creatures surrounded them. A young troll, covered head to toe in mossy fur jumped out of the bushes, a Changeling with his gray skin and spindly arms and legs and bulbous yellow eyes hopped down from a nearby tree and a Forest Boy with his green skin and brown eyes and a leafy bushel of hair appeared behind them. The troll cast Naomi a soulful smile. “The Prince was not expecting you today,” he said in his gentle, rumbly voice.
Naomi smiled. “I know. I just need his help with something.”
“Does it have something to do with this Wildling creature,” the changeling asked, his voice raspy and thin. The type of voice that one would expect to belong to a hunched over old witch.
Naomi nodded, her smile wavering when she saw the sudden, malicious looks on the creatures faces. The way they glared and sneered at Robin as if he was covered in slime and a parasite. Robin glared right back at them, his hand going to his side again and coming up with nothing. Naomi had a feeling he was used to being armed, but for some reason he’d lost his sword or forgotten to bring it.
“Wildlings aren’t allowed in the Palace. The Forest Prince won’t like this. Not one bit,” the Forest Boy said, his voice much gentler and wispier than the other two.
Naomi turned to face him, turning her back on the troll and gave him a pleading look. “Please, we won’t be long and I promise Robin will behave himself. Just tell the Prince that I’m here and that I need his help. I’m willing to pay.”
At the word pay, all of their eyes lit up and the Changeling’s eyes roved over her, landing on her Adventure Backpack. She’d made enough bargains with them in her short years of life that they knew just where she hid her treasures. Naomi really should have brought some better things, the Forest Prince loved sparkly, bright things, but they would both have to make do with what she had on her.
The Changeling’s long yellow tongue licked over his lips and Naomi made a point not to shutter and wrinkle her nose. Changelings were her least favorite of the creatures who lived in the woods. They were more than just mischievous, they were often dangerous and deadly and creepy and lurked in the shadows. They preyed on the innocent and the weak and Naomi was both of those things. The only thing that kept her protected from them was the Forest Prince’s good favor. If she were to fall out of his good favor Naomi wouldn’t be able to show her face in the forest again. Though, she had enough troll friends that they would defend her. Probably…
Magical creatures were unpredictable. One minute they could be allies and good friends and the next enemies and the worst of dangers, so Naomi was happy when the Changeling disappeared to go talk to his prince. While he was gone, the Forest Boy stepped closer and peered at Robin’s face, scanning his mask. “You aren’t a normal Wildling. Every Autumn my people and I watch as your kind makes your journey from the Summer-Lands to the Autumn-Lands and they all wear animal masks. The only one who does not is the king. He wears a mask of leaves. Much. Like. Yours.” The Forest Boy tapped Robin’s masked forehead and Robin swatted his hand away, glaring at him. “You know nothing. I only came here because Sky insisted that the Forest Prince could help or else I would not have stooped so low as to consort with the likes of you.”
Naomi’s jaw dropped at his sour words. What was the matter with him? He couldn’t talk to people like that. She grabbed his wrist and tugged him so that he faced her. “That’s rude. The trolls and Changelings and Forest People and goblins and many other creatures live in these woods. This forest is their home. The Wildlings only pass through, they never stay, so you don’t really have any right to talk to them like that.”
Robin jerked his wrist free from her grip and leaned in so close she could see into the depths of his eyes. “Only I do, because the king of the Wildlings rules over this forest and every other forest in the entire world. Any forest, big or small, inhabited or remote belongs to him and therefore to me.”
“And why’s that?” Naomi asked, folding her arms, challenging him.
“Because I am his son, the crown prince of the Wildlings,” he whispered furiously.
Naomi balked, taking a step back in shock. The crown prince of the Wildlings. She didn’t even know the Wildlings had a king, let alone a prince! No wonder he was so bitter toward the Forest Prince. The Forest Prince was pretty much impersonating him!
“I… I had no idea,” she said.
Robin’s eyes shifted from the troll to the Forest Boy, both of which were eagerly trying to hear what they were whispering to each other. “No one can know who I truly am. My father has enemies and if they got word that I am vulnerable and alone, they will not hesitate to try and take me or kill me.”
Suddenly this little adventure felt a whole lot more real. Robin was in danger. A lost prince of the Wildlings. He had enemies and… and Naomi was pretty sure she was leading him right into the palace of one of them because there was no way the Forest Prince would tolerate anyone calling himself the prince of all forests to be alive. Naomi knew that the Forest Prince took people’s lives… she knew that Changelings killed and trolls ate and that people went missing in these woods. She didn’t agree with the killing, with the ruthlessness of the forest, but it was their way and Naomi knew she couldn’t do anything to stop them from being the creatures that they were. It was their nature and no one could change that. But now someone who was trusting her could get killed because of her. Someone she knew by name - by fake name, anyways.
This idea to bring him to the Forest Prince didn’t sound so good anymore. It sounded very, very foolish. Naomi reached for Robin’s hand and was about to tell the troll and Forest Boy that they would find help somewhere else or better yet, that they didn’t need help at all, that this was all a big misunderstanding when the Changeling reappeared, a malicious grin on his lips. He looked at Naomi as if he knew who Robin truly was and knew how much Naomi was panicking on the inside. “The Forest Prince has allowed you entrance. We will take you to him.”
It was too late, Naomi thought, her heart sinking into the pit of her stomach as she gripped Robin’s hand, no matter how much he tried to swat her away. There was no turning back now. If she tried to leave now, they would find her suspicious and insist that she come, by force.
So, Naomi took a deep breath, and told herself to be brave. To be her wild and untamed and Forest-Self that she had been for so many years since first straying off the path in the woods and bumping into the Forest Prince. The only way she had survived this long by visiting the woods was by being as courageous and brave and ruthless as the other creatures in these woods and that was just what she intended to do. Not just for her sake, but for Robin’s sake too. If she messed this up the Forest Prince would surely kill him.She took a step forward and followed the three creatures into the Forest Prince’s palace.