Geography was boring, so Alfred sneaked out.
After all, making a 10-year-old kid learn about a country he had just visited a few times was quite tiresome, even if it was necessary for the prince title. Finding the secret passage leading to the royal garden was much more interesting.
In the middle of spring, the Reinhardswald royal garden was brightly colored, but he always found them too flashy. Only the patches of bluebells lying on either side of the stone path leading to his tree were deemed befitting.
Alfred was only 10 years old, he did not understand, and he hated geography because they all spoke about places he had never set foot, hated fencing because the knights’ sons always laughed at him when he stumbled, hated politics, those days he followed his father into the throne hall to take after the ‘elders’ who only knew how to seize the most fertile lands in the kingdom for themselves.
Alfred was only 10 years old, he did not understand, but he accepted that his father had long since stopped looking at him with a gentle expression.
The path to his tree was not long, however obscure enough to make it difficult for his father’s guests to find. The gardeners rarely took care of this place, flowers and grass stretched all over the ground, which he did not mind.
That day, under his tree, there was a stranger.
“Who are you?” He asked, because it seemed like what he should do.
The stranger wore a long cobalt cloak down to their ankles, hood covering half their face, but Alfred could catch the golden light shining off their stray curls from where he was standing. The slim figure was gazing at the tree’s branches, and did not seem to notice his presence until he spoke.
As if broken out of a trance, they turned around, and he thought he had never seen this stranger’s clothing before. Brown belt and a white shirt, each buttons carved with strange symbols along the sides. The pattern on the cape button reminded him of an ancient sigil.
“I am Arthur, my prince,” the man replied after an undescribable look, bowing slightly. Alfred still couldn’t make out his face behind the fabric, except for the slightly curved corner of his mouth, although the distance between the two was within his reach. If asked, Alfred would assume this man was enjoying something in him.
He shook his head. A name was not an answer to many questions, like how ‘Arthur’ was in this place, or how he could recognize the prince who had only appeared to the public a few times behind his father on the balcony when he gave his annual speech.
Now he was sure that ‘Arthur’ was chuckling. “Worry not, little prince. I am just a humble messenger. Although you can call me a storyteller.” He pulled down the hood, and those eyes shined a shade of green more brilliant than the peridots embedded on the royal crown.
“A messenger? For whom?” He couldn’t help but be curious. The aura emanating from the stranger somehow intrigued him.
“For the fairies, my prince. That gives me the title of a storyteller.” Arthur smiled, leaning against the tree. Alfred quietly followed.
“Fairy tales or legends, just like their name, are known and spreaded through fairies. But fairies and humans rarely cross paths, so my job is to tell those stories back to the human world,” he explained, pride clear in his voice. Each of his tangled hairs seemed to gleam under the sunlight peeking through the leaves, Alfred felt a strange emotion stirring in his chest.
Fairy tales to Alfred were a luxury. Back then, when his mother was still there, she would sit by his bed every night when his father was locking himself in meetings, telling him the legend of his great grandfather, the prince who slayed the fire dragon at the foot of the Sababurg palace, and became the first king to rule over Spades until he fell asleep. In his memory until now, it was not a very fascinating story. It’s just that, on nights when it’s hard to sleep, her voice and gentle gaze were the only things which could soothe him.
That was the closest thing Alfred had to a fairy tale. But it had been five years since the day she died, and Alfred had learned to sleep alone.
Seemed to read his thoughts, Arthur soften.
“I would be honored to tell you one of the stories that I myself collected, little prince.” He looked at him again with those hard-to-describe eyes, but he could feel fondness in the offer.
Alfred had never agreed on anything in life faster than that moment.
The prince was delighted to spend his afternoon under the tree with the extraordinary self-proclamed storyteller. The mermaid’s call for her love followed the old tale of an lonely beast finding love in an castle deep in the forest’s wood. They gave him the sweet taste of the childhood he hadn’t the chance to savor. Tales followed by legends and myths, until he realized the sun was about to set.
“Arthur, will I see you again?” Alfred asked hastily before he had to return to the palace.
“As long as you wish for my presence, my prince.”
Their meetings became routine. Every time Alfred reached the tree, Arthur was waiting for him. Alfred will enchantedly listen to him mourning the broken heart of the frog prince’s loyal coachman, or the miracle of Rapunzel’s tear which brought light to her beloved. Alfred loved those stories as much as his rare childhood memories. He never asked why Arthur could always be there when he got to the old tree, or even why his clothing did not seem to be affected by the weather. After all, a messenger for the fairies was anything but ordinary.
When Alfred was seventeen, his father remarried.
The new queen was a kind woman, though he rarely had the chance to meet her. She would be a great queen, he told himself, trying to ignore the dull throbbing in his chest. The image of the royal lovers marching in front of the people at the palace gate became a familiar sight, almost in contrast with the gloomy atmosphere of the stern king and the shadow of ‘prince Alfred’ looming on the balcony just a few years ago.
When Alfred was eighteen years old, the kingdom was joyous to celebrate his new-born twin brothers.
Alfred had never seen his father so happy.
“Arthur, why is the dragon always the bad monster in your stories?” He muttered on an autumn afternoon, the weather was not cold but enough for pedestrians to quicken their steps.
“I’ve never said that dragons are bad creatures, Alfred,” he breathed out after a while, his eyes looking up at the gray clouds creeping past the far off sky. It was going to rain.
“So why are they always imprisoned or slayed by knights? Did the knights just go off to kill them without a reason?” He frowned, throwing a stone into a nearby puddle.
Arthur was silent.
One day in July, Alfred was nineteen years old, when he felt like he was dying.
Chest beating rapidly, heat spread throughout the body even though the winter air had turned freezing. His head ached like a hammer pounding inside his skull, and his joints just went out. Alfred tried to reach the old tree and then fell down. Before he passed out, he barely managed to make out the shade of green filling his vision.
Somehow, he knew that he was not sick.
Alfred woke up with a groan. The uncomfortable heat stopped rushing all over his blood vessels, but his whole body was tired and dizzy. He suddenly felt like this was not his body anymore.
Picking up himself, Alfred was aware of a few things. First, Arthur was with him. Second, maybe he was right.
Easily reaching a taller height than the top of the man before him even though all of his four limbs were touching the ground, Alfred blinked at the red scales spreading across his skin, gleaming under the bright moonlight not unlike a golden armor, ending with sharp claws digging at the earth in an attempt to stay upright. Back strained from adjusting to the large, leathery wings folded neatly along with the big tail swaying lazily as his prolonged spine, he could hear the slightest sound of a dry leaf falling. Heat puffed out every breath and the smell of smoke tickled his nostrils.
Alfred was a dragon.
Arthur’s voice pulled him out of the upcoming panic.
“Don’t be afraid, Alfred. You will return to your human form soon. If I guessed right...”
What’s happening? Why was he like this? He had too many questions hanging at the tip of his tongue, but what came out was just a confused squeak.
Alfred jerked back when Arthur stepped closer, fearing that his new form would hurt the blond man. Despite every clumsy steps trying to avoid Arthur, the storyteller continued to advance and before he could do something stupid such as running away in his newly-gained form, Arthur was rubbing small circles on his snout. Alfred unconsciously closed his eyes, nuzzling his head against the welcomed hand.
The feeling was so familiar it scared him.
“Alfred,” he said, his voice only higher than a whisper, but Alfred could hear every word clearly as a long-learned phrase being recalled.
“You have never belonged to this place.”
The moment Arthur’s words dropped into the air, his head was like hundreds of rusty gears finally clicking together.
Their meeting, the desire to leave the old land had sparked in him, their promise, days of traveling side by side. Even the painful loneliness when he ‘died’ that night. The images rapidly filling the cracks in his memory were almost unbearable.
“Arthur?” He croaked a sound closest to the human tongue he could manage, his eyes dazed.
How could Alfred forget him?
“Arthur ... how long have you been waiting?” He said, trembling, voice nearly drowned out in the sound of wind picking up its rustle.
“One hundred years, give or take,” he shook his head. “But it doesn’t matter. I found you,” Arthur answered, and Alfred realized he hadn’t seen him smiling so freely for so long.
“Yes, I’m here now.”
“What is our next destination?”
“Hamelin City. The second great tree to the east and straight on till morning.” Arthur led the way. Alfred saw in his eyes the mesmerizing spark of stars and a smile rivaled the beauty of the moonlight just began to peek through the horizon.
Three days after his 342th birthday, they set off again. Afred had a feeling that the man he used to call his father would not be too upset when he left. He’d be fine with that. He was a wise king but not a man of family. Just like that man, Alfred shook his head. Hope that will soon change. Leaving behind the past, he left Sababurg with a light heart, human form hiden under long robes.
“No stopping overnight?” He joked.
“That is the only way to go to Hamelin Castle. Unless you just want to visit the next village,” the lighter blond rolled his eyes. “Besides, is there any danger dares to confront a dragon?”
Alfred joined along with the smile finding its way on Arthur’s face. The loved beast let the familiar words roll off his tongue
“What will await us when dawn comes?”
-and was satisfied to see the corners of his mouth slightly curved into a magnificent expression of pride.