STRANGER IN

THE FOREST

Flour flew into the air, creating a white cloud that covered everyone on the left side of the palace kitchen head to toe in flour, and hung in the air like a thick fog, the kitchen staff, looking like vengeful phantoms from the realm of spirits, directed their furious glares at the only clean occupant in the room.

 

“What in Sol’s slumber is wrong with you?” Screeched the head cook Bethra, flour falling from her hair as she marched forward and grabbed Lipil by the collar.

 

Lipil squirmed frantically in her strong hold, whimpering as she pulled harder, the buttons of his cooking jacket popping in his struggle to get away. “It was an accident,” he pleaded.

 

“Accident? Accident,” she said in outrage, her orange skin taking on a red glow. “Just like when you mistook pepper for salt, or wine for vinegar? Or when you spilled the pot of soup?” She bellowed, growing redder as she remembered all the ‘accidents’ Lipil had caused in just the last week. “Not only are you incapable of reading, but you also have two left feet,” she said throwing him down.

 

“I’m sorry, I’ll clean it up,” Lipil said, sitting on the floor, with his head down and hands on his knees.

 

Bethra watched the pathetic display but did not allow it to move her. Kneeling for forgiveness had simply become habit to him. “Just get out,” she said quietly.

 

“No, it’s okay, I’ll clean it,” he said passionately, already using his hands to wipe the spot in front of him.

 

“Lipil, I said get out,” Bethra said exasperated.

 

“No, Ms. Bethra I insist, I must make up for this failure,” Lipil said, then stood and went to get a broom.

 

Bethra sighed and was about to tell him once again to forget it, but before the words could leave her lips, Lipil tripped. He fell on the floor, throwing the settled flour into the air once again, and everyone watched with their mouths agape as the broom flew out of his hands, and landed in a large pot of fire-fish stew they’d been letting boil down for the last nine hours.  

 

The uproar was instantaneous. All the cooking staff began yelling and cursing profusely, Lipil, looking up from where he fell on the floor, turned as pale as the flour that now covered his face. Bethra picked him off the floor and shook him violently.

 

“What’s wrong with you? I told you to leave it…I told you…” she said breathing hard “What is wrong with you?”

 

Lipil shook his head, and started crying, causing the flour on his face to thicken. “Nothing’s wrong with me Ms. Bethra, except that I must be cursed. You wouldn’t understand,” he said pushing a way from her. His whole body shaking with sobs. “I’m not even meant to be here… I was meant to be an artist…art is the only thing I’m good at,” he said dropping to the floor, as if he’d suddenly been yanked down by the hand of calamity, his whole demeanor showing defeat.

 

“I don’t give two craps about what you were meant to be, you are here now. The least you can do is not become a hindrance. Now, for the last time, get out of here… and don’t come back until you’ve gotten your act together,” Bethra said unsympathetically. “The only reason I even let you keep working here is because I feel sorry for your poor mother,” she added quietly.

 

Lipil couldn’t say anything at the mention of his mother. He got up, and slowly left the kitchen with his head bowed, leaving flour footprints behind him. He took the nearest servants’ door outside and looked up at the sky, too blue, and the sun too bright. It hurt his eyes to look at them, so he turned towards the forest behind the palace, so dark and thick that getting lost would be an easy feat, never returning would be easier. He wiped the tears from his eyes, but they continued to fall, making a disgusting dough on his face as they mixed with the flour. Giving up on his face, he sat in front of the forest looking into the darkness for comfort, until he stopped crying. It had been two months since he had begun working as a kitchen assistant in the palace, for two months, and he hadn’t improved a bit since the first day, if anything, he’d gotten worse at the job and even more depressed.  It was no wonder that Bethra was frustrated with him, when he was fed up with himself.

 

He sighed loudly, roughly peeling off the dough on his hands, then stood up suddenly, and started pacing, feeling restless after thinking about his job, the pacing doing nothing to calm his soul, he turned, running desperately and blindly into the forest. His breath came out in quick, agonized bursts, his sides hurt, his knees were straining. At some point his shoes had come off, but he kept running deeper into the forest, even as branches hit his face and rocks scratched his bare feet. The physical pain felt much better than the ambiguous, amoeba like pain worming around in his chest. He continued to run, even as he wasn’t able breath anymore, his vison blurred and darkened, his body tilting. Not caring where he was going, or seeing the path in front of him, he forced one foot in front of the other, until he tripped on a log and fell painfully. He rolled over, holding his stomach tightly, curling into a ball on the ground, his body spasming with coughs. He remained curled up until his breathing settled, then he laid on his back, and looked up at the canopy of trees. The forest glowed green from the sunlight, and for what felt like the hundredth time that day, tears welled up in his eyes.

 

“I’ll just die here and disappear, then everyone would be happier,” he said miserably, collecting fists full of dirt and throwing them.

 

“Are you okay?” A gentle voice said above him. Lipil screamed and jumped to his feet, almost colliding with the man looking down at him.

 

“Who are you? how long have you been there?” He said looking at the man suspiciously. It would have just been his luck if he suddenly met some crazy person, or killer while alone in the forest. He stepped back, and cautiously appraised the man, trying to gauge what kind of person he was.  From the man’s face, it was difficult to guess his exact age. His was built tall and muscular, a body that looked like it had grown accustomed to battle, though he had an easy air about him, so Lipil’s initial guess was that the man was in his early 3000s. Then, looking at his eyes, shining a dazzling gold, and holding a look of such wisdom and power, as well as concern, Lipil reconsidered, think the man must have been at least 10,000 years old.

 

His age would have been a good indicator of who he was, after all, all the guests currently visiting the castle were over 5,000 years old. Lipil didn’t want to accidentally insult one of the king’s guests by being to familiar. Even if the man wasn’t a crazy killer, he could still get Lipil punished for disrespect if he was a noble. Still unsure, Lipil looked at his clothes.  He was dressed simply, but he did not act like a commoner, avoiding direct eye contact, or being overly cautious, like Lipil was being. What was stranger though, was that the man felt oddly familiar, like a face he may have seen in passing a few times. With that thought, Lipil concluded that the man was probably one of King Derlin’s guests that usually wander around the halls of the palace, and that he was in no danger of being assaulted.

 

The man didn’t say anything, but he was still giving Lipil concerned looks. “How long have you been her sir? Did you hear everything I said?” Lipil asked again, this time making sure to be more respectful.

 

“Well you tripped over my leg,” the man said pointing to his leg where there was now a noticeable white patch of flour.

 

“Oh,” Lipil said meekly, sliding back to the ground. “Sorry. It seems everywhere I go, I only bring calamity.”

 

“You don’t say?” The man said sitting on the ground next to him “Why don’t you tell me why you feel that way?”

 

Lipil looked the man up and down. He noticed that while the man’s clothes were styled simply, there was gold woven into the seams. He must have been quite wealthy, Lipil thought, so he couldn’t comprehend why the man was this deep in the forest, sitting next to him and asking about his feelings. And even less comprehensibly, and maybe because of how strange the situation was, or because he was so tired, Lipil began telling the man his story.

 

“I work in the palace kitchen now, but before that, I was a painter. My family’s not well of you know?” He said unconsciously pulling his sleeves and dusting flour of his body. “We’re not well off, but my mum… she worked really hard to get me lessons, and thanks to that, I became an apprentice at a pretty popular workshop, things were starting to look up. I was even about to have my first show,” Lipil said, his eyes lighting up as he recalled the moment he still consider to be the apex of his life, then remembering what happened after, his voice fell. “then one day we found a note on the door.” Lipil let out a hollow laugh.

 

“My father, he wasn’t around much to begin with, but he left a note saying that he had to leave town cause his gambling debts had gotten to be too much… don’t you find it ridiculous,” he said glancing up at the man. “My mum told be to keep up with my art, but two months ago she fainted cause she’d been overworking try to make enough to take care of us and pay off my dad’s loans… I had to quit painting and get a job.”

 

“So that’s why you work in the kitchen?”

 

“Yeh, but I’m so clumsy, and I hate it there… things would be easier if I just disappeared,” Lipil said weakly, partly serious, but also hoping the man would refute his statement.

 

“True it would be much easier for you if you disappeared, but then you’d be doing exactly the same thing your father did. Disappearing when things get tough. What would happen to your mother if you suddenly left as well?” The man asked. his voice was so calming, that Lipil didn’t realize when he’d started leaning on the man’s shoulder.

 

“I can’t leave my mom,” Lipil said sighing.

 

“Exactly, you can’t. So, don’t speak about disappearing anymore,” The man said, then paused for a bit, hesitantly. “You know, when I was younger, my family had a … Um… well, let us call it a business,” the man said. “When my father died, my older brother was next in line to take over the business, and because of that, for a long time, I lived a pretty carefree life. Unfortunately, though, my brother passed away from an illness, and I was left to take over a position I had no interest in. So, what do you think I did?”

 

Lipil glanced at the man. He was looking into the distance, with a small smile on his face. Lipil thought he was definitely a man who knew the weight of responsibility. “You took on the position and did you best even though it wasn’t what you’d planned.” Lipil answered. He thought he already knew where the story was going, but was startled when the man burst out laughing. His laughter was deep and loud; it sent vibrations through Lipil’s small body.  The man laughed so hard, that he whipped tears from his eyes.

 

“Ha… If only,” the man said through his laughter before settling down and sighing. “No, I ran away. I ran away as fast as possible. I stole some money from the business and went to live with my friends on Marak for a few years.”

 

“you’re kidding… then what’s the point of this story. Are you telling me to run away?”

 

“I haven’t finished the story yet,” The man said smiling. “So, after I stayed on Marak for ten years, living my life in the easiest way possible, I went back home to see how the business was doing… well actually, I’d run out of money, so I was going to get some more.” Somehow as he said this, he still looked dignified even though he was obviously embarrassed.

 

“When I got back,” the man continued “I couldn’t believe how bad things had gotten, the pla…um, I mean business was on the verge of failing. Worst of all, all the employees where suffering with the effort of trying to maintain a business whose owner had abandoned it.”

 

The man sighed and ran his hand through his hair. The sun was setting, and it it’s orange light, Lipil could see age creeping into the man’s features. “I felt so pathetic… and I could go on and on about what happened after, but to make a long story short, I begged the employees for forgiveness, took up the post I’d abandoned, and began rebuilding the business.”

 

“How’s the company doing now?”

 

“Well, I retired a long time ago, and my son took over…” The man said, then was silent, and for a while did not even seem to be breathing, tension evident in his body. From the heaviness of his silence, Lipil guessed that company may not have been faring too well under his son. “I thought my intention was to help you by telling this story, but now it seems like I just filled you ears with my own concerns.”

 

For the first time that day, Lipil smiled. “Well that’s true, but, although I can’t say exactly why, I definitely feel better,” he said.

 

“Well, that’s good to hear,” the man said standing up, then he offered his had to Lipil and pulled him too. Lipil knew he was short on the side, but the man towered over him by at least two feet, and while he was sitting and listing to the man’s refined voice, he forgotten about the man’s muscular build. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t imagine the man sitting behind a desk managing a company’s finances, when he looked like he could pull out a sword to start slashing enemy soldiers at any minute.

 

The man placed his large hands on Lipil’s shoulder and looked right into his eyes. “Tell me you name,” he said in a voice that while still kind, had an edge of authority.

 

“Lipil Halin,” Lipil said in a small voice.

 

“Lipil… you’ve runaway, and now you want to disappear, but I think it’s too early for that… I’ve lived a very long time, and I know what the eyes of people with no hope look like, you do not have those eyes,” he said confidently, and his words seemed to dig into Lipil’s spirit, forcefully lift it up. “There is still determination in you. Survive thing passing storm, because when you come out of it, you will be better for going through it than those who didn’t.”  

 

Lipil simply nodded, not knowing what to say. The man took Lipil’s hand and held it between his palms. Lipil shivered, as he was made aware of the how chilly the temperature had gotten by the intensity of the heat radiating from the man’s hands. “Alright Lipil, you’ve come quite deep into the forest, but if you go straight that way, you’ll get to the front of the palace in about twenty minutes. Now go,” he said, then added, “Also, whenever you end up having your first show, as a painter, and I know you will, be sure to send me an invitation. You can consider me your first collector,” he said, smiling broadly.

 

Lipil wanted to ask the man his name, or how he could contact him, but the man’s words felt like an order, and Lipil was compelled to follow. He walked away in the direction the man said, looking back a few times to wave at him, until the trees blocked him from sight.

 

Just like the man said, he arrived in front of the palace shortly, and began walking back to the kitchen, his thoughts more positive than they had been in a while. Yes, this was all just a passing storm, he would go back to the kitchen, apologize to Bethra, and ask for a second… tenth chance. As he walked, with confident strides and his chin up, something he saw made him stumble.

 

 A group of servants were standing around one of the many sculptures of the previous and most beloved ruler of Dreakar, Great King Marviel. They were throwing bronze coins in the fountain, but that wasn’t what made Lipil stumble. The light was fading to evening, but as he stared at the countenance of the Great King’s regal face, he let out a sound between a gasp and a screech.

 

“Impossible!” he yelled, running towards the fountain, ignoring the strange looks people were giving him as he walked right into the water. There was no doubt about it, this was the face of the man he’d been talking to.

 

“Impossible, impossible,” he muttered and sat right in the fountain. He didn’t even notice as the cold water seeped into his clothes and soaked his body. He was in shock and filled with fear. If anyone found out that the Great King of Dreakar— the God king himself, the longest ruling king on any planet, the oldest living mortal being in Nol— had sat on the floor telling him some story, what would they do to him? Lipil didn’t think he could be any more shocked but found that the next level beyond his stunned silence, was mad laughter. The story, the company. The King was talking about the throne of Dreakar.

 

After sitting in the fountain for a while, going from silence to laughter to terror, then laughter again, he noticed a crowd had gathered around him. He looked around at the mixture of concerned and angry faces, then slowly got up and out of the fountain. “Please go on with your business, there’s nothing to see here, nothing at all, I dropped something, that’s all.”

 

“What do you mean nothing to see, have you gone mad Lipil?” A loud familiar voice yelled. Bethra pushed her way to the front of the crowd and covered him in a blanket. “Do you know how long we’ve been looking for you, then some stable girl comes to tell me your sitting in a fountain and laughing…”

 

Each of her words were accompanied with hard rubbing as she tried to dry him off. When she realized the towel was useless, she dropped it, and put here palm on his head. He felt heat radiate from her palms and begin to warm his body, and his clothes dried quickly from the hot air she sent blowing through them. When she was satisfied that he was dry, she sent glares to everyone watching them, then pulled him away in the direction of the kitchen. They walked in silence for a while.

 

“Lipil, say something,” she said, looking at him with concern that she’d never shown before.

 

“I meet a god today,” he said breathlessly. Bethra stopped and turned to him with a suspicious look.

 

“Marviel’s fire! Have you really gone mad?” She said taking a step back.

 

Lipil laughed at the curse, earning him another look. “I’m okay, seriously. I’ll work harder from today, I swear on the God King’s name, seriously,” he said. Bethra still looked concerned, but she continued walking.

 

“You know,” Lipil continued “I met someone who wants to become a collector of my paintings, I guess I just got a little shocked by it.”

 

Bethra sighed. “All right, I’ll buy it, if that’s what you say, but just know that I will definitely be keeping an eye on you. No way I’m having a crazy person in my kitchen. You were bad enough when you were sane.”

 

Lipil giggled to himself as they passed another monument dedicated to Great King Marviel. Maybe he had gone mad he thought. After all, how could the mind of a mere mortal like him remain intact after being the presence of divinity. They passed yet another statue, and he laughed again. He’d never noticed just how many statues of King Marviel there were around the palace.

 

Instead of going to the kitchens, Bethra lead hm right to his room, giving him a few more suspicious looks before she left.

 

That night, as he laid in bed, he couldn’t help looking forward to the next day, as his future seemed suddenly filled with possibilities.

‚Äč