He knew that his first prey, the firebird, lived high up in the trees in the heart of the forest. Like lightening, they were hard to miss, and the piercing of its beak left a burn that could never be forgotten. Suddenly, the boy heard a shriek, and he whirled his head to see the blood-red bird swooping toward his face. Panicking, the boy lunged for the ground, and for the net that the wise man had given him. He hurled it at the bird – and missed. The bird, angry, made another giant swoop at the boy – and tore its flesh as it flew straight into the blade of the boy’s sword. That was one creature taken care of. His next target, the freezing spider, could be either much harder, or much easier, the boy knew not which. The spider could not run, or jump, unlike some of its relatives, but it was harder to find, and its poison froze the human blood and made its victims helpless, lying on the ground shivering until the arachnid finally took pity on his prey and ate it. He tried not to think about it.Instead the boy thought of ways to attract his prey; if he could get it to come to him, the killing would be easier – and definitely much safer. The freezing spider would eat any kind of flesh it could, but it was well known that the spider loved most to eat the flesh of humans. Well, what should he do? Obviously bait was safer than waiting for an attack, so the boy pulled out his dagger and held it to his upper arm. That was when he saw the grey bristles of the freezing spider. It was sitting quietly on a nearby shrub, its back toward the boy. Holding back a sigh of relief, he took one quiet step toward his prey, holding the dagger high, and stabbed it through the spider before it knew what hit it. A little less active a kill than the firebird, but just as exhilarating. Now the only victim left in this task of the boy’s was the netherworld wolf, and what a creature. About the size of a pig, these dogs could tear up a man in two minutes flat, or so it was said. However, being the largest of the creatures made it the easiest target. All that the boy had to do was look. He took out his crossbow (he figured it was the weapon least likely to let the wolf draw blood), and moved on in search of the wolf’s lair. This search took longer than the first two. The boy wandered for two days and two nights with nothing to show for his efforts. On the third night, he finally let himself sleep. As he stretched himself out on the cold ground, he felt himself drift into mysterious dreams. They didn’t matter when he felt the pain. The boy awoke to find himself surrounded by a pack of netherworld wolves; they obviously had not officially started an attack, but one had definitely bitten into him to see how he tasted. The boy grabbed his crossbow from his side and fired wildly into space. This startled the wolves, but only made them more angry.However, in the half-second the wolves had spent watching the arrow, the boy had had time to aim, and shot a wolf in the heart. The others, now fearing for their lives, ran back to their lair, not to bother the boy again. He smiled. The first of his tasks was done, and he’d come out of it in quite good condition. A bite in his side, but some water would take care of that.
After about a quarter hour of walking, the boy reached a stream that he had found earlier in his journey. It was the one pure element of the forest, and it was how he had gotten water and food (he had eaten the leafy plants that grew along the side of it). The boy kneeled now and scooped up some of the cold, crystal fluid to clean his wound. He looked down to his left side to see a piece of paper sticking out of the mud. Strange, he thought. He picked it up. It was a map, like one that a pirate would have drawn. But how could a pirate’s map have gotten into the Forest of Mirth? The boy was thinking about this when something on the paper caught his eye. The cup of Alfred the Great! It was written right below the giant X at the bottom of the page! The boy stopped thinking of the map’s origin and concentrated on what was written on the old, browned paper. Obviously the map showed the area he was in, because it had the forest and the nearby village on it. It was somewhere in between, right near the outskirts of the town that the X was drawn. “Simple enough,” said the boy to himself. “I will follow the map until I find the cup. It shouldn’t take me too long.”and with that the boy was off. He walked for two days until he came to the edge of the forest. It was night then, and the boy looked at the stars. He found the North Star almost straight in front of him, as if beckoning him forward. The boy followed, all the while thankful that his father had taught him his directional skills when he was young. The map said to go two hundred paces North until he reached a giant rock, shaped like a skull. Two hundred and twenty-seven paces later, the boy found it. Wrapped around the rock was a giant snake. The boy had been warned about the snakes outside the Forest of Mirth. They had a great gift for persuasion, and when that didn’t work, they could hypnotise a mortal into doing their bidding without question.
“Young one,” he hissed, “Come hither.” The boy stared at the snake, but he would not move. “You want the treasure, do you not, young one?” asked the serpent in a tempting voice. “Come hither and I will tell you a secret about this treasure.” The boy finally spoke. “You are too kind, good snake, but I know what it is I am looking for, and frankly, though I hope you do not take offense, I do not wish to know anything more.”
“Who cannot want to know the secrets of the serpent?” hissed the snake. “I know all and am powerful. All you need to do is come hither so that I can tell you what it takes to be like me. It lies in that treasure.”
“Once again, good snake, I say I do not wish to know more about this treasure. Thank you, but I will continue with my task now. Please leave me alone.” and with that, the boy started to dig through the earth, hoping that the snake would be quiet. It was not to be so.
“Young one, if you do not seek this treasure for wisdom and power, then why do you seek it?” asked the serpent.
“It is not your concern.” was the boy’s reply.
“I am giving you one more chance, young one. Look into my eyes.”
Without a word, the boy kneeled before the snake, grabbed it by the tail, and smashed it against the rock, killing it instantly. What it had truly wanted, no one would know, but it was a well-known fact that a serpent never wanted anything good. Another valuable lesson the boy’s father had taught him. He continued to dig. A short while later, the boy came upon a large, wooden chest. It was about the size of a sewing basket; not very big, but big enough for the cup of Alfred. The boy opened the chest, and what he saw was unquestionably the most beautiful thing the boy had ever laid his eyes on. The cup was gold, with rubies lining the rim, and small diamonds, no bigger than pebbles in between. For a while, all the boy could do was stare, but eventually his mind got back on track and he put the cup in his net, which also contained the firebird, spider and wolf, and headed in the direction of the village. When he got there he could sleep.
The next day the boy woke up at dawn. He had reached the village probably at midnight, and had simply curled up in front of the first corner store he found. The first person he saw was a woman of about forty years of age. “Excuse me ma’am,” said the boy “but do you know where I could find a certain man? He is very old and sick and he has a daughter who is about my age.” The woman looked suspiciously at the boy and his parcels for a few moments and then said “Yes. Come with me.” She lead the boy to a small, rundown house in the middle of the village. “This is where they live.” she said. “No one has been here for quite some time. This is where I will leave you.”
“Thank you.” said the boy. “You’ve been too kind.” The woman nodded and was off. The boy knocked on the door.
“Who’s there?” It was the voice of a young girl, not more than sixteen.
“You don’t know me,” started the boy,
“Then why should I let you in?” demanded the girl.
“Because I am here to help.” said the boy, and he explained his quest, minus the part about her having to fall in love. He waited a few minutes and then he heard “Fine. Come in if you must.”
The boy opened the door. The inside of the house was even worse looking than the outside. There was dust everywhere, old, dirty dishes piled high by the window, and sunlight couldn’t get in anywhere since the windows were so grimy. The boy tried not to notice. Instead he looked at the girl who had let him in. She was truly beautiful, with auburn hair which fell in messy ringlets around her face, and eyes as green as emeralds.
“So?” asked the girl.
“Let’s get at it.” said the boy. “I’m not sure exactly how this works, but let’s try this: do you have any water?”
“Of course we have water.” the girl snapped. Then, a little more gently, she said “The pump’s out back.”
The two went to the pump and the boy pulled out the goblet. The girl stared. “It’s beautiful.” she finally said.
“I know.” said the boy. “That was my reaction.” The two filled the goblet and brought it back inside.
“I’ll take you to my father.” said the girl. She led him to a room just to the right of the front door. There, lying on the bed was a frail old man who, in reality was sixty, but looked like he could have been a hundred.
“Father,” said the girl, “this boy has something that he says will make you better. Please drink from this cup.” The father nodded slowly. The boy moved over to the side of the bed and held the cup to the old man’s lips. Water poured everywhere, but the man did still manage to drink some of the liquid. Suddenly, his eyes shone. “My dear boy,” said the man. “I feel like I was just reborn!” He sat up. “I don’t know who you are, but I owe you my life!” He turned to his daughter. “My dear child. You are so beautiful and so kind to have taken care of me for all this time. Thank you dear. I love you with all my heart.”
The girl, having never heard such kind words before, didn’t know what she felt, but suddenly she realized that she truly loved her father too; and she told him so. The father and daughter embraced, and turned to the boy.
“Thank you.” they said.
“You’re welcome.” the boy replied. “Now, I must be on my way. I must go back to the wise man so that he will fulfill my wish.” And with that, the boy was on his way back home.
The old man looked up from his books. “Young one,” he said, “you are home quickly.”
“My task is complete master.” said the boy. “Please fulfill my wish.” The old man smiled. “Go home young one, your wish has been granted.”
The boy hurried home to find his mother waiting for him at the door. “Son,” she said “I’m afraid I have news that may disturb you. Your new father died yesterday, very suddenly. No one knows quite how it happened. It was almost as if magic had occurred.” The boy suppressed a smile, for he knew his mother hadn’t accepted the thought of being alone. The point was though, that she wasn’t. The boy turned to his mother and said “Mother, I know you are unhappy because two men that you cared about have died, but I hope that you remember that you will always have me and that I love you very much.”
Tears welled up in the mother’s eyes. “Oh son,” she said “I love you too.” and the two embraced and went back into their house to live happily ever after. Words
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