This story is by Lindsay Plikuhn and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Once upon a time, there was a kingdom in a valley ruled by a benevolent king and loving queen. The gods graced them with two sons. The castle sat central and elevated delineating royalty from the common folk, and the town spread from the castle similar to the iris of an eye, ending at a towering wall, protecting the people.
Prince Henry, the firstborn, would inherit the throne, and he took his duty seriously. From a young age, he followed The King everywhere, learning the complexities of ruling a kingdom. In town, Henry mingled, earning the love of the people and desire of the women, helping anyone who needed it in an unbiased manner. The future was bright.
Prince Charlie, the second born, was unlike his brother not being regarded as highly. Not being the heir, no one paid him much attention. He became a jokester as a child which continued to adulthood, entertaining everyone in the castle, making them laugh with glee over his tricks and jokes. But his parents scolded him to act more proper, like royalty should.
Despite their differences, the brothers were close, and Charlie often persuaded Henry to run off to have fun. They adored each other even when disagreeing, or so it appeared.
The boys also loved the same woman. Unfortunately for Charlie, it was the Princess Anne betrothed to Henry, so he kept his feelings buried deep. She was from a rival kingdom whose father promised her hand to Henry in return for a peace treaty and an alliance. During her first week at court, they became smitten, which was special for an arranged marriage. They went for long walks and rides, describing their lives and dreams. At the end of the week, Henry descended to one knee asking Anne to be his queen. Behind the bush, Charlie’s heart was breaking while eavesdropping on the moment. Anne was lovely and friendly to Charlie, especially since he meant so much to Henry. They frequently spent time just the two of them walking through the castle grounds while Charlie told jokes.
Charlie hid his envy well. Henry had the throne, a beautiful bride, the town’s love, and their parents, while he was a disrespected rascal. No one suspected jealousy since the brothers were inseparable and Charlie portrayed a negative attitude toward responsibility. Even their parents dreaded something happening to Henry, leaving Charlie the throne.
The brothers often rode their horses past the town’s walls to the open meadows, breaking atop a hill at a magical forest’s entrance where only the bravest warriors dared enter. When the boys were young, they risked entering to glimpse magical creatures, toying with danger and fate. Most legends talked of malevolent beings such as witches and wizards, unicorns that used their horns to impale you, or wolves the size of horses with knives for teeth. They saw nothing exciting, or so Henry thought. In truth, Charlie returned without him in search of someone who could do magic to grant him a request.
One spring day, the teenage boys rode to that spot beholding the kingdom, talking and laughing as they had for years. They reminisced of their escapades to the forest and discussed how oddity once Henry was king and where Charlie fit, possibly as one of his advisors. Henry reassured Charlie he’d always be important to him, but that changed nothing.
They ate lunch and Charlie produced mead to share. They toasted to the future and drank. A minute later, agonizing pains shot down Henry’s spine through his legs, which started to elongate. He sprung up in panic. The pain persisted as his view rose higher as he grew. Next, it shot through his arms and fingers as they stretched longer. Not only were all his limbs and trunk lengthening with great suffering, but his skin morphed to a rough texture with a dark brown color. His fingers were the exception, turning green instead. His toes pushed through the soil, digging through rocks and roots, trapping him. Fighting against it by attempting to escape was pointless as they dove deeper and more secure. He tried yelling to Charlie who sat on the grass staring at him without concern, but no voice emitted.
The pain suddenly and graciously ceased; Henry took inventory of his new higher view, which reminded him of standing at the top of a ladder peering at the castle and town. He looked down his body which now was a tree trunk, his arms splayed overhead giving way to branches and leaves like the forest, and his previous toes rooted him in place. Cracks between the bark allowed him to see everything but only the one direction along the hill toward town.
Charlie stood in front of his brother, grinning sinisterly. He hadn’t known exactly the outcome of the potion from the forest witch, other than ensuring it wouldn’t kill his brother or allow him to be king. Despite his need to remove Henry permanently, Charlie refused to cause his death. This accomplished both. As he explained this to Henry, sap trickled down the tree trunk, expressing the tears he could not cry. Charlie apologized emotionlessly, previously accepting his needed sacrifice if he wanted to prove he could be a remarkable king and be honorable in earning Anne’s love. They couldn’t learn of his deceit. He’d tell everyone a forest creature attacked, dragging Henry into the woods, and even with a great fight, he succumbed without a body to bring home. They would enshrine him in town as the king who never was.
Charlie mounted his horse, mocked his brother by telling him he loved him, and rode home, leaving Henry fixed in place with nothing to do. Rain set in representing Henry’s ongoing mourning for all he lost and his powerlessness to change it. Mocking him further, the rain formed a magical pond that played live scenes from court. If becoming a tree was painful, being forced to watch what happened in the kingdom was agony. He saw his funeral without a body, how his parents and Anne grieved for him, and how Charlie comforted Anne. This bloomed into a mutual love following their betrothal with Henry’s “death”.
Henry became enraged each day as he witnessed Charlie’s transformation from a letdown to the future king through their father’s and his advisors’ guidance. How could he betray him after the love they shared, or was it his naivety for not seeing it? The pond remained, playing the horror show of what Charlie stole below.
One day while staring at the water, Henry realized Charlie and Anne were exiting the town walls on horseback, heading up the hill toward him. Unfortunately, Henry did not keep the ability to talk in his transformation to tell Anne he lived, and shaking his branches or dropping leaves on them drew no special attention. They sat at his pond and set up for a picnic. Henry wondered what Charlie was playing at, and observed as Charlie wooed Anne further with promises, sweet kisses on her hand, long gazes into her eyes, and ultimately asked for her hand in marriage similar to what Henry performed at the fountain those months ago. As Anne said yes, and they hugged severely, Henry screamed at the top of his lungs to only himself. He glimpsed Charlie, facing him during the embrace, give the smallest smirk and wink in his direction.
Just before they rode home, Charlie suggested they carve their initials into the tree that was now Henry. It burned like they were carving directly into his skin if he had any left, feeling every puncture and drag of the knife. Anne’s face appeared gleeful, but he saw the new sadness in her eyes since his death. All he wanted was her happiness. They left and never returned, but Henry observed multiple generations pass through the kingdom he could never rule, doomed to live multiple centuries alone as a tree. Over the decades, young couples tortured him by coming to carve their initials for luck of a happy marriage, which reminded him every time of the love he lost. He yearned for someone to come end his agony by cutting him down or burning his wood.