"That's the last of them, your Highness," the grizzled huntsman said, surveying the clearing with cold, cautious eyes. He kept his bow at the ready, however, as he watched his master clean his sword. Too many years of hard experience had taught him not to let his guard down within the bounds of the Forest of Elrit.
Prince Cornelius of Titania saw the man's caution and took it to heart even as he sheathed his blade. Combat in the training halls of his father's castle was one thing, but this was real, life and death, not an exercise where the bulk of the damage would be to his pride.
"You think there could be more, though."
Horatio, the huntsman, nodded.
"In this place, who can say?"
Elrit was not like the ordinary forests of the kingdom. Some said it was because of its closeness to Ragnanival, that it had absorbed some of the Demon Lord Odin's magic into itself. Others spoke of a witch that was supposed to have taken up residence there in the past few years. For whatever reason, the foliage grew more lushly, the ancient trees seemingly heavy with knowledge, while watery bogs stank of poisonous decay.
But then, that was why Cornelius was there. The hunt was a noble art, but the coursing favored by the lords of his father's court, chasing deer or boar, or to set a falcon to strike like a Valkyrie's dive at fowl or small game, was not to his taste. Killing something defenseless filled him with nothing but nausea. Here in the Forest of Elrit, it was different. The creatures here were monstrous, from poison-spewing frogs to massive triple-jawed manticores. Every so often, those monsters would venture out of the forest and claim victims in Titania's borderlands, and Cornelius had chosen to answer one such recent excursion himself. This was his third venture within the forest borders, and he felt like he was starting to get hold of the ways of battle.
It felt good, he thought, to be doing something, achieving something to make his countryfolk's life better. He was their prince, after all, and he had a duty to uphold.
Cornelius wished he could explain that to someone. Even his father the king considered these expeditions of his to be foolhardy. King Edward himself had been a hero in his youth, but it seemed his courage was as lost as the legendary sword of Titania—or else his fear for his son outweighed all else. Cornelius could only imagine what his sullen companion would say if the prince tried to confide in him! Maudlin ramblings, romantic imaginings, that pragmatic man would no doubt call them.
Perhaps he'd be right, at that, Cornelius thought as he swung himself up into the saddle, but I hope not.
"Come," he said, "let us press on." Speaking up helped to drive out the doubts. "There were manticore tracks near that farmstead, so we know that one is venturing too near to the forest's edge."
"I don't think that's wise, your Highness."
"Why not?" Cornelius was surprised by the huntsman's recalcitrance. The man pointed upwards.
"Night's falling fast. Once you get out of the clear path in this forest, it gets dark in a hurry. We don't want to be stumbling through these woods after dark."
Cornelius glanced up. Horatio was right; the first hints of twilight were in the air, and the thick canopy of trees would plunge the forest trails into near-absolute blackness once the sun had fallen. There was good reason to make camp. Yet, too, he wanted to press on. The forest beckoned to him with the urgings of a job unfinished. And, too, he did not like to camp within the Forest of Elrit's bounds. When they'd done it before, it had always felt like there were eyes on him, watching, weighing his every move. While in motion, caught up in action, that sensation seemed to recede, though whether because the watching force drew back or he could simply better ignore it he could not say.
He was not eager to invite the watching eye any sooner than he had to in this witch-haunted place.
And they still hadn't found that manticore.
"One more," he decided firmly, setting his foot up into the stirrup and nearly vaulting into the saddle of his charger. "We'll press on to one more clearing. It shouldn't be far, and we'll camp then."
"As you say, your Highness," his escort replied, though Cornelius could tell he wasn't happy about it. No doubt the very practical risks carried more weight for the practical man than concerns of the mind like a mysterious sensation of being watched, a call for justice to be done, or a desire to prove himself worthy.
Still, the huntsman was a loyal servant, and he knew the difference between something that was inconvenient, potentially hazardous, but still within their ability, and something that was pure foolhardiness. The latter he would prevent, as part of his duty to keep his prince safe, but the former...Horatio shrugged, then turned and walked back towards his own horse.
The sensation of being watched, though, grew sharply within Cornelius as he waited. His gaze swept the edges of the clearing, wondering if there was another wave of enemies, goblins perhaps, who believed the two men made for easy prey. An eerie silence seemed to have fallen, though at least there was not the buzzing of giant bees or the croaking of poison frogs. Even so, it seemed as if the entire forest was holding its breath, waiting for something.
And then he saw it.
It was the eyes that captured him, bright and shining violet like the sky just before sunset. So compelling were they that for that first moment Cornelius saw nothing of the face, the body, like jewels that distracted from their setting. Only then did his attention widen, and he saw the snow-white fur of a great wolf, half again the size of any he had ever before seen. Its lips drew back from gleaming fangs, a long, lolling crimson tongue swept across them in a challenging gesture.
Cornelius did not look away. This, he was sure, was no ordinary creature, perhaps not even an ordinary monster. The white wolf was no doubt the product of Elrit's magic the way the manticores were, and perhaps as dangerous. The prince's hand dropped to his sword, and the wolf growled, then tossed its head, almost dismissively. As Cornelius's steel hissed from its sheath, the witch-wolf turned, and it was off.
"Ha!" Cornelius cried, and touched his heels to his horse's flanks. They were off like a shot, lunging towards the path where the white wolf had vanished. Behind him, he could hear Horatio crying something, but the huntsman's voice seemed somehow not to reach him, and he could not even think now why it was important. The chase had consumed him.
Heedless of anything else, he plunged on and on through the wood, the horse's hooves drumming off the hard-packed dirt of the forest floor. The white pelt of his quarry made for an easy target to spot among the tree-boles and underbrush; though nothing seemed to slow it as it flowed silkily through the wood, the pale spot seemed to call to him, pulling him on like a beacon calling to a seagoing mariner.
At times, Cornelius would pull closer to the witch-wolf, his horse hurtling through open space faster than the beast could travel. Other times, undergrowth would claw at his legs, leaves and branch-ends lash his face and torso, and he would have to slow up. Had it not been for his quarry's unique color he was sure he would have lost it completely; gray or brown or black fur would have been swallowed up by the trees and the gathering darkness, but the white color seemed to shine even more brightly as the light dimmed, insuring that the prince could not lose the trail.
Until, suddenly, it was gone.
Darkness swallowed Cornelius.
He reined his stallion in at once, the clarity of vision he'd felt during the chase shattered. He realized that he had no idea where he was, which direction he'd gone in, but had been lured on without any knowledge of where he was going, and he suddenly felt the clench of apprehension in his stomach.
Keep calm, he told himself. The forest was large and dangerous, but not unnavigable. He knew how to find his way, once the sun rose. He had a weapon, a horse, and supplies—he and Horatio had, after all, been planning several days' excursion.
No, being lost in the Forest of Elrit was not an impossible situation. The real question was, what was the witch-wolf he'd pursued? Had it truly escaped, or had it a purpose in what it had done?
Cautiously, he dismounted. The moonlight filtering down through the canopy of leaves was fractured and dim, and the footing uncertain. The loss of mobility would negate many of the advantages of fighting on horseback, so he'd be better ready to meet danger on foot. Besides, most of his training had come in that way, anyway; he was no cavalryman. He took the horse's reins in his free hand to lead it.
But which way to go?
He needed to find a reasonably safe place to spend the night, some area he could clear of any threats and use the skills Horatio had been teaching him to build shelter, set up crude alarms, and the like. Where he currently was, on the tree-choked path, definitely was not it.
I'm lucky that wolf didn't lead me right into a bog, he thought ruefully. He'd had a lucky escape—if it could be called an escape at all, given that he was most definitely not "out of the woods." Literally or metaphorically, he added.
Well, if he could make fun of his own predicament, he supposed that he wasn't too far gone. It was his own fault, after all—either for the sheer folly of his actions or, as he suspected was the case, for his lack of caution by which he fell prey to the witch-wolf's influence. The more he considered it, the more he believed that it was some spell, some enchantment that had compelled him to follow the creature. It was not in the prince's nature to be enthralled by the chase; he did not thrill to hunt after stag or boar, nor was he such a hothead as to rush off to battle against a foe that was not attacking anyone at the moment and which he knew nothing about. He had let down his guard and fallen prey to one of the fey creatures of the witch forest.
It was a salutary lesson, and Cornelius could only hope that he'd survive to be able to put it to future use.
His eyes had begin to adjust to the darkness while he was going over things in his mind, so that the dim moonlight was able to show him the shapes of things, tree trunks like twisted black pillars, the tangled hedge of the dense undergrowth that clung unnaturally close to those trees, and the gnarled, protruding roots that both he and his horse had to look out for. Again he was reminded of his narrow escape; his mount could have easily taken a fall and broken a leg or injured Cornelius in the topple. Confident that at least he could orient himself now, he began to lead the stallion forward on a relatively clear course that was barely a game trail, let alone a path.
With every step, he peered carefully into the gloom, senses alert for anything that might indicate danger or some kind of impending attack. The eerie silence continued, as if the entire forest was on edge, watching, waiting...but for what, Cornelius could not say. He could only press on carefully, hoping to find something resembling a place of safety.
Then he saw the light.
It wasn't the unnatural brightness of faerie fire, some will-o'-the-wisp, but a ruddy orange spark the hue of clean, natural fire. He moved towards it cautiously. If it truly was a fire, that implied intelligent habitation. A wandering merchant taking the road through the forest between Ragnanival and Titania, perhaps; some did travel this way. Or, less pleasantly, a band of goblins, their poisoned blades ready for a wanderer's back. The thought hit him that it might even be Horatio's own campsite, that the witch-wolf and his own subsequent wanderings might have brought him in a complete circle, as often happened to lost travelers. That would give his tutor in woods-craft a hearty laugh at his expense, the prince was sure, but he'd gladly accept that as the price of his safety. He'd genuinely earned whatever mockery he had coming, which made all the difference.
Trying to stay as quiet as possible, he advanced towards the firelight. As he neared, he could hear the snapping and crackling of the flames; it was clear that this was indeed a fire and not something that his imagination had conjured up or twisted out of his hope for an escape. Up ahead, he could see a brighter backdrop between two trees, and he realized that he was approaching a clearing. Not wanting to rush into danger, he hitched the reins of his horse to a tree and then crept forward, stopping at the edge of the clearing, keeping within the shadow of a tree as best he could. From this makeshift cover, he peered ahead.
The fire was exactly what he thought it was, a blaze that had obviously been built by someone. It was almost a bonfire in size, explaining how he'd seen it from as far off as it was, and filled a stone circle in the center of the clearing. Its light did not reveal anything else such as a tent or shelter; this was apparently not anyone's campsite. That in turn raised the question of why the fire was there at all. Was it some kind of signal light? Parts of the forest were under the claimed rule of the Demon Lord Odin, after all, though the king of the Aesir had largely abandoned any active control over the area to conserve his resources for the war with the Vanir.
Besides, a signal fire needed to be seen from far-off, and this was not; there were too many trees to swallow its light. So that wasn't it, either.
He was about to start into the clearing to investigate when a figure emerged from the far side of the fire, where it had been concealed from view at first.
No, not "it"; her.
The figure was that of a woman, young and slender although curvaceous. The costume revealed by the firelight was skimpy and exotic: a dark bodice and sash around her hips; a crimson hood, puffed leg-o-mutton sleeves that covered only her upper arms, and knee-length half-skirt. Stockings covered her legs from thigh to tiny black shoes, creating shimmering reflections in the shifting light. The fire also cast the revealed skin of upper thighs, midriff, and arms in dull bronze hues, which stood out in contrast to the brighter colors of true gold that flashed and sparkled from a row of decorative ornamentations just below her breasts and in a pattern of stars on the headscarf she wore beneath her hood, but most of all from her rich blonde hair.
It was a strange and unusual ensemble, nothing like the kind of clothing people wore in Titania. It was obviously designed to heighten its wearer's sensual appeal, but even for such a thing the designs, the motifs, were very different from what a Titanian woman would wear to accomplish the same effect. And it had about it the hint of a costume, made not for casual wear but for a particular purpose other than mere seduction, though Cornelius was hard-pressed to imagine what.
In her way, the girl was as exotic and mysterious an apparition as the witch-wolf had been, and as much an elemental part of the Forest of Elrit. What was she doing there, and if the fire was hers, as it seemed, then why had she built it? Certainly it was not for cooking or for warmth. For some reason Cornelius felt as if he had stumbled—or perhaps been brought—to something secret, even mystic.
It was an odd conceit, and yet the prince could not help but be drawn to the idea. The firelight painted the clearing in rich, liquid gold as the flames leapt and danced. The shifting flow of light seemed to follow a pattern, one that flitted at the edges of Cornelius's perception, as if they were following along with music played just out of his hearing.
And then the woman began to move.
It was her arms at first, starting slowly, in gentle passes, her hands giving little flicks as if they were flames, sparks cast off from the very edges of the fire. The movements were almost languid, and yet they carried with them a strange energy. The motion flowed almost without the prince realizing it, so smoothly and naturally did it seem to go from her arms into her shoulders, her shoulders to the rest of her body. She moved from her hips, so he could see the play of the muscles of her bare midriff. Each movement flowed so naturally into one another that it was clear that she followed some rhythm, some clear pattern that remained tantalizingly out of Cornelius's reach. Even the bonfire itself, he realized, seemed to be in harmony, as somehow its leaps and flickers melded with the dance, the changing light highlighting or throwing into shade parts of her body as she moved.
Her legs were involved now, her feet moving in quick, sure steps, the trailing point of her hood and the edge of her half-skirt following, highlighting her movements, accenting the woman's body.
The effect on the young prince was overpowering. The dance was so very different from those performed at the Titanian court, exotic and sensual in a way that the stately turns and figures he knew were not, and yet he knew, was sure, that there was as much formality and ritual in what he was seeing than in any round dance. For all that he could not help but be aware of the sleek curve of her legs, the delicate skin of her belly, the rise and fall of her full breasts, there was more to it than mere sensual abandon. There was a ceremony he was seeing here, something magical that spoke to him deep within.
He had no idea how long it went on—five minutes? Ten? Twenty? All he knew was that he could not tear himself away from what he was watching, the intricate beauty of the dance, the loveliness of the dancer, his earlier worries about his rush through the forest vanishing. Cornelius watched, enthralled, until at last the movements of the dance began to slow again, and the woman sank to her knees on the soft grass of the clearing, then leaned back, arching her back so that, still kneeling, the back of her head touched the ground, her arms flung out to either side. Her lips opened, and she made the first sound he'd heard other than the crackle of the fire since his arrival: a long, low sigh.
The noise of escaping breath seemed to break the charm, signaling the end of the dance so that Cornelius felt he could now advance without shattering something precious. It would have seemed almost a violation had he interrupted, but now he felt he had to make his presence known. He stepped forward, his hands coming up to push aside branches.
There was a slithering sound.
A faint rattle of metal on metal.
Chains erupted from the undergrowth, ensnaring the prince before he could do anything, chains drawn by glittering red crystals at their ends, which whipped around his left wrist and right ankle, then rushed on to bind their opposite numbers, pulling him up so that he hung, spread-eagled, in the air.
The woman had sprung to her feet, and Cornelius could see now that she held in her hand the center of a length of black chain like that which held him—indeed, which probably was part of it. It had been lying flat on the grass while the dancer gave her performance, he deduced, and he'd been unable to see it due to its color and the shadowy, shifting firelight. When she'd sunk to the ground at the end, she'd closed her hand around the chain, and somehow it had answered her will.
A mere set trap did not explain this. The only thing which could was magic.
Not for nothing was the Forest of Elrit called witch-haunted, it seemed.
She walked towards him, still holding the chain, and yet the lengths of black metal did not trail along or gather behind her, as if it was actually shortening in length as she approached the prince, until she stood before him, regarding him with interest with eyes that, he could now see, were the deep violet of amethysts from the heart of Volcannon. At close range, everything Cornelius had seen of her beauty from the edge of the forest was redoubled.
"Who are you, and why have you captured me?" he asked after he'd shaken off the initial moment of being caught by her beauty.
"As the one who has been captured, isn't it you who should be explaining to me why you have come to my forest, Prince Cornelius of Titania?"
"You know who I am?"
"I have seen you before with your huntsman. I know who you are from hearing you talk."
"You spied on us!" he said indignantly.
"As you did to me just now?" she asked pointedly, arching an eyebrow.
"You make a valid point," Cornelius admitted.
"Perhaps not so much as that," she countered, her mien changing as quickly as the shifting flames. "I did bring you here, after all."
"The white wolf—it was you!" The eyes, he realized. They were the same as hers.
"A trick of alchemy."
"But why bring me here and make me a prisoner? I have done nothing to you. Are you one of the Demon Lord's servants, sent to capture me in some scheme against Titania?"
Fury filled her gaze and twisted her voice as she responded at once, "I would never serve that one! He cost me, and my family, everything! Do not ever speak to me of him again."
Cornelius's gaze dropped.
His apology seemed to catch her off-guard, perhaps because it would be the last thing she would expect to hear from a prisoner.
"You couldn't know."
"Yes, but...I spoke rashly, made an accusation instead of letting you explain, and I caused you pain for it, and I had no desire to do that. Please believe me."
It was a ridiculous thing to say, Cornelius realized almost the moment the words left his mouth, and yet he couldn't change it. Indeed, he would not want to, for surprised as he was to find himself feeling this way towards a woman who by her own admission had lured him away from his companion to be captured like any quarry drawn to a hunter's trap, he'd done no more than state the truth.
Ridiculous or not, it seemed to have an effect on her, for her eyes dropped, and a faint blush graced her cheeks. She'd...been touched by his concern?
"So, you do not serve Ragnanival, and I am certain you are not of Titania." He almost blurted out, I'd have remembered if the Wise Men had a follower such as you, but managed to catch the runaway thought before it could escape.
"You are correct." She bowed her head, pressing her fingertips to her chest. "I have no country, not any more. I am now just a witch of the forest."
"I see." Cornelius wondered what she meant by that. From her outrage against Odin, she might have been from Ragnanival, an outcast whose family had been punished for a real or imagined crime. Yet her exotic costume did not look like something out of the northern kingdom, or indeed from anywhere Cornelius knew.
Mystery and enchantment surrounded this witch in many ways, it seemed.
She lifted her gaze back to his.
"And now, I think I have said quite enough about myself. Tell me what the heir to the Titanian throne is doing adventuring in the Forest of Elrit."
"I was not adventuring!" he protested. "The monsters of the forest have been widening their range. Villages and homesteads have been attacked, and people killed."
"I see. Creatures have been agitated these past few weeks, and there has been an increase in goblin activity as well. But why, then, does the prince come hunting alone, or as good as such? Where is your escort of soldiers and hangers-on?"
His chin came up defiantly.
"Do you think so little of me that I would hide away behind the people who look to me for leadership?" he said boldly, but then sighed. "No, I give myself too much credit."
"Oh? But that seemed a very credit-worthy sentiment."
"Perhaps so, but it...it is something that I aspire to, not something that I have been able to practice," he admitted. "This has been my first chance to put my sword to use against a real foe, to be the kind of prince who can help his people with his own hands."
She studied his face.
"Ah, I see. Rather than striving to help your people, you fear that you are striving to become 'a prince who helps his people'? That it is the role you are searching for, and not the end goal?"
It was absurd, really, that he was saying these things to her, things he had never told to his father or Urzur or any of his peers. Perhaps it was being at her mercy that made it easy to open up, that relaxed his will. Or perhaps it was just something about the witch herself, for she somehow gave Cornelius the sense that she did understand.
Her next words proved the point.
"The people look to you, honor you. You are their cherished symbol of what is right and good." She reached out to him and pressed her palm flat against his chest. The prince's hunting leathers blocked anything but the rudest sensation, and yet he seemed to feel the warmth of her hand. "It warms you, their care for you, but it also haunts you that you feel you are not the person they think, and you wish to fasten on any chance you find to become that one. To live up to what they seem to see in you."
"It—" His breath caught. "It is as if you see into my very soul." Cornelius wanted to wince a moment after the words left his lips. It never failed; what he meant to be heartfelt and earnest always somehow turned into something pompous and remote when he spoke, as if he was making a speech instead of a statement. He was always afraid that it inspired distrust, like the people he was talking to thought they heard carefully scripted dialogue.
But the witch didn't seem to think that.
Like she could see into the heart of him, past any illusion or facade.
Could it be magic? Could she truly see within him that way? But that would not produce that heartfelt tone of voice, that slight ache that throbbed in her words that spoke not of something merely known as if read in a book, but something felt, something understood to its depths.
Who was she, to know these things?
She twisted the hand holding the chain and the links loosened, slithering back along Cornelius's arms and legs. Loosed, he dropped to the earth, stumbling forward as he struck the ground, catching his balance with another step, and finding himself almost on top of her, standing with their faces but inches apart.
"I..." he began hesitantly.
"Go on your way, Prince of Titania," she said. "You are welcome in the Forest of Elrit." She stepped back from him and started to turn away.
"May...may I come back? I would dearly wish to speak with you again." He reached for her and caught her hand in his. Her slender fingers were warm and soft between Cornelius's own.
She turned back, her eyes downcast and a shy smile on her lips.
"I would like that very much," she said, and something within him sang.
"I don't even know your name," Cornelius realized as she began to pull free.
"Velvet," he repeated, and saying it felt to him like a whisper of the soft fabric against his lips. "I will soon return to you, Velvet," he vowed.
"If you do not come to see this as a fading enchantment." Her hand slipped from his, and she backed away, vanishing into the undergrowth as smoothly as if she had been but a ghost. But the warmth of her touch and the gentle caress of her voice were as clear and real as anything in the prince's memory.
"Perhaps I am enchanted," he said aloud, "but if so, it is one that will never fade."
~X X X~
A/N: A bit of a gift to my wife; Corny and Vel are her favorite characters and favorite couple in the game, and I thought it might be interesting to write something about how they met. "The Pooka Prince" suggests pretty strongly that he doesn't know anything about her background in-game, so he likely met her when she was just the forest witch, which in turn gave rise to the question of just what a sheltered and slightly spoiled prince was wandering around the Forest of Elrit in the first place. Hence, this story. As for Vel's dancing, well, we're told in-game that her outfit is actually a dance costume that had belonged to her mother (intriguing that we see both of Odin's daughters wearing hand-me-down clothing from their late mothers at various points...), so...why not?
The characters of Odin Sphere as a group tend to speak very formally and seriously. On a meta-story level, one might suggest that that's because they're not actually speaking at all—their dialogue might be taken as the work of the writer of the various books Alice is reading, not the people themselves. But in the epilogue scene where they find the last coin and break the curse, Cornelius is just as, well, corny as ever (and he's by far the worst offender of the main cast in terms of dialogue pomposity). So I thought it might be interesting to have that be a verbal tic of his, that his subconscious mind reaches for flowery and overdone dialogue whenever he doesn't stop and think about it first, and have it cause him a bit of frustration besides.