By John Adams
Three boys were born on the same day to different mothers: a queen, a blacksmith’s wife, and a farmer. The queen, herself descended from village-folk, wished her son to understand the kingdom’s people, so she allowed the young prince ample playtime with the lads who shared his birthday. Thus, despite disparate societal roles, the three boys were fast friends by the time they could walk.
And walk they often did, trekking the nearby forest, eager for adventures of cursed treasures, enchanted maidens, and terrifying ogres. Alas, such magic had long-ago dwindled from this forest, so their adventures were limited to the occasional startled snake. Still, they faithfully dashed back to their woodland escapades again and again. For even though the thrills were meager, the company was grand. The boys were inseparable.
They continued their outings for years, laughing as heartily at sixteen years of age as they had at six. Over time, their responsibilities grew. The farmer’s son now tended fields as a farmer himself. The blacksmith’s son was his father’s apprentice. And the prince managed courtly duties; primarily, his engagement to a far-away princess, whom he loved deeply.
One warm day, the prince was, as usual, gushing about his princess. He led the other young men—still boys, really—through the woods, chirping about his betrothed’s virtues. “Poised and kind, she is. With ravishing beauty and rambunctious wit. She…”
He turned to see the blacksmith’s apprentice and the young farmer dawdling some distance back, chuckling at a shared private joke.
Forcing cheerfulness, the prince called, “Keep up, friends!”
“Right away, companion,” said the apprentice, mid-laugh.
“Almost there, chum,” said the farmer.
They barely hastened their pace.
Flummoxed, the prince glanced toward the nearest tree and cried, “Behold! A fairy dwelling!”
His words commanded speedy effect. His adventure-hungry friends darted ahead, quickly reaching the prince…only to discover disappointment.
“That’s no fairy dwelling,” said the apprentice.
“It’s a leaf,” said the farmer, “rippling in the wind.”
“Apologies,” said the prince. “My mistake.”
A short while later, the boys picnicked by a stream. Having downed a flask of wine, the prince ambled to a private spot to relieve himself. He returned to see the apprentice teasing strawberries into the blushing farmer’s mouth.
The confounded prince momentarily stared before hollering, “Behold! Dragon’s gold!”
The lads sprinted to their friend’s side…and again knew disappointment.
“That’s no dragon’s gold,” said the apprentice.
“It’s orange bushberries,” said the farmer, “glistening with dew.”
“Apologies,” said the prince. “My mistake.”
Later, as sunlight grew cooler, the boys challenged each other to climb trees. The prince claimed a majestic oak. The apprentice, a sweet chestnut. And the farmer, an old walnut.
Or…so he said. But when the prince shimmied up his oak and looked over, the farmer was not in the walnut. He was in the sweet-chestnut tree, kissing the apprentice, entangled in a high fortress of boughs, branches, and bliss.
The prince inhaled, calmly climbed down, and counted to three. Then, he yelled, “Friends! Behold! You shan’t believe this—an evil ogre!”
The other boys scurried down their tree…to find something else entirely.
“That’s no evil ogre,” said the apprentice.
“It’s a deer,” said the farmer, “noshing on grass.” Before the prince could offer another false apology, the farmer continued, “Why these games, chum?”
“Games?” the prince huffed. “You’re the ones who… who…”
The apprentice smiled. “Ah. You saw us. Kissing.”
“Perhaps,” the prince said dryly.
“You are unhappy,” the apprentice surmised.
The prince forced a casual sigh. “‘Tis hardly my concern.”
“Are you…jealous?” the farmer asked. “I’ve never had any inkling you were inclined toward our…inclinations.”
“Jealous?” the prince scoffed. “I’m a prince! My inclinations begin and end with my princess. She owns my heart, my desires. Poised and kind, she is. With ravishing beauty and—”
“Rambunctious wit?” the apprentice hazarded. “You’ve said.”
“On occasion,” the farmer added, offering the slightest smile.
“I’ve—” the prince started.
But his imagination outpaced his words. He imagined his only friends growing closer to one another, growing further apart from him. He imagined getting older, he in his castle, they in some cozy farmhouse. He imagined his responsibilities—to the crown, to the kingdom, even to his princess, much as he adored her—consuming his attentions until his childhood companions became vague memories.
He imagined growing up.
So, the prince—this boy who was almost a man—pulled his lips tight and his heart tighter. “I’ve grown too old for playmates.” He turned on his heel and marched away. And though it felt like hot daggers thrusting into his gut, he refused himself the luxury of turning back to beg his friends’ forgiveness.
He had not traveled far when he walked straight into a tree.
Except it wasn’t a tree.
Because trees have bark, not pus-warty skin. Branches, not hulking arms. Knots, not beady eyes.
And trees rarely heave thick, thorny clubs in the air.
“O-o-o-ogre!” the prince whisper-stuttered. He stepped back, lost his footing, and tumbled onto his rear.
The brutish monster clomped forward, sneering. Digging his hands into the mud, the prince tried to pull himself away, but he slammed into a tree—an actual tree this time. The ogre towered over him. With a nasty chuckle, it swung its club.
The prince prepared for a bludgeoning. Instead, familiar hands jerked him to his feet.
The blacksmith’s apprentice winked. “Lucky we’re never far from your side, companion.”
Relief showered over the prince.
“An adventure,” the overjoyed farmer cried, pulling his giddy companions away from the ogre. “Finally!”
Together, the boys easily eluded the creature, relishing their long-sought excitement, laughing and running, running and laughing, sliding under branches, merrily stumbling over the same untended roots they’d often stumbled over before. The prince smiled, content that no matter what the future might hold, whether blessed marriages or beastly monsters, their bond would endure.
‘Tis good to have fast friends. ‘Tis even better when they are faster than ogres.