[This story was written in response to a challenge on the Mythic Scribes forum, and is also posted on that site. About 2000 words.]
A leaf floated down from a tree branch hanging over the balcony of the Green Palace. Ella picked it up from the balcony floor. Numerous holes in the leaf left it looking skeletal. “I’m dying,” the leaf cried, and then it did.
Ella’s heart missed a beat. “The island is overrun by bugs, Gammon. Something must be done, or our beautiful island will be reduced to a sandy beach where nothing grows.”
The High Priest joined her on the balcony. “Curses on Trader Ograk.”
“Gammon, we’ve been through this. Retract your curse. We don’t know it was the ogre who brought the infestation.”
“No one else has visited our shores since the last new moon.”
He had a point. Ella sighed, pocketing the leaf. She would use it, along with all the other recently dead and dying leaves from her tree, in making a new outfit, to memorialize their passing. “But cursing him does us no good now.”
“You’re right. I hereby retract the curse. But we must do something.”
Another leaf fell in front of Ella’s face, crying in agony.
“Have our wizards any magic left to combat this pestilence?”
“They are doing what they can, Princess. It is not enough.”
“These are desperate times, Gammon.”
“Desperate times call for desperate measures, Princess. I think it time I resorted to prophecy.”
“You will create more controversy,” said Ella. “Too many of your previous prophecies have failed. People will not believe a new one.”
The High Priest dropped his chin. “The god does not inspire me to speak. He leaves me to do what I think is right of my own design. I can think of no other course of action that may save us. All I can do is my best, and pray that the god will bless my efforts.”
“I understand,” said Ella. “It must be done.”
The prophecy spread across the island in a matter of minutes: A Chosen One would come forth to deal with the pestilence upon the island. Gammon, High Priest of Elhon, had spoken. Some said that the prophecy could not be true. Some said that it must be true, for why would Elhon allow a priest to lie? Some pointed to the failure of other prophecies. Others argued that those prophecies may have succeeded in ways not understood by those of mortal blood. The ways of Elhon were mysterious, they said. I’ll show you mysterious, their contenders said.
The prophecy was carried away from the island by swans, since they were more reliable than the ducks and geese, and could survive the long journey to the other islands. A duckling chose to undertake the task along with the swans – a duckling so ugly, the other ducklings were glad to have a reprieve from looking at it.
Then the waiting began. The leaves continued to drop, their every cry wrenching at Ella’s heart.
“Even if a Chosen One should come now,” moaned Ella, “it may be too late.”
“We must have faith,” said Gammon. “Elhon will not fail his people or his plants.”
The tree beside the palace balcony sported only fifty-six leaves, down from seventy-five at the same time the day before. Ella counted the leaves every morning. At this rate, the tree would be leafless in three days. Other trees in the forest were in similar condition. “Soon I will have neither a man nor a tree in my life, Gammon.”
“You will have me, Princess.”
She patted his arm. “I will always have you, dear friend.”
Two days later, only twelve leaves remained on Ella’s tree. Some bugs gnawed the bark of the tree, leaving wicked scars in their wake. “This is the end,” said Ella. “This is the last day of greenery on my tree. Is there no elven magic that can preserve even these last few precious leaves?”
Gammon shook his head, his hood cloaking his face like a veil. “We have done all we can, Princess.”
A brace of ducks waddled by below, quacking contentedly. Every one of them looked plump. They’d not lacked for anything to eat this past moon. But even they could not consume enough bugs to end the pestilence. Only when the bugs had devoured every plant on the island would the pestilence end.
A swan landed on the balcony. “I have brought you good news, my Princess.”
Ella studied the swan. “Forgive me, swan, but I do not recognize you.”
The swan held his head high and strutted about. “You knew me as the ugly duckling.”
“Oh, my goodness,” said Ella. “What magic converted you from duckling to swan?”
“No magic, my Princess, only time. But that is not the best news I have for you. The Chosen One comes.”
Ella felt the throbbing of her heart in her chest. “Why did you not lead with that?” She ran inside and down the spiral stairs to her bedroom, where she donned an outfit crafted of grass blades and rose petals. Then she hurried out to meet the Chosen One.
It wasn’t a Chosen One who had come. It was Trader Ograk. Ella’s throat felt dry as she watched the merchant ship dock. Her muscles tensed as the ogre dropped a plank and tromped down it, his heavy feet sinking into the sand as he reached the bottom of the plank. He marched up the beach to her and kneeled. “I hear you’re in need of a Chosen One.”
“Go away,” said High Priest Gammon. “It was you who brought this pestilence to our island. You cannot be our Chosen One.”
“Didn’t say I was.” Ograk stood. “But I brought someone who is. He’s a simple farm hand who found a magic rock. He used it to run an army of invading trolls off his home island. His name is Herman. You want to meet him? He’s on board my ship now. Says he’d like nothing better than to meet an Elven Princess and be her Chosen One.”
“Oh,” said Ella, feeling flush. She fanned her face with a hand. “Well, then, yes, please, by all means, bring this human man before us.”
The fellow ran down the plank and up the beach. He did not kneel before Ella. “Hi,” he said, extending his hand for a shake, “I’m Herman.” He held up a stone, a spherical, polished black thing with a hole in the top. “I found this magic stone, and when I heard of your dire situation, I felt I had to come see if I could help.”
“It is a very pretty stone,” said Princess Ella, touching its sleek surface. Her arm brushed against Herman’s, causing her skin to tingle.
“Well, thank you,” said the stone.
“It does have a magical glow,” said High Priest Gammon.
“Always want to look my best,” said the stone. Herman smiled and shrugged.
“Let us waste no time,” said Princess Ella, “and put it immediately to the test.”
“At your service,” said the stone.
“The Chosen One has come to our aid,” proclaimed Princess Ella from her balcony before the gathering of her elven subjects. “The prophecy of High Priest Gammon is true.” The crowd cheered.
Priest Gammon walked up beside her, and the crowd fell silent. “We will be rid of this pestilence once and for all,” he shouted. Everyone in the crowd looked at each other with skeptical glances.
“I present to you the Chosen One,” proclaimed the Princess, and the crowd cheered again.
Herman walked out on the balcony. He held the magical stone above his head. “With the magic of this stone, I will end this pestilence!” The crowd cheered even louder for him than they had for Ella. Herman lowered his arm and his voice. “All right, rock, what must we do?” Herman shook the rock and rubbed his finger in the hole on top of it.
“Ooh, yeah, baby.” The stone shone even more brightly. “All right, yeah, um, first, you must go to the center of the island.”
“This palace is at the center of the island,” said Ella. “We’re already there.”
“Aw,” said the stone, “that’s not very dramatic. If I’m to do magic, there ought to be some drama, some tension. There ought to be a journey for us to make, obstacles to overcome, something that bards will want to write stories about. Standing on a balcony is hardly a legendary feat. Perhaps you could all strike dramatic poses. Make it look like you’re confronting something dreadful.”
“But we are confronting something dreadful,” said Ella. “The pestilence is dreadful indeed.”
“That’s the spirit,” said the stone. “Now strike a pose, please. Herman, hold me aloft and command me in your loudest voice to do what needs to be done.”
The Princess and the High Priest posed, legs spread apart, each with a fist extended behind their backs and the other hand raised, pointing into the trees.
Herman set his feet wide apart. He held high the stone and cried, “Magical stone, I command you, rid this island of its plague!”
“Um, just a moment,” said the stone. “Is it a plague? I thought it was a pestilence. I’m not sure I can deal with a plague.”
“What’s the difference?” said Herman, lowering his arm.
Ella broke her pose. “I thought a plague was a form of pestilence.” She touched the stone and let her fingers slip free of it, to land on Herman’s arm, where she allowed them to linger.
“It’s a pestilence,” said High Priest Gammon, still maintaining his pose, “regardless of whether it’s a plague. A plague is a form of pestilence. So if you can deal with any pestilence, you can deal with a plague.”
The stone shimmered. “That is not for you to say, old man.”
“I’m not so old I can’t put a curse on you,” said the High Priest, his legs trembling.
“Settle down,” said Herman, his gaze briefly meeting that of the Princess. “Forget I said plague.” He held the stone up again. “I command you, stone, to rid this island of this pestilence.”
“And be quick about it,” said the Princess, retaking her pose, “so that I may give the Chosen One his reward.”
“You already used up my magic for the year,” said the stone. “If it’s not a plague, you can’t change your mind, and I can’t help you.”
“Oh, for Elhon’s sake,” said the High Priest, slumping to sit on the balcony floor, “it’s a plague. It’s a pestilence. Just get rid of it.”
A bug wearing a crown flew down from the tree. “Would you three please shut up?”
“Don’t you mean four?” asked the stone.
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” shouted King Bug.
“That’s only three ‘shut ups’,” said the stone.
“Aaaaugh!” shouted King Bug. He flew away, muttering something about there not being that much food left on the island anyway. His fellow bugs followed him. They loaded themselves onto the merchant ship and sailed away, leaving Trader Ograk knee deep in the water staring after them with his jaw down.
“Hooray!” shouted the Princess. “The pestilence is gone! Three cheers for the Chosen One!” The gathered crowd applauded. There was much dancing in and beneath the nearly leafless trees, until well after the sun went down.
“I do all the work, and he gets all the credit,” said the stone.
“Looks like you’re stranded on this island with us,” said Princess Ella to Herman. “You’ll just have to stay with me.”
“And you can stay with me,” High Priest Gammon told Trader Ograk.
And so they all lived happily ever after, until the Elven King returned home from his odyssey. But that’s another tale for another day.