The Sound of the Mournful Flute

Prompt: Write about two characters who each want to change the same thing, but resolve to go about it in very different ways.

People kept to themselves in the Living Forest. There were legends that long ago, the trees used to pass messages freely from town to town without anyone having to get on horseback, but that age had long since passed. Now, the only way anyone knew that the trees were still conscious was by the shaking of their branches on a day with no breeze. Otherwise, they were silent. Their roots were deep and unmovable now. 

So each town minded its own business and didn’t interfere with that of others; for the most part, that is. Because as long as Rhistel Theran was alive, he would help anyone in need in whatever way he could. 

Word came to Rhistel one breezy autumn day by way of travellers heading away from Larnwick. Rhistel lounged up in the branches of a rather large tree, whittling away at what would soon become a flute, when he heard the travellers and their clattering luggage. He peered through the leaves of the tree and was surprised at how much the travellers carried, almost as if they had taken their entire home with them. Curious, he swung down from the branches and hailed them. The two men stopped as Rhistel landed on the ground right in front of them. 

“Where did you come from?” the younger man asked, looking up into the tree with fear. “Are there more of you?” He reached towards his belt like he was searching for the hilt of a sword, but he carried no weapon. 

Rhistel held out his hands in a placating gesture. “There’s no need to fear; I’m Rhistel Theran.” 

The older man’s eyes widened. “Rhistel Theran?” 

Rhistel spoke the next words in tandem with the man: “I thought you were a myth!” 

“Yes, yes,” Rhistel said, waving away his shock. “I get that quite a lot. But I’m curious as to why you two are travelling with such heavy loads through the forest.” 

The younger man sighed, a look of melancholy replacing his surprise. “It’s Larnwick. It’s overrun with bandits and thieves and everyone’s leaving; those who can make it, anyway. My brother had to fight off a band of werewolves,” he said, pointing his thumb at the older man. 

The older brother crossed an arm over his chest proudly, making a fist over his heart. “I did what I had to to protect my family. When it became clear that Larnwick was no longer a safe place for my brother and me to live, I knew we had to leave.” 

Rhistel tugged at the point of his ear as he considered their words. Larnwick, overrun with criminals? He recalled when he’d visited there once years ago. The night had been full of dancing and singing in the tavern and it had seemed like the entire town had crowded inside the place. He wondered if the tavern was even there anymore, or if the thieves had already ransacked it and left it empty. 

“That is grave news,” Rhistel murmured. He looked up and met the eyes of the two men with a small smile. “I will not keep you, but I wish you safe travels.” 

The older brother nodded. “Thank you.” And with that, they continued on their way. Before they were even out of sight, Rhistel knew what he had to do. 

The journey took days of walking through the Living Forest, but Rhistel didn’t mind. He finished his flute and played it as he walked, enjoying the creaking sound of bark as he woke the trees up. A few saplings even spoke a few words to him and requested certain tunes. Rhistel always obliged and then asked the saplings to walk with him to Larnwick. They all refused, but he hoped as he got closer and the distance became shorter at least a few of the trees would agree. All he would need were a few mighty oaks to scare off the delinquents in Larnwick. If the trees wouldn’t help, then he’d just have to use some of the other tricks he had up his sleeve to rid the town of its criminal plague. 

But as he neared Larnwick after five days of walking, the smell of smoke came to his nostrils. At first he thought it was a campfire nearby, but it was a warm day, and the smell didn’t go away. He quickened his pace into the sixth day of his journey. As dawn broke, Rhistel could barely see anything for the hazy smoke that hung thick in the air. Fear wormed its way into his veins. Had the dragons broken their treaty? Were they at war? 

Finally, Rhistel cleared the trees and reached Larnwick…or, what had been Larnwick. 

The whole town was burning. Everything was on fire: the ground, the buildings, and the trees surrounding them. No one was running about, so Larnwick could only assume that this had begun days ago and all the townspeople had either already fled or turned to ash. 

The smoke stung his eyes, bringing tears that Rhistel would have cried anyway. The memory of that cheery night in the tavern came back to him again. Even if Larnwick could be rebuilt, it would never be the same again.

“Who has done this?” Rhistel roared, his voice rising above the crackling of the flames. “Who has destroyed Larnwick?” He didn’t care if it was a horde of dragons; he’d fight them until he was burnt to a crisp. 

A violent wind whipped up the flames. Rhistel looked up and watched a huge shadow fill the sky, descending towards him. He clenched his fists. So it had beena dragon. 

The creature with dark green scales like emeralds landed gracefully beside Rhistel. It added an extra flap of its wings, it seemed, to fan the flames in front of it. A toothy grin crawled across its face. 

“I thought I might see you here,” the dragon remarked in a gravelly voice that was still somehow distinctly female. “They say you fix everything in the Living Forest. I think you’re a little late this time.” 

Rhistel clenched his teeth. “Why have you done this? The treaty—”

“I’ve done nothing wrong.” The dragon craned her neck and spewed a thin string of flames towards some debris, setting it on fire. “I came here to help, only I got here much faster than you.” 

“How is this helping?” Rhistel spat, not looking the creature in the eye. The blazing fire filled his eyes. It was so hot that it burned his skin even from a distance, but he found he was still frozen with shock and horror. 

“Do you see any criminals?” The dragon gestured with her claws to the destruction before them. “I certainly don’t.” 

Her casual tone made Rhistel’s anger burn like the flames that danced across the town. He spun on her and marched straight up to her scaly maw. “You destroyed the homes of all the people who lived here!” 

“Homes that would have been destroyed anyway.” Her hot, rancid breath washed over him and he coughed, feeling like he could hardly breathe with the terrible breath on top of the smoke. “This way, at least the town can start anew and rebuild. Do you think the bandits will return after their fellows were reduced to ashes by a dragon? I did kill all of them, by the way.” She flicked a charred bone on the ground and sent it tumbling towards a fire. “I made sure of that. But I let the townspeople go.” 

Rhistel swallowed back the bile rising in his throat. This was terrible. Nothing like this had happened in the Living Forest in a hundred years, not since he’d been here to set everything right. “And how did you know the difference between them?” 

The dragon lifted her wings in what Rhistel took to be a shrug. “I may have made a few mistakes, but I’m positive all the criminals are dead.” 

Rhistel shook his head. This was too much. All those people…how many innocents had she killed? What could he do to stop this from happening again? 

“Something wrong? I thought you would be happy. I solved the problem for you.” 

“You made everything worse.” 

The dragon hummed. “Subjective, I suppose. I did hope you’d be grateful.” 

Rhistel didn’t know what else to say. This dragon wasn’t going to change her mind. “Isn’t this reward enough for you?” he said softly, all the fight draining out of him. Suddenly, he felt his three hundred years of existence weighing on his shoulders. All the people he’d saved throughout his life…did they measure up to all the ones he’d failed to save here? 

The dragon didn’t answer him. Instead, she picked at her teeth for a moment before unfurling her wings. “Well, I can’t sit around here all day. Need a lift, Rhistel?” 

“No.” He sat on the dirt where bright green grass had once grown. “And don’t come back to the Living Forest ever again.” 

“Well, I can hardly refuse a cry for help when I hear one, now can I?” She grinned at him. “Goodbye, Rhistel.” She flapped her wings, sending ashes spiralling into Rhistel’s face. He waved them away and watched them pile into his lap. He wondered what the ashes used to be. 

And as he watched the dragon fly away, Rhistel pulled out his flute and began playing a funeral dirge. 

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