The king of the forest calls himself a knight, though all in his presence know otherwise. His court is held hidden underground, beneath the tangled roots of ancient trees, his courtiers the shadows of people made from plants and mud. When he walks through his kingdom in times of peace, the trees themselves bow to him, as though caught in a heavy wind.
The noble home near the woods, the estate the forest belonged to according to the laws of man, sat empty for years at a time. The lords and ladies who'd move into the home never tended to last. They'd stay a few months, a year at most, and then be driven away by the land itself. Wild dogs would attack their flocks, wild birds would attack their crops, trees would often grow full-height overnight in inconvenient places; the middle of the road, the stables, the manicured courtyard.
That was until a noble widower and his son moved in. The new lord had thought it quaint how the country folk spoke of a forest king, a monarch in a cloak of moss. He thought it less quaint when they described his beard of fine and tangled roots, his body of woven branches pretending to be skin, his hair of ivy and thorns.
Then that winter, the lord's young son lost himself in the forest.
The boy wandered in the snow beneath the trees until he could walk no more and fell at the base of an enormous oak. Then, as he would tell it later, just as the unnatural sleep of frozen things was setting upon him, the earth and roots beneath him shifted, lowering him slowly into a hollow below.
He had few clear memories of the world beneath the ground, the world of dirt and roots and shadows. They came to him like memories of a fever dream: memories of a warm fireplace and a warmer bed, of servants that he could not see, but knew were there, of walking at the side of an enormous figure in the woods above, being introduced to the shadowed beings in the trees and hidden creatures in the brambles.
And he remembered the golden eyes of the forest knight and a voice that spoke like wind through hollow branches,
Be careful, child. Not all in my kingdom are kind.
The boy was returned a month after his disappearance, after the worst of the snow storms had passed.
His father, still clinging to a desperate hope, went out searching with a troupe of men as soon as the weather cleared, and they found the boy lying at the base of an oak whose roots swelled above the ground in a tangled mound.
The nobleman cried out in joy and nearly fell from his horse in his mad rush to his son. But just as he approached, the roots took form, shaping themselves into a facsimile of an enormous man, a giant who was holding his son like a babe.
The giant inclined its head ever so slightly, and those present noticed suddenly the distinct crown of holly set upon its ivy hair.
I have done you a courtesy as one lord to another, said the knight. I ask in the future you extend me the same respect. The respect your predecessors lacked.
The boy's father paled and nodded, and the knight of the forest passed him the sleeping child.
I am certain, then, that we will get along agreeably, rumbled the knight.
With that, the roots untangled themselves and the form of the knight fell away, leaving the men, boy, and horses standing in the center of the silent forest.