In the style of the original Grimm Fairy tales which I have loved all my life.
Once there was a poor, young girl who lived in the forest with her father and aunt. Her father was a woodsman who hunted in the forest and provided what he could for his family. He spent long days hunting in the woodland and worried about leaving the young girl on her own at the cabin. Needing someone to look after the girl as she grew, he asked his spinster sister to come and live with them. Unfortunately for the girl, her aunt was a greedy, resentful and spiteful woman who blamed everyone else for her own hardship. She always concentrated on what she didn’t have rather than be grateful for what she did have. She soon became jealous of the girl’s youth and carefree nature which gave her a beauty that could only be found by having a happy soul. The aunt, who’s soul was dark and unhappy, resented that the girl seemed contented despite the fact that they were so poor
“Why do you smile girl, do you not see that we have nothing, what is there to be happy about?” she would snap.
“We have a roof over our heads and we have each other and the forest to feed us, we have everything we need.” The young girl would always reply with an innocent smile.
The aunt would always snarl at her and exhale in exasperation but in her heart the girl was delighted to live in the forest. All she needed was what the forest could provide for sustenance, a clear, babbling stream, the beautiful birdsong which rose to a crescendo every morning and the cool cover of the variety of mighty trees that surround their humble wooden cabin. One of her favourite things in the world was to walk barefoot amongst the fallen leaves and hear their crunch underfoot. She loved to see the squirrels scurry up the trees and perform acrobatic feats and catch glimpses of skittish deer in the bracken. She felt at home in the forest.
As the years passed, being a resentful woman, the aunt grew tired of the girl’s carefree nature and was determined to dampen the light in her eyes. The aunt gave the girl all of the most back-breaking chores around the house and would berate her for the smallest mistake, whether it was true or not; not enough firewood, too much firewood, more water, not enough water, not the right berries, too much dust on the floor, and on and on. Day after day the aunt berated the girl to beat down her soul and slowly the light died behind the girl’s eyes. The father knew that something was wrong but was always too tired from hunting and managing the forest to understand what was wrong with the girl. He could see that she was not the lively carefree girl that he once knew when she was young and this troubled him.
One day, the aunt sent the girl into the forest to collect berries for their evening meal, she shoved the basket into the girl’s stomach. ‘You have been a useless child for so long, I don’t know why I bother sending you out into the forest again and again. You never get enough berries and they are always too bitter and small, this time there must be more than 500 berries in that basket or don’t come back because you are clearly of no use to us,’ she shouted after her.
The down-trodden girl trudged into the forest along her normal route, the leaves crunched beneath each step but she no longer found any joy in it. Search as she might she could not find any berries along her usual route. She desperately searched and searched for hours, terrified that she may not be able to return home. The girl had always been told to stick to the path in the forest so as to not become lost and she had always followed this advice and been safe. But the light of day was growing dim and she only had a handful of berries in her basket, nowhere near the 500 her aunt wanted.
“My aunt is right, I’m no use to anyone, I can’t even complete a simple task like collecting berries. Maybe I should stray from the path, there may be more berries further into the forest and if I get eaten, then it will be no great loss.”
So she strayed off the path into the enveloping forest, the once friendly trees threw eerie shapes across her path as the sun was setting. More than once she tripped on upturned roots and caught her cape on grasping branches that seemed like clawing, gnarled hands in the encroaching darkness. The girl pressed on, searching around her feet for the berries she needed but it was becoming more and more difficult to recognize where she was. A low mist began to descend on the forest, so she could barely see her hand in front of her face. It curled around the trees, flowing and turning through the jagged branches. The girl was becoming afraid as she had been wandering for hours and had realized that she was lost. The noises that were so familiar in the daytime became sinister and supernatural at night. She clutched at her chest in fright, wound her cape closer around her and walked faster. Eventually the girl was so gripped with fear she stumbled quickly forward and her foot caught in the root of a nearby tree. Forward she tumbled and tumbled down a leaf-littered hill.
The noises that were so familiar in the daytime became sinister and supernatural at night…
The girl checked that she was intact and tried to stand but her ankle was terribly painful. She hobbled to stand and began brushing the leaves off her clothes and looked up to find she had fallen into a mossy hollow. The moss was a luscious emerald green, fluffy, soft and cool underfoot and had even begun to creep up the earthen walls. In the middle of the hollow she saw an ivory tree illuminated by a warm shaft of light, though she could not think where it could be coming from as the hollow seemed so cosy and enclosed. Small, indigo wisps, resembling fireflies, seemed to dance through the shivelight and land around the tree trunk. The tree had a silvery bark that reminded her of a birch but its trunk was thicker and had more texture with fissures and deep cracks which betrayed its age. It grew on its side as if it had once been felled by an unknown force but refused to die. Its milky white roots were still gripping the ground, thick, and weaving intricate patterns through the moss that surrounded the tree. The branches grew upwards away from the tree trunk and each limb looked delicate but strong at the same time. Each branch grew an abundance of leaves which were dusky pink arrowheads and seemed iridescent in the light. The girl felt a strong sense of comfort here, almost as if the tree was calling for her to sit at its side and rest her weary soul. She was so tired and frightened that a cascade of emotion built in her chest and burst forth into sobs of relief. The moss around the trunk looked dry and soft, so she hobbled over to the tree and slumped down at its side. As she sat onto the moss it seemed to envelope her perfectly and it released an earthy perfume that reminded her of the happier days of her childhood. She lay her head back against the ivory trunk and began to weep more fervently. The girl was so terribly miserable, despite this moment of respite and even because of it. She felt useless and lonely and knew that eventually she would have to go home with no berries, only to be thrown out. She wept and wept.
A gentle, melodic voice broke into her sobbing, “Why are you crying?”
She looked up to see the most beautiful stag she had ever seen standing before her, its head was lowered to look at her and its large, kind, brown eyes stared in concern at her tear-stained face. The stag was larger than any of the deer she had ever seen in the forest. It towered above her but despite this she did not feel afraid. The shaft of light illuminating the tree formed a halo of light around the stag’s velvety antlers, each of which seemed to have grown from a pedicle on its head, upwards in an intricate pattern, looping and interlacing, growing out and then round to meet in a crown-like shape above its head. Its russet hide looked smooth and soft as silk; the girl almost reached out to touch it.
Shaking off her fascination, she realised she had been asked a question and took a deep breath,
“My life is miserable. I am lost and I have hurt my foot. I have not collected enough berries for dinner which will be long past by now and my aunt will surely throw me out when I return home” she said.
“It will not do to have you cry” said the stag, pawing the earth with its large black hooves. ‘Why not stay a while and we can talk, tell me more of your troubles’. So the girl explained all about her love for the forest, living with her cruel aunt and how she had come to the stag’s hollow. The stag listened closely and decided that the girl was kind-hearted and would help her. The stag could see that the hearth of the girl’s heart was a dull ember, almost extinguished by her aunt’s cruel treatment, so he reached up to the tree and picked a leaf from it. He bade the girl eat the leaf as it would comfort her. The girl did as he asked and found that it melted in her mouth. As she swallowed a warm, comforting feeling spread down her throat and into her chest as if she had swallowed a beam of sunlight on a warm summer’s day. She felt warmth return to her limbs and hope return to her heart which caused her eyes to tear.
“Thank you” she said, “I thought I would never feel this way again, how can I repay you for this kindness?”
“I am sorry for the trouble your aunt has given you and if it is berries you need, I can provide them to you, for you should not lose your home because of this errand. If I give you these berries however, you must promise never to tell anyone where you found them. If you wish to repay me, I enjoy your company and ask only that you come and visit me every day.”
A large smile broke across her face and her cheeks flushed. The girl had enjoyed talking with the stag so much and she gladly agreed.
The stag touched her basket with its huge antlers and it suddenly filled with the most delicious, full and ripe berries she had ever seen. They were large, scarlet and looked fit to burst with sweet juice. The girl was amazed and so grateful, though her smile grew fainter as she realized she did not know how to return to this sanctuary and so could not keep her promise.
The stag reassured her and said, “Have no fear this is my hollow and I want you to visit again so I will tell you how to return. Just follow the trail of bluebells that bloom on the forest floor and you will find me. It is time to leave my dear, hold onto my antlers and I will guide you out of the fog.” His antlers were as soft as satin under her palms, softer than she had imagined, and so he led her away.
Once they had reached her path home, she thanked the stag over and over again and she could swear that it had smiled. The handsome stag bowed to her and turned into the forest; she couldn’t help but watch it disappear into the mist.
When she returned home her aunt berated her for being so late and taking so long. When the girl handed her the basket, her aunt’s eyes danced with hunger for she had never seen fruits so delicious and full before. She narrowed her eyes in suspicion, “Where did you get these?”
Remembering what the stag told her the girl lied and said, “By the stream, it must be the water that makes them grow so large and juicy.”
“I know that you stupid girl!” spat her aunt, “I see there are at least 500 berries here. I suppose you think you are very clever; I won’t throw you out tonight but let’s see if you can be just as useful tomorrow. I have my doubts.”
Her aunt’s words had less effect on the girl that night and she went to bed clutching to the warmth that had been ignited in her chest.
The aunt eyed the basket full of fruit greedily, ‘Why shouldn’t I have it, the girl was so late back and I had to wait for her when I could have gone to bed. She’s made me so tired and I never get enough food living here. I deserve it after all I’ve done for these people’, she thought. She sat down at the wooden table and put a juicy berry in her mouth. The juice burst forth over her tongue as she bit into the soft skin and it filled her mouth with the sweetest nectar. She had another and another until the whole basket was empty. She went to bed full and satisfied while the girl had gone to bed with nothing.
The juice burst forth over her tongue as she bit into the soft skin and it filled her mouth with the sweetest nectar. She had another and another until the whole basket was empty.
The next day, the aunt told the girl to go out and get more berries. The girl was confused as to where the whole basket of berries had gone to but the aunt replied haughtily, ‘I don’t have to tell you, now go and get some more’. Each day the girl went out and collected the berries her aunt requested, more and more each day. She would bring back the ripe juicy berries in the amounts her aunt had asked and the girl noticed that each time the basket became empty and her aunt became plumper and plumper. What her aunt didn’t know, is that every day the girl would follow the bluebell trail that led to the hollow of the stag and they would sit and chat for hours. They would talk about the forest, its animals and how the balance of the forest is maintained. Sometimes she and the stag would fall asleep on the moss, with her head resting on his silky smooth coat which was warm and comforting. Each day after visiting with the stag, the girl would return with the berries and feeling lighter and happier; the spark of joy was returning to her eyes which gave her a beauty which shone from the inside out. Having been eating the berries that the girl spent her days collecting, the aunt had become healthier but also rather rotund. This of course she blamed on the girl despite it being of her own doing. Once more the aunt grew resentful of the girl; she grew suspicious seeing her so light and happy. She asked again where the girl had picked the berries, and the answer was always the same: “Down by the stream where they can get juicy and big.”
“But why does it take you so long to get them?” The Aunt enquired.
“They are all deep within the stream and river so my skirts become full of water and heavy, so I move slowly” replied the girl.
“But then why are your skirts not wet when you return home?” asked the aunt hoping the catch her out.
“That is what also takes time, aunt, I must wait for my skirts to dry in the sunshine, otherwise they would become muddy and I would dirty the floors of our house.”
The aunt’s suspicions were not satiated, it seemed that the girl had an answer for all of her questions. Days passed and as the girl grew happier, she seemed to grow more beautiful. The aunt’s anger grew and her jealously began to make her unreasonable. She needed to know what the girl did to make her so happy, so one day she asked the girl to complete what she thought was an impossible task, “Today you must collect three baskets of berries.” The girl told her that would be no problem and skipped off into the forest. The aunt tried to follow but a mist descended and she became lost and had to return home. The girl returned home with three baskets full of delicious berries, the aunt was amazed, but of course ate all three baskets greedily, leaving none for anyone else.
The next day, she gave the girl what she thought was an even more impossible task and asked her to bring back five baskets of berries. This time however, when the aunt followed again, she noticed the girl was following a trail of bluebells, so she did the same. She kept her distance and saw the girl arrive at a beautiful hollow, where a large stag, seemed to be waiting for the girl. The girl seemed to glow with happiness when she saw the beast and the aunt watched them talk and laugh. The aunt was seething with jealousy and returned home in a fury, crashing through the trees and trampling anything in her way.
Later that night she spoke to the girl’s father and said, ” We have only been living off a few meagre berries and the few rabbits you bring in, but I have seen a large stag in the forest, larger than I’ve ever seen, that would feed us all winter if we could catch it and kill it.”
The father, as a good woodsman and hunter, knew that the lore of the forest was never to take more than you need and had always provided enough for the family to live off. But he also knew that winters could be difficult in the forest and a large stag would help to feed the family for the whole season. This also meant he could spend more time at home with his daughter. So he agreed to go with the aunt the next day to the place where she had seen the stag.
The next day, after the girl had left to pick berries, the aunt told the girl’s father to accompany her and they followed the trail of blue bells which led them to the stag’s hollow. There they both saw the large majestic stag sitting peacefully beneath the fallen tree. The aunt noticed the girl’s baskets nearby but the girl was not with the stag, she imagined the look on the girl’s face when she came back to find the stag dead and smiled.
“Now” hissed the aunt,” Kill it now and we shall dine like kings all winter.”
The father was a hardworking and sensible man of the forest and he knew he was looking at a special creature and was unsure about killing it. The stag turned its head and looked straight at where they were crouching. The girl emerged from the back of the hollow singing a cheerful ditty below her breath. In panic, the father, thinking she had not seen the creature, broke from his hiding place and told her to keep back from the beast. The girl looked stricken, as she first saw her father and then the crossbow that he carried. Her father raised his crossbow at the magnificent stag but with no thought for her own safety the girl threw herself across the stag’s body shouting at her father to desist and weeping in desperation.
“Please! No father! I love him, you don’t understand!”, she shouted burying her face in the stag’s soft neck.
Seeing his precious daughter weep, he could not bring himself to shoot the stag. In his heart he knew it would be a crime to kill it and rid the world of such a beautiful creature. He lowered the cross bow.
“I will not kill your beast, daughter, he is too magnificent but how can you love an animal?
The stag immediately turned into a handsome young man with the very same, kind brown eyes and velvety antlers on his head, which now appeared like a crown. The father finally understood who and what this magnificent beast was and went down on one knee and bent his head.
“Thank you”, said the young man, “I know that it must have been a temptation to kill such a large animal to feed your family, especially as winter is approaching”. He shot a look at the aunt, who met his eye and quickly looked away, “as you have no doubt realised, I am the Prince of the Forest. I have seen that you never take more than what you need and treat my forest with care. Your daughter and I have grown to love each other and I wish to ask you for her hand in marriage and as a dowry I promise that you will never go hungry again in my forest.”
“I am truly honoured your majesty but I love my daughter and will not give her away so lightly and for a dowry which only benefits me, what say you daughter? Do you want this?”
“I love him father and I want to share his life. We will live happily in the forest; it is my home as well as his.” replied the girl smiling with relief and embracing the Prince.
“Then so be it” said her father, “My daughter knows her own mind and she has chosen. I wish you both every happiness. I hope that you will take care of my daughter your highness and that I can continue to hunt and take only what I need from the forest”
The Prince bowed to the girl’s father and explained that there would now never be a day that his table would not be bountiful and that he would always be welcome at Stag’s Hollow to come and visit.
The aunt listening to all of this and was incensed, “What about me? I deserve something too; I’ve worked hard every day to raise that girl even though she was not mine. She is slow and useless. All of this at my own expense, with no gratitude from anyone!”
The Prince looked at the aunt coolly, after hearing about the aunt’s treatment of the girl he knew this to be untrue. What he did know to be true was that she had been following the girl on more than one occasion and knew that the aunt had brought the girl’s father here to kill him under the pretence of caring for the family. Nothing went on in the forest that the Stag Prince did not know about.
“Well I think I know what you deserve dear aunt. I know that you have enjoyed the berries that have been brought back for you by my beloved. It must be more than 100 baskets by now.” The aunt looked nervously at the girl’s father, who was looking a little confused. “Those berries are the divine fruits of the forest and if you sell them you will become rich, you will also become famous for their delicious flavour.” The aunt’s eyes shone with greed and ambition, for she knew how delicious the berries were and knew that this could come to pass. “I will tell you where to find them as long as you promise to not take more than you need. This is the rule of the forest, everything in balance”.
The aunt nodded fervently, breaking her promise in her mind as soon as she was making it. The Prince told her where to find the berries and the aunt ran to find them as quickly as she could without saying thank you or showing any kind of appreciation or deference.
Once she arrived where the berries grew, she fell to her hands and knees on the bank of the wide river, its cool, quick-running water glinted invitingly in the warm sunlight. A little way out from the bank, just below the surface, she spied the delicious red orbs. She licked her lips and hitched up her skirts to wade into the fast-flowing river. She made a dip in her apron to collect the berries, but as she picked them, she began eating more than she was placing in her apron. She needed more berries, so she waded in deeper and deeper into the river, not thinking of the danger. She could only think of the gold, silks and the fine things she would buy when she was rich. She thought of the grand houses she would buy and those she would be asked to dine in. She thought of the delicious fat geese she would eat and the fine cutlery she would use. The aunt ate more and more, and collected more and more in her apron. She convinced herself that the more berries she had, the richer she would be. Her skirts and clothes were becoming heavier with water, and with every handful of berries she ate and put into her apron she felt heavier and heavier. Mesmerized by her greed she did not realize that she was sealing her own fate. She took more and more, ate more and more and waded further and further and sank deeper and deeper. Eventually she was so heavy she sank to the bottom of the river and was never seen again.
The girl and the stag prince lived happily in the forest forevermore. If you are ever in the forest you may be lucky enough to see the girl and her prince, skipping through the shivelight at dusk.
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