The Forest’s Daughter

There was once a forest, nestled between mountains, unlike any that exists in the world today. The roots of its trees ran deep, and its canopy stretched up towards the heavens, layer upon layer of verdancy fluttering in the breeze.

It was the realm of the Old Faun, the forest king whose reign had long surpassed living memory. The keepers of his court came in all shapes and sizes, from the great grizzled bears who feared no one, to the smallest mice whose lives were snuffed as easy as a flickering wick. The fine sprites who clothed themselves in mist and dew, and the laughing nymphfolk of the brooks all bowed and called him king.

Only men paid no mind to the lord of the forest, and this was no matter, for humans had long since forgotten that such a creature and such a kingdom had ever existed. They failed to see, or perhaps chose to ignore, that the paths they tramped through the wood were not there for them alone.

The forest folk were unconcerned, for although men passed through their world on occasion, they never stayed for very long. The affairs of men had always been far away, and there they stayed until one fine day, when a curious tale came roaring through the woods like a brush fire. Before very long, it reached the ears of the king himself.

“Sire, there is a man living at the edge of the wood,” said the robin who landed upon the gnarled branches of the throne.

This man, he told, had built a house, and daily chopped down trees to feed his hungry fire. He did not fear the magic of the forest, whose ancient enchantments made most men turn away with nameless dread.

There came a great din from the gathered members of the court, who howled and brayed and wailed their displeasure. Only when the Old Faun raised one hand for silence did their caterwauling come to an abrupt halt.

“This man is not the first, and he is not special,” he said, with a voice that crackled and rumbled like the swaying of an ancient bough. “Others have come, and they have gone. He will be no different.”

If his courtiers doubted him, or were displeased with their king’s inaction, none of them uttered a peep. Perhaps, for a moment, pride swelled within each breast, and they knew with unshakable certainty, that no man could match the power of their sacred home. The matter of the woodsman was put to rest, even if it had not entirely been forgotten.

Yet, though the forest had agreed to ignore the woodsman, he had made no such bargain himself. Unchecked, he continued his work in the glade by the edge of the forest, and more trees fell to his axe every day. By the end of the season, he had cut a swathe through the forest as no man had done before.

The citizens of the forest once again came before their king, this time in a greater panic than ever.

“He moves further into the forest every day!” Cried the Lord of the Rivers, whose waters had been diverted by the woodsman’s meddlings.

“His axe will fall upon us all!” Shrieked the grove nymphs, all as one.

“And you have done nothing!” The Old Faun was taken aback, unused to such unruly subjects.

This final accusation came from the smallest voice in the assembled court. A little shrew, whose nest had been made carefully in the roots of an old tree by the edge of the forest. She stared at the king with open ferocity that he had never seen before.

“Enough,” said the king at last, and the court fell into a delicate silence. “We will send an envoy of the forest from amongst us to make sure that this man does no more harm.”

From within the ranks of his household, the Old Faun called forth his youngest daughter. Lovely as a rosy dawn, she made her way to stand before her father’s throne.

“My child,” he said, the eyes of the forest upon him. “You will go to this woodsman who plagues the borders of our realms, and you will put a stop to it. Kill him if you must, or appease his human appetites if you cannot. Only be sure that he no longer troubles our people.”

The beasts and spirits and the fair folk gathered in the glen seemed pleased with the offering from their king, but his daughter was not so content.

“You cannot send me to this monster, I will not go!”

She protested and argued, but it did her no good. Her father’s word was law in the forest, and his will would be done. Creatures that the young faun had once thought her friends fell upon her in a frenzy, and took her from the clearing before she could escape.

Claws and paws and mossy hands held her, though their owners did not listen to her cries and pleas. The flowers of the forest were cut from her hair. In the streams, every speck of the forest was drowned from her body. Her breasts were bound in breathless bodices and thick skirts fell to the ground to hide the curve of her leg and her cloven foot.

When at last their job was done, she looked no more like a denizen of the deep woods than any miller’s daughter or factory girl in the lands of men. The creatures of the forest whooped and hollered when they saw their work was done, certain that this sacrifice would pave their way to peace.

Once again, they snatched the Old Faun’s daughter up, this time carrying her all the way to the edge of the wood.

“You will save us all!” They cried every time she struggled or wept, until finally, she lay silent in their arms, and allowed herself to be borne towards her fate.

———

The woodsman, from inside his cabin, could hear the rumble and roar of a forest which seemed to have come to life around him. He pulled the curtains on his windows shut, and stoked the fire in his little hearth, prepared for a storm. Surely it must be the wind that whipped and cracked around him, for he had never seen another living soul for as long as he’d lived by the forest.

Quickly, the storm seemed to draw closer to him, sounding strangely like the hooting and hollering of a great crowd. He paid it no heed. However, when the screeching of the storm came to an abrupt stop right as it seemed to be passing over him, he could not help but become curious.

When there came a knock at the door, that curiosity quickly turned to dread.

With a firm grip on his axe, he threw the door open before him, and the fear in his chest withered to ash and grew again into something new. Standing on his doorstep was the loveliest woman he had ever seen. Eyes as green as woodland moss peered out from beneath a dark shawl.

The daughter of the forest king stepped into his cabin, though he did not know that just then. Had she told him, he would not have heard, so taken was he with the exquisite line of her jaw and the plush swell of her lip. A finer maid had never stood before him.

So taken was the woodsman that it took only the span of a few breaths for him to ask for her hand. In a voice gossamer-soft, she agreed to be his wife. That very night, they set off to the nearest village together, and their wedding was celebrated before the next day was done.

Returning to the little house by the edge of the forest, the woodsman carried his new wife across the threshold with pride. However, when she stood at last in her new home, the young bride looked less content.

“What’s the matter, my dear?” He asked, eager to please.

“This bed is too small for a man and his wife. We shall need a new one now that we are married,” she said. And indeed, she was right, for the woodsman never needed much before today.

Eager to please her, the woodsman agreed. He put his fingers to his lips and gave a short, sharp whistle that seemed to cut into the silence of the night.

As the Old Faun’s daughter looked on, the axe that had been sitting by the hearthside flew to life and jumped into the woodsman’s hand. With a few short words from the woodsman, the axe set to work. It flew out of his hand once more and began chopping wood from the lumber pile outside.

When the woodsman saw the look on his young wife’s face, he chortled and gave her a sly wink.

“There’s magic in that axe. I had it off a fairy prince who couldn’t hold his drink. It will do whatever it’s told without any fuss,” he said, never realising that the same magic flowed through her veins.

“How else would I get so much work done on my own?” he asked, chest swelling in satisfaction.

With that, he left the cabin and followed his axe, setting to work with the wood that had been neatly cut and stacked for him. He worked until the sun arose again the next morning, and finally a bed fit for a man and his wife was complete.

The Old Faun’s daughter had a bellyful of dread as the woodsman congratulated himself on a job well done, and hung up his axe for the day. She looked at the forest that seemed so far away now, yearning for her home. When the woodsman told her his job was done, her heart leapt to her throat, but her tongue was still agile and quick.

“You’ve done a fine job, my love,” she said, “But that bed is so grand, it hardly fits in this little house.”

When he looked around the room, the woodsman found she was right. With the bed now in place, there was little enough room left for his tools, let alone for the needs his new wife would have.

“Oh ho, I see I’ve wed myself a clever maid,” he said with a roaring laugh. “Very well, a fine wife must have a fine house!”

Without a moment’s thought, the woodsman and his axe set to work again. For some time at least, the Old Faun’s daughter had respite. Every request she had, the Woodsman met with cheerful acceptance, though she knew that his patience would wear away with time. Each day that he worked was borrowed time for herself and the forest.

The woodsman built a bigger house, and dug a well, and tilled the earth to make a garden, all with the help of his axe. At last, the Old Faun’s daughter knew that she could waste no more time.

“Husband,” she said in her sweetest tone, “You have given me so much. I would only ask one more thing of you.”

“Yes, my love?” He asked, with patience that had grown frayed since the day of their wedding.

“Fetch me some cloth from the town. I will make a dress for myself, fine strong clothes for you, and perhaps some day, a swaddling cloth for our first babe,” she said.

Her husband was hesitant at first, but finally he accepted her request with only one rule of his own.

“I will leave my axe behind to keep you safe while I’m away,” he said, and she readily accepted.

The next morning, before he heaved a pack onto his horse and rode off towards the town, the woodsman took his axe in hand and commanded it to protect his wife from all harm. When he was gone at last, the Old Faun’s daughter heaved a sigh of relief. It had been a long while since she had had any time to herself at all.

As soon as she was alone in the house, she stripped the constricting clothes from her body and stretched her legs. Almost at once, she began to feel more like herself. Even the shadow of the woodsman’s eventual return was not enough to dampen her spirits. She danced around the house, her hooves skittering across the floor as she wove flowers from the windowsill into her hair.

Feeling more at ease, she sat down by the hearth to weigh her next steps. The fire was so warm, and her troubles seemed so far away for the moment, that she fell into a deep sleep almost as soon as she’d settled down.

She awoke with a start hours later, when a great roar went through the room, shaking the little house to its foundations.

“What black magic is this?” Her husband had returned from the village.

Her head still heavy from sleep, the young faun rose to her feet before him. He struck her down again with a blow from his weathered hand, crying that she had deceived him.

“Monster!” he roared, and “Witch!”

Each howl was married with a strike of his boot, until the young faun cried for help.

It came as swift as a summer storm, as the axe flew up from the fireside and sailed through the air. With one swipe of its blade, the woodsman’s head was cut clean from his shoulders. It went tumbling to the floor and rolled to a stop by door.

Having fulfilled its task, the axe returned to its spot by the fire, ruby blood drying on its blade. The woodsman was no more.

Taking a spark from the fire, and the oil from the lamps, the young faun set the whole place ablaze. She walked away with the axe slung over one shoulder, and her husband’s head in a sack.

By the time she arrived before her father’s throne, word of what had happened had already begun to spread through the forest. The burning cottage could be seen for miles around.

“Our saviour!” the citizens of the wood cried as the faun limped towards the throne. They cheered when her battered hands produced their trophy from the sack.

“You have done well!” said the king, though his daughter did not answer. There would be celebrations, he promised, and the gathered court cheered once more.

The faun paused to wipe the blood from her mouth, and looked about at the creatures who had been as happy to see her leave as they were to see her return.

As they danced and congratulated themselves, she lifted the woodsman’s axe to her lips.

“Destroy it all,” she breathed, and it took no more than that.

The axe flew from her hand as she turned to walk away, the flowers of the forest falling from her matted hair. Around her, the axe worked in savage strokes.

The creatures of the forest screamed as the axe carved through the air, and not even the Old Faun himself was strong enough to stop it. Trees, and beasts, and all in its way fell before the might of her wish until there was only silence.

And from the riches of their blood and bones, a new forest eventually grew, crueller and more vicious than the one that had come before.

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