The Wood Children

Long ago a prince fell in love with a miller’s daughter, a fact that enraged his father, the king.
“Banish the thought,” roared the king, “or I will banish you from the kingdom.”
But the prince was in love with the miller’s daughter, and she with him, so they married beneath the arms of two towering willows. The miller and his wife prepared the marriage supper.
When the king found out that his son had married the miller’s daughter after all he banished them both from the kingdom. His final words were as an axe to a tree: “May the fruit of your loins drop before its time.”
The miller’s daughter collapsed and did not revive until her apple cheeks were thoroughly washed by the prince’s tears, and thoroughly polished by his caresses. Then the prince took his young bride by the hand and led her across the stony palace courtyard, through the iron gate, down a lane, and over a hill. They stopped to rest.
The miller’s daughter said, “If any child of mine dies, then so shall I.”
The prince led his bride away from the kingdom, down a lonely road, across a field of waving barley, over a small mountain, through a wood, and along a cart track. The track went straight for days and days and then dipped and turned, wending this way and that until it stopped at the near desolate heart of an empty moor. Tree stumps and weedy bushes were scattered about like grave markers set by a mad man.
“We’ll stop here,” said the prince.
The miller’s daughter was a keen worker who knew how to get things done, and the prince was willing to learn. Together they built a tiny house in a low hill, fortifying it with sticks and stones they gathered together.
The first winds of winter howled the news that the young bride was rosy and round with new life. The prince was overjoyed. The miller’s daughter was less so, for she could not forget the king’s curse.
“My father is not a sorcerer,” said the prince as a comfort to his wife. “His words have no power over us.”
“You are the son of a king,” said the miller’s daughter. “You have no experience of being at the mercy of words.”
“If my father’s words have power then so do mine, and I declare that the fruit of our loins will not drop before its time.”
The miller’s daughter said, “I felt your father’s words plunge through my heart like a spear.” She did not tell her husband that his words had missed their mark.
Time passed and the prince watched his wife grow weaker instead of stronger. He set out across the moor to find some meat for her and their unborn child, but after two days he had got nothing more than a ragged hare. He walked for one more day until he came to a low hill where someone had made a home. The door to the home opened to the prince as if he had been expected. A tiny woman no bigger than a child stepped out. She wore a grey hooded robe, and from beneath her hood peeked silver, green, and brown hairs. Her eyes shone like two polished nuts; and the collar of her robe concealed the rest.
“Is that for me?” asked the woman, eyeing the hare.
The prince said, “Yes, if you need it.”
“Bring it inside then,” said the woman fairly dancing on the spot. “It isn’t much, but I’ve had worse.”
The prince bent down to pass through the doorway and into the hill home. He saw at once, by the light of a turf fire, that the walls were lined with dried leaves. Acorns had been strung together and hung from the ceiling. A kettle boiled merrily. The prince thanked the woman as she handed him a cup of tea.
“Sit down, Royal Highness, and tell me why you’re on the moor.”
“How do you know I’m a royal?”
“By your courtly manner,” said the tiny woman. Then she removed her robe and the prince saw her dark face for the first time. It was a face like bark – not as rough as oak or as smooth as birch, but somewhere in between, and black as pitch. “Since you’re too polite to ask me, I’ll tell you who I am. But first I’ll pour some more tea.”
The prince tried not to stare.
“It’s a long story; stop me if you grow weary.” Then the woman told the prince about her home – a vast forest filled with oak and willow, pine and apple, birch, yew, and ash. “It lived and breathed from the dawn of time until the end of what I call the golden age.”
“Why did you leave it?”
The tiny woman invited the prince to sit a little closer. “I didn’t leave the forest; it was taken from me.”
The prince knew enough to be wary of tiny people. He stayed where he was and said, “Are you one of the immortals?”
“Not immortal, just a lingerer. I’ve lived a thousand years longer than I should have.” She scratched at her rough cheek, sank low in her seat, and sat still for so long that the prince thought she had fallen asleep.
“How can a wood vanish?” he asked.
The tiny woman sat up quickly and rubbed her eyes. “A great king such as your father, and another great king after that, and one after that – you get the idea – took the trees away until there were none left. They used them to build ships and fortresses, all manner of cart and shield, until the last one fell. Her name was Merry. I wish I had been able to save her. A forest is helpless, with a guardian or without, if an entire kingdom is against it.”
The prince thought about the vast empty place in which he and the miller’s daughter had made their home, where long ago a mighty forest had stood, the kind of forest he had heard about in tales passed down for generations, an ancient wood of the highest order. “I’m sorry for your loss,” said the prince.
The tiny woman raised her shining nut eyes to his. “It’s your loss as much as it is mine. The loss, I am afraid, belongs to all.”
“I like to think that I would have tried to save the trees if I had been a king in those times,” said the prince.
“Can you save your unborn child from your father’s curse?”
The prince could not hide his astonishment.
“I have few powers,” the tiny woman said, “except as such that long life bestows on the one who lives it. I was appointed guardian of the wood by a being with great powers, and they rubbed off on me, a little. Don’t look so surprised. I have enough vision to see how and why you suffer.”
“Why should my father’s words have power over my unborn child that mine do not?” asked the prince. He was pleased to see the tiny woman nodding her head as if she agreed with him.
“Too true,” she said, “but anyone can cause their words to be a blessing or a curse. Ask yourself whose words went deepest – yours or your father’s.”
On the journey home the prince rejoiced when he sighted and caught a great buck. He silently thanked the tiny woman for the unexpected gift, and then laughed at himself for doing so.
The miller’s daughter grew strong again; and when her belly was as full as the moon, a son was born. The prince was mindful of the words he chose to utter in the presence of his wife and son; he wanted to bless and not curse, and, as time passed, he came to believe that his father’s words had been drained of their power.
The miller’s daughter named their son Alon, in the hope that he would one day be as mighty as an oak; but before the child’s first birthday his limbs grew stiff, and tears no longer rained down his cheeks, but rolled down in gluey lumps.
“It’s the king’s curse,” cried the miller’s daughter. She could not coax her son to eat, so she rocked him and kissed him instead. But instead of babbling in his mother’s ear, the child blew small bubbles that stuck to his mother’s cheek. Instead of smiling back at her, Alon was immovable. The miller’s daughter carried her son outside so that the sun would warm him and found hope in the tiny drumbeat of life he still possessed.
“We must get help before it’s too late,” said the prince. They took Alon to the home of the guardian of the wood but she, and her home, had disappeared.
When the miller’s daughter could feel no life in her son, the grieving parents buried their child where the tiny woman’s hut had been, and kissed the ground farewell.
Two moons passed and the miller’s daughter was once again round and rosy with new life. “I can’t bear to lose another child,” she cried.
When the miller’s daughter was once again as full as the moon, a daughter was born.
“Let’s call her Wilda so that she will be as lithe as a willow,” said the prince, recalling his son’s stiffened limbs.
The miller’s daughter was so delighted with Wilda that she soon forgot all about the king’s curse until, one day, when Wilda grew as stiff and strange as her brother had before her. The frightened parents did everything in their power to keep her from slipping away from them, but sunshine and caresses were not enough. They buried their second child alongside their first.
Time passed. The prince and the miller’s daughter had three more sons and two more daughters. The names of those children were Oren, Pomona, Briscoe, Yvonne, and Ashe. One by one they stiffened and passed to where their mother and father could not follow. One by one they were buried alongside one another. When the last child was buried, the guardian of the wood appeared.
“I see you’ve brought something more precious than a hare this time,” said the tiny woman amiably. She walked up to the miller’s daughter and shook her hand. “But your spirits haven’t improved much.”
The grieving parents explained how they had had seven children, and each one had perished under the power of the king’s curse.
“They are buried right here,” said the prince, pointing to the seven grave mounds.
“I know all about the children,” said the guardian, “and I will watch over them for you.” Then she ushered the prince and the miller’s daughter into her home where she fed them and housed them until they were strong again.
“Go back to your home on the moor and wait seven years,” said the guardian. “At that time you will welcome another girl child into the world. Then you must return to your kingdom, for the old king will be dead.”
“We are banished,” said the miller’s daughter.
“You will be welcomed at that time, but not before.”
The prince and the miller’s daughter did what the guardian of the wood said, and one day they were welcomed home as the new king and queen. Their daughter was of course a princess. Her birth was followed by the births of three more daughters and three more sons, all princes and princesses. The king and queen were content, yet they still grieved the loss of Alon, Wilda, Oren, Pomona, Briscoe, Yvonne, and Ashe.
One day the king and queen and their seven princes and princesses went away from the kingdom, down a lonely road, across a field of waving barley, over a small mountain, through a wood, and along a cart track. The track went straight for days and days and then dipped and turned, wending this way and that until it stopped at the near desolate heart of an empty moor. Tree stumps and weedy bushes were scattered about like grave markers set by a mad man.
“We must go just a little farther,” said the king to his children and in two more days they reached the hut of the tiny woman. She was there to greet them.
“Come and see how your children have grown,” said the guardian of the wood. She led them to where the seven graves had been. Seven trees grew in that place: oak, willow, pine, apple, birch, yew, and ash.
“Are the trees a remembrance?” asked the queen.
“They are more than that,” said the guardian, “they are your wood children.”
From that day forward the moor, the kingdom, and all the lands in between became one, overseen by the king and queen, their seven princes and princesses, and their seven wood children. The princes and princesses loved nothing more than to dance and sing around their wood brothers and sisters as their devoted parents watched. And the tiny woman, the guardian of the wood, declared the beginning of a new golden age.