The Stolen Child

  Deep in the land of Mythanos an old woman with hair (highly sensitive person) that was once flame sat in the shade of a mighty oak tree. She watched with a sweet smile as her grandchildren played among roots that reached deep into the black leaf strewn soil.

  With a  clap of her hands the old woman spoke. my children, I have a tale to tell. Tis a tale of magick, a tale of woe, a tale of a child lost, then found. Gather ’round, my children, my tale it does begin … a tale of the past that I tell you in the now!”

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  Once upon a time, but not so long ago, there lived a sweet child whose name was Giselle. She was a pretty child, nearly nine turnings in age, with peach-gold skin and eyes as green as a new spring leaf.

  Giselle lived on the edge of the Serpent-Eye Forest with her father, the woodcutter. She had no mother, nor had she ever known one. Maybe if a mother had been there, sweet Giselle would not have been a prisoner in her own home. For that is what she was  a prisoner.

  The child’s father was a dark, brutal man. He made her cook, and clean, and sew, and mend from morning ’til night, every day, every week, every month. When she did not do her chores, he would beat her with the wooden switch that lay resting in the corner of the kitchen. Yet being beaten was not the cruelest punishment that her father, the woodcutter, had bestowed. The cruelest thing that he had done was to forbid Giselle to ever leave the house. There were monsters in the wood that would eat her in a moment, he would say. But Giselle had never seen anything more than the occasional deer or fox. She had never seen a monster when she gazed out the windows.

  His mother, her grandmother, a pale, frightened woman, once whispered to Giselle, “I never knew your mother. It may be that you like her. That may be why he keeps you locked inside. So you cannot run away like she did.”

“Who? My mother?” Giselle had asked. But her grandmother never replied, and never spoke of it again. She too, was afraid of the punishment her son would inflict if she displeased him.

  For nearly nine turnings, Giselle had not felt the sun on her face, except through the window. Nor had she felt the wind in her hair for her father had nailed all the windows shut. Never had the child felt the rain upon her skin, or felt the grass under her bare feet. That was the harshest fate ever to befall a child so fey and wild in spirit.

Each day as her father left, the wistful Giselle would ask, “Can I not come with you while you work?”

“No! This is where you belong. Your place is here doing your chores!” Her father would mutter as he strode out the door with his moon-bright axe resting upon his shoulder. “Make sure they are done before I return!”

  The door would close with a thud behind the woodcutter. Every day he left Giselle to sit in the gloom of the small, messy kitchen. Sometimes the child would weep, other times she would sigh, and some days Giselle would rise and start to clean without allowing herself to think or feel at all.

  Only after the cleaning was done would the child let herself dream of freedom. Giselle would sit in the window seat by the back door and stare out to the woods that lay so close, yet so far away. With the last rays of the afternoon sun creeping though the glass, the child would sit and listen to the trees.

  For the trees indeed spoke to Giselle. They told her stories of distant lands, made her smile when she was down, and made her laugh with their silly whispers. They would call to her, sing to her, beg her to leave the house and walk among them beneath their shady boughs. The trees were the only living things that Giselle trusted.

Giselle wanted to do as they asked, but fear of her father kept her still. Until one day, the child could bear it no more.

  The day started like every other day, with her father glowering at her as he paced the small kitchen. Yet, this day he was angrier and nastier than usual. When Giselle served him breakfast, which had cooled too rapidly, he hit her hard across the face. The force of the blow split her lip, and bruised her cheek and eye.

  Nevertheless, with tears in her eyes, and blood upon her lips Giselle asked once more the question she asked every morning. Again, she asked if she could join her father in the woods.

  The child’s father turned back to face her. His eyes were dark with anger and malice. “No!” he hissed. “And if you ask me again I shall cut out your tongue with my axe and make you serve it up to me for supper!”

  Giselle cringed back away from the threat, with large tears in her eyes. It was at that moment the girl child decided she must flee, but as she climbed into the window seat questions and doubts filled her mind. How could she escape? Where would she go?

Again, Giselle’s fear kept her within the walls of her prison.

  Suddenly a flash of movement at the edge of the trees captured Giselle’s attention. An old woman stood staring towards the house. She stared directly at her.

  An old woman she was, but unlike any Giselle had seen. Definitely nothing like her father’s grey mother. Thick dark green hair snaked all the way to the ground, and her skin was nut brown and glowed like polished wood. Who was this strange woman? Why did she stare so?

  She did not look like any of the peddlers whom her father glared at when they came to the door. Her clothes glowed like spun silk and were gossamer fine like dragonfly wings. Who was she?

   The trees called excitedly in the child’s mind. They begged with her to come outside. The trees pleaded with her to come to the edge of the forest. They pleaded for her trust. Promised her she would be safe. They promised that the old woman would not harm her.

  Reassured by their whispers, Giselle rose to her feet and walked to the door. Her hands were shaking as she pulled it open and walked out into the sunshine.

  The warm sun caressed her face; the perfumed breeze filled her senses. Giselle could not quite believe she was finally free. She began to laugh; she began to run, away from her prison.

  But as she neared the forest she slowed, and the smile slipped from her face.

“Who are you?” Giselle asked when she stood only a small distance from the fae woman. The old one was not much taller than the child, and she stared back with emerald eyes made bright by a strange, triumphant joy.

“Who are you?” Giselle whispered again.

“I am Nalariel, Queen of the Dryads … and I have come to take you home.”

“Q-queen? H-home?” Giselle stammered. “But my home is here.”

Eyes so like her own stared back. “No, child, this is not, nor was it ever, your home.”

  The woman held out her hand to Giselle, a hand that shook as much as her own. Should she go with this old one? Her father had warned her not to speak to strangers, but the trees were singing so joyously in her head. Sighs of happiness, whispers of laughter, strains of tree song, and many wise, mysterious thoughts filled her mind. The trees begged her to go with the Dryad.

  Giselle reached out and placed her smaller hand in the dryads. At their touch, the trees erupted with cheers and roars of triumph.

“Who am I?” Giselle asked of Nalariel as they walked without a backward glance into the woods.

“You are my granddaughter,” Nalariel said softy. “The woodcutter you call father, murdered your mother and stole you from us within moments of you breathing your first breath!”

“Grandmother? But how? Why?” Giselle whispered, her eyes showing her confusion. She was almost afraid to hear the answers to her questions.

For a heartbeat or two, the Dryad Queen said nothing.

  The tragic tale lived in the mind of the Eldest Tree. The trees of SerpentEye saw all, heard all thought, felt all emotion. It was they who knew what was in the woodcutter’s heart and mind on that day.

  Nearly nine turnings ago, the woodcutter had come to the woods as he had for countless days and turnings before. The trees hated and feared the woodcutter, for he always took a tree only just coming into its prime. The woodcutter was a murderer, deaf to the screams of those that he murdered. He never asked, he always took; he never gave in return. It was not his way.

 The woodcutter was dark to his very soul.

  This day, and for three more days, he walked a different path into the trees, a path that led him deep into the forest that was the living heart of Mythanos, a path that led him into the kingdom of the Dryads and far, far from his home.

  Now for those that know not what a Dryad is, it be a creature that is part tree part faery. When a human is wandering through the realms they become trees, and only taking their fae form once the danger has passed. But maybe on this day they should have stayed in their fae form, for the woodcutter was not interested in ‘monsters’. On this day, he only saw the trees.

  On this foulest of days the woodcutter’s feet brought him to a magical grove. It was perfectly round and edged by twelve trees all of the same shape and size. But he saw them not. His eyes, his attention was held captive by the splendour that grew in the middle of the grove. It was the most beautiful tree the woodcutter had ever seen.

  It was not a tall tree, but the colours it wore made it stand out from every other. The trunk of this tree was almost pure white, and round and heavy like the belly of a pregnant sow. And the leaves, the leaves were all the colours of fire, from yellow through to red and blue.

“This tree I will have,” the woodcutter had said as he stood at the edge of the grove. The evil man wanted it dead for no more reason than that it was beautiful and alive.

  The silver-bright blade hissed through the morning air. It sliced into the trunk deeply, fatally wounding the tree.

  The surrounding trees had screamed, swaying in agitation, fear, and pain. But the woodcutter did not see or hear, his eyes and thoughts were fixed on the tree before him.

  Again, he swung his silver axe, and again it bit deep and true into the flesh of the Autumn Tree.

  The trees around him screamed again, a scream inaudible to human ears, especially one who was already deaf to the pain that he caused. They swayed and moved as if in an unfelt wind, they wept tears as the blood of the autumn tree stained the whiteness of its trunk.

  For a third time the woodcutter raised his axe and slashed into the very bowels of the tree. With the sap, red like blood now staining the ground, the tree gave one final scream of tearing flesh before falling to the ground.

  But the woodcutter no longer saw the tree. His eyes were caught by a strangeness they beheld. Black, dazed eyes were fixed upon what lay in the shattered remains of the tree trunk. He could not believe what he saw.

  There before him on the stump of the autumn tree was a baby with skin milk-white, and hair the colour of flame. How had a babe come to be within a tree? Was this a sign of the Gods’ favour? Had the Gods returned the child his wife had stolen? It mattered naught whose child it was, for a dark longing and twisted whisperings within his mind, made him reach for the babe and wrap it in his cloak.

  Without care or regard, the fallen tree forgotten, the woodcutter had turned and run from the grove. He had stolen the princess Dryad from the very womb of her murdered mother. He had murdered the mother, and stolen the child.

“That is how you came to be living with him.” Nalariel finished softly, her voice cracking with the pain that lay in her heart.

  Giselle wept silently as the pair continued to walk. She wept for a mother that she had never known, and for the years that had been lost while she remained trapped within the house of the woodcutter. She wept also because she could not bring herself to believe the old one completely.

“But why did you not come to get me sooner?” Giselle asked with more than a little hurt and confusion in her words. The trees begged that she believe, but how could she give her trust so easily when nine years had passed.

  Nalariel halted and turned to face her grandchild. “Oh sweet child! I would have been here sooner if I had known where you were hidden. The woodcutter was wise and left the Serpent-Eye in a direction that lead us away from his home, not towards it.

  For years, the Dryads have searched our kingdom, and kept watch for the woodcutter, but he never returned to that part of the forest. It was only when the trees whispered to the Eldest Tree of an autumn child living on a distant edge of our land, that we had any inkling that you may still be alive. And by then, many years had passed.”

  The Queen of the Dryads suddenly looked as old as the Eldest Tree. Her eyes glowed with her pain, and tears stained the smoothness of her cheeks. With a sigh on her lips she pulled Giselle into a tight, but gentle hug.

  After several heartbeats, Nalarial stepped back. She watched as happiness and hope warred with fear, anger, and doubt in the eyes of her grandchild. “I know you still doubt me. But I have further proof that you are my blood. On the nape of your neck you have the mark of the Eldest Tree – a birthmark that looks like an acorn.”

  Giselle’s eyes widened. Her father had always insisted that she wear her hair down because of the birthmark. Although she had no real idea as to what it looked like, he had claimed it was ugly and yelled at her every time he saw it.

  Her eyes widened further, when Nalariel lifted her hair to reveal an acorn-shaped birthmark on her own neck. “You really are my grandmother? The woodcutter really did kill my mother?”

  Nalariel nodded, her hand coming up to wipe at the tears that stained Giselle’s bruised cheeks. But her gentle touch made the tears flow faster, so she pulled her grandchild close once more. Together, the two wept, their tears washed away the pain and suffering both had endured, and when the tears were ended, they smiled and continued on their journey home.

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  A smile curved the lips of the old one as her eyes once more focused upon the faces of her grandchildren. Eyes made big by the weaving of her words, stared back at her, waiting for her to continue.

But that was not to be …

“Thus ends my tale of a stolen child, my tale of woe, my tale of magick. Tis time for us all to be returning home …”

“But, Gam’ma, what of the woodcutter? Did he escape unpunished for his crime?” asked Taralie, her oldest and fiercest grandchild.

  Rising to her feet, the old woman with hair that was once flame, smiled at the child so like child of the story. “That is not a tale for the now, dear one. That is a tale of the future. Now let us return home to the Grove.”

  Surrounded by her laughing grandchildren, Queen Giselle of the Dryads, walked deeper into the woods, towards home.