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Forest Seclusion

A Supposed Crimes Anthology

Smashwords Edition

Supposed Crimes LLC, Matthews, North Carolina

Copyright 2017

All Rights Reserved by Authors

Published in the United States

ISBN: 978-1-944591-43-4

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

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Included Stories


White Deer by Jess Martin

Curses, shape-shifting, and shrimp fairies: welcome to Jess’s version of Madame d’Aulnoy’s fairy tale where she gender-bends the cursed creation, takes liberty with the hero’s tale, and finds a princess who isn’t in a rush to get rescued.


Snow White by Christina Rosso

When Snow White's father brings home Nadene, her new step-mother, the princess has doubts about the girl's ability to be a queen and mother, but what Snow White never expects is to fall in love with her.


The Tree of Wisdom by Dale Cameron Lowry

A curse cast on Prince Florian makes love a dangerous enterprise. But when he meets animal whisperer Olvir, he falls willingly.


If Only You Were Someone Else by Jennifer Loring

A changeling is willing to risk everything to discover who and what s/he really is--especially when s/he falls for a human male.


Heaven Scent by Chantal Boudreau

A highly sensual retelling of Rapunzel from an insider's perspective.



White Deer

Jess Martin

A punishment shouldn’t bring so much joy. Yet when the sun illuminated Faith’s human shape initiating her transformation into a deer, pleasure radiated through the cursed princess. Cloaked in an ethereal white coat, Faith marveled at the silver antlers that rose anew each dawn from where her father had once placed her mother’s crown on her head. He teased her then as a father does, declaring, “one day, you will be the queen of every soul that looks upon you.”

Stag or doe, Faith wondered why the curse warped her into a creature that was neither one nor the other. But then, fairies that wove magical spells as easily as tapestries were not often called upon to explain their rationale.

As the story was told to Faith, the Well Fairy issued her fateful words on the day of Faith’s christening: the princess should never see the sun before her eighteenth birthday or else an unnamed doom would befall her. Faith’s mother blanketed the child’s head and retreated to the castle’s deepest keep. Faith’s father constructed a magnificent underground palace that he staffed with the kindest and most talented of tradesfolk and teachers. Faith’s sentence banished them all from the light, but as a family, they found a way to make a new world, which would allow them to bear the years of darkness to come.

Faith never wanted for sunlight. Grand rooms carved in the stony earth were painted in an array of vivid colors. Footmen lit thousands of candles every hour, adorning the caverns in a subterranean glow that burned and bounced about in flickering delight. The smell of wax and flame became the aroma of home.

On the year of her eighteenth birthday, Faith noticed a palpable change in the atmosphere of the underground palace. Though no one dared show any unease with the nontraditional accommodations, Faith noticed the growing excitement for the day of her release into the world above. Faith avoided any discussion about that long awaited day. She clung to the darkness around her like a well-worn cape. Candlelight cast shadowy figures that enticed her imagination, and if she ever wished to avoid an argument with her mother or a teacher, Faith crawled away into her labyrinth of secreted wormholes. There, she chiseled her own chambers and often found her way to them without a light to guide her. The dark, like a kind friend tugging her ahead, led her deeper into the earth to a place where she could feel completely safe.

She couldn’t avoid the march of time, and no hiding place could keep her birthday from arriving. Her father busied himself with restoring the neglected palace that towered above their current home. Her mother commissioned artisans to paint a portrait of Faith. The king found the painting so pleasing that he had copies sent across the land as he prepared for Faith’s entry into the over-world. He invited royal families across the neighboring territories to a reception to welcome his daughter to the land where seasons dwelled.

Not a month before the happy day, however, a large retinue arrived in Faith’s homeland. Messengers relayed that the impressive party took three days to enter the kingdom. A young man dressed in the finest regalia bore a purple banner emblazoned with two brilliant gold arrows that crossed in an X. When he spoke, he brushed aside the curled auburn hair from his face and introduced himself as Lord Converse, an emissary sent by King Warlock.

When the name of Warlock was mentioned, it traveled the underground kingdom as quickly as any echo. It had only been a year since the young ruler had inherited the throne from his well-regarded father. The new king was the subject of many discussions as his every move was weighed and analyzed. Not only did Warlock rule over the large port city where all trade gravitated to, but he also oversaw a fleet of warships and an army five times the size of any known to the people in Faith’s home. He had already proven his ambition by leading that army in a successful battle to take the southern lands that had so long vexed his family line. Warlock wanted only for a queen, and Warlock had received Faith’s portrait.

On behalf of the warrior king, Converse urged, cajoled and then as much as quietly threatened Faith’s parents to permit the princess to travel overland to his master’s kingdom. As Converse put it, this would be Faith’s opportunity to prove her eligibility to be Warlock’s queen.

Faith’s mother met Lord Converse’s gaze and explained the Well Fairy’s curse to him. “You have but only a scant month to tell your kind lord to wait, surely he can grant us this time as a show of his pure intentions,” the queen spoke with as much honey as she could will into her tone.

Lord Converse had heard the strange tale of the curse on his journey to this quaint and backward kingdom. He allowed for some eccentricities of these simpler country folk with their charming beliefs in a world of magic and fairies, but he would not be deterred by superstitious nonsense. He steeled himself for his next words, coughing gently into his chest to alleviate the weight of the stale air that hung about him.

“My King’s heart suffers greatly for a queen, and His Majesty accepts no compromise once he has set himself on his course. This makes him an exceptional lord, as I’m sure you agree. Upon hearing about the princess’ condition, I had my men construct a carriage as impenetrable to light as this very unusual castle. The princess will not come to any harm as she makes but a week’s journey hence.” Converse clapped his hands loudly to cue the spectacle to come. The ancient oak doors of the court were pushed as wide as they would open. Thirty men dressed in sleek decorated purple uniforms lumbered into the court, carrying the carriage on long boards that rested on their broad shoulders.

The message was clear. There was only one response expected: capitulation. Faith’s parents surrendered to the twist destiny had set before them. While Faith’s father ensured that the courtiers installed Faith in the carriage under the light of a full moon, her mother recruited her most trusted Lady-in-Waiting, Lady Weed, and Lady Weed’s two daughters, Prickly and Daisy, to join Faith in the journey.

Fate beckoned the curse despite every effort Faith’s parents made, and Lady Weed stood perfectly poised to encourage the arrival of Faith’s doom. Lady Weed had earned her place at the queen’s side through flattery and manipulation, plotting her rise to royal status. Her years of deception finally appeared to have its reward close at hand with the arrival of Lord Converse. This journey gave her the opportunity to put her eldest daughter before King Warlock in the princess’ place.

Lady Weed had ensured that no one outside the court had ever seen the princess, aside from that ill-conceived portrait. It was a common enough practice, Lady Weed convinced herself, that royals exaggerated their own beauty, and Prickly’s unassuming visage could be explained away to King Warlock with a few flattering turns of phrases. Lady Weed trusted her way with words when it came to royalty. She folded a knife deep into her skirts as she boarded her two daughters into the carriage and swore a false oath to protect the princess.

Faith had never traveled beyond the confines of her palace, even when night offered reprieve from the curse. Her parents had practiced caution in this respect. After all, couldn’t fairies summon daylight with but a few words? Despite this, Faith felt the change of territory as the carriage hobbled over the well-traveled road that led toward the sea. Daisy, her truest friend, sat next to her, arm entwined in Faith’s as a comfort, whispering stories of imagined landscape they could not see from the dark confines of the carriage. Five days passed, and Faith recalled from her studies of these lands that they would enter the hunting grounds of King Warlock. Her homeland behind her, the rich scent of fir and summer heat filled the carriage.

If Faith had not been restricted to the gentler arts of science and literature, if she had been trained in the art of battle, she might have known how to react when she saw the glint of steel. The blade in Lady Weed’s hand sliced through the carriage of shadows as she slashed at the heavy curtains. Instead, Faith sat stupidly to the side, avoiding the blade’s edge and wondering at Prickly’s cackling laugh that had always irritated her so.

What bright warm light filled Faith’s eyes! Her heart felt the larger for it, and her very flesh responded to the sensation of this orb’s life-giving heat. This was sunlight, she thought, so this is that element she had only read about. Too late, Daisy raised her cloak to cover Faith from the light that tickled over her form. Faith’s fate fluttered in on soft waves of light only to land with a sharp and heavy pain that shook her body out of the carriage.

Faith stumbled onto the ground. Warm earth crumbled in her hands, so different from the cold stone she had always known. She felt blind in this new world; the light eclipsed her. She pressed her eyes shut. Her lungs burned at the openness of the air. The pain returned twice over with a heat equal to the summer sun that pressed down on her, but this new heat swirled inside her. Blood and bones boiled and twisted. Surely, this was dying, Faith rolled on her back wishing for the final blow that would deliver the release of death.

She cried out as she reached for the earth, but rather than feeling her fingers in the loose dirt, hoof pawed the ground. Faith lurched forward. She heard the tear and release of her dress as she jerked up to stand on four sinewy legs. The width and girth of her new shape replaced her slim, delicate body, and as she came to her full height, the pain that had so suddenly held her in its grip had just as quickly subsided. Her new form commanded her to leap. She relished the energy brought about by the growing muscles that twisted new pathways inside her. Infused with a wild energy, she bounded in a wide circle around the carriage, relishing the sensation of the air combing over her coat of brilliant white hair.

Faith met Daisy’s gaze for only the briefest of moments. Her dearest friend cried out as she climbed down from the carriage. Faith’s ears twitched in instinctual warning as she heard the carriage driver notch an arrow in his bow. Lady Weed stood beside the man, urging him to shoot the demon-beast that threatened the fair princess. Prickly, for her part, hid herself under the cloak she stole from Daisy’s seat.

Faith ran to the dark woods. The shadows called her to the sanctuary they provided among the trees and dense undergrowth. Arrows struck the ground at her feet with reverberating thwunks, but none made their mark that day.

#

Summer passed in this way for Faith. Exiled by her inability to hide because of her moon-glow hue, she dared not risk traversing the open farmland that lay between these woods and her homeland when she had no natural landscape to disguise her from a hunter’s arrow or another predator’s hunger. She thanked the spell for at least making her larger than the other deer that wandered these foreign woods. She liked too the weight of her five-pointed antlers. They were her greatest weapons. She knew her size as a stag was impressive; even wolves slinked back at the sight of her.

Faith found this forest a wonderland of green. She enjoyed the grasses and leaves. She grew bigger and stronger with each passing day. She clambered up hillsides without losing a breath or step. She gracefully descended steep rocky paths with her four sure-footed hooves. She recognized the paths made by other deer, and soon enough found herself among her new kin. She stood apart from the other deer, for they sensed the magic around her even if she had not been so strikingly different in appearance. But she earned their trust and a place among the doe and fawns as she protected them from the bear and wolf as well as the traps placed by man.

As each day ended, the curse relaxed its hold on her, and, she returned to her human shape. Naked as she was to the elements, she negotiated a space in the den of her fellow creatures, which kept her warm and safe in their fold. Perhaps some aura of the magic hung onto her flesh or perhaps the musk of her animal form fooled them as Faith convinced herself that this could be the only way these deer allowed her to nest among them. However, there were times when Faith would meet a doe’s gaze, and she wondered if the creature somehow knew and welcomed the protection she offered as the White Stag.

Every dawn, she returned to her wild self. She saw no reason in the change except the sunlight’s return, and with that knowledge, Faith resolved herself to her destiny. In those early days, she had hoped to find signs of anyone searching for her. She once wondered if the story of her change had traveled back to her home. But after the woods had stood silent for too long, Faith came to believe that Lady Weed’s treachery must have included a tale that told of the princess’ death by the crushing blow from the demon moon-beast that had risen from the earth on that fateful day. With time, thoughts of her parents and home floated into the mist of magic that enshrouded her, and the longing for her former life lessened with each passing day.

When autumn came, the leaves fell; the days became gray and full of the sounds of hunters. Arrows flew and traps snapped as King Warlock’s best men looked to build up their meat stores for the winter. These were his hunters. She knew them by the purple of their cloaks and the banners with the crossed arrows they kept at their campsites.

Faith took to the rocky crags, the high ground for her daytime jaunts, to track the hunters as they stalked through the forest. From that vantage point, she secured another day of life. When the hunters would break their hunt in the dying light, Faith waited until the camps grew quiet with sleeping men. In her human form, she crept into these camps with only her familiar friend of darkness close at hand. Almost eighteen years under the earth had sharpened her night vision, and she slipped past traps and undetected into the camps. She dismantled their bear traps and snapped arrows in half when the wind stirred the trees; the swing of branches covered the sounds of sabotage, careca. At dawn’s light, she watched from her hillside perch the roving bands of hunters bickering over broken arrows and lost gear.

#

Rumors of the great white stag traveled to the nearby farms and villages, primarily on the mouths of disgruntled hunters who returned early from their expeditions, with less bounty than they had hoped for. These tales spread from one farm to another along the river valley that marked the border between the woods and the rest of King Warlock’s land. These animated words made their way to the modest farm that Daisy had taken shelter at.

Visions of the day the sun had found Faith haunted the young maid all summer. On that cursed day, she raced into the woods after her transfigured princess, deserting her mother and deplorable sister on the forest road rather than join in their treacherous scheme. Though she made every effort, Daisy lost hope of catching the mystical stag that vanished into the cover of the lush green woods. Daisy heard the carriage drive on without her, and she wished it a bitter farewell. She had not anticipated her mother’s betrayal, and she never considered returning to the road to beg for a safe journey out of this wild and unknown land. She pushed through the thick bracken, leaving the road further and further behind.

She spent a few nights in those woods, harvesting berries and what few mushrooms she was certain were safe to eat. Gratefully, she managed to reach the woods’ end and wandered down a narrow path to a small farmhouse. There, an aging farmer and his childless wife allowed her to make camp on their property in exchange for some tasks she would do around the farm. At the end of each working day, she wandered into the forest, as far as she dared in the dim light, following game trails and leaving rock towers to guide her on the next search.

With these new stories of this unearthly creature, Daisy reaffirmed her resolve to find the princess. She gathered as many details as she could from the hunters leaving the forest and made her preparations for a longer journey, following the game paths to the encampments the hunters advised her to seek, if the clever maid thought herself bold enough to catch a glimpse of the terrible white stag.

The sun was yet to rise as Daisy helped the farmer and his wife load their cart with bushels of squashes, potatoes and apples to take to the village’s Fall Harvest Festival. She waved a fond safe journey and safe roads to them as the farmer whipped his stubborn mule to stutter-step into the cold early morning light. Daisy packed food for her day’s search, gathering her warmest cloak around her before setting off on her course through the woods.

Morning sunbeams cast brilliant angled columns of light along the forest floor. While her former paths lay hidden under so many newly fallen leaves, Daisy welcomed the openness provided by the leafless trees as she marched on with undaunted steps. She trusted that she had learned roughly the right direction to the closest hunter’s camp. She sighed with satisfaction, as she smelled campfire smoke after only an hour’s walking. She followed the scent and then the sounds of men rising for the morning, preparing for the day’s hunt.

“Howard, Howard! Where are you, foolish boy?” a booming voice cried. As the man called the name of this poor soul, Howard, Daisy felt a kinship for the servant who was clearly going to be recipient of a strong scolding if not worse.

Daisy heard the servant running through the woods, breaking through brush and dead branches with all the grace of a wounded bear. “Sire, I have spied the stag!” Howard’s youthful voice returned, eager and short of breath.

Daisy didn’t see the men, but these words rang clear. She swept her eyes over the forest landscape, straining her vision to catch a glimpse of white, a shadow of the ghostly deer, or more, her princess, there, before her. An arrow pierced her cloak before lodging itself in a tree. Daisy screamed, less in terror than in defiance. Birds scattered from the tree canopy at her cry.

The white of her own apron betrayed her, making the hunter see her as the white stag Daisy sought. For the next two hours, the hunter and his squire begged her forgiveness as they fortified her from their own food stocks. Howard produced a rich coffee from the campfire, and the hunter told even better stories of the White Stag that managed to elude men. “I know that stag takes to the rocky hills, like a demon who doesn’t know its own skin. No other deer takes to rocks like that,” the hunter expounded. “And we’re left with three arrows this morning, thanks to that blasted creature. It’s not a coincidence, miss. Every time arrows go missing, that stag is spied somewhere nearby the next morning. I can feel it watching us even now! We will have to fish for our winter’s stores. I hate dried fish.”

Daisy advised the hunter to take up pig farming before he pointed her toward the hills he considered the stag’s territory. With a blessing of farewells, Daisy headed back into the woods. As she left the camp, she passed the arrow that remained in the pine tree’s scarred trunk. Sap slunk out from the tree, like an oozing wound. She shivered once more at the thought of the arrow piercing her own skin, but at the thought of an arrow finding her princess, Daisy felt a pang that twisted at her heart in a way she did not want to dwell on. She turned her attention back to the task at hand; the hills were a fair distance away, and it would take her most of an afternoon to make the journey.

#

Faith’s ears pricked up at the sound. No doubt some creature moved through the leaves, clumsy shuffling feet. Had she heard a voice? Words traveled light on the air, but also resonated in defiance of anyone who would question they had been spoken. Faith smiled at the memory of that voice, as much as a stag could smile.

“My princess?” A voice formed a structure around the shape of sound.

Sweet and clear, as she remembered, Faith heard Daisy’s call from the woods. Faith surveyed the barren trees, looking for a flash of movement, a sign of her dear friend.

“My princess?” Daisy called again.

Faith found her stumbling lost in the woods. She spied Daisy as the young maid struggled through the leaf-fall. The young maid looked pale and underfed since Faith had last seen her. She appeared as though she had been searching since the moment they were separated, and as soon as Faith thought that, she knew it to be true. Faith held herself back from charging down the slope to her friend’s side. Caution and a familiar twitching in her ears told her that there were hunters close at hand, and while they may be a distance off, their arrows traveled far.

Faith looked to the sky, to the clouds thickly gathered overhead. She sent an urgent prayer to the fairies she felt certain were dancing there. “Grant me a snow fall, heavy and quick, for this lost princess.” Only a wish for winter with its gift of white could offer Faith the cover she needed to close the space between her friend and herself.

Flakes formed and fell, and soon there was a fine layer of snow and ice making the world sparkle as well as any fairy kingdom could aspire to.

Faith heard the hunters’ retreat. The sudden winter pushed them back to warm hearths and dry shelter. But Daisy, her truest, shielded her eyes from the snow while she pressed deeper into the wood.

Faith picked her way down the hillside, and not wishing to startle Daisy in her beastly form, thought it best to stay hidden for a while longer. She broke a path through the snow, certain Daisy would find and follow the signs. Faith tucked herself in the shelter of branches, seeming to disappear within the veil of white that filled the meadow. She waited, still and silent.

The snow blanketed the forest and sound alike, so Faith calmed her breath as she listened to each crunching footfall. When Daisy reached the meadow, the young maid collapsed at the water’s edge. She grabbed a stone no bigger than her fist and smashed the thin skin of ice that had formed over the water. Tossing the stone aside, she cupped her hands and scooped water into her mouth to satisfy her desperate thirst. She neglected to hear the wolf’s approach. An unpleasant snarl from behind made her reach for the stone though she feared it might be too late.

As Daisy turned to see her attacker face on, she witnessed a terrible magical sight. A great white stag leapt from the tree cover and hoisted the wolf, mid-pounce, up in its silver antlers and tossed the haggard beast, yelping into the icy pond. The rabid wolf crashed through the ice and grappled to pull itself out of the cool water but could get no purchase on the ice around it. It barked and growled at the air, until it sank below the water’s surface. Ice formed back over the gaping hole, and an eerie silence swept over the meadow.

Daisy staggered up to her feet. She wrapped her arms around the stag’s neck.

Faith felt her own arms reach around Daisy, hands clasping the too thin form of her friend. Faith had lost track of the day, and as dusk settled around them, her human form had returned.

Daisy saw as much as felt the transformation of her princess in her arms. It took but a moment, and Daisy was amazed, not expecting this day to end with her looking upon her dear friend’s beautiful face. Certainly, she had not expected to see all of her friend in human form.

Daisy wrapped her cloak around the princess’ shoulders. “Are you real again? Is it possible that I broke the spell?”

“Only for the time between dusk and dawn.” Faith’s voice was raw and cracked, for it had been almost two seasons since she had spoken. Faith pulled Daisy back into her arms. “Come dear one, we have so much to tell each other. Come with me into the wood.”

Tears fell down Daisy’s cheeks freely as Faith led Daisy into the darkening wood. She smiled at the strength of Faith’s grip around her hand, determined not to lose the touch that connected them in the gathering storm. Daisy marveled at Faith’s bare feet breaking the snow, seemingly impervious to the cold. Daisy dared herself to believe in the vision that moved so gracefully through the woods before her. A glow began to burn within her, as her heart seemed to swell and her breathing quicken. After so many months of searching, she had her princess again.

#

When Daisy woke, she realized dawn had long since arrived, and she found herself abandoned in the den that the deer had shared with them. Her cloak was spread over her in a careful way, so what warmth she had stayed with her.

Faith must have been tired when she awoke as the white stag at dawn. For the two of them had lain close together throughout the night, telling each other the tales of the past four months. Though the darkness had been deep in the folds of so many snow-laden branches of the thicket, occasionally a shaft of moonlight would pierce the shelter. All too briefly, Daisy caught a glimpse of Faith’s lips, turning to a smile, or her eyes, reflecting a knowledge that hadn’t been there before. Daisy struggled against the unfamiliar darkness, but Faith had long found a home in the night. Night held no threat to her. Faith spilled out the stories of her life as the magical stag of these woods. Daisy’s face became sore from smiling so much as she treasured her sweet friend’s return.

“A stag? I saw it myself, but still, I don’t understand.”

“Do not seek answers from the one who suffers from the curse.” Faith laughed. “But I am grateful to have the form that gives me a fighting chance.”

Daisy felt the winter’s bite at her skin, and she trembled both at the coldness and the vision of her princess facing wolves, hunters, and other dangers unknown to her. “My princess.” Daisy clutched Faith closer to her, finding both warmth and comfort in her arms. A passing ray of moonlight passed over the thicket as the wind stirred the branches, and for a moment, Daisy saw her mistress again. Faith’s alabaster skin reminded Daisy how long the poor princess had lived without daylight. Daisy caught up the cloak that had slipped from the soft curve of Faith’s hip and pulled it tight around her. Faith snuggled closer to Daisy’s chest, keeping Daisy wrapped around her.

“For warmth,” Faith had said.

“For friendship,” Daisy had whispered in return.

#

Alone in the mid-morning, Daisy crawled back through the briars and out into the wintry world. A collection of hoof prints preceded her exit, so she used these depressions for her own purpose as she pulled herself free of the den.

“My word and heart indeed,” an elderly woman’s voice exclaimed. The unexpected voice caused Daisy to lose her delicate balance and she collapsed, feeling foolish as she felt the wet snow seep into her dress. She raised herself up to standing to face the stranger, and in deference to her elder, Daisy then stooped a little to meet the woman, face-to-face. The woman smiled broadly despite the gaps where her teeth had once been. “Are you fairy or monster or simply a lost maid who rises from the frozen earth?” the woman asked, a pinch of humor in her tone as if she knew the answer already.

“Do not fear. I am a maid, no longer lost but found again by your honored presence.”

“You are a precious one to flatter me so. It is rare I walk this path, but a grumpy old white stag blocked my way and seemed to insist I go this way.”

They shared a smile, and Daisy felt this old woman must be very wise, or a fairy herself, or perhaps both; and on good feeling alone did she decide to trust the seeming kind stranger.

“The stag is my princess, cursed to wander as a wild creature during the day as long as the sun shines. I am her lady, and only just found her.”

“And as the sun sets, she returns to her human form until the sun rises again. I know the spell all too well.”

“Are you an enchantress?”

“I am a silly old woman, who has lived long and forgotten in this forest, but still I listen to all the stories these woods tell me. I have a cottage nearby, and I can provide you shelter and hearth for the coming winter that seems to have come all the earlier this year. You may stay as long as the curse continues, as long as you wish it.”

Daisy clasped the old woman’s hand with both of hers, and because she had been well-trained in the manner of the old rituals as well as the new, she chose the old form of pledging respect and gratitude by kissing the back of the old woman’s hand twice. She shouldered the old woman’s rucksack as a small gesture of what she could offer in return. The old woman stared at Daisy then waved her hand at nothing, snorting a bit at the air. She shuffled in place, adjusting to the absence of the weight she had been used to carrying.

“Then I take it that you will keep me company. Follow along then.” SheSheShe then led the poor, threadbare girl through the woods on some secret path, made even more hidden by the fresh snow, to her cottage.

As they walked and chatted and lapsed into peaceful silence, they heard at times the soft crunch of a heavy hoof or the brush of hair against a branch, creating flurries of snow to fall from low branches. Daisy and the old woman shared a knowing look.

“I have a chicken roasting over the fire, and now I find it is time to make a feast in honor of our new family.” The old woman made sure to say this loud enough for anyone close to hear. “But one must arrive in good time to enjoy the feast.”

A humble cottage of hewn logs and a sturdy thatch roof lay nestled in a clasp of trees. A shallow brook tripped along a pebble path past a small garden where tomatoes frosted with ice still clutched to the vines. An eave hung over a welcoming front porch, and Daisy could see the windows were trimmed with simple linen curtains. The old woman opened her door wide as she shuffled her feet over the doorstep. Daisy stayed at the entrance. She smelled the roasting chicken from the hearth that filled the interior of the cabin. A hunger crawled through her belly at the aroma.

A modest fire blazed as the chicken turned on its spit. A rough lopsided table stood close to the hearth with collection of candles burnt down to nubs of wax. A broken rocking chair lay tilted on its side. A bench cluttered with drying herbs, flowers, and stray swaths of cloth leaned against the chair. Cabinets with broken doors held little reserve of food on their rough-hewn shelves. Curtains of smoke-stained linen hung on each side of the hearth, and Daisy supposed they served as a screen to the rooms beyond, one for the old woman and another for herself. Simple and sparse as it was, Daisy felt she stood upon the edge of a fairy’s palace. She touched her forehead and tapped her foot once at the doorstep as she made the blessing of safe home before stepping over the threshold.

Dusk arrived, and so too a light knock on the door. With a nod and approving smile from her hostess, Daisy ushered the naked Faith into the warm home. Daisy draped a winter dress of linen over Faith.

“Wherever did this shift come from?” Faith smiled as her head emerged through the dress. Her long arms stretched through the sleeves.

“Our host provided the material. It is poorly made now, but I will improve it tomorrow with more time.” Daisy blushed as she helped Faith’s hands find their way through the sleeves. She expected to find Faith frozen from the cold, but she found her warm to the touch. Daisy gasped in delight as she lifted Faith’s hands to her face.

“The heat stays with me for a while after the change,” Faith said, allowing the girl to enjoy the feeling of Faith’s hands against her cool face. “Perhaps you noticed yesterday?”

“I only knew you in that moment, and now I have you again to notice all the more.”

Faith’s fingers traced the edges of Daisy’s cheeks. a gentle touch journeyed over the maid’s black eyebrows followed by a thumb glancing over Daisy’s lips. A sudden warmth traveled from down Daisy’s neck and would have continued further if she hadn’t pulled herself back and taken the princess’ hands into her own. “Please, come in, my princess, and meet our kind mother who has offered us this shelter.” Faith squeezed Daisy’s hand, and Daisy nodded as she met Faith’s questioning gaze. “Come, I trust her as I trust you.”

Faith stepped forward, feeling the comfort of Daisy’s arm next to her own as they stood in the welcoming hearth. Before Faith could make her greeting, the old woman lowered herself in homage to the princess.

“Your Highness, you do me this great honor to enter my home,” the old woman tried to speak as she thought she should.

Faith had grown unaccustomed to such formalities and stood dumbly silent as she struggled to remember the right words to say. Her eyes made a desperate look to Daisy, and Daisy winked then raised her eyebrows as she curled her lip. It was a game they had played as children. At court, Daisy had been so much better at memorizing all the rites and customs of the court. Faith failed at keeping the practices in her mind, but Daisy taught her a secret language in which Daisy made certain gestures and motions to remind Faith how to proceed. Faith need only discover a moment to steal a look to gather Daisy’s expressed clues. Now, Faith fought the urge to caress Daisy’s curling lip again with her thumb to thank it for the indications it gave her.

“Please kind and fair mother, rise and look upon me as your own family. For this service and shelter you provide, you shall ever have a place in my heart.” Faith remembered how Daisy had called the old woman ‘mother.’ So Faith added, “you shall be as my own mother, for as long as I walk upon the earth, and beyond it as I am able.”

The old woman rose and, in her squinting and smiling eyes, she appeared to be filled with a goodness too great to behold. “May this be the darkest winter that travels to our door, so we all have many hours to know each other.”


Indeed, when nightfall came, time slowed its pace, letting the course of the evening unwind minutes into moments. Though the winter solstice is not known as a season of growing, each night fed the seeds of fondness and loving regard the three women felt blossoming by the hearth of their new family.

Each evening passed with the same rituals. Once Faith arrived hot from the change, Daisy dressed her. Daisy constructed simple but tasty meals from their meager larder, while Faith applied her childhood lessons in carpentry to repair a chair, rehang a shelf, or seal the windows that let in the frigid winter air seep in. After Daisy tucked their kind mother into the rocking chair that Faith had righted, she insisted that Faith join her on the bench by the fire, requiring the princess to assist her with the mending of clothes, curtains, and a seemingly endless supply of blankets.

“What treat do you have for me tonight?” Faith’s patience ended before the owls could begin their hunting calls.

“Apologies, my princess, I had no time to bake.” Daisy dared not meet her old mother’s look for fear it would make her laugh as it always did when Faith began their game, or as Faith liked to call it, the hunt for sweet salvation.

“I suffer an endless curse. Half beast, half helpless maiden. I suffer, how I suffer. Only one gift I ever ask of this world to ease my pain. Ah, a piece of nut bread, a sliver of cake.” Faith crossed to the hearth’s mantle, burying her face in the crook of her arm as she leaned against it.

“There are no sweets for you. Sadly, your suffering must continue, my poor princess-beast.” Daisy set her sewing aside, clearing the path as she launched herself off the bench towards Faith, hands free to tickle the princess.

However, Faith had grown so much stronger since the curse had taken her. Faith easily pulled the maid into her lap as she returned to her seat on the bench. “Do you seek my wrath?” Faith raised her free hand and spun her fingers in the familiar dance. “Do you surrender?”

“Never!” Daisy’s eyes widened as she watched Faith’s dancing fingers descend, navigating their way through the folds of her dress to tickle her. Daisy shook with giggling, and Faith persisted until Daisy gasped for air, burying her face in her princess’ neck, begging her to stop.

“Surrender?” Faith stayed her hand on Daisy’s belly. Daisy breathed heavily into the princess’ ear, unable to speak. A sudden light-headedness seized Faith, but she remembered her script as she ordered, her voice thick, “Produce my boon.”

Daisy extracted a wrapped offering from her apron’s pocket and placed a bit of the sugar cake on Faith’s waiting tongue. Faith moaned with exaggerated delight at the reward as she rocked the maid in her embrace.

Daisy found it strangely sad when she fed the last bite to Faith. She found it stranger still that she did not have the will to meet the princess’ gaze as she pulled herself out of Faith’s lap, dusting the crumbs off her apron as she stood. She retrieved the cakes she’d baked for her mother and herself, and after teasing Faith with a second piece, she rejoined her on the bench where they enjoyed dessert by the waning fire.

When the night slipped into lengthy quiet pauses and softer voices, Daisy led the princess to the narrow bed they shared. Faith stretched along the length of Daisy, easily folding the maid into the warmth of her. The whisper of Faith’s breath on Daisy’s neck sent a shiver through her that wasn’t chilled at all. Even still, Daisy clutched the blanket to her, waiting for sleep to come.

#

Winter could not last forever. The season’s cycle proved stronger than any magical wish. TTThe snow melted and the scent of green returned to the air. Villagers welcomed the return of the longer days as they greeted neighbors and traded stories, often colored by words eager for new ears to hear them. Hunter’s tales of the white deer traveled from home to home, transforming the creature into a beast of legend, of mythic size and strength. The woods themselves became the territory of fairies and witches, too dangerous to explore as the frost still held its sway in the morning light. Had not a maid been lost there when the winter came too soon? Had not a princess died under the hoof of that very beast?

Word reached King Warlock. His hunters had failed this past season in their collection of venison and bear, and he grew tired of dried fish and pork. For their part, the hunting party offered only excuses about being plagued by creatures that they were unable to kill. Creatures no doubt led by this unearthly White Stag.

Warlock tugged at the belt that held his royal purple raiment to him. He let the heavy woolen garb fall to the floor as he lifted the crown off his thick black hair. His midnight locks draped to his shoulders, casting a strange shadow against his pale flesh. He had spent too much of this winter inside. Little sign remained of any winter fat on his muscular form; he felt as strong and as ready for the release of the new season as any caged man could. He tired at the thought of another day spent in the company of advisors and tradesmen in the stuffy halls of his castle. He swiveled on one heel at the sound of water being disturbed. His features relaxed as he met Lord Converse’s gaze, waiting at the entry of his bath.

“As it pleases Your Majesty.” Lord Converse bowed, beckoning the king to take his place by the tub.

Warlock reposed on top of his bathing robes next to the tub while Converse washed his legs and back. As Converse’s strong hands kneaded Warlock’s stiff back, the young king flexed his arms and stretched.

“I was to be married this spring,” he yawned. “But that foolish princess had to die rather than finish the journey. And that wretched Lady Weed and her sour-faced daughter, showing up here, daring to pretend to be royalty in her place! As if I’m blind, as if I’m a fool!”

Lady Weed’s plot to pass her gaunt and gangly daughter as the lovely Princess Faith had been misconceived at best. Converse himself delivered the two disgraced ladies to the dungeon upon the revelation of their villainy.

“I do not envy any man who must take such news back to the parents of so fair a maiden.” Converse blinked at the flash of memory of the queen’s desperate wail as he delivered the news of Lady Weed’s betrayal, of Princess Faith’s death in the daylight. “I should have stayed with the escort rather than racing ahead. I regret my impatience every day.” Converse ran the cloth over the King’s exposed leg in thoughtful contemplation. “Some men say she became this white stag. Some men say they saw her change. Do you think it possible?”

“Fairy tales! Since when do my people believe in fairy tales? What’s next, the fishermen come back and say they can’t catch fish because mermaids cut the lines? My bravest men retreat from the field because they might upset a fairy asleep on a toadstool?” The King laughed at the idea he conjured up.

Converse echoed Warlock’s laugh. “Would your majesty like to hunt the stag?”

The King considered the question. It had been some time since he had gone on a hunt. He felt the lingering desire in him to draw back an arrow and feel the quickening release. The satisfying sound of the shaft hitting its mark rang in his memory. “Make it known to the hunters that no one is to hunt in the stag’s glade. Let him get fat and comfortable. I will hunt him in a fortnight. You shall be my only companion, Converse. We will keep our own vigil.”

Converse’s mouth spread into a wide smile. The King rolled over on to his back, giving a nod of assent for Converse to continue.

“As your lordship pleases.”

#

“How early is it?” Daisy found herself waking at the darkest hour of night. Daisy heard the slide of fabric against skin as Faith pulled the nightdress off. As a habit, Faith left her linen shift at the foot of the bed before she made her way out of the cottage. The princess avoided a transformation inside the home and refused to risk ruining one of her few outfits as well. “It’s not time yet, is it?”

“Soon.” Faith laughed in her sad way. “I can feel the time is close.”

“Let it be night a little longer.” Daisy reached for her princess and her hand found the naked flesh of Faith’s waist. She started to draw her hand away, but Faith’s hand held Daisy to her.

“Sh.” Faith’s request for silence was impossible to meet. Daisy’sheart thundered inside her. Faith moved again, and Daisy, reflexively, gave Faith’s waist a squeeze. Faith bent over Daisy, the heat of her body close, calling to the maid’s own.

“Stay.” Daisy wished, but that wasn’t her truest wish. She wanted her princess closer still, under those blankets, their bodies tangled in linen, until flesh found flesh again. Daisy’s breath caught in her throat.

Faith kissed Daisy’s forehead as she lifted Daisy’s hand from her waist. “I must go, my sweet.” Faith’s words were barely a whisper. Perhaps the change had already begun and she hadn’t expected to say them at all. Faith rushed from the room, the ghostly presence of her kiss lingering on Daisy’s head.

Tears fell unwelcome and unheeded from Daisy as she pushed back at that terrible ache that squeezed her body, causing her to want beyond hope to hear her princess say those words to her again: “My sweet.” But the words wilted in their intensity with the coming of dawn, and as the morning sun gathered around the cottage, Daisy shook herself of the dream she knew was hers alone.

#

Daisy spent her days in the close comfort of her dear old mother, for this is how she truly regarded their kind benefactress. The old woman never spoke a word about magic. But everyday with a knowing nod, she packed a basket of food and led Daisy to a meadow hidden deep in the forest. This place lay more hidden than the cottage, and there under a great hemlock tree, they passed hours under the evergreen branches.

The woman shared her knowledge of the powers hidden in nature. In this meadow, it was never quite winter or summer, rather a season of its own. The air itself felt different on Daisy’s flesh and in her lungs. When she went to this place, she experienced a peculiar sensation of glitteriness that suffused her in a way that she imagined fairies must feel all the time. Her mind and heart became open to her good mother’s teaching. Her mother kept the measure of each lesson and the day. When the lesson ended and the day began to dress in the pinks and oranges of the dying light, she followed the ritual of sacred parting by clasping Daisy’s hands in hers, kissing each of the maid’s fingers. Daisy frowned at the lesson’s end as she helped her mother up to her feet once more.

“A little more time, please mother.”

“Time calls us home.” Her old mother reached up and pinched Daisy’s soft cheek in her fingers. “You would not wish to be late for our ‘deer’ one.”

Daisy rolled her eyes at her mother’s often repeated play on words. Her old mother barked a laugh at her tired joke. “Don’t let the princess hear you say that.”

“I think she’d rather hear you say it than I.”

Daisy shook her head at her mother’s teasing. “Come along my sweet mad mother. Let us go back to our cozy den.”

“You know the path home better than I.” Her good mother clutched Daisy’s arm for support. She grew weaker as the winter slowly lost its command of the land and sky.

“I have a good teacher. I see the path like a sparkling trail of stardust stretching before us, a silver river.”

“And you see other paths as well?”

Daisy cast a look around her. “Indeed, you are right mother. There flows a stream of red. It leads to a village, or at least to people, perhaps they are kind. The red glows like a warm heart.”

“And another?”

“Here, one of bright green.” Daisy laughed. “It leads to a lake.”

“Why do you laugh at this vision?”

“I see two lovers there. They have stolen away. They think no one sees them.”

“A common enough practice in my day.” The old woman laughed as well, perhaps at her own mischievous memories. “Look again, my dear, you have stronger eyes than me.”

A coldness gripped Daisy’s heart as she tracked a royal purple trail. She felt as if a thousand wasps stung her skin, and she fell to her knees as she heaved for breath.

The woman knelt by her, running her hand over Daisy’s hair. The motion sent a wave of calm through the poor suffering girl.

“A hunter.” Daisy coughed. “He hunts my…” Daisy caught herself, had she wanted to say ‘love’? She had neither the hope nor the station to desire such an esteemed place. She corrected herself, disguising her almost error with a heavy sigh, “my princess.”

“He hunts with one other.” The old woman followed the vision as well. “He has a strong passion to win his prize.”

“He’ll kill her.”

“His wish is to kill the stag.” The old woman helped Daisy back to her feet. “But the day is late enough, and soon there will be no stag to seek. And I see a very hungry princess waiting naked on our front step, if we stay here.”

The woman’s words worked their spell and roused Daisy out of her terrible distraction. They made their way home.

Evening took its time finding them. Daisy prepared the evening meal, tidied the rooms, built a fire, and swept the floors. She twice washed the table and cabinetry, and still she found time to sweep the path that led to the cottage door.

No respite came as the sun set. There was no knock on the door. Daisy told herself she would not cry, not yet. She grabbed a lantern and held it aloft as she paced up and down the cottage path. She peered into the dusk shrouded trees, seeking visions of trails to tell her how to find her princess. But only shadows danced around her.

“You cannot search in this way.” Daisy had not heard the woman approach. She dropped the lantern, but deftly caught it again before it could strike the ground.

“Please mother. How can I find her?”

“She will return. Trust in that. Come inside and wait with me by the fire.”

When the woman settled Daisy by the hearth, she rapped her knuckles on the mantle and a cloud of ash stirred up from beneath the flames. The cloud curled into a butterfly’s delicate shape before flitting up the chimney, setting out on an unspoken mission.

“She will be home soon.”

Daisy knew the woman to be true. “I must be as you, mother. I must know these ways.”

“The cost is too high for you. You cannot have my path without giving up your own.”

“I have no path to speak of, except to serve.”

“And to love.”

Daisy turned away from the woman. A breeze stirred the curtain that hid the bed Faith and she shared. Daisy saw a vision of Faith standing next to the bed, her nightdress gathered in her hands. Daisy blinked away the phantom sight.

The old woman called her back. “You are worthy of such a love in return.”

“Mother, I know my place in the world.”

“You know the place where man has put you, but you must unlearn that, if you dare to find your true path. That path, my child, will not betray you.”

Daisy drank in the old mother’s words even as she was not quite sure what they meant. She knew she must puzzle them out, but there as she contemplated the flames, she heard that familiar step on the porch, followed by a rapid knock.

Daisy flung open the door and captured her poor mistress in her arms. Faith, naked, damp with sweat, panting from the long chase.

“A hunter… the King himself… all day.” Words she managed to breathe out as her heart raced, beating mad against her chest. Daisy shushed and ran her hands over Faith’s head, as her mother had taught her, trying to restore a calm back to the woman bent in her arms.

“I will draw her a milk bath. This will give her some strength.” The old woman set to filling a copper tub with warm water and milk powder.

“I can help.” Daisy made the offer, but her princess clutched at Daisy, still seeking a steady breath. Daisy rocked Faith in her arms, whispering calm words to her.

When the bath was ready, she helped Faith into the nourishing tub. The old woman had made a paste of herbs and gave the bowl to Daisy to feed the princess. Daisy swept up two fingers full of the restorative and held the healing concoction to Faith’s mouth.

Faith welcomed the much-needed sustenance that began to restore her. As Daisy’s fingers slipped over her lips, she also felt a curious weakness travel through her belly. When she looked up to meet Daisy’s gaze, her tongue played across Daisy’s fingers. Daisy’s cheeks flushed a rising pink, and Faith felt the girl’s fingers tremble on her lips. Faith opened her mouth, embarrassed at the pleasure she had found there, and yet she longed for the feeling to return.

“Perhaps I need more,” Faith suggested.

“Perhaps you are strong enough already.”

A pleasant buzz stirred within Faith. She submerged herself in the tub. She raised her head above the milky water, and Daisy smiled back at her. Faith leaned toward the maid, reaching for Daisy’s hand, but Daisy placed the bowl solidly in Faith’s palm.

“Finish the rest, as you like.” Daisy nodded as she crossed to their room.

Faith barely caught the bowl in her grip as she watched Daisy retreat. She smiled at the girl’s escape. Even though Daisy hadn’t complied with Faith’s wish, Faith knew in that instant that Daisy desired the same.

Daisy stood only a few feet away in the confines of their small room, but at least she had left the princess’ company before Faith could unravel her with another glance. Daisy felt her whole self betraying her heart in every look and touch. She had been so close to saying the wrong words to the old woman, and now she stood on the precipice of surrendering her very soul to the woman she was indentured to serve.

#

Warlock collapsed in the tent. The chase had taken its toll, and he weakly pulled the bearskin blanket over his panting form. Converse cooked their evening meal over a small fire he had built at the entrance of their tent. Warlock listened to the good man’s voice, but Converse’s words defied taking any shape that Warlock could recognize. He heard something about food and felt the wineskin flop on his belly when Converse tossed it to him. Warlock drank the red elixir, savoring the soothing balm it sent through his aching body.

Converse brought a spoonful of the rabbit stew to Warlock’s mouth, and the rich aroma stirred his appetite. Warlock tucked into the stew, and soon he rose, rejuvenated and laughing at the thrill of the hunt.

“I know its rhyme and reason. And tomorrow I will have that stag’s head at our table. Brilliant, wasn’t it? Did you manage to catch a glimpse of it? The antlers almost looked silver in the light.”

“A flash of white is all. I thought it best to keep my eye on the path and where we went.”

“Sensible man, wise friend.” King Warlock slapped Converse’s back in fond appreciation. He kept his hand on Converse’s broad shoulder, enjoying the company of his most loyal man. “You always keep me on the right path.”

“Suppose it is the princess, your lordship. What might you risk if you take the stag’s head and find rather than a prize, you have a child bride’s bloodied gold locks at your feet?”

Warlock withdrew his hand. The image Converse conjured up startled him. “There is no proof that the girl is that beast, and even still, if she is so cursed, who’s to say she doesn’t bring that evil to our country? This magic cannot be trusted or believed. Pah! Listen to me, magic, curses, evil, I talk like a simple farmer who prays to the Fairy Queen to make his vegetables grow. I should strike any man who invents such tales to cloud our more rational minds.”


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