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Gurta and the Owl King
Gurta and the Owl King
Gurta and Grandmother Agnethe lived in a rust-colored hut on the edge of the Forest. The townsfolk of the tiny German hamlet over the way thought the crabbed old woman with the gap-toothed grin and the little blond girl with unnaturally blue eyes strange to live so near what everyone knew was Faery land. From birth, every child’s mama or granny had frightened them with tales of the hobgoblins that crept long-fingered through the twining shadows, the great grey wolves that hunted the naked copses, the bitter Fae, pining for their lost kingdom. Perhaps greatest of all loomed the fearful King of the Fae, the Owl King, the ruler of the Forest and all its dark inhabitants, his eyes shaded and mouth lined by the murky stuff of legends. Some said he had teeth long as a wolfe’s, teeth hungry for the errant child. Others said no, he lived off the blood of the land, and grew grey wings every night to tear at the moon with his talons. He had a long white beard- no he was clean-shaven, with curls the color of night. He wore a crown of winter branches and carried a sword of ice- no, a scepter made from the bones of naughty children.
Gurta had heard these stories too, and so since infancy she had been instilled with a deep sense of danger that colored her every perception of the Forest, ever lurking at the border of their little yard. But unlike the village children, there was always something about the dark, wild, and dangerous beauty of the Forest that also pulled Gurta to it, no matter how many times she tried to reason it away. She would watch the Forest for hours at a time, peering into the shifting shadows, imagining that she saw the glint of eyes- a heart-owl, perhaps, or the King, come to gobble her up, or even Mother, returning to her beloved daughter from some faraway adventure, as she sat bare-legged on the rough-hewn fence of the goose-pen.
Gurta and Grandmother Agnethe raised geese for a living- white geese, grey geese, black geese. Gurta held the brittle eggs to her chest until they hatched, raising them to adulthood in a corner of the tiny cabin, nursing them through sickness and youth like children. She sold their eggs once a month in the small town market, sold their feathers for quilts and soft pillows for the wealthy, but never, never killed them. When a goose died, whether because of old age, disease, or Forest attacker, she buried it in the stubbly yard, right at the fringe of the ever-encroaching Forest, laying bouquets of russet bracken on the graves. Gurta and Grandmother Agnethe had a small vegetable patch too, but the Forest soil made it strange, and the rutabagas and cabbages were strangled without fail by the wild forest weeds- some with dark purple flowers that Grandmother Agnethe warned were poisonous, some with snaggled thorns like the teeth of a grey Forest wolfe, one especially venomous kind with glossy, black-ish leaves that left Gurta with a painful rash that lasted for weeks. Though Gurta feared the Forest, she also yearned to run among its silent trees and explore its hidden mysteries, and behind her mistrust was a nagging suspicion that Grandmother Agnethe had simply invented the legends to keep her under the constant supervision of her beady eyes. Though no older than eleven, Gurta labored dawn to dusk while the old woman sat by the paltry red fire and told tales of bygone times. And so, when one evening a young white goose Gurta had christened Snowbell disappeared off into the Forest, Gurta followed her.
It was the first time she had ever been inside. Gurta took in the towering gnarled trees, the smooth, moist ground, the flickering shadows, with wide blue eyes. Out in the yard it had been a grimy sort of late afternoon, but the thick leafless Forest canopy caught the light like a tangled net, letting only a little dribble through, runny and lukewarm. Brambles snagged her dress and pricked her bare feet. She heard a soft muffled sound in the unnatural silence, like wings beating the thick air. Up ahead in the gloom she saw a white shape in a tree-ringed hollow.
Snowbell hung like a broken doll from the jagged jaws of a great grey wolfe. Blood stained her slender white neck, but it was not brilliant crimson as blood should be, but rather, it had taken on the dark luster of the Forest, and dripped almost black to the Forest floor. The wolfe was easily larger than Gurta, and as she stumbled back, it growled and bared its wicked fangs, hackles raised.
“Oh don’t mind him,” came a soft voice, like moth wings on shadows or the mist that hovers over brown pools on cold mornings. There was a hand on the wolfe, pale as death, and the wolfe slumped, slinking back into the Forest. “He won’t hurt you, my little one, for he is mine, as the hollowing moon is mine, and this lonely Forest is mine, and the icy wind that licks your lovely little cheek is mine. Do you know who I am, sweet one?”
“The King,” whispered Gurta. He was tall, much taller than her, his hair the color of tree-skin, his sorrowful eyes like scoured winter skies- the same strange cold blue as hers. His face was a pale moon with branch-shadows playing across it like caresses, and at once he was old as the world and young, even innocent in the pain that carved so obviously across his face.
“What do you see when you see me, little girl? I wonder… an ancient haunt, a hungry demon, some form of miserable wretch abandoned by fate in this twisted place. But ah, if only you could have seen me as I was. I had a throne of golden blossoms, in the Summerdays, a crown of silver ivy. And long, long ago- though it seems only yesterday- I ruled the peaceful Kingdom of Fae. The celebrations we would have, with crimson butterflies by the thousands, succulent bloodberries and pomegranates and unicorn foals with apples in their little mouths. Summer solstice we would play our emerald pipes all night long and vanish like wraiths in the dawn, leaving mortals wondering at strange noises that plagued their dreams. And centuries later- my love, my wife, though her mortal heart beats no more- she had the same hair as yours. Golden as corn silk, my lovely lady.”
Gurta shifted from foot to foot, trying to blink the phantoms of impossible imaginings from her eyes. She felt herself warming to the strange sad King despite herself, and full of an overpowering longing for dresses of rose petals instead of tatty smocks and feasts of golden fruits instead of bread crusts, a fair-haired Mother instead of a gnarled old woman who asked for everything and gave nothing in return.
“But you, you are yet a stranger to this world, and would not remember the Summerdays. No mortal now alive would, or their father, or their father’s father, no; this place is a land of Winter, and it is all you know, my poor little cold one. Even your lovely eyes are chips of ice, and though you long for warmth, it would melt your sweet little heart to nothing. Step lightly, my Gurta, and I shall you soon!”
And with that he vanished into the shadows. Gurta stood there a moment, listening to the barely perceptible creaking of the trees. Then she picked up Snowbell, cradling her broken form gently in her arms, and started off home.
It was dark by the time she got back to the red cabin, though not a single star peeped through the perpetually sooty cloud canopy. Gurta was not afraid of the Forest- somehow she knew that nothing there would hurt her- but of Grandmother Agnethe. She erupted into volatile fits of fury if Gurta was late with the goose eggs for market, and Gurta had never been this late returning in her life. Up ahead of her the cabin’s windows shone like fiery eyes. She opened the door gingerly.
“Girl! Where have you been!” Grandmother Agnethe’s sunken cheeks were an unhealthy shade of rose. Her toothless mouth trembled with unspeakable outrage, twisting oddly to quickly-suppressed pain. To her unsurprised dismay, Gurta saw several empty bottles of spirits laying by her rocker- where all their money went, instead of food for Gurta. The girl felt a reckless fury start to rise in her, seeping from her empty stomach up to her icy blue eyes. She set Snowbell down carefully.
“Probably lying about lazily stealing poor granny’s money to buy yourself a cherry pie, eh? Or cozying up to those filthy village boys. And leaving your poor old granny all alone, starving to death, coughing up blood, you know! Running off and leaving me to die, just like your rotten mother. I loved my yellow-haired daughter, you know, and she broke my poor old moldy heart when she ran off with him, and left me with you. I give you everything- a house to live in, food for your miserable belly, a bed to sleep in at night, and what do you do, eh? Why does everyone leave me? Where were you, eh, girl?”
“I was in the Forest, talking to the King.” Gurta picked up her black wool traveling cape and put it on, tucked the bread knife into her string belt. She filled a bag with bread and cheese, and left the cabin, shutting the door behind her. Grandmother Agnethe sat dumb by the fire, not rocking but still, her dry remembering eyes melting like old candlewax.
The sky had cleared, for once. A full bluish moon lit her path into the Forest, and the stars winked balefully down at her. Her breath plumed out gracefully, tinsel-like in the pale moonlight.
Up ahead of her, she saw the King sitting in the branches of an ancient, twisted tree, watching her come towards him. She stopped in front of him. She could see no clouds of breath fanning about him, and she shivered.
“Well hello there, Gurta. I must confess, I didn’t expect you so soon, my little one. To what do I owe this lovely visit, at such a late hour?”
“I…I never want to go home again!” she cried. “I hate her so much. She doesn’t understand anything! I wish she would just die, and get on with it! I want to go away with you!”
The King sprang lithely as a wolfe from the high branches, and lifted her into his arms. His hands were like gentle ice on her cheek. She shook, and wrapped her cloak tighter around herself. The knife blade was biting into her leg, but she didn’t make a sound. Up close the King seemed carved from pale stone, his eyes glittering blue and knifelike. She felt no warm heartbeat from his chest.
“Do you really Gurta? You want to come away with me?” His smile was like fractured crystal, his kiss on her forehead a wintry, hungry sort of love. “Oh child, my people sleep cold in the ground, all except for you, trembling with your fragile warmth of life. If only your mother were here to see how beautiful you are! You must have known that the Forest is where you belong. Grow wings with me, my little one. I have been lonely, for so, so long…”
Grandmother Agnethe never saw Gurta again. She told the villagers she had run away, like her whore of a mother, but they had seen the blue-eyed owl that swooped round the bloodied goose-yard at dusk, and heard the two wolves howl to the shadowy moon. They had listened to the tales of the the dark haired man and his golden-haired daughter who ate the hearts of unwary Forest travelers, and when the winter wind screamed around their little houses and whistled down their chimneys, and the creaking of the Forest sounded on their doorsteps, they sang to their sons and daughters,
O dearest children listen well,
For the nights are long, to the tale I tell
For the Faery King in his coach of shades
Is passing now through the dark’ning glades
And he’ll take you away to the Land of Fey
And in gardens of weeds and bone you’ll play
He is hungry.