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Part one: The Narating
Once upon a time, in a small village on the edge of a dark forest, there lived two brothers. They were both woodcutters, as strong as bears and as quick witted as foxes. Many of the village girls would have loved to be married to either of them, but they had sworn off women until they found what their father had spoken of in his final hours.
The older of the two men was named Magnus. Although he was bigger and stronger than most men in town, he kept to himself, content to read on nights when the wind was frosty and the chores were done.
The younger brother was called Askel, and he was a daring boy who always told adventurous tales at the local bars. He was deeply regretting swearing off young women, but he kept his word. Even as temptation came and went, and it seemed everyone was marrying, Askel’s resolve only hardened, until all he could think of was solving the mystery.
It had been two years since father Eriksson had come home after going missing for seven weeks. He had been little more than a bag of bones, babbling and cackling about forest demons and the deepest forest and living wood.
The brothers Eriksson had tried to nurse him back to health, but he was too far gone. After he had died, the boys had sworn that they would not marry until they found what their father spoke of. Every day, they would walk miles into the woods, searching for the deepest part of the woods. And every day, they would come home disappointed.
Finally, one evening on the last day of fall, they found the deepest wood. It was in the form of a mountainous wall of trees that grew so close together, that no light came through.
At first, the men spent many days searching for an entrance. Every waking hour was spent marching along the perfect circle of trees, trying to part the branches. Alas, they found nothing.
Then, as the leaves continued to turn, and eventually fell off in the chilly air of winter, they started trying to chop their way through.
At first, they seemed to make progress, cutting gaping holes in the interwoven lattice of trees. The trees mumbled and groaned as they chopped, warning the men that danger lurked within, but the brothers ignored their warnings. The trees, angry that the men had not headed them, began to fight back.
At first it was as simple as the trees growing back over night. The brothers Eriksson would come back after a good night's sleep, only to find that the holes they had worked so hard on the day before, were completely closed up. But, being men, they did not shy away from chopping into the forest once more.
That was their fatal mistake. As soon as the axes bit into the wood once more, the trees struck back. But rather than trying to keep the men out, the trees sucked them in.
Part Two: What Happened
“Annabelle, come quick!”
Anabelle set her book down, and ran over to the front door. She came to a stop, staring at what lay outside.
“Elsie, what have you done?”
Elsie looked indignant.
“Me? They were the ones who were chopping the trees.”
“I told you, we’re not bringing anyone in! I even warned them off!”
“It’s not my fault they're stubborn. They wouldn’t stop chopping. I had to stop them. Would you rather I simply kill them?”
Annabelle rubbed a stiff hand over her face.
“No of course not. But you know humans are trouble.However,” She held up a hand before Elsie could speak. “ I will help you carry them to the spare room.”
Elsie clapped her hands in triumph.
“Oh thank you Annabelle! I promise this will go better than last time.” She held up her hands to shade her eyes. “Oh dear, it does look like snow doesn’t it?”
Annabelle straightened out the dusty covers on the spare bed. There were a few leaves clinging to some cobwebs in the corner, but otherwise, the room showed no signs that the room had been touched in years. Which it hadn’t.
Not for at least two.
Elsie puffed into the room, carrying the smaller man on her back. She shuffled over to the bed, and unceremoniously dumped him on the bed.
Annabelle couldn’t resist looking at the men as they lay on the bed.. They had so much motion and light in their very existence that called to her. She did so desperately want to be human again. As soon as the thought would come to her though, she would smash it back down. It was impossible for humans to accept, much less love, her or her sister.
The last time a human had come, he had run away, screaming that they were demons, beasts, monsters.
Elsie wondered how long they could keep their secret. Last time something like this had happened, they were too hasty, and they had told the man their secret right away.
No. This time would be better.
Magnus woke up on a soft, albeit dusty, bed. He rubbed his eyes, trying to remember how he had gotten where he was. Askel stirred on his right. Magnus looked down at his hands. They were covered in scratches, swirling and stinging in a pattern that looked like wood grain.
Askel sat up and groaned.
“Magnus, what is going on? Where-”
Magnus put a finger to his lips, nodding to the door, which was slightly ajar. Voices floated in through the crack, sounding feminine and slightly worried.
Magnus opened the door with a creak, and walked quietly down a hallway lined with doors. Askel followed behind him, his eyes shifting around as he went. The men walked into a large room with a blazing fire on a huge hearth. There were couches and chairs in a cozy half- circle around the hearth, and bookcases lining the walls.
There was one sculpture made of what looked like pure gold, set in a wall sconce. It was of a small spreading tree, each leaf intricately carved.
But more beautiful than the tree, were the two women who sat by the fire. Their skin shone like sunlight, both of their eyes sparking in the deepest green, their hair the color of rich tree bark.
One of them looked up, and the men’s knees felt weak.
Annabelle and Elsie explained to the bewildered men, that they were two sisters who lived in the forest together, and that they had found the men sleeping in the snow, and had heroically saved them from freezing to death. Also, because of the snow, it was unlikely that they would be able to leave the house till the spring thaw.
Askel went to the window, and sure enough, there was snow covering it almost to the top.
“Where in the forest are we?”
The sisters looked at each other.
“Don’t you know? You’re in the deepest forest.”
This declaration filled the brothers with elation at being told they were closer than ever to finding what they sought. Magnus said it would be best to wait till the thaw to continue their search. Askel agreed, but inside he would not let himself stop completely. After all, he could never tell what would happen that could lead him to the next clue.
It had been three weeks since the men had come, and Annabelle was feeling something in her chest. Not hate, she knew what that felt like. She only remembered feeling the way she did one other time, and that had ended horribly.
When she had been a young human girl, she had fallen for the son of a belligerent witch. When the boy’s mother had caught them trying to sneak away together into the forest, she had pronounced a wretched curse upon Annabelle and her sister who had covered for her. She had spit and raged and cursed the girls to forever be a part of the forest they tried to hide in. Their life force, as well as the lives of the trees that hid them, was bound to an acorn inside of the golden tree that sat in the women's living room.
Elsie pouted to herself. Life truly was not fair. She had only been trying to keep her older sister from being turned into a toad, and that had ended with both girls turned into monsters. Now that some actual humans had appeared, one was completely enamored with her sister, while the other locked himself away in his room doing who-knows-what.
Elsie groaned out loud.
Annabelle always got it better than her.
Part Three: The Winter to the End.
The small company went on with life in the house in the deepest forest. Magnus soon grew very fond of Annabelle, so fond in fact, that he forgot his vow altogether.
Askel was not so easily distracted. His entire life was spent planning for what would come with the spring thaw. That is until he found the living wood.
He had been suspicious for a while. The sisters certainly were odd. They never ate, at least when he could see, and he could sometimes hear them whispering in the other bedroom. He took little notice of these things, until one night he went into the women’s bedroom. He wasn’t sure why he went in there. Perhaps he was trying to prove to himself that the girls were ordinary.
Nothing was strange at first. They were sleeping on their sides, their backs to him. He walked around to see their faces, and he stifled a gasp. They looked as beautiful as ever, but for one thing.
They were made of wood.
Their lovely faces were covered in wood grain, their open eyes painted onto the wood, their bodies stiff as boards under the thin blanket.
Askel backed out of the room, his hand pressed over his mouth.
The next week was so full of secrets that one had to spill over. As they were sitting in front of the fire, Annabelle and Magnus announced that they would be married in the spring.
Askel was seathing. He kept cool on the outside, but he couldn’t help but feeling betrayed. He was outraged that his brother could so easily be deceived and give up on their father.
To be fair, he knew something about the women that Magnus did not.
He knew what he had to do.
That very night, as soon as he was sure that Magnus was asleep, he took the hatchet from under the bed.
He slunk silently into the women’s room. They looked so peaceful from behind.
He shook himself.
They were demons.
They needed to die.
He raised the hatchet and chopped off both their heads in two fell swoops.
Askel stood back, breathing with relief, but was dismayed as branches grew from their necks and gathered their heads back onto their shoulders.
The women rose from the bed, and Askel ran.
They followed close behind him yelling curses at his back.
Askel ran blindly into great room and stopped. The door was bolted shut. He had nowhere to go.
But he was not finished yet.
Taking one last gamble, he brought his hatchet down on the delicate gold tree. The weapon severed it in a single slash, releasing a sound like cracking thunder.
The women stopped running.
They were literally rooted to the floor, expressions of pure hatred etched into their faces. He edged closer and saw a single sappy tear on Annabelle’s cheek.
Askel couldn’t help laughing.
It was almost over.
All that was left was to deal with his traitorous brother.
He could not kill him. But he took all of the food from the house and left a note informing Magnus that he did not wish to see him again.
Askel stepped out of the house and into shimmering sunlight. The thick trees were gone, and the sun was streaming in. He ran all the way back to the village, and to his new life.