“There were tales told of a girl, in the days before imagining, when wild people lived deep in the wild wood, and wild deer danced in sunlit glades. It is said those blessed by the sight of this girl described an apparition so beautiful the raindrops about her turned to diamonds as they fell. They spoke of auburn hair, of a dress gossamer-white that flowed about her graceful limbs as freely as the waters of a mountain stream; and light would shine in their eyes at just the memory of her. It was said that old men from their beds could see her, and young men riding by on their steeds might desire her, but she was of the faery people, and none may touch her if they wished to live.

“Those were old tales. This was long, long ago.”

Anna poked experimentally at a willow frond. “You make it sound so real. I thought I could see her for a moment there, among the trees.”

“If you see her, she will bring you good fortune.” Callum replied.

“But not if I touch her.” Anna wound the frond about her finger.

“No. You must never touch her.”

“I won’t, then – if I see her. What was her name?”

Callum watched Anna as she walked before him, and he thought her as beautiful as any spirit of the woods. “Legend had it that her name was a riddle. Whosoever solved it would marry her.”

“Ah, so there’s a story, isn’t there?” Anna called back over her shoulder. “What happened to her?”

“These are old, old tales. Some say she passed as all the faeries did, into the Land of the Forgotten. Others that she still walks here, among these trees, but will only appear to a very few who are specially blessed. Me, I like the story most often told, in those far gone days, of a young man from Halverton.”

Callum stopped talking, lost for a moment in his rapture of Anna. She turned to see the far-off look in his eyes and laughed her music, saying: “Go on, then! Who was this ‘young man from Halverton’?”

“Halverton was just a village in those days, not the town it is now. A collection of mean peasant huts huddled in the river valley, fearful of the wild wood; but it was a place where the river might be crossed, so there was a living for a few.

“According to legend a tyrannical merchant controlled the only route across the river, taking tolls from all who used it. This merchant made a slave of a young man, working him all hours of night and day, then getting drunk and beating him mercilessly.

“Now one morning, gathering firewood for his master in the deep dark forest this young man met with the faery. When she saw the blood that evidenced his beating she took pity on him. She led him to her home deep in the forest, where she cared for him, healing his wounds. There they fell in love. They made a home together in the root bole of an old oak tree, and its ancient roots wrapped them in their warm embrace. And so they lived, in happiness.”

“He must have solved the riddle?”

“I suppose.” Callum smiled. “Or maybe she cheated and told him her name. It’s only a story!”

“Oh, but it’s so sweet!” Anna enthused. “Happy ever after, Callum. Isn’t that sweet?”

“Well, not so happy, no.”

“Now, Callum! Don’t spoil the story!” Together, Callum and Anna stood at a place where their path divided into two; one of which would lead across open fields, the other into the cool shade of the trees.

“Which way?” Anna asked.

“You choose.” Callum said, but he held his breath while she made her choice.

Anna grinned meaningfully, deciding. “Let’s hide in the deep dark forest, Callum. Perhaps we can find an oak tree, do you think?” She took his hand. Then, as they strolled together on their new path into the darker recesses of the wood, she said: “Why not a happy ending?”

Callum did not reply at once, for the moment Anna placed her cool hand in his he forgot everything that had gone before. Her presence, her soft breathing next to him, hoe the dappled sunlight found its way through the treetops to play in her hair enraptured him, and all else was lost.  At last, when they were already far from the open light of day, he said: “There was a king who ruled this land. Although he was a fair, just ruler, so too was he powerful and hot-blooded.

“For many years, years before the slave-boy met her, this king had heard tales, brought to him by his courtiers, of the forest maiden. His palace echoed to accounts of her loveliness, and he was determined to take her in marriage.

“He sent his courtiers to the forest to find her; but even if they saw her once in a while, they could never get close enough to capture her. Oh, they tried. They contrived to bind her with nets, they dug pits that they covered with leaves, they laid traps; but she was wise in forest ways, and nothing that was made by man could hold her.”

“She was meant to be free.” Anna murmured, half to herself. “It’s so quiet in here, isn’t it? So peaceful. I can picture her, you know, Callum? I can feel her close to me.”

Callum smiled. “Can you? Could it be possible you are one of the blessed? But first you must hear the end of the legend.

“At last, the king grew angry. He sent his herald to the forest with a proclamation, that the faery girl was to be his bride and she was to go to him, by his command. He was king, after all. He was not to be disobeyed.”

“Oh no! What happened?”

“The faery girl emerged from the forest; something so unexpected and amazing all who saw her were frozen to the spot, because this was the first, the only time anyone from the outer world would hear her speak. In a voice as soft and as pure as a thousand caroling bells she told the royal party she was wed already, and the lonely slave-boy was her husband. She would never come to the king.”

“So the king wasn’t happy?”

“He was furious! He sent soldiers to arrest her, but they were lowly paid and not as courageous as the courtiers. They had heard it was fatal to touch her so they didn’t look very hard before they told the king she could not be found. Now the king himself, who ruled by divine right, was not so fearful of her touch, or troubled by faery riddles, but he was wary of the forest people, and he had long sought an excuse to drive them out. So in his passion he swore if he could not possess the faery girl no-one would. He accused the forest people of hiding the girl and ordered their forest to be razed to the ground.

“They set fire to the forest?”

“They came with torches in the first light of dawn. They set fires along the forest edge and by sunset all the trees were well alight. They say a thousand woodland people died. Those who survived scattered and fled. But Nature is stronger than any king, and they were not gone for long.”

“The girl, Callum! What happened to the girl? Oh, stop. I already know.”

“Yes, she died in the fire. It was said she never left the old oak that gave her shelter, but curled up with her lover in her arms beneath its mighty trunk and waited for the fire to come. When the forest people returned they discovered two bodies lying there, and left them while they conjured the rebirth of the forest with their magical husbandry. With time, the greenwood swallowed up the faery girl, and so she rests. For a while her memory died with her.”

Anna had walked a few paces in front of Callum so she might hide her face from him, in case her tears spilled. “Only for a while?”

“Of course. Isn’t it always so? When one legend dies another is born? This one tells how the faery girl wore a ring as symbol of her love, which she kept with her when she died. Well, many claim to have found her ring as they walked through the forest, but none could recover it, for the legend says she holds it on her finger until one person of true virtue passes by, and only if they are as pure of mind as she will she release the ring into their care.”

“You mean, like the sword in the stone thing. Like King Arthur?”

“Yes. And here the riddle story comes in again. Whoever lifts the ring will learn the answer. They will learn her name and the power it gives.” Seeing Anna’s wide-eyed look, Callum laughed. “It is only a legend.” He assured her gently. “There are thousands of old folk-tales like it in early history. One version even says that if someone evil tries to pick the ring up, the faery will drag them down into the earth with her. Like I said – only a legend.”

“Wow!” The pair walked together silently for a while, lost in their thoughts, and they walked deeper and deeper into the wood.

Anna said: “What if…?” And she stopped.

“What if?” Callum questioned her with his eyes, but she was staring at something far off among the trees. “What, Anna?”

“Callum, what sort of tree is that?”

Callum tried to follow the direction of her stare, towards the knarled old tree that stood perhaps a hundred yards ahead of them. “That? I believe it’s an oak. Why?”

“Because there’s something shining – there in the leaves at the bottom of it.”

“Oh, Anna! I’m sorry I told you now! It’s a folk tale – a story!”

But Anna was running. “No! No, it isn’t. I can see it. I can see it, Callum!”

Laughing, Callum ran in pursuit, but she was a young hind, fast and light of foot beyond his means to catch her. He only did so when she had stopped before the old tree.

“Callum, this is the tree. I know it. I can feel it!”

Callum tried to catch his breath. “It’s certainly old.”

“She died here. She’s laying here, the faery girl! And this…” Anna stooped to brush away leaves from the forest floor: “Callum – oh, Callum – this must be her ring.”

Together, they stared down at a ring of gold all but buried in the black soil, its single stone flashing in rivulets of sunlight from the canopy of trees above their head.

“Could it be you?” Callum murmured, overcome. “Could you be the one to take the ring from her?”

“Well, it’s certainly a very beautiful ring, but I’m not worthy of it.” Anna said. “I hate to break this to you, Callum, but my soul really isn’t that pure.”

“It is in my eyes.” Callum said. “At least you should try.”

“No. Should I?”

“Yes. But as you do it, say a prayer for the faery girl. I don’t know. Maybe she will hear you. Maybe you’re about to solve the riddle at last.”

“Oh, stop it! I have to try, though, don’t I?” Hesitantly, and trying to drive all thoughts of avarice from her mind, Anna crouched beside the ring. With shaking fingers she grasped the gold band gently, making a prayer as Callum had suggested, right from the very essence of her being, a prayer of hope and love. So, so carefully, she pulled the ring upwards.

The soil released it.

Anna held it there, for seconds, for a minute perhaps, disbelieving. When at last she found her feet, the ring nestled in the palm of her hand as though that was where it had always belonged.

“Oh, Callum! It’s so lovely!”

“Almost as lovely as the hand that holds it.”

“But how do I find the answer to the riddle? How do I learn her name?” Anna cried. Then: “Wait! There’s something written on the inside of the band. It’s so small I can hardly read it. It says…”

“What does it say?” Callum prompted.

Anna squinted to pick out the words. “It says: ‘Anna’.”

“It says, ‘Anna with love’!” Then, as the truth dawned, she glared at him in mock fury.

“Callum, you bastard!”

Callum grinned. “I am, aren’t I? Anna, darling, will you marry me?”

Published by Frederick Anderson