Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a farmer who only wanted to make his family happy. The farmer worked very hard to give his family everything they needed, everything they wanted. He spent hours alone, toiling in the fields, pulling weeds, sowing seeds and harvesting grains. His family would not help him for they were of a spoiled sort. His wife and his two step children were terrible, selfish people. The wife wanted a bigger house, pretty clothes, and expensive jewelry. The farmer was successful man and made much money, but his wife demanded to be treated like the queen she thought she was. His two step children, Matilda and Cornelius, were like their mother. They demanded toys and clothes, shouting and crying if the farmer tried to discipline them. His wife would not allow this. She would demean him, calling him worthless as she doted on her children as if they were the center of the universe. She would always have the final say no matter what. This anger caused the farmer to fall into a deep sadness.
This was not his first wife, but instead his second. He once knew kindness from his former wife, Mary, a woman of great beauty and heart. They had been deeply in love, devoted both in body and soul. Sadly their life together was cut tragically short when one day, his wife traveled into the woods and disappeared when the farmer was in town. When he arrived he was met with a woman from a distant land and her two children. She told him that the farmer's wife had journeyed into the woods in search of a missing child and never returned. The farmer's heart was shattered as he was certain his wife would never return. However this woman had promised to stay with him, to keep him company until he could finally move on. Eventually he fell in love with her and soon they were married. Of course the moment a ring graced her finger, however, life grew hard and cold.
The farmer was not alone in his grief, for he had a daughter of his own, a gift given to him by Mary before his wife's sudden disappearance. During their time together, she would often tell him and their child that she would always be with them and watch over their daughter. Though she would never know her mother's love, the farmer would never let that bond between mother and child fade. The farmer, wishing to honor his wife, named their daughter, Mary. Like her mother, Mary was beautiful and gentle. The child could always make her father smile with nothing more than a touch.
Unfortunately, this connection did not go unnoticed. For you see, when the farmer was happy he doted on his child, and this infuriated Mary's stepmother. She and her children despised the child who was a mere five years old. Mary was tormented by her step-brother and step-sister without cause or reason. Matilda would break her toys and pull her hair. Cornelius would push her down and hit her, laughing all the while. Her Step-mother would tear her down, calling her names and telling her she was an ugly, horrible creature.
The farmer tried to protect his daughter, but his wife would have none of it. To her Mary was blight on the family. Her children were all that mattered and she would not allow Mary to interfere with their, and her, happiness. The farmer tried to give Mary gifts when he could but his wife would take away anything she deemed too pretty for what she called an 'ugly girl' before giving them to her own daughter. Despite her hardships though, Mary kept a smile on her face and always strived to bring a smile to her father's face as well.
Life took an unusual turn for the young girl on the dawn of the sixth birthday. Her step-mother had grown tired at Mary's attempts to turn the farmer against her. The brat was constantly tattling on Matilda and Cornelius who, in her eyes, did nothing wrong. Mary was not her daughter and therefore she didn't care at all about what happened to the child. She was the final reminder of the farmer's first wife and she knew this girl must go.
While the farmer tended to his fields, Matilda and Cornelius, by the request of their mother, asked Mary if she would like to go out to the woods. They told her that for her birthday, they wanted to play with her. This was a wonderful gift to Mary for she thought that they hated her. To finally have a real brother and sister was a marvelous idea. However she had been told by her father that woods were filled with dark creatures, monsters that devoured little children. She had never journeyed into the forest, not even with her father. When he journeyed into the dark land for firewood, he always returned with scratches and cuts, dark crimson staining his shirt. She didn't want to journey into the forest but this was the first time Matilda and Cornelius were being nice to her and she didn't want to be rude. So being the innocent child that she was, she took a lantern and followed without question as she, her step-brother and step-sister entered the dark woods.
The children moved with the vigor of explorers, darting in every direction, doubling back, running forward as they delved deeper into the mysterious forest. The moment they stepped through the trees, the sky had turned dark as if the sun was hiding from the creatures within. The trees grew at twisted angles, their branches gnarled and barren. All around them, Mary could hear growls and cries from strange and terrible animals that she could not see, but knew they could see her. The woods were a dangerous and terrible place and she wanted to stay close to her stepbrother and stepsister. However the further from home they traveled, the faster Matilda and Cornelius ran. They were much older than Mary and could run faster than she. No matter how loud she cried for them to stop, they refused to listen. Soon, they were out of sight and Mary was alone in the forest.
Cornelius and Matilda returned home feigning fear and terror. They told the farmer that they had been attacked by feral wolves. Terrified, they fled the woods but Mary was too slow and the wolves attacked her. They tried to save their dear sister but it was far too late. The cruel animals devoured the child, leaving nothing but scraps. The children sobbed and heaved their faces slick with sweat. Their mother played her part as she held back false tears and wept over the loss of her sweet daughter. The farmer, distraught over the news, broke down. Mary was his entire world and without her, a smile would never return to his face. The poor farmer, lost amid true agony, could not see through his wife's deception.
His wife told the farmer to allow the sadness to take him, but he must remember that there was much work to be done. He had to maintain the farm and provide for the family he still had. The farmer said nothing as returned to the fields. He tried to lose himself in his work but no matter what he did, Mary would appear before him. The only solace he could take from such tragedy was that she would be with her mother now.
While the farmer wept for his daughter, Mary wandered the woods calling for her siblings. With each sharp cry her voice was carried into sky and away from her. The forest floor was littered with fallen leaves. Unlike the brilliant oranges, reds and browns from the trees in the town, the dark woods were black and gray. Like the remains of a long dead fire, they fell away into ashen dust. Dark and ominous clouds hung heavy overhead, the sound of distant thunder rumbled with terrifying intent. Mary would have to find her way home soon.
Mary wandered the forest, calling for her father, Cornelius, Matilda, and even her step mother. With each step she heard the sound of creaks and groans as the wind pulled and ripped at the dying limbs. In the distance she heard the cry of a creature, a pained sound before it was cut short. All around her she heard things move in the darkness, unable to place names to those terrible creatures. Monster was all she could call them. She was surrounded by monsters that lived in the darkness. They stayed out of the dim light of the lantern, its flame barely able to cast away the cloying dark but she was able to see the dark red eyes of the monsters within. Throaty growls and angry roars were carried on the wind as it flowed through that forest.
The weather was worsening as the wind picked up, stealing her words and whisking them away. With each powerful gust, Mary struggled to stay on her feet. Once she was toppled by a powerful rush and scrapped her knee against a rock that jutted from the dirt. As she cried out in pain, the wind roared louder than she. So loud, in fact, that she couldn't even hear herself. Mary struggled to stand but the pain brought her back to the dirt. The poor child cried from fear, pain, sadness; so many emotions flooded through her that she could barely focus on anything but them. Because of this, she did not hear the throaty growl nearby.
She first saw something from out of the corner of her eye, feeling this creature's hot breath on her cheek. Mary craned her head and shrieked as she saw the beast. Its muzzle was long, filled with razor sharp teeth that appeared to glisten in the dim lamp light. Covered with fur the thing looked like a wolf but it was far too large to be one. It was crouched low on its haunches and ready to leap.
She screamed and scurried across the dirt like an insect. The creature swiped a large clawed hand at her, just missing her leg but ripping the fabric of her dress. The thing was toying with her, relishing in the fear it caused, for terror seasoned the meat. Mary managed to find a space underneath a twisted tree, just large enough for her to fit. It was deep and allowed her to move far from the opening where the lamp remained. The hairy monster knelt down in front of the hole, growling but also smiling. Thick beads of saliva dripped down through its clenched teeth. It slid its was arm through the opening flexing its massive fingers, digging into the dirt and leaving deep trails. Mary shrieked once more, scooting further back into her shelter until she bumped into the wall. The creature had underestimated the shelter and its playful grab grew more frenzied. It snarled and grunted as it tried pushing itself deeper into the space but it was far too large.
Seeing that this monster could not reach her, Mary felt a touch of relief, but she didn't feel safe for she knew she was not alone in that small crevice. Through the snarls and growls of the creature that wished to devour her, she heard whispers of voices, all calling to her. They spoke her name, asked her to join them. She felt light touches all over her, like spider silk brushing against her skin. She told the voices no, that she wanted to go home, but this only made the voices louder and more insistent. The light sensation grew heavier, less like webbing and more like fingers touching her; all the while the wolf creature had begun to dig into the dirt. It was making the entrance deeper, wider. It wanted its meal, wanted to devour this little child in one glorious bite.
Mary screamed for help, her voice echoing in the darkness, but the unseen voices cried out louder and those fingers turned into hands that now clutched her arms and legs. One wrapped around her hair and pulled with feverish intent. The poor child shrieked but the hands only tightened around her. The monster could now fit its head through as well as it shoulder. It just needed a little more space and then it could take its prize. With each furious dig at the ground, it was getting easier for it to fit.
Never before had Mary felt so afraid. The voices and their unseen hands refused to let her go and the monster desired to eat her. She cried and wailed for her father wishing to be in his arms and be held until she fell asleep. Mary cried for her stepmother, Cornelius and Matilda.
Mary even cried for the mother she never knew. Her father had told her so much that she often imagined that her mother tucked her into bed and kissed her on the cheek as she drifted off to sleep. Mary prayed for her mother, prayed to be taken home, prayed to be safe.
It was as the wolf finally managed to slide into the space, its clawed fingers touching the bottom of her shoe that it stopped. The clawed hand was just about to wrap around her foot, when it stopped. The wolf creature turned its head its red eyes shimmering in the dim light. The malicious intent had vanished and Mary's fear with. The wolf slipped out from under the tree and immediately vanished from sight. Mary, curious about where it went started moving toward the opening and found that she could. The invisible fingers no longer held her at bay.
Mary crept to the edge of the hole, listening to the world around her. The mournful cries of things out of the distance, the low rumble as a storm approached was all she could hear. She slipped from her hiding space, relieved that she was no longer going to be the feast for some ravenous monster, but this was muddled by her confusion at the thought of what could make such a monster flee? She managed to climb to her feet, as the pain from her knee was fading, though there were several trails of crimson running down her leg. She looked around her, seeing nothing but trees. She wondered which way would take her home. All of the twists and turns that Cornelius and Matilda led her on, made it impossible to know the way back.
Before Mary could choose a direction to travel, she heard someone call out to her. The voice was light, more like whisper, but also powerful. She looked all-around her, seeing nothing but that cold and unforgiving forest. Red eyes still gleamed out in the shadows but never took another step closer. Again, she heard her name spoken with unknown familiarity. It was as if it had been spoken a million times. It was as Mary turned, searching for this voice, she saw a hooded figure standing over her. Face obscured by darkness, body completely hidden by fabric, Mary could feel this person staring at her. It was not fear that held her still, but instead it was curiosity. Who was the hooded figure and what was this person doing so far in the middle of the woods?
"What brings you out this far into the forest all alone, child?" The figure asked. The voice was that of a woman, light and lilting.
"I'm lost." Mary answered with a sniffle. The sadness of her plight had returned, the wolf monster a distant memory now.
"You poor child, you must return home before the storm comes." The woman told. Mary wiped a tear from her eye.
"But I don't know the way and I am afraid that the monsters here will eat me." Mary replied.
The figure knelt down in front of the child. Though the woman was mere inches away, Mary could not see past the darkness of the hood. For a moment, Mary thought she saw a lock of blonde hair but it disappeared back into the hood and out of sight. The cloak parted as an arm appeared from underneath it. With the lightest touch, the woman caressed Mary's face, casting a tear away.
"There is no reason to be afraid, my child." The woman said, "You need only turn around and go that way." Moving her hand away, much to the dismay of Mary, the woman pointed a finger directly behind her. Mary turned back to see nothing but woods. If what the woman said was true, though, then she would be home before the storm arrived.
"And what of the monsters?" Mary asked.
"They will not harm you, for I will not allow it. You are under my protection, my sweet child." The woman said, "But you must hurry or else you will be caught in a terrible storm." Just then there was a flash of lightning and a loud crack of thunder overhead. Mary yelped, jumping at the noise. "It's okay, my child. Thunder cannot hurt you." Mary nodded but still could not help but tremble at the sound. "You had better hurry." Mary nodded at this. As she was taught by her father, she thanked the woman for her help. The young girl turned but before she took a single step, the woman stopped her. "Before you go, I have a gift for you. For your birthday."
"How did you know it's my birthday?" Mary asked. The woman chuckled, her laughter as light as the air that carried it.
"My child, I know much about you." The woman said. Her arm vanished under her cloak for a moment before reappearing. Clutched in her hand was a small wooden box. Curious, Mary accepted the gift, holding it in both hands. The box was not anything unique as it was plain wood, smoothed down and fastened shut by a small brass clasp. There was no paint, no markings, nothing special at all.
"What's in it?" Mary asked. The woman laughed, the sound pleasant, almost soothing in spite of the coming storm.
"If I told you that would ruin the surprise." She said.
"Can I open it now?"
"Not yet." The woman said, "You must wait until you are home with your father. This is a gift for him as well." Mary was grateful for the box. She didn't receive many gifts from anyone but her father, and those were often taken from her.
"Thank you very much." Mary said. Her father taught her that politeness was always important, especially if someone had given her a gift.
"You are very welcome," the woman said, "Now, hurry on home."
And after offering the woman her sweetest smile, Mary turned and ran for home. She turned back only once, hoping to catch a glimpse of the woman who had given her such a lovely gift, but when she did, she saw nothing. The woman in the hood was gone.
The journey home was far easier than going into the woods. There was no running zigzag or backtracking. It was a straight shot and much shorter than she had anticipated. In fact Mary wasn't as far in the woods as she thought. As the sun dipped below the horizon and the sky grew dark as the first drops of water touched her face, Mary arrived at the farmhouse. Candle light illuminated the house as smoke was torn away from the chimney by a blustering wind. Lightning flashed, followed by another crack of deafening thunder. Mary took only a moment to rush through the front door and into the house.
"Mary!" The farmer cried as his eyes fell up on the child he had lost. The sadness that tore at his heart was instantly gone, replaced by overwhelming relief.
"Daddy!" Mary cried. As the farmer scooped his daughter into arms, she released the box, letting it fall to the floor. Though it was a gift, she couldn't have cared less. She had her father again and he was worth more than all the presents in the world.
The farmer, distracted by his joy, did not notice the utter disdain on his wife's face. She shot her children hateful glance and it took them by surprise. It was the first time in their lives that they saw such anger and rage. Matilda and Cornelius shied away from their mother, terrified that she may lash out at them. It was as they moved away that Cornelius kicked the small wooden box.
"What's this?" Cornelius asked, picking it up. Hearing this, the farmer and Mary both looked to Cornelius who was staring at the box.
"That's a gift from the lady in the woods." Mary said.
"Lady in the woods?" The farmer asked giving his daughter a quizzical look. He then turned his attention to his wife who, for the first time, had difficulty hiding her hatred for the child. "What is going on? Your children said that Mary was dead."
"We thought she was." Matilda cried. She looked to Cornelius for help but he was far too engrossed in the box to pay her any mind.
"May I have my box back?" Mary asked as polite as ever. Cornelius looked up at her and smiled.
"You mean my box?" He said as a wicked smile pulled across his face.
"It's my box." Mary demanded. She had many things taken from her in her short life, but that box was a gift from a friend, someone she knew she could trust for she sent her back home to her father. She didn't want to lose such a precious gift. Cornelius would break it or lose it and it would be gone forever. Mary wanted her gift to share with her father, just as the woman said. Mary slipped from her father's grip and fell to the floor.
Cornelius ignored her shoving her down as she made a swipe for her box. Mary hit the floor with a heavy thud, but as she did Cornelius felt the box shake slightly. The farmer shouted for Cornelius to apologize but the spoiled child did not. He ran to his mother, who shielded him from the approaching farmer.
"How dare you speak my son like that?" His wife said, a look utter disgust on her face. The farmer, seeing his daughter's obvious distress, would not stand down; not this time. He had allowed his wife and her children to treat daughter like that for far too long. He had looked past their indiscretions far too many times, but no longer.
"Give back my daughter's gift." The farmer demanded in a tone that no one, not even Mary had ever heard. Cornelius refused as he stepped out from behind his mother. That same mischievous grin was etched into his face and with it came ill intent. Mary was certain he was going to smash whatever was inside right in front of her. Without so much as a word, Cornelius undid the latch.
"NO!" Mary cried. She wanted to be the one to open her gift. It was not just for her but her father as well. He was going to ruin the surprise, the gift that the woman had given her. And with that, not caring for Mary or the farmer in the slightest, Cornelius opened the box.
The moment the box was opened there was a crack of thunder so close that the entire house shook. Cornelius screamed and dropped the box to the floor with a loud clatter, far louder than any wooden box could make. At the same time a gust of wind erupted from the box, snuffing out the candles and tossing the books and linens. Matilda and her mother both screamed as the wind ripped and tore about the house. The farmer scooped up his daughter, holding her tightly in his arms. He would not lose her, not again. Mary did not cry. Instead she simply pushed her face into her father's chest, praying that this whirlwind would leave them be. Lightning flashed outside as more thunder crashed overhead. With each crack, the farmer felt the very foundation of his home shake.
Cornelius and Matilda ran to their mother who pushed them back away from the howling box. The wind ripped at her normally pristine appearance. Dress wrinkled, hair in disarray, she looked nothing like her normally regal self. She silently pleaded with the farmer to help her and in spite of his ire, he attempted to move for her, but the wind pushed him back. He tried once more but it refused to let him approach. It was never with enough force to knock him down, only keep him away.
"Please help!" His wife cried, but the words were lost to the whistling wind.
It was with another flash of lighting that they saw it. In that brief moment they saw a hooded figure standing in front of the box. The wind did not tug at her cloak or remove her hood. As if in the eye of a storm, she remained untouched by the gale. Raising her arm, her hand appearing from under the cloak, she pointed at the farmer's wife and her two children. Never had any of them known such fear as they did in that moment. Seeing this phantom, the stepmother and her children understood who this figure was. Through the darkness of the hood, they could see such rage and fury that no storm or inferno could compare. By the golden locks that fell from the dark chasm of her hood, she understood and for the first time was truly terrified. The farmer would never know the truth of what happened to his wife. He would never know that his present wife had sent the love of his life out into the woods to be murder for no other reason than greed. All he cared about in that moment was protecting his child.
Not a single word was uttered as the wind roared. The figure never spoke, never said a word to any of them. Instead, all she did was point from the farmer's wife and step children to the box. And as she did so, the most horrific scream erupted from the dark abyss.
The wind subsided as quickly as it arrived, the distant rumble of thunder trailing off into the distance. The farmer opened his eyes and saw that the candles were once again lit, the room as it was before, but his wife and his step-children were gone. The space they once occupied was empty.
Slipping from his grip once more, Mary dropped to the floor and saw the box. The lid was closed, the clasp locked tight. Approaching it, the farmer begged her to keep her distance, but Mary ignored him. She sensed no danger from this box; in fact she never felt any danger even during that eruption. Stooping down, she picked up the box and before the farmer could snatch the tiny object from her hands, Mary opened it. Inside was a small golden ring. Mary overturned the box and handed the ring to her father. He looked at it and found an inscription that left him confused: "To Darla, my beloved wife."
"Can I keep it?" Mary asked, in awe of the magnificently beautiful ring.
"No, Mary." He said, much to her dismay. "This belongs to someone. We have to find the owner."
"What if we can't?" She asked.
"Then you may keep it." He said with a smile.
The following day the farmer and his daughter traveled to town to find the owner of the ring. The memory of his wife and stepchildren were present within his mind but they felt like distant memories. At first they could barely remember their names. By breakfast, they forgot their faces. By the time they left for town, they were ghosts of a memory. The farmer and Mary would come home to find their belongings but not know who owned them.
It was Mary who found the owner of the ring. Wanting to have a pastry for her birthday, though it was a day late, the farmer took his daughter to the bakery. Behind the counter, preparing the most delicious smelling tarts was a beautiful woman with hair as dark as a molasses and gorgeous green eyes. Seeing this woman, the farmer was instantly entranced and introduced himself.
"My name is Darla." She said. Stunned by this revelation, the farmer showed her the ring and she burst into tears the moment she saw it.
It was given to her by her late husband who died from a long illness. The ring had never fit well and one day when she was in the woods, it slipped from her finger and it disappeared. She thanked the farmer, coming around to give him the biggest, most flour covered hug in his life. Mary watched all of this happily and for the first time in a very long time, she saw someone other than her make him smile.
It was as Darla embraced the farmer, that Mary saw someone standing in the window. The hood was lowered and now she could clearly see the face of the woman who gave her the box. Like Mary she had long blonde hair and dazzling blue eyes. She offered Mary the sweetest smile; much like a mother would give her child. And with that she vanished.
Turning back to her father and the baker, Mary joined them in their shared joy. Unbeknownst to Mary, her mother had kept her promise: she ensured that Mary would be cared for and loved.
As for the box, it was buried in the woods by Mary and her father, their path remaining clear of the creatures that lurked within, for both were protected by the Lady in the Woods. And though the wicked stepmother and her spoiled children were never seen again, their cries and wails echoed through the forest for all time.