If you ever happened to venture into the darkest part of the forest, far past the well-lit paths the village folk sometimes used, and a good distance away from the old, overgrown paths that only the brave and stupid dared to travel, you would find a little cottage. And in that little cottage, you would not find, as you might expect, a wizened old hermit, or even a frightful old witch.
You would find a frightful young witch—and more importantly, her daughter.
The witch’s daughter was named Flora and she had lived in the woods for her entire life. Unlike most children, Flora was never lectured on the many sharp-toothed dangers that lived in the shadowy groves and mossy hideaways. Flora’s mother often sent her on short trips into the woods, little journeys that she and her mother undertook in order to perform the various tasks that came with being self-appointed caretakers of the forest, and to map out the woods. As Flora grew, so did the map, which spread over the long wall of their cottage. To Flora, the forest seemed endless.
But she knew it wasn’t. Her mother often warned her about the villains that laid in waiting at the edges of the woods, men who called themselves princes and were in the habit of taking young maidens to their castles, where they were doomed to stay forever. No, it was dangerous in the fields and on the plains, and Flora was determined never to set foot beyond the safety of her beloved trees—not that she’d ever seen the edge of the woods, anyway.
“Do not go out into the light,” her mother warned her. “For if you do, you’ll surely be dragged off by some prince, trapped in a dreadful castle, and be made to stay there until you’re dead!” Her mother’s voice always rose to a horrible screech at the end of this speech, but Flora was well used to her mother’s odd temper, and she found it comforting in a strange sort of way. Never did she question her mother’s words, or wonder how it was that she knew so much about these awful princes.
So Flora grew older in the deep dark of the woods, learning the tools of her mother’s trade and never stepping into the sunlight. Coincidentally, Flora was quite pale. Her skin, which as a child had been a sheer, paper white, began to glow in her young adulthood. Herm other claimed she bore some resemblance to the poisonous mushrooms that bloomed in the night, but Flora preferred to compare her silky skin to moonlight, which she occasionally glimpsed through gaps in the trees above their little home.
Truth be told, Flora was quite pretty, especially for an apprentice wood witch. Her hair was long and dark, and her black eyes contrasted with her pale skin in a particularly fetching way. A lifetime of woods-dwelling had given her movements an easy grace, and a formidable adeptness for sneaking up on people besides. Suffice to say, Flora was pretty enough to tempt any of the princes who lived in the lands beyond the woods, not that she had any intentions of doing so.
Unfortunately, as Flora was growing older, so was her mother. And while Flora’s age brought her into the happy bloom of youth, her mother’s did the opposite, taking her from a frightful young witch to a frightful middle-aged witch. Years of bitterness and the effects of a mostly mushroom diet were taking their toll, and Flora started to notice that her mother was becoming sickly.
Flora attempted every spell and potion she could, but the sad truth was that her poor mother had lost the will to live, and her mother’s condition gradually worsened. Before long, she was confined to bed, moving only when great wracking coughs shook her frail body. Flora supposed that she could probably nurse her mother back to health if she could only get her to eat properly, but her mother refused. So, without much drama, Flora’s mother died.
Flora was, of course, very sad, and she spent many an afternoon crying into her twiggy pillow. But after seventeen years of living in the woods and caring for the many animals that dwelt there, she was much accustomed to death. And as the duties of the woods-witch began to pile up, she knew she had to go on with her life. Luckily, mapping out the woods provided her with a great distraction, and although she missed her mother, she began to notice how much busier she was now that she was a full-blown witch rather than just an apprentice. So, like most busy people, Flora began to multitask.
And that is how it happened that one day, while out on yet another expedition to mark the boundaries of the forest, Flora stumbled into the company of another person for the first time in her life. She had been pushing further and further into the woods, hoping to find an actual edge, when she spotted a patch of herbs she’d been meaning to collect upon her return. Figuring that she might as well grab them now, she devoted her attention to digging up plant after plant until, without looking up, she found her way into a clearing.
A clearing with a horse in it.
And, on top of the horse, what she could only assume was a prince.
The terror set in immediately. Here she was, not even a year since her mother’s death, and she’d done exactly what her mother had always warned her not to do—walked directly in front of a man. Had she really come so close to the forest’s edge that she’d come across a spot that ordinary people dared to visit? Despite her dire circumstances, she couldn’t help but feel a little swell of pride. Still, maybe he hadn’t noticed her yet. Maybe she could still back away into the shadows. She turned away, hoping—
No such luck.
“What is such a beautiful maiden doing so far in the woods?” asked a slightly alarmed voice. Flora reluctantly turned back to the man on the horse. Her childhood fear of being trapped in a sunny castle suddenly sprang back, full force.
“Pay me no mind, good sir,” she said, voice shaking, both from panic and months of disuse. “I’ve just been gathering herbs for my poor mother at home.” She hoped that having someone waiting for her return might stop him from carrying her off.
“This is hardly a safe part of the woods for a gentle woman like yourself,” he said, and Flora noticed that his voice cracked slightly on the word safe. “Allow me to escort you back to your mother,” he said, sounding hopeful.
“Oh, sir, I couldn’t!” Flora responded. “It’s much too far of a journey, and I’m sure you’re far too busy to help a poor maiden like myself.”
“Nonsense!” he said, sounding confident now. “A true prince is never to busy to help a maiden in distress.” He dismounted heroically and walked towards Flora. “My quest can wait. I’ve been searching the woods high and low for the fearsome witch who’s said to live deep in the darkness, and I’m afraid I’ve made no progress at all.”
“Oh, I would hate to interrupt such an important quest, good prince; I’ll just be on my way.” Flora turned to go back into the woods the way she came.
“Miss! You’ll hardly find your way home in that direction—the edge of the woods lies in the opposite way. The only person who lives that way is the witch, and I’m sure you don’t wish to meet her alone. I myself would not, if I didn’t need to save my own sick mother. For we’ve heard that the witch can sometimes be persuaded to help the sick…” his voice trailed off into wistfulness, and Flora felt a twist of pity at the mention of his mother. Perhaps, if her own mother had sometimes helped people—maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to leave the woods. Maybe she could save his mother where she could not save her own.
“In any case,” said the prince, “I’ve not seen the witch, and I fear my quest is hopeless. I’m eager to return to my castle and leave this dreadful place before my mother passes from this world. Come with me.” Flora gulped, considering her options and weighing her fears.
“Perhaps I can help you, then,” she said, deciding. “I must admit I lied—my own mother is dead; indeed, she was the witch you search for.” The prince’s face paled at this. “But she trained me in her ways, and perhaps I could be of some help to your mother.”
“I—I—” he stammered, looking frightened. “I am sure this is wonderful news.” With clammy hands, he swung Flora onto his horse, mounted behind her, and began galloping down the path towards his kingdom. Flora was so busy thinking about her mother’s old warning to notice that the prince seemed to be scared of her now. But before very long, she realized that his head turned nervously whenever they rode through a particularly dark patch, and that his hands were sweating on the reins. For her part, Flora directed her attention to memorizing the path they were taking so she could add it to the map later, after she’d found her way home.
When they stopped for the night, Flora struck up a conversation with the prince, hoping that talking might stop him from frantically pacing around the small campfire. Gradually she learned that his name was Gareth and that he dearly loved to swim in the castle moat—the castle, she learned, was about one day’s ride away—and that he was one of seven brothers. An alarm rang in Flora’s mind. Seven? Seven princes! Even if Gareth showed no signs of wanting to lock her up in a tall tower, surely one of his brothers would. Still, she had promised to help, and she wasn’t about to back out now. Flora was so intent on this train of thought that she failed to notice that Gareth had stopped pacing. In fact, he seemed to be fascinated by her beauty, distracted by her skin, which was now glowing in the firelight. And slowly, his fear of her retreated, for how could someone so lovely be dangerous, even if she was a witch?
But even if Gareth was no longer shaking around Flora, he still was terrified by everything else—an annoying fact that Flora picked up on the next day. Above all, he was scared of the woods, telling Flora over and over again to watch out for their many dangers. Flora knew that other people didn’t love the woods the way that she and her mother did; her mother had explained that to her when Flora asked why no one else lived in them. But the prince talked about the woods the way that her mother had talked about princes—as if people who ran into them never returned.
“I’m not sure I understand,” Flora finally said, interrupting what sounded like the beginnings of a long and boring list of all the people Gareth had heard rumored to have disappeared into the forest. “Are you saying that the woods are deadly?”
“Not just deadly,” Gareth said knowingly. “The woods are the leading cause of death in the entire kingdom. My brothers never expect to see me again—that’s why the sent the unimportant middle brother.”
Gareth sounded surprised as he said this, as if realizing for the first time that he was actually going to leave the forest alive, quest complete.
“But I’ve spent my entire life in the forest,” Flora said, “And I’ve never found anything more dangerous than a misplaced wolf.”
Gareth gave her a long, frowning look. “Meaning no disrespect, lady, but a suspect that a witch born in the woods isn’t entirely safe herself,” he said. And they rode in silence for a while, each pondering the dangers the other posed to them.
Flora and Gareth arrived at the castle late in the afternoon to no fanfare at all. The guards looked surprised to see the prince return, but seemed too uncomfortable with Flora’s presence to say anything other than “Welcome back, your highness.” The castle’s staff were a little shocked as well, but no asked any questions—instead, Flora was quickly ushered to the queen’s chambers and assigned a few maids to fetch any supplies or provide extra hands should she have a need for them.
Left alone with the sleeping queen, Flora realized with a start that this would be her first attempt at ministering to a live patient, besides her mother, of course. Her mother, she knew, had on occasion met villagers on the outskirts of the woods to sell them charms and potions and such, but most of Flora’s witching had been done in the audience of her mother, and on animals. Seeing to an actual sick person was quite new. Seeing to an actual sick person in command of a large army was quite terrifying. Still, her youth gave her confidence, and anyway, most of those animals had been just fine.
The tale of how Flora healed the queen is actually quite boring. The queen’s illness, though debilitating, was hardly complicated, and had only progressed so far because the palace physicians were complete morons. With the constant application of various herbs and charms, the queen grew steadily better. After what felt like—and, indeed, was—months, the queen was finally well enough to get out of bed and the castle began to realize that she would make a full recovery.
The ease with which Flora had healed the queen did nothing to lessen the gratefulness of the castle’s inhabitants, especially the royal family. It wasn’t long before the princes and even the king began to visit Flora, bringing her token gifts of thanks and staring at her beauty. In less than a month, all the princes had fallen a bit in love with her—all, that is, except the eldest prince, who had yet to visit her. He had sent his thanks, but his crown princely duties kept her busy, too busy to socialize.
Flora, for her part, was looking forward to the day when the queen was, so to speak, out of the woods—at least enough that Flora could return to them. Despite her mother’s warnings, none of the princes seemed to show signs of locking Flora away in the castle, and it appeared like she would be allowed to go home. Flora took to wandering the palace gardens at night, because even though there were no trees (the people of the castle were too scared of the woods to risk an invasion so close to their home) it was the closest she could come to being back where she belonged. And it was there that Flora finally met the eldest prince.
One night, a full moon, Flora was walking through the shrubs and plants, humming because the queen was well enough to walk the length of her bedchamber twice that day, and she nearly stumbled into another person.
“My apologies,” she said, looking up into the face of her victim. “I never expect anyone to be here so late.” In all the evenings Flora had spent in the gardens, she had never seen anyone else come out after dark.
“You must be the wonderful witch who saved my mother,” she found the face saying. “I owe you my thanks.”
“Oh,” Flora breathed out, blushing because the prince was quite handsome—certainly much better looking than his brothers. “It was my pleasure to help.”
“I’m James,” he said. “I’m sorry I’ve been too busy to thank you properly. I see you walking here every night—my bedchamber is there,” he gestured to a window facing the gardens, “and thought I would finally say my piece. You do look quite lovely in the moonlight; even lovelier up close.” Flora blushed again, not sure what to say, and the prince kissed her hand and bid her goodnight. As he walked away, she thought for the first time that staying in the castle might not be so bad after all.
For the next few nights, James began joining her on her evening walks, their conversations growing longer and more personal. Flora found herself blushing so often she was sure she looked sunburnt, as she had been when she arrived at the castle after riding in the open sun. Finally, after a week of these meetings, James told her that he wished to marry her. Flora agreed; James, she thought, might be worth a life imprisoned.
In the end, she supposed she should have seen the next bit coming.
It happened the next morning, when she was sitting with the queen while she drank her potion-infused broth.
“One of my sons, it seems, has fallen in love with you,” the queen said. Had James already spoken to his mother? He’d told her the night before that he was planning to. “And out of my gratitude for the help you’ve given me, I’m happy to agree to his wish to marry you.”
“Thank you,” Flora said excitedly. “I’m sure James and I will be very happy together.”
“James?” The queen frowned. “You mean Gareth, I suppose. Girls often get them mixed up.”
“Gareth?” Flora questioned. “Gareth is in love with me?” But the conversation halted there, as just then James entered the chambers.
“Mother! I’m glad to see up; I’ve something to ask you. Oh, Flora my dear, good, you’re here as well.”
The queen’s facial expression went from puzzled to shocked to amused as she realized what had happened.
“If you’ve come to ask to marry Flora, my darling son, I’m afraid it’s too late. I’ve already promised Gareth he could marry her.”
“But Flora has already promised to marry me, mother.”
“Well, that’s all well and good, but it wouldn’t be seemly for the crown prince to marry a woods-witch. A middle son, certainly, but you? Oh, that just wouldn’t do.”
“I’m in love with her mother, and she with me. Not Gareth. Besides, surely your life is worth a simple marriage?”
“I suppose it wouldn’t be seemly of me to deny a favor to my savior,” the queen said, mulling it over. “Very well. You will compete for her.”
“Compete for her?” James exclaimed. “But she’s already promised to be mine!”
“There’s nothing to be done. Gareth must be given his chance, after all. Flora shall choose the terms of the competition. Flora, dear?”
James realized that Flora had been silent for this entire exchange, and turned to find her lost in thought. She had been considering all her conversations with Gareth, wondering if she had missed the part where he confessed his love for her. And, with surprise, she realized that it was obvious—he did, after all, visit her far more often than the other princes, and always bearing gifts of some sort. She had thought that he was still scared of her witchy ways, that he was, perhaps, trying to keep her powers on his good side, but now she realized that he probably felt some ownership over her since he was the one who had brought her to the castle. His mind, she knew, was astoundingly simple, and to him, this probably seemed like the only way their tale would end.
She did not want to marry Gareth.
“Flora, love,” James was staring into her eyes. “How shall Gareth and I compete for your love?”
“Compete?” she asked stupidly, realizing that she had probably just missed an important conversation.
In the end, though, her choice was simple—the princes would have to spend a week in the woods, collecting various plants and things, and whoever gathered the most would win. Most of the castle, she knew, expected Gareth would win, since had had already been in and out of the woods. Most people still thought that he had actually gone to the depths of the forest to find her, and Gareth had done nothing to encourage them to think otherwise. Flora, though, knew that Gareth was terrified at the thought of the woods, and James—handsome, responsible, brave James— didn’t mind the dark trees at all.
When the time came, Gareth couldn’t even enter the woods. Flora wasn’t worth enough to brave the danger again, and he reluctantly relinquished his claim.
James was too fair to let that stand as enough of a forfeit—he went into the woods anyways. A week later he returned and took Flora the woods-witch as his wife.Well, former woods-witch, that is. Now that she was a princess, the king and queen made it clear that she wouldn’t be returning to the woods She could continue to practice her charms in the respectable setting of the caste, but no member of their family would be known as a crazy forest-dweller. James provided her with some comfort on this front, assuring her that when he was king, they would plant trees in the garden, but still, Flora missed her home.
More and more, she thought about her mother’s warning. She had, it seemed, been locked up in the castle—and entirely of her own choosing. The guilt of abandoning her past threatened to overwhelm her, until she found with surprise that she was with child. Just like that, Flora began to form a plan.
Luckily for Flora, the king and queen soon died—poisoned in their beds. Most of the castle suspected the jealous and bitter Gareth, who disappeared after their funeral. Flora believed he was the culprit, mostly, but a small part of her wondered if James had been responsible, getting rid of his aging parents for their part in her misery.
Either way, James and Flora became the new king and queen, and true to his word, James let Flora begin planting trees in the palace gardens. The servants and peasants complained, but they began to love the slow-growing inhabitants of their garden, becoming accustomed to the shade and fruit.
On the morning after their new prince was born, the people of the castle awoke to find themselves in the woods, or so they thought.
Slowly, the realized that Flora had been busier than they thought, planting seeds all the way to the forest’s edge and all the way to the outskirts of the kingdom (it wasn’t a very large kingdom). With all of the power surging through her body, she’d forced the trees to sprout a century’s worth of growth overnight. The kingdom was now part of the forest.
James pretended to be angry, but soon enough the kingdom took on its identity as the woods country, proudly claiming the entire forest as their own and hailing Flora as the wisest queen in ages.
Many more adventures would befall the people of the forest kingdom, but those are tales for another day. For now, it is enough to know that Flora had spent so much of her magic growing a forest overnight that she could hardly be called a witch anymore. Instead, she nursed her infant son, made her charms, and continued mapping out the land that would always be her home.
Jenny Kawecki is an aspiring author, a fairy tale enthusiast, and a general lover of things. 23 years ago she was an awkward infant, and has since had the good sense to grow into an even more awkward adult. She currently lives with her husband in Annapolis, Maryland, and can usually be found curled up at home with a book or stuck in front of her laptop, editing articles for Ampersand Lit.