Once upon a time, on the edge of a great forest, there lived two families under one roof. There was the poor woodcutter and his daughter Willow, and a kindly widow and her daughter Tara. The two young girls had fast became friends, Willow with her thirst for knowledge would often come bounding in from the forest having found some new plant or animal and Tara would sit and listen to the redhead with a gentle smile and genuine interest. During the day they would make up games to teach each other what they knew and at night they would sleep curled up together in contentment.
How the two families came to live together is a sad tale. It was a time of hardship and a great dearth had befallen the land. So bad was it that the widow's husband and the woodcutter's wife had died through lack of food. Things proceeded to get worse and soon the woman could no longer procure even daily bread. This affected her deeply.
"What is to become of us?" she said late one night whilst talking to the woodcutter over a glass of water. "How are we to feed the poor children when we can no longer even feed ourselves?"
The woodcutter kept quiet for a few moments, a contemplative look on his face. He took the time to finish his water before he spoke.
"I'll tell you what we can do," he started. "Early tomorrow morning, we'll take the children into the thickest part of the forest. There we will light a fire for them and give them each a piece of bread. Then we will go about our work and leave them there!"
"No!" Burst the woman. "I will not leave my daughter out in the forest and how can you even think to leave yours? The wild animals would surely come and tear them to pieces"
"You fool," he replied. "I may as well plane the wood for our coffins for all four of us will surely die." He continued to hound the poor woman deep into the early hours where she finally consented with a heavy heart.
On the landing the two girls overheard their parents talking. They had been unable to sleep, for their hunger was so great and had decided to see if they could find any food. Sneaking back to the bedroom young Tara started to cry at the thought of being left in the forest. Willow couldn't bear to see this and immediately went to comfort her friend.
"Shh, sweet T. Please don't cry," she said as she smoothed the hair aware from Tara's forehead. "I'll find a way to help us. You can count on it." This was said with such conviction that Tara could do nothing but believe.
Later, when she was sure that everyone was asleep, Willow put on her coat and crept outside. The moon was shining brightly and the white pebbles, which lay in front of the house, glittered in the moonlight. Crouching down Willow started to fill her little pockets with as many of the stones as she could. Once her pockets were full she went back inside and made her way over to where Tara was sleeping.
"Sleep well sweet T, be sure that we shall find our way back." This was said in a whisper and a gentle kiss was placed upon blonde hair as Willow snuggled up behind her friend and finally succumbed to sleep.
As the day was dawning, yet before the sun had fully begun to rise, the Woman awoke the two girls saying: "Wake up sleepy heads, we need to go into the forest to fetch wood as our stocks are running low." She then gave each girl a piece of bread and instructions not to eat it before dinnertime, as they would not get anything else.
As they were walking into the forest Willow would stop every so often and peep back towards the house. Her father saw this and said. "Willow, why are you dawdling? Have you forgotten how to use your legs? Pay attention."
"Father," she replied, "I'm listening to the birds. Hear how they sing their morning chorus? It's beautiful." Tara had to stifle a giggle at this, for she knew more then anyone how much Willow disliked the morning chorus as it interrupted her sleep.
Inwardly smiling Willow turned to follow the path the others were taking, discreetly dropping one of the white pebbles from her pocket onto the road as she did so.
When they reached the middle of the forest, the woodcutter said. "Now children, gather up some wood and I'll light you a fire to keep away the cold." After they had done so and the fire had been lit they were each told to lie down by the fire and rest. The woman then told them that they would be back for them after they had cut enough wood. Placing a gentle kiss to each of the girl's temples they left.
Willow and Tara sat by the fire, telling stories and each making the other laugh and giggle. Neither believed that their parents would actually leave them for they heard the sound of a wood axe nearby and thought all was well. The sound that they were hearing was alas not an axe, but a branch, which the woodcutter had attached to a withered tree and was being blown back and forth in the wind. The two girls soon grew weary and it was not long before they had snuggled up together and fallen fast asleep.
When at last they awoke, day had turned to night and everything was dark. Tara felt a panic start to rise within her, but she refused to give into it, especially as Willow was with her and she knew, deep down, that as long as they were together everything would be all right.
"How are we going to get home?" Tara asked.
"Just wait until the moon has risen a little more and then for your viewing pleasure our path will be shown." Replied Willow with a cryptic grin on her face.
And so they waited for the moon and when it had fully risen, Willow took Tara by the hand and showed her the pebbles shining like new coins. They walked through the whole night until they finally reached the cottage by the forest just as day was breaking. The woodcutter was less then enthusiastic about seeing them and scolded them for sleeping out so long in the forest. The woman however was overjoyed and quickly ushered them into the warm.
Not long afterwards, there was once more great dearth throughout the land. One night the children once again overheard their Parents talking.
"Everything is eaten again." Said the woman "We have but half a loaf left and no more."
"That settles it." Stated the woodcutter. "The children must go. This time we'll take them further into the wood so that they will not find their way out." And with that he locked the doors and stormed up to bed leaving the woman crying silently in front of the now dwindling fire.
Early the next morning the woman once again woke the children and gave them a piece of bread. On the way into the forest Willow crumbled her bread in her pocket, stopping frequently to drop a morsel to the ground.
"Willow, why do you keep stopping?" enquired her father.
"I'm sorry, I keep hearing a noise like a, a bear or something and I have to keep stopping to make sure it's not following us because being caught by a bear? Not so good!" She said this with a straight face as her father turned to walk off, yet when she saw Tara, again trying to smother her laughter, she winked and couldn't hold back the grin from her face.
The woodcutter led the children deep into the forest. Deeper then they had ever been before. Again a great fire was made and again they were told to wait until they were fetched. At noon Tara shared her bread with Willow, for hers had all been scattered and then the two girls curled up around each other and fell asleep. It was dark and the moon was shining high in the sky when they awoke and set to look for the way home. They searched for at least 10 minutes or more before.
"NO!" shouted Willow. "Stupid, stupid, stupid..."
"W-willow? What is it? What's the m-matter?" enquired Tara alarmed at seeing her best friend so worked up.
"I forgot about the birds," sobbed Willow as Tara pulled her into a hug. "How could I forget about the birds? Oh look at me; dropping my crumbs, nothing's going to eat them. Lalala"
"Shh, sweetie. It's alright," whispered Tara. Stoking her fingers through red hair. "We'll find a way to get out of here! I promise."
But they did not find it. They walked through the night and all through the next day neither one relinquishing the grip they had on the other. The next day too came and went, the two girls eating what berries they could find. Soon they could not go any longer and beneath a tree they lay down and fell asleep.
When morning came, they again began to search for a way out. They were entering further and further into the forest yet neither of them realised. It was mid-day when Tara suddenly stopped.
"Can you hear that?" she asked Willow whilst looking around to try and locate where the strange noise was coming from.
"Yes," replied Willow. "Look. Up there"
Tara followed where Willow was pointing and came across a beautiful white bird sitting on a bough and singing the most wonderful tune. When it had finished, the bird spread its wings and flew away. The two girls where so entranced by the bird that they decided to follow it and it was not long before they came upon a little house tucked in the middle of the forest.
As they approached the little house they realised that it was made of bread and covered with cakes. The windows were made of clear sugar.
"Look at the sugary goodness" whispered Willow. She jumped when a large grumble was heard within close range and Tara immediately blushed.
"Um. D-do you think we should try it?" she asked. "My t-tummy's all grumbly a-as you, um. Heard."
Smiling reassuringly Willow led Tara through the gate and up to the side of the house. Once there, Willow reached up and broke off a little bit of the roof to try and Tara leant against the window and began to nibble on the Candy Cane window frames. All of a sudden they heard a gruff voice call out from the parlour.
"Who the bloody hell's nibbling on my house?"
Willow and Tara crouched down low not saying a word. They did however continue to eat what they could. Willow found some cakes around the drainpipe and Tara was eating some chocolate buttons from the underside of the window. Unexpectedly a figure appeared in the shadows with hair almost white and skin as pale as the whitest sheet.
"Well, well. What do we have here then?" He said as he approached the trembling girls. "Such tasty treats."
At this, the girls dropped the food from their hands, their eyes began to well with tears and bottom lips began to waver.
"Bugger," said the man. "Don't cry, look, finish your treats and come inside. There's loads more where that came from"
He led the pair inside where they found a table full of sweets and good food such as milk and cookies and pancakes and apples. After they had filled themselves till they thought they would burst, the man led them to a small room with a bed covered with clean white linen. The two girls lay down exhausted, Willow on her back and Tara curled up around her side, gently rubbing the redheads tummy.
Early the next morning, before the sun began its ascent into the sky, the man looked in on the children with an almost feral smile. "They should taste good." He muttered to himself. Then he noticed how slim and pale the redhead was. "Gotta bloody feed her up first. And I know just how to do it." Seizing Willow from the bed he took her to a room no bigger then a cupboard at the rear of the cottage and locked her in. Next he went back to the room and woke Tara.
"Upsadaisy!" he shouted, "Now, you are going to do exactly as I tell you or your Friend will suffer. We clear on that?"
Tara felt the tears well up again and she would have sworn that her captor's eyes turned a deep yellow. In fear for her life as well as Willow's, she decided to do what she was told.
The man made her cook lots of rich food for Willow, all the time he watched from the shadow's away from the sunlight that was pouring through the windows. At the end of the day poor Tara would be left with just the scraps to eat!
Every morning the man would put on some sunglasses and pear through a window into the little room at the back of the cottage to check on Willow. Every morning he would see that she still looked pale and drawn. This was because both Willow and Tara had figured out what the man was up to and they also realised that he didn't like sunlight. Each morning when he would check on Willow, she would have the curtains drawn wide - for there was a bright window on the back wall - to allow the morning sun into the room and then she would rub her face and exposed skin with dust she found on the floorboards. The man was none the wiser.
After 4 weeks the man was beginning to get impatient, he called for Tara and told her to fetch some water.
"Right. I've had just about enough," he all but growled, "Tomorrow, regardless of how bloody pale your friend is, I'm going to bleed her dry then cook her remains and feed them to the animals."
This time his eyes really did glow and Tara saw for the first time, what looked like fangs appear from his mouth. Tears started to flow down her cheeks.
"Goddess please help us!" she wept. "At least if we had d-died in the forest w-we would have died together."
"Don't worry pet, that could still happen. Now quit your whining and get the water"
Early the next morning, Tara was again awoken from her sleep and told to prepare a full breakfast for Willow. As the man was taking the food to Willow, Tara followed discreetly behind him. When he reached the room he put on his sunglasses and started to open the door. If he had looked, he would have noticed that the little window had been covered, hiding what was inside.
As soon as he had opened the door he was blasted with bright sunlight and tried to turn around only to find that Tara was in his way. Willow slipped out behind the now smoking man and together the two girls pushed him into the room and barricaded the door. The two peered through the now clear window and watched as the man first burst into flames and then turned to dust.
"Well that was unpleasant." said Willow brushing the dust from her face. "Both the, sitting in a cupboard for weeks on end, not being able to see my bestest friend and the whole, you know, Poof bit"
"I-I'm glad y-you're okay Willow." Started Tara gathering the redhead in a hug. "I-I missed you, and I was so w-worried about you. I kept wondering if..." She trailed off as the tears that had sprung to her eyes made it hard to talk.
"Hey Sweet T, it's alright," Willow soothed through her own tears. "That man is history. He'll never hurt anyone again. Now, let's take a look around shall we? I'm sure our kind host won't mind"
The two girls started to look around the house and as they came to the main bedroom they found chests full of pearls and jewels. Quickly they both filled up their pockets and then left the house to resume their search for a way out of the forest.
They walked for two hours, before coming to a great stretch of water. At first glance they could see no way of crossing, but as the sun started to dip over the trees a bridge appeared as if my magic in front of them.
Once they were safely across, they walked for a short time before Willow realised that the forest was becoming a bit more familiar to her. After walking for a few more hours they saw their cottage on the edge of the great forest.
"Home!" shouted Tara. "Willow, we're finally home!"
Both girls ran into the parlour where they found Tara's mother sitting on her own tears running down her cheeks.
"Mama," whispered Tara, "We're home"
"Tara? Willow? Is that really you?" cried the woman as she stood and pulled both girls into an almost bone crushing hug. "I have missed you both so much. Know that I never wanted to leave you."
"We know," said Willow "Where's Father?"
"Oh my dear Willow. I'm afraid your Father passed away," the woman said as she led the girls to sit down. "He too eventually felt guilty for leaving you behind, that and the lack of food I think finished him."
Willow could do nothing but look stunned at Tara. She wasn't quite sure how to feel, her Father hadn't really been a nice man, leaving them in the forest was proof enough of that, yet he had looked after her and taken Tara and her mother in when times got really rough. Slowly she sunk in the welcoming arms of her best friend and shed a few tears.
When she had composed herself enough, Willow began to empty her pockets. Handful after handful of precious stones were laid on the table. As Tara added hers to the pile, the Woman nearly fainted, she couldn't believe what she was seeing.
"Now," said Willow, a smile so large she thought her face might split. "We can live together Happily. Ever. After."