The woodcutter had lived in this forest all of his life keeping the trees from encroaching the surrounding villages; and helping those in need of wood choose the best tree for their needs. He saw himself as a keeper of the trees: preventing young saplings from being hacked by those impatient for kindling; re-directing those who would massacre what he protected for gain and profit. Many looked at him askance, seeing only a weather-beaten and solitary man in tattered clothing with the axe of his trade in his hands. He did not mind their pity, or even their contempt. He would never trade the peace he had living in nature with their fine clothes and daily worries. He lived his life in contentment, accompanied by birdsong and the lilting whisper of the trees.
Life as he knew it, however, was soon to be turned upside down.
The time of change came at twilight. The sun was sinking and the forest was preparing for the night. As he did every evening, the woodcutter was tending to his chores: feeding his chickens, checking that the coop was securely closed, harvesting vegetables for his dinner. The serenity of his world was broken with hurried footsteps and panicked movements. Branches of trees were quickly pushed aside and small creatures hurried out of the way.
A young girl raced into the clearing. Eyes wide and blonde hair tangled. She looked at the woodcutter, silently pleading for help. Fear surrounded her, enhancing her vulnerability. The girl reminded the woodcutter of the deer he sometimes came across in the forest. Graceful and yet fearful of the human presence. The sprite in front of him showed no fear of him, however, and instead looked at him with trust. Trusting his instinct, he drew her into his rough abode and hid her below the floorboards covered with crates. Not a word passed between them; their instant mutual trust needing no words and no explanation.
Soon after two men on horses appeared in the clearing. Exiting his home, the woodcutter stood in front of the door with his calloused hands resting on his axe. As he settled, he let out a piercing whistle to call home his faithful companions. The men came to a standstill before him, high in their saddles.
“Old man, have you seen a fair child pass by? She was caught stealing in the southern village and has slipped through our fingers.”
The woodcutter looked into the eyes of the speaker and knew him to be telling an untruth.
“No person has passed by my abode for many years. Not many know where I live and look for me instead on the borders of the forest.”
“You lie! We can see her flight cut through across these trees. She left behind her trampled grasses and broken leaves.”
Standing steady, the woodcutter merely shook his head. He did not like the aura around these men who believed that all should cower before them.
“You tell us where she is, old man, or you will regret it!”
The raised hand holding the riding crop halted as growls came from two magnificent dogs that had appeared beside the woodcutter. His companions had heard his call and cut short their nocturnal foray into the forest.
“I think it best you be on your way gentlemen. You will find no lass here and you would be wise to heed the warning of my fair companions. There is not much I can do to prevent them from protecting what they feel is theirs.”
Taking heed, the horsemen turned their horses and headed back the way they had come. “We will be back old man – and next time with dogs and guns.”
“But by then, ” the woodcutter whispered, “we will all be ready.”
© Colline Kook-Chun, 2014
(This piece of free writing was written in response to Kellie Elmore’s FWF image prompt)