Extract from The Forest King's Daughter, a novel in progress
Prologue: To the One Who Waits Comes the Tailwind at Last
The air outside was turning bitter cold as the golden leaves crumbled off the oak and aspen and fell unwanted to the ground. It seemed to Ingrid that autumn got shorter every year. Outside her children worked hard to bring in the harvest despite the gathering strength of the wind. It was what she and Anders used to do, before he died and she got too old to be of any use. But getting old wasn't all bad. It meant she could stay inside, rest and look after her grandchildren instead of giving herself aches and pains out in the fields. Besides, they were good children and she enjoyed their company. She had never had much time to devote to her own children when they were small.
Little Cassie with her golden mop of curls lay on the bluish green rag rug opposite the stove, lost in her own imaginary world as she played with the red and yellow doll her mother had sewn for her out of old fabric scraps. Her older brother, Conrad, serious and astute in his grey, knee -length trousers, perched on a wooden stool in the far right-hand corner, practising his whittling on a new stick of birch. “When I get better I'll be able to help Papa make furniture,” he bragged to his grandmother. Ingrid smiled at him, thinking he had a long way to go. The younger ones played on the bed and the baby was asleep in his crib.
“I wish I could help with the harvest,” said Conrad.
“There'll be time enough for that when you get older,” Ingrid replied, not wishing to mention what a trouble his mother would have if she had to both work in the fields and keep an eye on him.
“I'm a strong boy, I can help now,” he insisted.
Ingrid ignored him. She was just happy that her grandchildren had fresh bread and milk on their table and meat several times a week. They were taller and stronger than the children she had grown up with in Sweden and fed so well they were nearly spoiled.
“Grandma, how did you get to America? Isn't Sweden very far away?” asked Cassie.
“'Bidande man får medvind.' In English this means: 'to the one who waits comes the tailwind at last.' When I left Sweden to travel to America it took me many days to get here. Many days of floating on an endless, rocky sea. And I was all by myself. My Mama and Papa were still in Sweden so I had no one to look after me on the journey. Well, no one until I met your grandpa that is. I sometimes wondered if I would ever see land again. But of course I did and after many more days of travelling on land I came to Minnesota.”
“What was it like, in Sweden I mean?” asked Conrad.
“Very different to Minnesota,” she said, smoothing out her skirt folds. “It was darker, for one and everyone could speak Swedish.”
Conrad rolled his eyes.
“I can speak Swedish,” Cassie chimed in proudly. “Tack gud, för maten. That means, 'thank you God for this food'.”
“Very good Cassie. I believe you learnt that at the dinner table.”
Cassie grinned toothily at the others.
“I wonder if you kids might like to hear a story, to help pass the time?” The girls nodded vigorously but Conrad didn't say anything, thinking himself too old for his grandmother's fairy tales.
“It's a very old tale which has been passed down through the generations by Swedish peasants. It
is only meant for Swedish ears, but since you all have a bit of Swedish in you too you can hear it. It's called 'The Forest King's Daughter.'” Ingrid looked around the room to make sure they were listening and Conrad pretended not to notice her.
“The Forest King was the ruler of the Swedish forest and had been for as long as anyone could remember. He was responsible for making the mushrooms grow and the berries ripen, as well as looking after all the animals of the forest like the hares and boars and even the wolves. He also had power over all the trolls and fairies who lived in the forest, both bad and good. He sometimes took
the form of a moose and if you were a hunter you were well advised to take a close look before shooting, for it could be the King himself.
“Although the Forest King tolerated the poor forest farmers he was not terribly fond of them. They killed his animals and tore down his trees. His presence ensured that the forest continually renewed itself, despite the farmers. One day a young man was out hunting when he shot a moose near an ash tree not far from his home. Pleased with his luck he walked over to the carcass and readied his knife. But just as he was about to cut into it... .” Ingrid paused for effect.
“Then what?” Conrad asked.
She continued. “The moose rose up in front of him. He could see that it was a particularly large and powerful creature with shining antlers. It turned to face the hunter and the hunter couldn't see any blood on it. Then suddenly it turned and ran back into the woods, leaving no trace.
“The farmer was stunned and stood with his knife drawn for a long time before he realised what had happened. Then he cursed himself for being so stupid. According to the legend, if you harm the Forest King then all of your daughters will die, taken by him as payment for your crime. That day he went home and hung his rifle on the wall for the last time. He confessed what had happened to his wife and told her that he would never hunt again. His wife, who didn't believe in such things, was very worried and wondered where their meat would come from but couldn't convince him otherwise. Shortly afterwards the myth came true and they lost both of their daughters. This was during a time of great hunger in the countryside and so no one could say for sure if they had died because of hunger or from the curse.
“However, later on the woman went on to have another daughter. This daughter was very different to the others, she was stronger, with pink rosy cheeks and a hearty appetite. When she was big enough to walk she would try and wander out of the house on her own and one time her mother found her playing under an old ash tree. After that she could never let her out of her sight and sometimes kept her tethered, for her own good.
“When the girl got to be older she often played under this same ash tree, talking to the squirrels and hares and picking the berries that grew nearby in summer. She was a strange girl who only got stranger as she grew up, she fought with her elders and refused to obey her parents. When she was upset she would always come back to the old ash tree and pour her troubles out to the creatures of the forest. She believed in all the old legends, which her father had told her , and often wished she could meet this Forest King and be taken away by him to live in his magical fairy kingdom, which surely must be much more interesting than the world she lived in. But because she was such a stubborn and independent girl, her adventures in life took her far away from the land of the Forest King. In the village she became known as The Forest King's Daughter and this is her story.” As Ingrid spoke, memories came flooding back to her.