Hidden far away in the south lands of what we now call Germany was an enchanted place known as the Black Forest. They say every story ever told came from that forest. Every fairy, goblin, troll, and ogre did their business in that one place, and there was magic there, too big and scary for most humans to fathom, but then again, most humans stayed clear of the forest. Except one family.
A woodcutter, a simple and kindhearted man, moved his family into a cottage deep in the wild woods, in a calm area called Bushwick, to please his wife’s love of the gentle breeze and cool summer nights. Their daughter Melora, an infant at the time, loved the sounds of the forest. And so it was for many years.
Then one terrible year, a Plague swept through the land, and the woodcutter’s wife became very ill. She passed away one sad morning, comfortably in her bed. The woodcutter took her death very hard and so almost immediately remarried, finding a tall snowy-haired woman with a daughter of her own. But it was too late; he had already caught the Plague from his wife, and less than a year later, Melora would bury her father behind the cottage, next to her mother.
Melora was now ten years old and had no family, save her snowy-haired stepmother and older stepsister, who now owned the cottage. Now you might think they were evil people, but this was not so. There are many wonderful stepparents, and the snowy-haired woman did mean well at heart. But to Melora, she simply could never replace her parents. Whereas once Melora could run free through the wild woods, read her storybooks, and help her father cut down trees, now she was assigned endless housework. She had grown up hearing all the classic stories of “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Susie In the Afterlife,” but that was all so far away.
One night, after a particularly long day of cooking for her stepmother and stepsister, washing the dishes, and sweeping the floors, Melora found herself watching the sunset while performing the worst chore of all: pulling weeds out of the damp grass from the gardens. She was exhausted and wanted more than anything to go to bed.
“I hate this place!” she yelled suddenly, surprising herself. She had always known deep down inside that she did, but had never heard herself say it, nor was she aware of why she was saying. “I hate this tiny little cottage in the middle of nowhere, I hate the way it freezes in my room on cold nights, or how much it stinks when I pull weeds out of rotting grass. I want to get away from here, away from my stepmother and stepsister. Somewhere out there, there must be a nice bed waiting for me!”
“Or course there is,” cried a small voice.
Startled, she looked up and saw two creatures who must have wandered in from the Black Forest: a Fox and a small Sprite.
“You startled her,” said the Fox.
“I’m sorry, my dear,” said the Sprite, fluttering around, “But we came because we have a message for you.”
“Me?” Melora asked “How can you know me? I’ve never met any of you before.”
“All of the Black Forest knows your family,” the Sprite said, “Your father was the only human willing to bring his family here, and he was very kind to the forest, and kept many good trees from being cut down. When we heard both he and your mother had died, we all grew very concerned for his daughter, even though we’ve never met you.”
“Oh. Well, my name’s Melora. How do you do?”
“We are well, thank you. What are you doing, Melora?”
“Pulling weeds from the gardens. Otherwise the grass rots and the rats come in.”
“Why don’t you like rats?” the Fox asked, “They’re delicious.”
“Please excuse my friend,” the Sprite said, “We come with news. It’s from the king and queen.”
Melora had to pause a second and think. She had spent most of her life in that cottage, isolated from the outside world. On a few occasions her father had taken her on the long journey through the Black Forest all the way to the City, where she had seen the Royal Castle. She vaguely knew that there was a king and queen who ruled over the land, but they had had so little influence on her daily life in Bushwick that they might as well have not existed.
“It’s big news that has overtaken all of the human world,” said the Sprite, “Unfortunately, we sprites live only in the Black Forest, but the Fox sometimes wanders in the City, careful to not get caught by the hunting dogs of the royal court, and he can tell you all about it.”
“I should like to hear more,” said Melora. “Tell me, what does the Fox say?”
“The princess is dead,” said the Fox, “She fell ill to the horrible Plague that’s in the land. You know, the same one that–that–”
“Yes, the one took my parents,” Melora said solemnly, “I’m sorry for the princess.”
“The king and queen are very sad. They’re also very old and know that they cannot die without leaving an heir. So they’ve sent a notice out throughout the kingdom: they’re looking for an orphan to adopt and raise in their daughter’s place. In a few days time, all the orphaned children are to meet at the royal courtyard to be chosen.”
“Wha–but I’m an orphan!”
“Yes. We knew that none of the humans in the kingdom would ever think to spread the news here to Bushwick, so the creatures of the Black Forest wanted you to know.”
“You–you mean to say there’s a chance I could be adopted by the king and queen and become a princess? And then one day a queen?”
Melora’s heart filled with joy. Of course being a monarch sounded great; no one would ever turn that down. But even more than that, something else made the quest sound attractive: having a family. To have people who loved her. Being a queen was just the icing on the cake.
“I–I wouldn’t know how to even get to the royal courtyard. Will you guide me?”
“Yes,” said the Sprite, “But the journey through the Black Forest is very dangerous for humans. There are many dangers and, well, the Plague is still at large.”
“We creatures of the forest are immune to it, but to a human like yourself, just three days in the forest alone could make you fall ill.”
“I’ll take the chance,” said Melora. “It’s too late to leave now and I’m exhausted, but we must leave first thing tomorrow.”
Melora spent a sleepless night turning in her bed, her mind full of excitement and worry. The next morning she awoke early, before her stepmother and stepsister were up, packed a small bag of food, left the cottage for what she hoped would be the last time, and walked over to the gardens. At first she feared (or perhaps hoped) that her new friends would not turn up, but soon the Fox and the Sprite appeared.
“Ready, Melora?” asked the Sprite.
“Yes,” she said, and in that moment she forgot she was a housemaid or that she had a care in the world. For the first time since her father’s death, she felt like a child, “Goodbye, Bushwick. You were great once, but no longer.”
And the three began their journey into the Black Forest. Melora and the Sprite traveled quietly, while the Fox would sing his pleasing song: “Ring-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding! Gering-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding!”
The forest was very deep, and soon Bushwick was far off in the distance…