This is not a fairy tale because it tells of events that never took place, but because it is an account that none would believe regardless of truth. It is a story of many things, but mostly of curses and of abandoned hope. Yet, because none will believe, it has become a tale for young children and must begin as all such stories begin; and so we find our once upon a time.
It wasn't really so far away, though when it occurred is long lost to the records of history. This land, once part of a great kingdom and later the sight of many bloody struggles between warring kings, is now abandoned by all but rootless vagabonds and wanderers of more sinister means. It has been a very long time since shoes so fine as those that now tread the winding, half there path, their once rich fabric now travel stained and worn, have walked this way.
Their wearer, whistling a toneless tune, wends his way through the high grasses, making his eventual way toward a dark woods. Not dark with evil and horrors, but dark with old growth and the quiet pools of shadow that flows down the trunks of ancient pines. It is into this stillness that the traveler, road-weary from his journey stepped and, beneath the dimming tapestry of ageless forest, became lost.
Many days later he was still walking aimlessly through the twilit arboreal world when he stumbled across a clearing, sun kissed and golden amidst the deep greens and blacks of the forest. In the center stood a beautiful tree, slender and graceful, fresh green leaves just beginning to bud. Tired from his directionless exploration of the woods, he lay at the foot of the tree and fell into a deep sleep.
He was awakened later that afternoon by a gentle rustling of the newborn leaves as lulling as a sweet song. Mixed in amongst the breezy sighing he thought he could here the light strains of a maiden's voice.
"Who's there?" he called, eyes barely open and voice soft from sleep. For a moment, his only answer was the whisper of the tree's branches far above. Then another sound, feather light on his ears.
"I am Naial. Here I stand and here I stay. What is the name of the one who rests in my lap?"
Startled, he jumped to his feet and looked around. Still only he and the tree occupied the bright clearing. A suspicion filled him as he gazed at the beautiful tree.
"My name is Daryn," he said. "And I have slept in the lap of none but a tree this day."
Again, the voice of a painfully absent maiden filled the tree-ringed space. "Then it is Daryn who rested in my lap this day, for I am the tree you see before you, for I was once cursed twice over by an evil witch."
Daryn was amazed and, begging the tree to tell her tale, sat down on the grass to listen.
"I was once the daughter of the king," she began. "Our kingdom had been at war with the land across the river for many generations. The usual method of ending such wars was to marry a son and daughter from opposing families, but for decades both families only had sons or daughters within a generation.
"It seemed that this curse would continue through my generation as each of my brothers was born and the king across the river also had only sons. Then, in the midst of the worst winter storm in memory, I was born. On that same day, I was betrothed to the youngest son, who was himself already twelve years old.
"As we grew and the day of the wedding drew near the war continued between our kingdoms and we, as every other child in both lands, came to hate the other as mortal enemies.
"So it was, when I came of age, that I refused to marry the son of King Millius. When my father would not relent, I fled into the wilderness to escape my fate. In a rage, my father called upon the witch who lived, hidden among the peasants of our village. He demanded of her, were I not to do as he wished, that I would not be capable of doing as I wished either.
"While the witch prepared her curse, my father tried to hide my flight from King Millius and his son, but in vain. When they learned of my disappearance, they also called upon the witch to lay a curse upon me.
"So the evil woman followed me here, to the depths of this great forest and one night, while I slept in the shadow of the moon, laid the curses upon me.
"Here I stand and here I stay," she said again.
"That is quite a tale," said Daryn when she had finished. He could not help but feel moved by the tree's sad history and wished very much to offer his aid. "Is there anything I may do to help?"
Naial laughed, a rattle of high branches. "There is none left who may help me."
"Surely there is something," insisted Daryn. "However small."
"Well," said Naial hesitantly. "Perhaps…"
"Yes?" prompted Daryn.
"There were flowers that grew only along the river that separated our two kingdoms. As a child, I used to braid them into my hair. I miss them very much." And she sighed, the sound a sweet whistling of the breeze.
"Then I shall fetch one for you." And he set off to find the river of which Naial had spoke.
When he reached the shore where her father's kingdom had stood, there was not but a long abandoned castle, surrounded by walls that had once been high. There, along the dividing river, grew in abundance a flower more beautiful than any he had seen before. Selecting a single bloom, he carefully grasped the stem, and cradling it lovingly in his hands, returned to the forest and the clearing. When she saw the blossom, Naial danced in excitement, the wind rattling her branches fetchingly.
"Oh, I do wish I could once more weave it into my hair," she said sadly when Daryn held it out for her to see more clearly.
"I shall do it for you," he said and, reaching up, carefully wove the flower in amongst the unfurling leaves.
"Oh, thank you so much!" Naial gasped in delight.
"My honor," said Daryn, stifling a yawn.
"And now," said Naial. "You must rest."
Daryn laid down once more against the tree's silky trunk and slept.
For more than a year, this arrangement endured. Some days the two would talk, others Daryn would wander where Naial could never go, bringing back stories to delight the willowy maiden, and still others he would fetch her mementoes which he piled tenderly where she could gaze upon them.
Came one day when Daryn was in search of a gift for Naial, for he had fallen in love with the innocent girl who dwelt in the heart of the beautiful tree, and stumbled upon a small hut in another wood, far from the sun touched clearing.
Outside the cottage sat an old woman, gnarled hands resting calmly in her lap. Daryn called out a greeting as he approached.
"Well met, child," crackled the old woman. "I had wondered if you might do me a favor whilst you were passing by?"
Daryn looked at the sky and saw that the sun was setting. He had promised Naial that he would be back before night fell, and his pocket was heavy with the lovely silver knife he had found for her, a relic of her lost kingdom. But the old woman seemed so helpless, sitting on a stump outside of her home that his heart went out to her.
"I will do what I can," he agreed.
A small smile played about the woman's mouth. "There is a pile of wood behind my house that my grandson cut last summer. Perhaps you could help me with it? The axe is there as well."
After the wood was chopped, the cottage roof was in need of mending, and the woman was in dire need of a new well. By the time that all that needed doing had been done, three days had passed.
As Daryn was preparing to take his leave, the woman stopped him.
"You must be repaid for your services to me, child," she said, holding up a gnarled hand to stall any protest. "I have nothing to offer you aside from a taste of wisdom, so remember what I say. There is no curse that cannot be broken." Having so spoken, the woman vanished into her hut, closing the door behind her.
When he returned to the clearing, Daryn explained to Naial why he had not returned in time. Then, leaning thoughtfully against the tree's trunk, he spoke softly.
"Is it true that there is no curse that cannot be broken?" he asked.
Naial, the single flower he had wound in amongst her branches long ago having multiplied so she was wreathed about in a halo of silk, laughed. "It is true. But the cure for this spell has long ago passed from this world. Here I stand and here I stay."
Curious, Daryn pressed on. "What was this elusive cure?"
"I told you once that I was twice cursed, and it is the second half of the witch's bane, the part set to please King Millius, that binds me still. That I never be happy lest it was with a son of his. So I may not become human again unless it is to marry a descendent of that long dead king, whose line is likewise long from this world."
"And what would this man have to do?" asked Daryn, climbing to his feet.
"The witch proclaimed," said Naial sadly, "That when the blood of Millius fell upon a leaf of mine, it would show my true face."
"Is that all?" said Daryn, reaching idly for a freshly fallen leaf.
"Near enough. Then all he would need do would be kiss that leaf."
Without another word, Daryn drew the delicate silver knife from his belt and carefully slit his finger, allowing a single drop of scarlet blood to land upon the leaf he held. As the pool of crimson spread, it revealed the face of a beautiful girl, staring up at him with sorrow filled eyes. A rustle of shock rippled through the clearing as Daryn, not removing his gaze from the tree that was his beloved, brought the leaf to his lips and between one instant and the next found his eyes resting, not on the beautiful tree, but on a lovely maiden with flowers wound into her hair.
It was then that Naial noticed the princely, though worn, attire of Daryn Millius for the first time, and it was then that all curses holding the girl were shattered, for their holding power was no longer needed in that sun blessed clearing.
And they lived, insomuch as any may, happily ever after, though none would believe their tale. It should also be mentioned that it was in that clearing that Daryn built their home. There it stands, and there it stays.