The Raven Tree

Once upon a time, there was a village named Isenborg, after the lord who owned the land. It had a giant, centuries-old cherry tree that gave plenty of fruit every year. It was located on the village square and was large enough so that everyone could gather a full basket of cherries for themselves. Everyone liked the tree, as much for its fruit than for its majestic grandeur, and people always waited impatiently for the harvest. One summer, as the fruit were getting sweeter and juicier every day, the village awoke on the morning of the harvest to a horrifying sight. Hundreds of ravens were perched on the numerous and vigorous branches of the tree and they had eaten all its fruit. All, except for one piece of fruit! A lonely cherry was still piteously hanging from its stem. A young villager then stepped forward to pick it up. An awful silence surrounded the square and the tree's new residents seemed to watch over his every move with a dark look. Once he got a few feet away from the trunk, all the birds spread their wings and, as one man, swept over him. The young man screamed in pain as they thrust their beaks deep into his face and chest. He fell to the ground and bled out under the helpless and horrified gaze of the whole village as a raven mockingly ate the very last cherry that the poor man had not been able to reach. Ever since that day, no one dared to approach the cherry tree. The poor man's body could not even be removed to be brought back to his widow and doomed to rot at the base of the cherry tree under the sinister croaks of its residents who, little by little, ate away at what was left of skin on his bones. It seemed like his blood had nourished the tree which had become larger and thicker than ever before. Stripped of its leaves, it had now taken a black color, darker than night. Even its trunk seemed to get darker every year. People started calling it the Raven Tree.

The birds reproduced and gradually invaded Isenborg. There were so many of them that they ended up covering the color of the sky. The village seemed plunged into darkness forever. People left, ships stopped coming, merchants abandoned the market place. It became a ghost village. Everyone agreed in the kingdom that some sort of curse had been cast on it. Desperate to change this situation that was only getting worse and threatened his lands, the lord of the village decided to ask for the help of a wizard who was quite renowned in the area. He was said to have advised the King himself. He examined the tree for a long time before declaring:

"On day, a girl whose hair will be as bright as the sun which does not shine on Isenborg anymore and whose eyes will be as blue as the sky of old will be born. She will be so pure that her singing, high and tinkling, will pierce the eardrums of the creatures and kill them. Howevern there is a price to pay to break the curse. The last of your offspring will die at this precise moment and your name and family will be lost forever."

The Lord thought it over but decided that the future of the village mattered more. This was the reason why he told the villagers of the prophecy but only told them the first half. He died and took the secret to the grave. Everyone awaited this birth but there was no indication on when it was supposed to occur or to which family the girl would belong. She could very well be from the other side of the Kingdom. Eventually, people got used to the tree, as much as one can get used to such a gloomy atmosphere. The curse was forgotten and life returned to normal but Isenborg never recovered its lost prestige.

One day, a young man called Johan, as a tribute to one of his ancestors, was walking by the castle. He saw a young girl looking out the highest window. She was around his age, had skin paler than porcelain and hair as gold as straw. He had never seen her before. From that day on, he started walking by the castle every day to look at her. She always wore an expression of profound boredom on her delicate face and seemed to never leave her contemplation of the outside world. On a day when he knew that the lord was away on business, he found the courage to knock on the castle's door and ask to see her. A servant opened the door and answered that the young princess of Isenborg would surely be delighted to have company because she almost never got any visitor and was terribly bored. He followed her through stairs that consisted of exactly 999 steps that he climbed one by one until he reached a pastel green wooden door. When he opened the door to her bedroom, the princess was sat on the bed, looking at herself in the mirror with an anxious expression:

"I look so hideous! Don't you think I'm even paler than I was yesterday?" she asked the servant without looking up

Johan thought she was gorgeous, even more than by the window. Her long, golden hair almost fell to her waist and her iris were bright blue. Her face lit up and she smiled when she saw her visitor. She introduced herself. Her name was Ellinor. As they talked, she explained that she never left the castle because her health made it impossible for her to go outside. Indeed, she caught colds easily and the slightest draft made her sick. This puny constitution was hereditary, her own mother having passed away while giving birth to her. She confided in him that she had noticed his presence at her window and that she waited impatiently for this moment every day, the only occurrence that broke the monotony of her secluded life. It then became a sort of ritual for them to see each other whenever her father was away on business or hunting. He would have disapproved of her socializing with a commoner but the servants of the castle, with much benevolence, turned a blind eye to his visits. The rest of the time, they settled for exchanging looks through the glass of her window.

Once, they went down to the front room because she wanted to show him something. Once they had reached the room, she sat at the harpsichord and started to sing. Johan felt as if he was going to faint when he heard the young woman's voice that was of a sublime purity. It had a liquid quality to it, a clear and silvery sound that only water could produce. His entire body started shaking with the quavers of the melody. It sounded like the voice of an angel. And that was when he understood. It was her. The young girl described in the prophecy so many years earlier. The one who would break the curse that had been ruining life in the village. It was Ellinor. His family were the only one to know about the prophecy for the story had been passed on from generation to generation with the hope of one day saving the village. She was of course very surprised by this revelation. She did not know the story of the ravens. She who had been born under an ink-black sky could not even imagine that it could be any other way. But she believed his story and understood that she was in all likelihood the young girl in question. When her father came back, she confronted him. It seemed impossible that he could not be aware of the existence of the curse. He first denied it before giving up and telling her everything except for the identity of the girl. But it was too late, Ellinor was convinced of it: it was her.

She then inquired to the servants about the hardships caused by the tree and its dreadful residents. Understanding a little bit more everyday how the situation was a burden for the villagers, she decided to break the curse. However, her father absolutely refused to let her. He was adamant not to let her out of the house because it was obvious that she would not survive it. Her health was much too fragile for her to venture out of the stone walls that shielded her from the cold and the wind. Anyway, the villagers had gotten used to the inconvenience and, if they did not like it, they could always move elsewhere. Nonetheless, after much begging and crying, he had no choice but to agree to her leaving. But he refused to let her go alone. He would have done it himself but he was growing old and his strength was decreasing. Johan offered to join her and the matter was solved. They thus started for the Tree in the surprisingly cold air of a summer morning. As they neared the entrance of the village, Ellinor could not feel her frostbitten legs anymore. Johan lifted her up in his arms and carried her for the rest of the way. She trembled uncontrollably with every new gust of wind and her body hurt more with every step. Once they were only a few feet away from the tree, her lungs had frozen completely and her heart stopped beating. Desperate, Johan shook her as hard as he could but there was nothing he could do. As her father had foreseen it, the contact with the outside air had gotten the better of her fragile constitution. This last generous move had been fatal to her. He leaned over her to give her a last kiss as a warm tear rolled down his cheek. It fell on her closed eyelid and, along with Johan's warm lips on her cold ones, seemed to give her a spark of life. Her body became warm again and she opened her eyes. Seeing that they were reaching the tree, she smiled and opened her mouth. Johan took one last step and, watching out for the wretched birds' reaction, put her down on the ground. They immediately rushed to him and started piercing his eyes with the tip of their beaks as sharp as knives. His eyes crying tears of blood but a smile on his face, he asked Ellinor to sing. She hummed a few notes with a weak but pure voice. It had an immediate effect. The obnoxious creatures froze in the sky and then crashed down miserably on the floor. Dead. But one of them found the time to sink a claw into the young boy's heart. Then, as his ancestor whose name he had inherited had done before him, he collapsed and expired at the bottom of the Raven Tree. Seeing this, Ellinor exhaled the last breath of life she had left and passed away as well, after giving one last glance of amazement to the deep, blue sky, cleared of its hideous occupants.

In a single movement, all the villagers went out to admire this sight none of them had ever witnessed in their lives. Life could finally fully resume in Isenborg. The village seemed to rise from its ashes once the curse was broken. People moved in, ships came back, merchants did business in the market place again. The corpses of the ravens were burnt in a huge bonfire and the tree that was the source of such tragic events was cut down, the branches joining their residents in the fire. The stump was dug out and hideous roots of an unbelievable length and larger than a human thigh were uncovered. It was exposed as a war trophy in front of the Lord's castle. The Lord erected a sumptuous gravestone where the tree had stood and Ellinor and Johan were buried there in the same position in which they had gone to sleep, in an embrace. But he remained inconsolable of the death of his only daughter and passed away shortly after her. A stele was erected, telling the story of the young hero's feats. They were celebrated throughout the whole Kingdom as the knight and the princess who had broken the curse of the Raven Tree and never again was a cherry tree planted in Isenborg.