In a long-since forgotten world, there lived a lord, his lady and their two young children. They had a son, with the dusky blue eyes of a bird's egg and hair as messy as a nest of last year – he was called Robin; and a daughter with red apples in her cheeks and the brightest, blackest eyes you could imagine, christened Ladybird.
The lord and his lady were rather careless of the old gods, and they frequently forgot or did not bother to make an offering of the grain they reaped or the animals they slaughtered. Eventually, one of the most ancient, and irritable, gods sent a thunderstorm to hover permanently over the land. After forty days and forty nights of rain, thunder, lightning and hail, the god send a messenger to explain just why he was so upset.
The lord and lady and all their advisors were forced to listen to a woodland sprite lecture them whilst they perched on a raft of floating tables. When the sprite was finished, the lord begged to be told how they might be forgiven.
Ladybird, ladybird, let her fly!
Into the woods where the Carver lies.
When he has blood, freely gifted,
Only then will the curse be lifted.
With a deliberate splash, the sprite disappeared.
Now, the lord and lady were not bad parents; nor were they particularly good. They were, for the most part, strictly ordinary. As they sat atop their finest dining table, with the rain beating down outside, they began to flick guilty glances at each other.
"We have a son," the lady said quietly.
"True, my sweet," her husband replied. "The Carver does not want him, which is a mercy."
"And we must be grateful for any such kindness," the lady added quickly. Her eyes darted around the room, as if the Carver himself was there in person to hear her gratitude. All she saw, however, was her silver candlesticks float forlornly past.
"True again," agreed the lord. "So…?"
In short, less than a week later (in which time, the gold candlesticks were water-damaged beyond repair), a small rowing boat was pulling up to the edge of the dark, drear forest at the end of the realm, where the Carver was supposed to live. The oarsman and the guard were glum and silent; the little girl, Ladybird, looked even more like her namesake – ready to flutter away at the slightest chance. However, she was a good and dutiful daughter, and it had been well-impressed on her how only she could rescue the kingdom from a watery end.
As she stepped out of the boat, she shivered and drew the raggedy woollen shawl she had been given closer about her shoulders. She stood for a second, unsure and staring into the dank green undergrowth that was the forest. The sound of metal being unsheathed behind her made her whirl round in alarm.
It was the guard, sent to make sure little Ladybird actually did her duty. He was too afraid to step out of the boat though, and he merely waved his sword at her as the oarsman began to pull away.
Ladybird entered the forest, her footsteps light and hesitant. This great, unexplored swell of trees was the only part of the kingdom not flooded, but it was still very damp and chilly, with the overhead fronds dripping icy pinpricks down Ladybird's neck. She drew the shawl a little higher and continued along the barely-there pathway.
At last, after walking for seemed like hours, Ladybird decided to rest. She found herself a fairly-dry tree trunk and sat, wishing her stomach wasn't quite so empty. There were no berries or nuts that she had been able to find during her trek; digging through her pockets, all she could uncover was one stony biscuit that her maid had smuggled to her before she left. She was about to nibble around the edge, when something moved in the corner of her eye.
With a gasp, Ladybird turned to see a very old and very gnarled man stood staring at her. His skin was nut-brown, hair hidden beneath a wide-brimmed floppy green hat. He wore a rather dirty cloak which Ladybird quickly realised was a thousand different leaves, all sewn together, and, beneath, clothes of a dark green material.
Ladybird remembered that it was rude to stare, so she gave the man a timid smile and lowered her gaze. He was clearly very rude, as his sunken eyes remained fixed on her.
"What is that in your hand, child?"
His voice was deep and rustled like the wind picking up a bundle of leaves; Ladybird decided it was a gentle voice and perhaps he wasn't quite so terrible.
"A biscuit, sir." She held it out for him to see. "Would you like half?"
"Tis not much of a biscuit," the stranger said slowly, eyeing the miserable offering thoughtfully. Ladybird shrugged, unsure what to say, when the man shuffled over to sit alongside her on the tree-trunk. As he did so, he was still gazing at the biscuit; she therefore broke it in half and offered him the slightly-larger piece.
The strange pair sat side-by-side on the tree, chewing in silence. Eventually, the stranger spoke.
"What are you doing here, child?"
"Looking for the Carver," replied Ladybird. The man looked at her, and his hollowed-out eyes were very sad.
"Why? What could so innocent-looking a child have done to deserve that fate?"
"I have done nothing, sir," exclaimed an indignant Ladybird. "But my parents… they angered the gods."
"And so the children must suffer." With a quiet sigh, the old man fell into a deep brooding.
As the afternoon lengthened, Ladybird began to shiver and draw her knees up to her chest. The stranger suddenly seemed to remember she was there; with much grumbling, he got to his feet.
"Come. Your reason for being here is not a particularly happy one, but I will show you something special before all that. Follow me."
So saying, he struck out through the forest, and it was all little Ladybird could do to keep up. The path seemed to have disappeared, but the man knew the way as sure as any creature of the forest. More than once, Ladybird thought she had lost him, as his cloak blended with the trees and bushes in such a clever pattern, you could not tell where one started and the other finished. Then she would call out, and he would pause, rolling his eyes with impatience as she caught up.
Finally, the trees thinned and Ladybird found herself on the edge of a beautiful meadow, with a gentle stream running along one side lined with weeping willows. No rain had fallen here, and the grass was knee-high and thick with pink and purple flowers.
As she stood there, wide-eyed and silent with amazement, the man leaned down and put his lips to her ear.
"Don't just stand there, child. Run, play, enjoy."
Hesitantly, Ladybird stepped forward. The meadow was so perfect, she did not want to spoil it in any way. Looking back over her shoulder, she saw the old man, still stood in the shadow of the trees.
"Will you play with me?" She held her hand out.
It was the man's turn to look nervous now, staring at her hand with the same wonder that she had looked on the meadow with. With trembling limbs, he slowly reached out and wrapped his much-larger (and grubbier) fingers around Ladybird's. She gave him a bright smile before tugging him into the open.
Some time later, he and Ladybird were sat in the middle of the meadow, exhausted from their play. The girl was twining flowers together to make a wreath, while the man looked on.
"This afternoon... you have given me happiness and laughter, things I have not experienced for a long time." The old man was watching her with a wistful gaze.
"Thank you for showing me this place," Ladybird replied politely, pointing to a particularly fine flower she wished for. Carefully, the man plucked the flower, pausing to take a sniff of its fragrance before passing it to her.
"But the time of play is drawing to a close," he continued. Ladybird glanced up at him, suddenly afraid. "You came here looking for the Carver."
"Yes," she said in an uncertain voice.
"Do you know why he is called the Carver?"
"No. Why is he?"
"Because his body is ugly and misshapen, as though he were carved from the very forest he lives in," replied the ugly, misshapen man. Ladybird began to tremble.
"Looks are not everything," she argued quietly. "Does he not have a Christian name?"
The man's brown eyes flashed wildly for a second, and his whole body seemed to convulse. Panicking, Ladybird threw the wreath to one side and tried to run; however, the man was on her in a second, pinning her down and looming over her. His grip on her arms, however, was surprisingly gentle.
"Yes, he has a name. He can never remember it though, after he refused the affections of a witch. She cursed him and took his name and identity, leaving him to carry out the cruel whims of the gods." His hold on her loosened, and he pulled away to sit beside her on the ground.
"Can the curse ever be lifted?" asked Ladybird in a whisper.
"Only when the Carver remembers his true name. And that will only happen when his heart breaks in two." Slowly, he turned to face her. "Do you know who I am, child?"
"Yes. The Carver."
As soon as she whispered the name, the man was upon her again, his touch both tender and bruising. Ladybird lay as still as death beneath him, even as he took out a long, shining dagger and held it over her heart.
"Please do not hate me for this," he begged. "I am sorry, little Ladybird."
"I don't hate you," she said faintly. Slowly, inexorably, the Carver began to press down with his full weight.
Ladybird's breath caught and she let out a shrill cry. The noise grew as the sharp tip drove through her thin dress and into the flesh beneath. A dark pool of blood appeared, spreading out around the point of entry.
Her skin was broken; now, the metal began to penetrate the sparse layers of fat and muscle beneath the surface. Ladybird's cries were unbroken, fresh sounds of pain all merging into one long keen. The Carver felt the dagger slip another inch deeper, and the girl's eyes rolled back in her head as she began to writhe upon the ground. A grisly scraping sensation passed through the shaft as bone rubbed against metal.
He knew the moment her heart was pierced. Her body stilled, and those black jewel-like eyes fixed on his.
"I forgive you," she whispered, and then she died.
Sometimes, when a nail is driven into a piece of wood, the wood cracks. That was what happened now to the Carver's heart. Ladybird's words were the ruin and the release he had been waiting so many years for.
With a broken cry, he felt his heart splinter and he pitched forwards, falling to the ground alongside Ladybird. The memory of his name came rushing back to him as he died, and his demons fell away, till he looked young and handsome, even in death.
The rains did come to an end, and the people of the realm were relieved. Now the forest is a peaceful place, although people still do not stray too deep. If they did, they would discover a meadow, filled with flowers, and a young rowan tree in its centre. And if they looked closely enough, they would see a swarm of ladybirds – a loveliness, in fact – flying around the tree, ever-present and ever-true.