Photo credit: Mikko Koponen
Once upon a time there was a little girl named Mallenta, who lived in a castle at the edge of the Impassable Forest. One day Mallenta woke up, and the forest was right outside her window. In fact, the forest had surrounded the whole castle. She ran into every room, but her parents and all the other adults were gone. The only ones left were her and her baby brother.
Mallenta felt like crying, but she hugged her brother instead.
A raven appeared at the window and asked her, “What’s your name, little girl?”
She sniffed, and told it. She didn’t ask the raven’s name, because she knew that would be rude.
“You’re in trouble now, aren’t you?”
Mallenta squinted. “What do you know about it?”
The raven laughed. “I know your parents are lost in the forest.”
Mallenta knew that being lost in the Impassable Forest was a very bad thing. “Can you bring them back?”
“I could. If I wanted to,” said the raven, tilting its head. “If you paid me.”
Mallenta nodded. “My parents have plenty of gold.” She took a closer look at the raven and added, “And shiny things. Lots of shiny, sparkling things.”
The raven appeared to consider it, then shook its head. “No. I’ll bring your parents back, and all the servants too, if you…” And here it paused very dramatically. “If you give your brother to the forest.”
Mallenta backed away. “What does that mean?” she asked. “Would you… eat him?”
“Oh, yuck, no. He’d become something. A squirrel, maybe. Or a tree. Look how small he is, he’s barely a human as it is.”
Mallenta looked at her brother. It was true, he was very small. But he was still her brother. “No,” she said. “He is not mine to give away.”
The raven cackled. “Think it over. If the forest retreats and your parents are still lost inside, they’ll be lost forever.”
With that, the raven flew away.
The next day the raven returned, and asked again if Mallenta wanted its help. Mallenta again said no. And again the next day, and the next.
Mallenta tried to hide it, but she was worried. Her parents hadn’t returned yet, and the forest might retreat at any moment. Besides, her little brother cried all the time and refused to eat any of the few foods that she knew how to cook.
On the fifth day, the raven asked again, “Will you pay me?”
Mallenta had been thinking very carefully about her answer. This time, Mallenta asked, “What if I gave myself to the forest instead of my brother? Could you make me into a bird?”
The raven perked up, nodding. “Yes, of course I could.”
“A real bird? Not a bird dog or a bird pudding or a bird sculpture.” Mallenta thought about just the right words to use, which is always a good idea but especially during negotiations like this. “I would be a real, live, talking bird. A bird exactly like you, right?”
“Right, right, yes. But you could never leave the forest.”
“And you would bring my parents and everyone back first, completely safe?”
The raven nodded.
Mallenta balled up her courage in her fist. “Then yes, I agree.”
From the window, she saw her parents emerge from the forest edge, smiling and looking relieved. She waved to them and they waved back. She waited until every last person went in the front door, then she faced the raven. “Now, do exactly what you said you’d do.”
The raven laughed and impatiently waved its wing, casting the spell. As Mallenta transformed, the raven’s expression changed to surprise, and then to anger. Then it shrugged, and without another word, flew out the window.
Mallenta didn’t become exactly the same as the raven, because of course the raven was Condeanta in one of her trickster disguises, and mortals can never become divine. But for hundreds of years, Mallenta has been roaming the forest, helping people who are lost to find their way home again. Whenever you feel lost, or worried, or lonely, if you listen carefully, you may hear her in the distance, singing a song of hope.
“But Papa, you skipped the best part.”
“It’s time for you to go to sleep, Narbet.”
“Just one last part, and then I will, I promise.”
“All right, just one last part. Some say that before Mallenta left, she turned to her baby brother – who was also named Narbet–”
“Narbet the Wise.”
“He wasn’t Narbet the Wise yet, was he? He was still very little.”
“Even littler than me?”
“Even so. Well, Mallenta was young but she knew all the legends about magic. So before she left, she gave one of her tail feathers to her brother and said, ‘If you ever truly need me, call me and I will come.’ Then she tapped her beak on his forehead — very gently, mind you — to be sure he would remember.”
“Then he did call her, and–”
“And that’s another story entirely, and we are all done with stories for the night.”
“Papa, will I ever be wise?”
“Well, I hear that wise people are known to have gone to bed early when they were children, so I’m a little bit worried.”
“Look, I already have my eyes closed. Good night, Papa.”
“Good night, Narbet, the soon-to-be wise.”
Word count: 900. This was originally inspired by Sammi Cox’s Month of Mini Writing Challenges. Technically that ended yesterday, but she said it could be stretched out a bit into October. And boy, did I stretch this one out. The original prompt, for Day 26, was to begin a story with the words “Once upon a time” — but it was supposed to be only 100 words long! Problem was, the more I thought about this fairy tale, the more it grew. I can’t even remember why I thought it could possibly be only 100 words, or what I thought I’d convey of it. Ah well, I guess the important thing is that I wrote a story, and I like it, and I hope you will like it too. Thanks for the inspiration, Sammi!
To explain why Mallenta gave the raven that second look, Condeanta is traditionally associated with luck, gambling, fate, lies, and shiny objects (To Condeanta, with Love). She’s gone by other names over time (How Par Captured the Sun). We’ve seen the Impassable Forest before too, both from the inside (Wayward Woods) and the outside (On A Leaf Edge).