The eastern Margreve was desolate, an endless waste of sparse trees. Finna crunched through falling autumn leaves, her footsteps echoing against the silent, lifeless backdrop.
Her hunger hadn’t been so bad yesterday, for she had gorged herself on candied apples at the festival the night before. Finna loved apples. Every autumn after harvest time she would run to the orchards and choose a few of the bruised apples left on the ground. Never pick an apple off a tree, her father had told her, because that belongs to someone. The candied apples had tasted even sweeter this year because they were especially for her.
The harvest festival was for remembrance, her mother said. Centuries ago, a terrible sickness had rolled out of the Margreve into the tiny village of Lundar, nestled against the forest on the Rothenian Plain. Only one young maiden was brave enough to seek aid from the forest itself. Within a few days, a thrush descended into the town square and spoke with the voice of the maiden.
“Take heart, people of Lundar, for the Margreve has taught me a few of its secrets. In return for your lives, because no one but I would venture into the forest, every ten years on this day, you will choose a daughter of the village to repeat my journey, and I, Kerdwin, will teach her the wisdom of the forest.”
The next morning, a bubbling cauldron appeared in the square, and one bite of an apple dipped into the miraculous liquid eliminated the disease from even the weakest of villagers. They had been protected ever since because they remembered Kerdwin: every ten years, the village elders chose one young woman of at least sixteen years as the harvest maiden. None were ever seen again.
When Finna was eight years old, she realized that she would be sixteen when the next harvest maiden was chosen. She imagined the moment of entering the Margreve: Kerdwin, preserved magnificently by Porevit and Yarila, would extend her hand, ready to teach the wisdom of the forest. That meant magic, like how to brew the healing draught in the story.
With her stomach gurgling, however, Finna could hardly think of mysteries. Like Kerdwin, Finna could take no supplies. It had been a full day now, and Kerdwin still had not come for her, and the Margreve was rejecting her. She needed water so badly. Finna huddled miserably at the base of a tree. What if Kerdwin only found you when you died?
Something brushed against Finna’s leg, and she shrieked and sprang away from the tree. She looked down into the beady stare of a small fox.
“I don’t have any food, puppy-fox,” she said. He trotted forward and patted her with his paw. “I wish I did. Maybe you could help me?” Finna’s throat cracked as she tried to swallow.
If the fox had an answer, he had no chance to give it. Finna heard leaves rustling behind her and she held her breath, knowing she probably couldn’t escape. What stepped into view was not a predator, however, but the crooked form of a crone leaning heavily on her gnarled staff.
“Has it been ten years already?”
Finna leapt to her feet, her heart pounding and her voice trembling. “Noble Kerdwin, I’ve been looking for you!”
“Truly, that has been your goal?” The old woman fixed her piercing blue eyes, one larger than the other, on Finna.
“Today I’ve been looking for food,” Finna admitted. “Yesterday I searched all day for you.”
“I am not your witch, child. You aren’t looking for me at all.”
Finna’s disappointment hung heavily in the air. “My elders said Kerdwin would teach me the wisdom of the forest.”
“You’ll starve first. Come on. The Margreve is no place for children.” She beckoned Finna to follow, but Finna was not ready.
“But I must find Kerdwin! It is my duty to my people! I will not be the only maiden who fails!”
“No. You won’t. Each time your village sends a helpless young woman into this inhospitable dream world, I guide them safely out. The last is living quietly with the Magdar. Now it’s your turn.”
“You’re lying!” Finna cried, her eyes brimming with tears.
“You are being rude,” the old crone said sharply, then softened her tone. “Consider how frightened you’ve been. Is this child’s story of yours worth your life? Come with me.”
Finna listened to her stomach growl. If she left, she could have food. Then she pictured Kerdwin extending a hand toward her.
“Is there truly no chance I will meet Kerdwin? None at all?”
The old woman was silent.
“Then I will not waste my chance,” Finna said, jaw set.
“Listen to me, child!” the crone hissed, pointing a shaking finger at Finna’s heart. “You’re not ready for the forest’s secrets! You care only for filling your stomach. This forest will eat you!”
Finna prepared to argue, but stopped as the fox stepped in front of her.
“I didn’t expect to see you,” the old woman said. “Are you certain?”
The fox bowed his head.
“Be it on your conscience,” the crone replied. She raised her cane and pointed directly behind Finna.
“You will find what you seek there. But beware. The Margreve does not take kindly to thieves.”
Finna’s eyes followed the woman’s cane. She turned back, her mouth filling with questions, but the old woman was gone.
“She does not know me,” she said to the fox. “I’m not a child. I will learn everything there is.”
Finna marched into the woods, past gnarled trees whose branches clawed and grasped at her if she strayed too far from the center of the narrow path. Suddenly, something red caught her eye. She broke into a run, anticipation overwhelming her.
She stopped, panting, at the edge of a clearing. A simmering cauldron, its owner nowhere in sight, sat tucked near the back, but it held little interest for Finna, for the floor of the clearing was littered with apples.
“Look!” she cried as she knelt to examine her bounty. “They’re a little bruised, but they’re still perfectly good.”
Finna picked up two apples and offered one to the fox.
“You have followed me a long way, little fox. May I call you Pikko? Here, an apple for each of us.”
The fox considered the offering but instead tipped his head toward the rear of the grove. Hanging out over the cauldron, one apple was still attached to its branch, bold red and perfectly shaped.
Finna lowered her hands. “But that is still on the tree,” she said softly. “It belongs to someone. Picking an apple from someone’s tree is stealing.” The more she looked at the apple on the branch, however, the less appetizing the ones in her hands appeared. She frowned. Then a realization hit her.
“This must be Kerdwin’s orchard! Apples don’t grow in forests, but Kerdwin would want them. The old crone really was Kerdwin, but she was testing me! This is my chance, Pikko, to prove I’m not like the others. I don’t only care about filling my stomach, I want the wisdom of the forest!” Finna dropped the blemished apples and stared at the apple on the branch.
“I’ve never been a thief. But I want the very best.”
Finna walked cautiously up to the cauldron and reached a trembling hand toward the apple. The forest does not take kindly to thieves, she recalled, her hand hesitating.
Is a story worth my life? I will be a thief, but I will have my dream. Knowledge I will have forever, food I will only have today.
As soon as Finna plucked the apple, her senses shifted. Colors intensified, but the air felt clogged and her movements slowed. Pikko yapped, and slowly Finna spun around. Hobbling down the path was the old crone.
After only a few steps, the old woman threw her staff away and began a loping stride. Her wrinkles vanished and her muscles strengthened, and in a blinding flash her tangled white hair became a thick golden mass. Her jaw opened wide, revealing a row of pointed teeth ready to bite into Finna’s flesh.
“You need to run,” said a voice in her head. Pikko sat at her feet, staring intently into her eyes.
“I can’t outrun her,” Finna said. “I’m just a girl. She knows everything.”
“She is old, with much knowledge, but you are young, with many dreams.”
“If I were a hare, I think I could run fast enough,” Finna said.
“There you are. Now ready. Set. Go.”
Finna pictured a speedy hare, and as her thoughts raced, reality altered to match them. She bent forward. Her hands became paws as they touched the ground, and her back legs were ready to spring. The trees parted before her, and she and Pikko raced ahead.
Dreams are the secrets of the forest, she thought. Then she spared a glance back and saw not the witch but a lean, hungry wolf galloping toward her.
“She will eat me, Pikko!” Finna cried. “If I were stronger, I could fight her.”
Pikko yapped a warning, but Finna wasn’t listening. She had dreamt of strength often. Like the bears that father hunts, she thought. She turned and stared down the grinning wolf.
Every part of Finna grew as her snarl echoed through the trees. She reared onto her hind legs, baring her teeth. Any real wolf would have stopped running, but the witch only smiled wider and grew as tall as the trees.
“Help me, Pikko!” she said, realizing her foolishness.
“You must fly!”
“If I were a bird, I could fly.” Finna gazed at the sky and stretched, shedding her thick fur for the soft wings of a thrush. Now she could escape, Finna thought, and she would take the forest’s secret with her.
Screeching filled the air, and when she dared look back, she saw a falcon swooping toward her, talons extended.
“Now what do I do, Pikko?” she asked, but she could not hear Pikko’s quiet voice amidst the falcon’s shrieks. I can’t outrun her, Finna thought, and I certainly can’t fight her. I’m just a little girl.
Little… If only I were back at the clearing, she thought, and below her the trees rearranged themselves, revealing the cauldron and Kerdwin’s apples. If I were tiny, a small apple seed, she would never find me.
As Finna began to shrink, she curled into a ball, wrapping her arms around her legs. She closed her eyes and floated downward on her back. Suddenly, the falcon screeched again and Finna’s eyes opened wide. She watched as the falcon’s face returned to that of the young Kerdwin, golden hair covering the sun and her fierce blue eyes piercing Finna’s focus.
Finna screamed. Her concentration lost, she returned to her normal shape, hands clutching the apple. She plummeted into the clearing, the witch’s talons drawing ever nearer. Just as she expected to feel those sharp claws rake her flesh, Finna blinked—and found herself lying on her back in the clearing as the old woman took the apple from her hands.
Tears filled Finna’s eyes. She had lost. She had tasted the power of the Margreve, caught a glimpse of the world’s mysteries, and she had failed the test.
Finna sat up and watched as the crone hobbled to the cauldron. Pikko yapped at Finna’s side.
“Yes, yes. You were right. I’m human enough to admit when I’m wrong. Ha. Come here, child.”
Finna hurried to her feet. “Kerdwin,” she began, but the witch waved her speech away.
“What is it you expect me to teach you, girl?”
Kerdwin grinned as she dipped the apple into the bubbling liquid and pulled it out. Scalding drops fell back into the mixture. One, two, three… Kerdwin turned toward Finna, offering the apple to the girl.
Finna held out her hand. It did not tremble.