The Sacred Maiden by Tessa Hastjarjanto

There once was a girl who lived in a cottage at the very edge of a small village with her parents. Her father was a woodcutter and he needed enough space to store the logs, so living near the forest made his job easier. Her father sold the logs he brought back from the woods to the neighbors. One of them was a skilled carpenter and they would often work together to make furniture. Her mother did woodcarving when she wasn’t doing work around the house. She carved small decorative statues of animals out of the small branches that couldn’t be used for construction work. The girl often helped her and received compliments on her carvings from the villagers. They said her carvings seemed alive even when they were still a bit rough. Her mother knew that she would one day be an artist.

Once a week the girl and her mother would go the market to sell the carvings and buy all their necessities. The girl would sit at the cart with the figurines and talked to the villagers who came by. Sometimes other children would come by to look at the beautiful carvings. Her father took her out on other days, educating her about living in the forest. He pointed out small creatures, trees, edible berries, and the dangers in the woods. He taught her to track down animals, but never how to hunt because she was still too young. The little girl and father played hide and seek in the woods often between her chores. Both her parents loved her very much. Although they wanted a sibling for her, it never happened. Her parents lavished her with attention and affection, giving her everything she needed and wanted. The girl, even though she’d only seen ten summers, was grateful for all her parents did for her.

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But one night a group of bandits came to the cottage. They wanted money, but weren’t satisfied when they saw the small amount her parents had to offer. They were convinced there were other treasures hidden inside the cottage; like jewels or family heirlooms. The bandits killed the girl’s father when he said that there wasn’t anything else, that they weren’t materialistic, and beat up her mother when she tried to protect the little girl. Having gone unnoticed so far, she tried to escape. Just when she snuck out of the window, the guy who stood watch outside the cottage saw her, yelled to his comrades and chased after her. But she knew the forest better than most people and was confident that she would be able to hide from her pursuer.

She knew of a natural well, deep within the forest where she would be able to hide for the night and she knew how to get there fast. It had always been her favorite hiding place when playing with her father, and he had never managed to find her there. A grown man would have difficulty taking the same path as it involved crouching through a small opening between some rocks.
The darkness was another advantage. Her pursuer didn’t know the forest and fell and stumbled often. The girl heard him calling after her, cursing the trees when he tripped over their roots and the stones when his feet bumped into them. When she reached the opening between the rocks, the man nearly caught her cursing as he saw her light nightgown disappear into the darkness.

The girl knew it was only a short run from the rocks towards the big, hollow tree that stood beside the well. The old oak was strategically placed between thorny rose bushes and poison ivy, and she had made a small opening in the bushes to reach the perfect hiding place years ago, returning there often to make sure that it was still big enough as she grew taller. Wearing a nightgown left her legs exposed, so she would get scratched by the poison ivy as she crawled inside, but she spotted and picked a few purple flowers to treat the itching before she crawled in.
As she moved through the bushes she heard the bandit screaming for her, and with a surge of panic she rushed through. The end of her gown got caught on the thorns, tearing away, but she didn’t notice until the man had entered the clearing. The piece of cloth hung at the corner of the bush and didn’t show that she had passed through the undergrowth instead of moving away from the clearing. The man got excited and sprinted out of the clearing again in the direction the cloth had indicated. The girl was relieved when she didn’t hear his footsteps anymore, but she was too scared to come out and so, eventually, she fell asleep.

The next morning she woke up and the aches in her body, her dirty gown, and the hard surface beneath her reminded her that the robbery and chase had been real. Then she remembered what those men had done to her father and she hoped that her mother was still alive. Tears welled up and some found their way to her cheeks. She knew she shouldn’t cry, because she wasn’t safe yet. What if the bandits were still looking for her? They would come back here, because it was the point her trail had ended, and she couldn’t protect herself here if it they found her. She had to reach her neighbor’s house and then find her way to her uncle and aunt’s place. That’s where her mother would’ve gone to, if she was still alive. Going back was not an option. She didn’t want to see her dead father and the bandits might still be in the area.

The girl listened to see if anyone was around, but she heard birds singing so she thought it was safe. She came out of her hiding spot, carefully, and looked around. Seeing no-one she took the chance to eat some berries from the bush closest to the well, washed her face, and drank to take the edge off her thirst. But when she looked up from the water, she saw the reflection of a man standing behind her. He grinned, grabbed her by her neck and forced her into the water until her lungs filled up with water.

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The man tied a heavy rock to the little girl’s body and threw her into the well, where no one could find her. He left the clearing, searching for his way back to the cottage. His friends would still be there with the food and ale they’d found. As he went, he began to realise the way back was far from easy, because there was nothing he recognized from the nightly chase.
After nearly an hour of fruitless walking, he heard branches snap behind him. Slowly, he turned to see a giant stag with massive antlers, its head towered above the bandit, looking at him. The creature pounded its hooves and began moving towards him, accelerating with every step. The man was petrified. He tried to move his legs, but his body didn’t respond to any of his impulses. The stag leaned forward and its great, sharp antlers pierced the man’s body on impact.

An eerie voice almost indiscernible from the wind told the man his life would serve as payment for his crimes committed against the girl. His friends would be served the same fate after they left the cottage. The girl was sacred to this forest because of who she was and how she’d came to be. She was part of the life of the forest, had come from the forest. Her parents had accepted this gift before she was born and her fate had always remained tied to that of the forest. Her death would kill the forest, but the bandits sacrifice would bring life back to it. Their ignorance in not seeing who she’d been had cost him his life and the lives of his friends, and life did not leave his body until after the stag’s message had been heard.

The stag led her uncle to the well and helped him find her body. The stag told him what had happened and that the girl should not be forgotten. Her spirit chose to stay there, because it was her duty. She told her uncle who came for her body the whole story and the stag told him its story as well. The man cried as he lifted the girl’s body from the water. He brought her back to the village and shared the story with everyone, about her misfortune and the bandits. In time, the villagers built a shrine and named her the guardian of the forest, and knew she was close whenever they saw the stag. From then on,the villagers often received help in the forest when needed, and all that was evil or bore ill will was kept away, all to keep the village safe.

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