Fic Prompts: Folklore Friday
The Incident of the River in the Woodlands, Part One
Bonus Points to anyone who recognizes the tales that inspired this one
Long ago, when magic was prevalent and stepmothers were convenient scapegoats for unpleasant happenings, and when children could set off on adventures when they were really too young to have any business doing so, there was a little family on the brink of ruin.
There were many such families, in point of fact, because any kingdom with an economic policy that mostly revolved around richly-dressed sheriffs snatching coins and produce from peasants while twirling their mustaches and chortling about taxes is a kingdom to be viewed with, at the very least, suspicion.
It will likely not surprise you to discover that there was a fair bit of unrest in this particularly tiny kingdom.
Now the father in this little family does not come into the story much at all, through no fault of his own. He spent the majority of the daylight hours toiling away in a distant mill for an irritable employer and an absurd local noblewoman who had once read a scroll about how mills worked and considered herself an expert. As such, he didn’t manage to get home in time for our story and will have to sit out the narrative, wringing his hands and worrying. Such is the life of this humble miller.
The miller’s first wife had died some time ago, and as his neighbor was alone and about to lose her tiny hovel, he married her. They weren’t particularly head over heels for each other, but they had been friendly with each other for a very long time, and sometimes, a strong alliance with a good friend is all you need. And a house is a house, after all. Besides, it helped to have someone to switch out with to keep an eye on the miller’s two children, because this was the sort of kingdom where if you didn’t keep a sharp lookout, dodgy-looking people on roadsides gave your kids enchanted objects and set them loose on the countryside. This had actually been more of a problem than big bad canines of late.
With this in mind, perhaps the stepmother – who far preferred the children to call her “Auntie”, which they readily agreed to – can be excused for being just the slightest bit overprotective. When, as would happen from time to time, a stranger would come to the cottage asking for a drink of milk or a place to sleep, she would always grant them free entrance to the house, but never allowed the children to leave the attic until they had left, and would not let them taste any food the strangers might have left until she was satisfied that it was not somehow enchanted. This often resulted in food that might have been perfectly safe being tossed out of the window, where the family dog tended to find it despite their best efforts to keep her away.
Unfortunately, the children were quite young, and did not know enough about the world yet to understand that Auntie was trying to keep them safe. Young Gert, at ten, was quite sure that Auntie was trying to starve them, and that even the dog ate better than they did. Little Tansy, at seven, was frankly more concerned with why the dog had taken to walking along the ceiling at night.