The Safe Path

Once upon a time there lived a woodcutter and his wife, who was a trapper. They were poor, and their jobs were fearful dangerous, for they went into the wild woods, he to cut down the trees for lumber, and she to trap rabbits and such small beasts for meat and furs. At times they also found herbs and reagents to sell to the alchemists, but it was uncertain money. Still, despite this, they were content, for they loved each other well, and when they found that the trapper was carrying their child within her, there were no two people happier in all the lands of men.

But as the months passed, they grew uneasy; for the wife’s belly grew, and grew, and grew, until she seemed fit to burst. And they went to the midwife in the village, and she shook her head and said the very word they dreaded to hear. And they went to the scholars in the academy, and they shook their heads, and repeated the word they dreaded to hear. And they went to the wise witch of the mountains, and she too, shook her head and said the same word. And that word, of course, was: twins.

It is well known that the cause of twins is the Sidhe. When a changeling is placed within the cradle, the real babe is taken. But when the fae swap the babe within the belly of their mother, sometimes they forget, or perhaps they care not for the look of the babe, or for whatever twisted reason seems good to the fae, they neglect to take the human child. This is why all twins must be put to the knife, and that right soon. Better a human child should die than a fae be raised as a human child.

The woodcutter and the trapper were naturally much distressed at this news. And they set to thinking how such a cruel fate could be avoided for their true child. They asked the midwife in the village if there might be some way to tell which child was mortal and which sidhe, and she said she had heard tell of only one way. If one child were deathly ill and the other hale, then the strongest was the sidhe, and so only that one must needs be killed. Although the weaker babe would most likely die all the same, they might at least know and love their child for a time.

They went to the scholars in the academy to ask the same question. And they conferred long hours amongst themselves, and came to one answer. Sometimes a child shows the signs of the fae – it is born with teeth or claws or a tail or some such manner of deformity. Such a child is always put to knife, of course. If the woodcutter and the trapper were lucky, perhaps one of their twins would show these signs, and the other could be spared.

They went to the wise witch of the mountains and she consulted her talismans and charms, and cast the bones. And she spoke to them at last, saying “There is but one sure way. Let them live. See which one grows up to love cruelty and torture. See which one grows up to kill you both, and bathe in your blood. That one is the sidhe. If you catch them at their evil early, perhaps you can destroy them before they destroy you, and save your own child. But be warned! Your own child will take this ill, for the love between two who share the womb is strong, and full of magic. And though one be mortal and one be sidhe, they may love each other so well that both shall turn on those who would part them.

And the time came for the babes to be born. The woodcutter looked carefully at the children. And as he looked, he knew he loved them both dearly, and it would break his heart to chose the one over the other. But he hardened his heart and looked for the signs of the sidhe in the one and the other. But both were hale and whole, toothless and tailless, and nothing different to choose between them except betwixt their chubby pink legs – for one was a boy and the other a girl.

And he brought the babes to his wife, and she looked, and no evil did she see in either one. So she put them to her breasts and suckled them, but neither bit her with sharp fae fangs, and like her husband, she found nothing to tell them apart but that between their legs.

And the trapper could not bear to have the babes she suckled die, not by her hand nor by the hand of the man she loved so well. And so they made a plan between them to do as the witch had said. To let them grow; to watch and wait for the changeling to reveal itself. And the husband said “My love, we cannot let our child grow side by side with a sidhe. We must part them, that the poison of the fae cannot infect the one who is truly our babe.” And the wife said “True, and besides, if we try to raise two babes, the townsfolk will surely come and kill them both, and likely us also. Therefore, you take the boy, and tell those hereabouts that I died in his bearing. Raise him alone, and remember always that I love you both well. Tell him of his mother, but not of his sister. I shall take the girl, and go from this place, to raise her in like way, seeming to be a widow woman. Should one of us discover we are raising the changeling then, once the deed is done, we shall be reunited for ever.”

And it was so. And thus the children grew up; the boy, Hansel, with his father, and the girl, Gretel, with her mother. And for many years, their parents watched them closely seeking signs of evil, but as the years passed, each became convinced that the other child must have been the one with the blood of the sidhe within them, for they could no longer conceive that the beloved child in their own arms was a changeling.

* * *

It came to pass that another man wooed the trapper with the pretty daughter, and another woman set her cap at the woodcutter with the fine son. And by the time the twins were no more than seven years old, both the trapper and the woodcutter had married again, telling themselves that their first love was likely dead by the hand of the changeling child, and surely as good as dead, for they would never see each other again.

But then came the day when Hansel came to his father and stepmother and said ‘My sister is bleeding. I should bleed too.’ And he took a knife, and calmly sliced his left forearm open.

After this the woodcutter confessed the story of his son’s birth to his second wife. And she feared for the safety of any babes she might have, to bring them into the house with such a boy, and convinced the woodcutter that this violent act must be the sign he had been waiting for, showing that Hansel was a changeling indeed. “What if he cuts you or me, next time?” She argued. “What if he goes to seek out this sister, and it is her he harms?”

And at length, the woodcutter agreed to take his son into the woods, and leave him there for the fae to find.

So the next day, he told Hansel that it was time he learned his father’s trade, and came into the woods to cut the trees with him. And they went into the wild woods.

On that same day, as Gretel’s woman-blood first came from her body, she came to her mother and stepfather and said “My brother has not forgotten me. He bleeds as I do.” And she took the blood from between her legs, and smeared it on her left forearm.

After this, the trapper confessed the story of her daughter’s birth to her second husband. And he grew angry that she had lied to him, and told her that this strange behaviour must be the sign she had been waiting for, showing that Gretel was a changeling indeed. “She must leave this house, never to return.” He demanded. “Or I shall tell all those hereabouts the tale, and she will surely be stoned to death, and you alongside her.”

And at length, the trapper agreed to take her daughter into the woods, and leave her there for the fae to find.

So the next day, she told Gretel that it was time she learned her mother’s trade, now she was a woman indeed, and they would go together into the woods, to trap small creatures for meat and fur. And they went into the wild woods.

* * *

The woodcutter took Hansel as deep into the wood as he dared, and as they walked, he thought to himself to treasure as much of this last day with his son as possible, teaching him what he could of woodcraft, that the boy might yet survive awhile in the realms of the fae. And so he did. He taught Hansel to keep to the safe paths in the wood. He bid him ignore cries for help he might hear from within the trees, for these would surely be false calls from the fae, attempting to lure stout hearted folk deeper into danger. He showed him how to wield the axe to chop down the tree. First to find the weakest spot, then to strike swift and true. “Just three strong strikes, that’s all you need.” he told Hansel.

All too soon the shadows lengthened and the woodcutter knew it was time to leave the boy. So he found a likely spot for him to camp. “Now my son,” he said, striving to keep the trembling from his voice “While you rest here, I shall fetch us a drink of water from a stream I know nearby.” And he turned to go, but Hansel called him back saying “Wait, Father. Before you leave, let us be sure that I have remembered all you taught me this day. Give me your axe, and see if I can wield it so well as you, to fell the tree in three strokes.” And the woodcutter handed his axe to Hansel. And Hansel took the axe, and struck his father full in the chest. And the man staggered a little, and fell bleeding, to the ground just off the path.

“Your weakest spot – your treacherous heart,

Which faltered and betrayed.

All those years you played your part –

The doting widower played.

Strike one for my mother – who you deserted when you wed another.”

Hansel smiled cruelly down at his father and reached out a hand towards him. Then his face twisted to a mockery of regret.

“Too far away my father lies,

To his aid I must not go.

To leave the path would be unwise –

My father told me so.

Strike two for my own self – who you meant to desert this day”.

The woodcutter groaned in mortal agony.

“I must ignore such calls. ‘Tis plain

Some fae in jest has cried.

As you ignored my sister’s pain

When you took me from her side.

Strike three for my sister – who I shall see ere long.”

And Hansel slung the axe over his shoulder, and singing gaily, strode out of his father’s sight between the trees.

* * *

The trapper took Gretel as deep into the woods as she dared, and as they walked, she thought to herself to treasure as much of this last day with her daughter as possible, teaching her what she could of woodcraft, that the girl might yet survive awhile in the realms of the fae. And so she did. She taught Gretel to keep to the safe paths in the wood. She showed her how to skin a rabbit whole. She showed her how to set a snare to catch one. “Know the path your prey will take, and be ready for them to take it. Just three simple things: a wooden stake, a loop of string, and a good sharp knife – that’s all you need.” she told Gretel.

All too soon the shadows lengthened and the trapper knew it was time to leave the girl.

But just as they came across a likely spot, Gretel said to her other. “Look Mother. I see a trail of blood just beside the path. Let us be sure that I have remembered all you taught me. Give me the string and the knife and that stake of wood, and let us see if I can use them so well as you, to take my prey.” And the trapper handed them to Gretel. And Gretel took them, and followed the trail of blood, and Gretel’s mother followed the girl. And it was not long before they came to a clearing, and in the centre of the clearing was a faery ring of stones, and the body of a man lay sprawled on the ground, one hand outstretched toward circle of stones, as if he had crawled towards it with the last of his strength. And the woman wailed in shock and grief as she recognised the woodcutter lying there before them.

“Why do you cry so, mother?” asked Gretel curiously, “Once the deed is done, you shall be reunited for ever.” She pointed to the body lying before them and said:

“The path you took, as I knew you should,

To save your own fair skin

You would desert me in this wood

As you deserted him.

One simple thing – for my father, who you abandoned when you wed another.”

And she put the loop of string around her mother’s neck.

“I’m ready and my prey is snared,

Just as my mother taught.

She thinks that she will yet be spared

But she’s already caught.

One simple thing – for my own self, who you meant to abandon this day.”

And she tightened the noose around her mother’s neck. The mother’s eyes widened, but whether from fear or the constriction of her throat, Gretel did not know. Nor did she care. She leant close to her mother, and whispered in her ear.

“I’ll slice your hide from off your flesh

As you ripped me from my kin.

Perhaps you’ll see the world afresh

When I’m inside your skin.

One simple thing – for my brother, who I shall see ere long’

Then Gretel kissed her mother tenderly on the forehead, placed the knife to the same spot and began to cut, so neatly that only a little of her blood dripped to mingle with that of her husband.

And Gretel arranged the skin over her shoulders, and humming gaily, skipped into the faery circle to join her brother.

* * *

There are further tales of the wickedness these Changeling Twins visited on any mortal they thought to have wronged them. Always together, and always with nothing to tell them apart but that between their legs.

A witch who trapped them for a while, in a magical cage the bars of which grew thicker and stronger when touched by fae hands. But they, tricksy as they were, put thier hands behind their backs, and touched the bars only with their mouths, devouring the cage, and then they set to eating all the arvos in the land, stone by stone, destroying every last scrap of that witch’s magic and her home. And they still had enough room in their bellies to feast at last upon her wizened flesh.

The time a sorcerer prince transformed Hansel into a fawn, but was persuaded by Gretel’s beauty and her promise to take him to her bed, to remove the curse – accidentally taking it upon himself when he did so. Whereupon the Changeling Twins hunted him down with his own hounds, and sent the choicest scraps of his carcass to his mother the Queen as a gift, all but those Gretel took to her brother as he lay in her bed.

Ah yes, there are other tales of the Changeling Twins. Always together, and always with nothing to tell them apart but that between their legs.