Damsel in Disguise

We are thrilled to post a brand new story written by  Amna AlHashemi for our Twisted Fairy tales theme whose version is inspired by a mixture of the Grimm Brother’s Hansel and Gretel, and a couple of legends form our own Emirati folk tale . Enjoy!

Once upon a time, in a far away village, there lived a small family along the outskirts of the

forest. The family was made up of the village’s Woodcutter, his son and daughter and his wife. Hans was the eldest child of the Woodcutter family, and was always by his father’s side while the youngest Gretta stayed at home and took care of the house. Hans and Gretta’s stepmother was a fine and enchanting lady, an envy of many of the village’s ordinary women. But the children were not happy with her. Behind their father’s back, she treated the children harshly, as if they were slaves. However the children never uttered a word of complaint. As long as their father was near and safe, nothing else mattered to them and they can withstand all hardship.

The small family of four lived on rations, with whatever the Woodcutter’s profession could provide for. One winter season, the poor and miserable village suffered from a deathly lack of harvest and food, leaving them with little sources to warm their cold bodies. The Woodcutter was busier than ever before, running back and forth throughout the day and night to bring some more firewood for the village’s freezing families. Hardly anyone else left their houses, except for the men and older boys. But Hans and Gretta’s father was getting older and fatigued with age, and couldn’t muster up as much strength as he used to in his younger days.

One cold night, the Woodcutter asked timidly for his wife’s assistance in bringing more firewood from the forest. Hans and Gretta’s stepmother was anything but cooperative, as she yelled and screamed at her husband. She complained of all the responsibilities she already carried on her shoulders, and of how much she couldn’t handle taking care of everything along with the children at once. The children hid and remained silent, as their father grew humiliated and apologetic, and didn’t move until their stepmother left the house and screamed of needing to go to the seaside. After moments passed, the children stepped out and went to their father’s side.

“We will go with you, father.”

The Woodcutter hugged his two children and wiped the tears off his face, determined then to work even harder than his body would allow him to, if only to keep his family safe, warm and well-fed. And so the family of three went to the deeper parts of the forest, and remained closer together to keep warm against the cruel winter night. The full moon served as their only illumination, for the winds were too strong for the torchlight’s frailty. The Woodcutter carried what he can, and when his arms were full he gave the remaining smaller chops of wood to his son, leaving Gretta with the smallest pieces. The Woodcutter led his two children out of the forest and they were on their way home, when all of a sudden a strange sight came upon them. There was a beautiful young lady, a fair maiden with ebony black-hair and snow-white skin, and she called for help.

“O, thank the heavens! I have been waiting for so long for someone to come, but hope has left me as the night grew colder!”

The Woodcutter asked what assistance she needed, and she told them she was the baker’s daughter. Her father instructed had her to bring more wood, but she was too frail to carry it all back on her own.

As the family approached the troubled maiden, they couldn’t help but be enchanted by her charms. Hans and Gretta had never seen another lady of such beauty, and were happy to see their stepmother’s charms were incomparable to hers. The Woodcutter came to her aid at once, and asked her to wait until he takes the wood they brought back to their home first. So the children followed their father back towards their warm house. They piled the wood up and the children listened quietly as their father told them to eat what was left over from dinner, until he returns from helping the distressed damsel.

So the children obeyed, but they ate as little as they could, as they wanted to keep what remained for their drained father. Hans and Gretta used some of the firewood to warm themselves, and they huddled side by side close to the fire. But the children grew sleepier and tired, and soon enough their eyelids were too heavy for them to keep open anymore. And they slept, dreaming of comfort, food and a warm, happy home.

The next day, the children woke up and were surprised to see that they were home alone. They decided to wait some more and prepare breakfast, but still no one came. The deafening silence chilled them to the bone, and the children searched everywhere for their beloved father and lost stepmother. They couldn’t find them anywhere, and the house remained untouched, as it was the night before. Little Gretta could not help the tears flooding out of her eyes, and she cried for her father. Hans took a hold of her hand and told her to not to be afraid but to wait for him, and then he left to search for them in the village. The brave Woodcutter’s son searched high and low, seeking any trace of his parents in the forest, the sea and the entire village. Finding nothing, he decided to ask the villagers. But none of them had seen the Woodcutter or his beautiful wife, and frankly none had truly cared to look. This village was full of misery, poverty and a detestable energy.

But Hans refused to give up, and walked through the cold village into the bakery. He then asked the baker if he had seen the Woodcutter last night helping his daughter carry the wood. But the baker simply brushed Hans off and asked him to leave, yelling about how rude Hans was for asking about a daughter he does not have.

Hans was awe-struck, and walked back home in despair. Gretta waited anxiously for her brother’s return, and Hans collapsed into his little sister’s embrace as the reality of the situation dawned on him.

The Baker had no daughter. Their father was gone, and their stepmother had not returned. As of that day, Hans and Gretta became orphans and were on their own.

Throughout the next few years, Hans and Gretta followed in their father’s legacy and took over his wood cutting tasks. The rest of the villagers lived through the times the same way they always had; in misery, pain and despair. More children have been forced into the titles of “orphans” as more fathers disappeared into the dark nights and more mothers vanished into thin air. Still, the rest of the villagers drowned themselves further into their grief and blamed all their misfortune on ancient curses and bad luck. Many even believed the heavens had forsaken them, and they were doomed for all of eternity.

However, Hans and Gretta refused to believe their father’s disappearance was an accidental death. No body chose to believe them, but they still persisted and searched for clues. Throughout the following years, the children kept their ears close to the ground and their eyes up high, for they needed to hear as little as possible and see as far as possible. Until one day, Hans came back to Gretta with more news.

“I have something better than mere rumors, my dear sister.” He whispered urgently. Gretta went by the fireplace and places more firewood, keeping her eyes on the growing flames.

“What have you brought me now, Hans?”

“Remember the rumors of the Deadly Lady?” Hans sat down quickly next to his sister and stared expectantly at her.

“Yes, but I’ve heard of her under another name, the Scythe-legged Woman and such.” Gretta was not interested in rumors and suspicions anymore. With every night she spent crying herself to sleep, she had gradually lost all the hope she had of her father coming back. Still, a little of that hope had remained; hope that relied on her brother, her one and only guardian, and what he could possibly save them from.

“Very well then, tell me what else you know of this legend.” Hans relaxed a little and settled back into the chair.

“All I know is what I have overheard from the old ladies gossiping in the market, brother.” Gretta sighed, but answered her brother nonetheless. “She is a seductress and a murderer. A female butcher, both a monster and a beautiful young woman that targets men, she lures them with her charms and takes them away at night, to a dark place where she exposes her scythe-leg and kills them.” Young Gretta looked back into her older brother’s bright eyes, and waited.

“Yes, that’s what I’ve heard as well. But the boys simply talk about it as a fun tale, a story to pass the times.” Hans learned forward and whispered to his sister. “Do you remember the village Elder’s warnings, Gretta? From so long ago?”

Gretta was surprised at the mention of the Elder, but remained uninterested. “You mean all those superstitions he talked about? Warning us to keep away from what the dark can bring?”

Hans nodded, and Gretta recalled the old man’s speech from the village square. He used to call upon everyone to hear his warnings, for he claimed his blind eyes had seen what theirs never could. For a very long time, he cautioned everyone and advised them not to venture into the dark lands and seas, for great evils dwelt within. He said, “The darkness is hungry, and its seeking fear to feed on. It will cast its spell on you and capture you in its illusion, so fear the darkness, my children, for if it captures you it shall claim your soul for all of eternity.” But nobody listened to the old man; he was seen as none other than the delirious Elder. Even Gretta thought he was a poor old chap, driven with his own fear and desperation. Yes, nobody had truly listened to him. Nobody except Hans.

“Don’t you see, Gretta?”

Gretta sighed and grew impatient with her brother’s vague speech. “What am I to see, Hans? I have lost the ability to see anything other than this firewood in front of me. For this is what’s real, this fire, this pain and misery.” Gretta turned away from her brother, but he placed his hand on her shoulder and faced her again.

“Remember the baker’s daughter, Gretta. Think about her again.” Hans saw Gretta’s confusion, but still waited for his little sister to hear what he was trying to tell her. He knew Gretta was clever, but she was too weak to take in more horrible news speedily.

At his words, fear gripped Gretta’s heart and she held on to her brother as everything she had pushed away over the years came rushing back in cold waves. For they had never spoken of that beautiful maiden ever again, never since they had found out that the baker had no daughter of his own. But with the fear comes realization, and after it follows determination. Maybe hope had never left Gretta’s heart after all.

“What does this mean, Hans?”

“It means our father had been murdered, and he may not have been the only one.”

And so Hans and Gretta faced the next early morning determined to hunt down the Deadly Lady, and have their revenge for the sake of every orphan. They searched and investigated, and learned more about this mysterious legend that no ne seemed to believe in. The children then decided to ask for the assistance of the only person who seemed to know the truth, the Elder.

The Elder, however, was not inclined towards helping them fight in the least. As he had always done, he warned them of the dark and cautioned them against facing the evil. But the children were insistent, and demanded to know what they could possibly use to defend themselves against the Scythe Lady. All the Elder spoke of was that fear is what the evil fed on, and it was necessary for them to have a brave heart that fears nothing and beats with life. He never mentioned the Deadly Lady, or any other evil legend. Finally, the children left his side, and set off with uncertainty.

However, their will remained unshaken, and their desire to fight back blazed stronger than the flames of their own firewood. Fire was calming, fire brought them strength, and most of all, fire extinguished their fear.

And that was all they needed to know; fire was their sword, and bravery was their shield. They were finally ready.

And so, on one cold winter night, the children crept away into the dark forest, where they set a small fire and covered themselves with cloaks. From afar, the children could be mistaken as two young men seeking refuge in the dark pits of the forest. The children hoped they could trick the Deadly Lady in the same manner.

And soon enough, a beautiful young maiden approached Gretta who was sitting by the fire while Hans hid behind the darkest bushes, armed with arrows and a bow. The beautiful maiden must have not noticed her yet, for she spoke aloud to the figure sitting by the fire and said, “O thank the heavens, I was hoping I could seek a refuge to warm my cold body in this harsh night. Might I share with you the warmth of the fire, young man?”

Gretta stood up and turned to the Deadly Lady, with anger burning in her heart as she realized this was exactly the same maiden who had asked for their father’s help years ago. The same enchantress, with ebony-black hair, snow-white skin and lips as red as poisonous apples, was standing once again in their sights on a cold winter night. The light from the fire emphasized the maiden’s charms, and for a moment Gretta’s heart pierced with envy. However, her heart was still beating with the heat of the fearless fire they had started here, and the envy abandoned her as soon as it came.

“What do you say, o noble sir? You would leave a poor damsel in the cold forest?” It must have been too dark, for the Deadly Lady still hasn’t taken in Gretta’s female features.

“Oh yes I would, my dear maiden. For I am no noble, nor am I a man.” Gretta shook off her hood and stared into the Deadly Lady’s shocked face. She watched slowly as her features contorted into a grimace, and the Lady’s face was no longer welcoming or pleasant.

“Well, well.” The Deadly Lady sneered at young and brave Gretta. “What have we here, my dear? A girl, out in the forest, all by herself? In such darkness? Oh dear me, that is far too dangerous. Are you not afraid?”

Gretta said nothing as the maiden encircled her, but she slowly noticed the lady no longer looked beautiful. If anything, she suddenly looked like a monster.

“Why should I be afraid of you?”

The Deadly Lady stopped and looked sideways at Gretta with a knowing smile. “I have power beyond that of which you may know.”

“Your charms mean absolutely nothing, and you are not but an ugly beast to me.” Gretta spat in her direction and tried to bite down on her nervousness. She was afraid the Deadly Lady would sense Hans, and attack him instead. If the children’s plan worked, the Lady would not be able to bind girls with her spells, which is why Gretta’s role is so essential. She must not see Hans.

The maiden exploded with laughter, and looked back at the young girl. “I care not for your views of me, little girl. I have no taste for women and no patience for cooking their meat; they’re filthy and wretched.” The Lady smiled and looked around in a circle. “Are you sure you’re on your own, little girl?”

Gretta froze in her spot, and despite how close she was to the fire she felt the cold creep inside her cloak. Her fire was dying, and she had to do something quickly. She willed her beating heart to slow down, and looked back into the black pits of the lady’s eyes. “Is that what you did to your victims? Did you eat them, like the animal that you truly are?”

Quicker than lightning, the lady moved to stand right in front of Gretta, and the little girl felt her courage slowly die out with the increasing cold. The lady’s hand enclosed around Gretta’s throat, and she pierced her skin with her long pointy fingers. “Watch your tongue with me, young lady. I may have no taste for female flesh, but that does not mean I cannot end your life if I wish to.”

Pure horror ran through Gretta’s frail limbs as the Deadly Lady hissed and traced a cut along the young girl’s neckline with her sharp nail. Gretta watched the legend become reality as a long and sharp scythe moved towards her body, and she realized the Lady was about to strike.

The Lady moved her scythe-leg swiftly, and was about to slice away Gretta’s head when she felt something burning her. She looked down at her leg and saw a burning arrow, pierced right through her flesh. Black blood poured out as the Deadly Lady screamed and looked around for her attacker. But Hans remained hidden, and Gretta grew frantic as she looked around for a weapon. But the Deadly Lady was faster, and far less patient. She screamed at Gretta and slashed at her with her fingers and scythe, and the little girl avoided her attacks as she backed away closer to the fire. Hans had had enough of hiding, and burst out from where he hid. He shot arrows through the fire towards the Deadly Lady, until she fell in her spot. Her screams died out, and Hans moved closer. He stood over the Lady, staring her straight in the eye, and aimed at her heart right before asking her one final question.

“What did you do to my father?” He hissed at her, his tone full of hatred and anger.

The lady laughed louder, her shrill voice cutting through the crackling firewood. “I remember you now, you’re the Woodcutter’s children!”

Her laughter continued, and it surprised the children how little fear she was showing. “I’ll tell you what happened. But only if you aim your arrow away from me first.”

“We’ll never let you go!” Gretta yelled at her, but Hans remained silent.

“What about you, boy?” The Deadly Lady turned her black eyes towards Hans, who seemed to have frozen over her. “Don’t you want to know what really happened to your father, all these years ago?”

Hans was hesitant, and he felt his determination loosen its hold on his will. Gretta stood further away, rooted into her spot close to the fire. She noticed her brother’s weakness and hurried to warn him as she saw a flicker of movement when Hans lowered his bow and moved away from the Lady. Gretta yelled at her brother, but the Lady was faster. She lifted her leg straight up and cut through Hans’ body. Gretta watched in terror as her brother fell to the ground and clutched at his side, writhing in agony. He was bleeding, and Gretta wanted to run to his aid.

For the first time, Hans was the one who needed his sister’s help. And with that last thought Gretta reached for the knife she kept hidden, and ran towards the Deadly Lady as she was taken off-guard. The Lady was about to strike the fallen Hans with her scythe-leg and end his life for once, but Gretta’s limbs were faster this time. She plunged the sharp knife into the scythe-lady’s back and pierced through her heart. The Lady was screaming and writhing around in search for something to sink her scythe into. She turned towards the little girl and Gretta moved away just in time for Hans to rise from the ground and push the Deadly Lady into the burning fire, where she burned to her death.

Gretta finally ran to her brother, and was glad to find the Lady had only managed to cut his shoulder. She was about to ask him what had happened when Hans answered, “she was no longer beautiful to me, sister. And I was able to defend myself within time. I made a mistake but I was faster, even if our father was too kind to see her beastly nature.”

The children remained there; until the deafening silence assured them that the Deadly Lady was finally gone for good. They were disappointed for not finding out more about their father’s death, but at least they had rid the forest of the greatest evils it had ever harbored.

Hans and Gretta moved back through the cold winter night, with the full moon as their only guide, and found warmth and treatment for their wounds in their home. The next morning, the children decided to open an orphanage in the village for all the orphans to live in comfort. Everyone worked together, and decided to help the rest of the village burn with life again, and extinguish the misery in their hearts.

The children were now able to finally know that their father’s death wasn’t an accident, but they still weren’t sure of what happened to their hateful stepmother.

“I’ve heard rumors, dear sister.”

“What is it this time, Hans?”

“Legend speaks of an old and ancient evil that dwells in the sea, it comes out in the dark and steals the women passing by the shore.”

“And?”

“And they call him the Sea Master, or Father of the Sea…”

“You need to stay away from the Elder, Hans.”

Author: Amna AlHashemi

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