O NCE upon a time there lived two noble lords in the east country. Their lands lay between a broad river and an old oak forest, whose size was so great that no man knew it. In the midst of his land each lord had a stately castle; one was built of the white freestone, the other of the grey granite. So the one was called Lord of the White Castle, and the other Lord of the Grey.
There were no lords like them in all the east country for nobleness and bounty. Their tenants lived in peace and plenty; all strangers were hospitably entertained at their castles; and every autumn they sent men with axes into the forest to hew down the great trees, and chop them up into firewood for the poor. Neither hedge nor ditch divided their lands, but these lords never disputed. They had been friends from their youth. Their ladies had died long ago, but the Lord of the Grey Castle had a little son, and the Lord of the White, a little daughter; and when they feasted in each other's halls it was their custom to say, "When our children grow up they will marry, and have our castles and our lands, and keep our friendship in memory."
So the lords and their little children, and tenants, lived happily till one Michaelmas night, as they were all feasting in the hall of the White Castle, there came a traveller to the gate, who was welcomed and feasted as usual. He had seen many strange sights and countries, and, like most people, he liked to tell his travels. The lords were delighted with his tales, as they sat round the fire drinking wine after supper, and at length the Lord of the White Castle, who was very curious, said:
"Good stranger, what was the greatest wonder you ever saw in all your travels?"
"The most wonderful sight that ever I saw," replied the traveller, "was at the end of yonder forest, where in an ancient wooden house there sits an old woman weaving her own hair into grey cloth on an old crazy loom. When she wants more yarn she cuts off her own grey hair, and it grows so quickly that though I saw it cut in the morning, it was out of the door before noon. She told me it was her purpose to sell the cloth, but none of all who came that way had yet bought any, she asked so great a price; and, only the way is so long and dangerous through that wide forest full of boars and wolves, some rich lord like you might buy it for a mantle."
All who heard this story were astonished; but when the traveller had gone on his way the Lord of the White Castle could neither eat nor sleep for wishing to see the old woman that wove her own hair. At length he made up his mind to explore the forest in search of her ancient house, and told the Lord of the Grey Castle his intention. Being a prudent man, this lord replied that travellers' tales were not always to be trusted, and earnestly advised him against undertaking such a long and dangerous journey, for few that went far into that forest ever returned. However, when the curious lord would go in spite of all, he vowed to bear him company for friendship's sake, and they agreed to set out privately, lest the other lords of the land might laugh at them. The Lord of the White Castle had a steward who had served him many years, and his name was Reckoning Robin. To him he said:
"I am going on a long journey with my friend. Be careful of my goods, deal justly with my tenants, and above all things be kind to my little daughter Loveleaves till my return"; and the steward answered:
"Be sure, my lord, I will."
The Lord of the Grey Castle also had a steward who had served him many years, and his name was Wary Will. To him he said:
"I am going on a journey with my friend. Be careful of my goods, deal justly with my tenants, and above all things be kind to my little son Woodwender till my return"; and his steward answered him:
"Be sure, my lord, I will."
So these lords kissed their children while they slept, and set out each with his staff and mantle before sunrise through the old oak forest. The children missed their fathers, the tenants missed their lords. None but the stewards could tell what had become of them; but seven months wore away, and they did not come back. The lords had thought their stewards faithful, because they served so well under their eyes; but instead of that, both were proud and crafty, and thinking that some evil had happened to their masters, they set themselves to be lords in their room.
Reckoning Robin had a son called Hardhold, and Wary Will, a daughter called Drypenny. There was not a sulkier girl or boy in the country, but their fathers resolved to make a young lord and lady of them; so they took the silk clothes which Woodwender and Loveleaves used to wear, to dress them, clothing the lord's children in frieze and canvas. Their garden flowers and ivory toys were given to Hardhold and Drypenny; and at last the stewards' children sat at the chief tables, and slept in the best chambers, while Woodwender and Loveleaves were sent to herd the swine and sleep on straw in the granary.
The poor children had no one to take their part. Every morning at sunrise they were sent out—each with a barley loaf and a bottle of sour milk, which was to serve them for breakfast, dinner, and supper—to watch a great herd of swine on a wide unfenced pasture hard by the forest. The grass was scanty, and the swine were continually straying into the wood in search of acorns; the children knew that if they were lost the wicked stewards would punish them, and between gathering and keeping the herds in order, they were readier to sleep on the granary straw at night than ever they had been within their own silken curtains.
Still Woodwender and Loveleaves helped and comforted each other, saying their fathers would come back, or God would send them some friends: so, in spite of swine-herding and hard living, they looked blithe and handsome as ever; while Hardhold and Drypenny grew crosser and uglier every day, notwithstanding their fine clothes and the best of all things.
The crafty stewards did not like this. They thought their children ought to look genteel, and Woodwender and Loveleaves like young swineherds; so they sent them to a wilder pasture, still nearer the forest, and gave them two great black hogs, more unruly than all the rest, to keep. One of these hogs belonged to Hardhold, and the other to Drypenny. Every evening when they came home the stewards' children used to come down and feed them, and it was their delight to reckon up what price they would bring when properly fattened.
One sultry day, about midsummer, Woodwender and Loveleaves sat down in the shadow of a mossy rock: the swine grazed about them more quietly than usual, and they plaited rushes and talked to each other, till, as the sun was sloping down the sky, Woodwender saw that the two great hogs were missing. Thinking they must have gone to the forest, the poor children ran to search for them.
Thinking they must have gone to the forest, the children went in search of them.
They heard the thrush singing and the wood-doves calling; they saw the squirrels leaping from bough to bough, and the great deer bounding by; but though they searched for hours, no trace of the favourite hogs could be seen. Loveleaves and Woodwender durst not go home without them. Deeper and deeper they ran into the forest, searching and calling, but all in vain; and when the woods began to darken with the fall of evening, the children feared they had lost their way.
It was known that they never feared the forest, nor all the boars and wolves that were in it; but being weary, they wished for some place of shelter, and took a green path through the trees, thinking it might lead to the dwelling of some hermit or forester. A fairer way Woodwender and Loveleaves had never walked. The grass was soft and mossy, a hedge of wild roses and honeysuckle grew on either side, and the red light of sunset streamed through the tall trees above. On they went, and it led them straight to a great open dell, covered with the loveliest flowers, bordered with banks of wild strawberries, and all overshadowed by one enormous oak, whose like had never been seen in grove or forest. Its branches were as large as full-grown trees. Its trunk was wider than a country church, and its height like that of a castle. There were mossy seats at its great root, and when the tired children had gathered as many strawberries as they cared for, they sat down on one, hard by a small spring that bubbled up as clear as crystal. The huge oak was covered with thick ivy in which thousands of birds had their nests. Woodwender and Loveleaves watched them flying home from all parts of the forest, and at last they saw a lady coming by the same path which led them to the dell. She wore a gown of russet colour; her yellow hair was braided and bound with a crimson fillet. In her right hand she carried a holly branch; but the most remarkable part of her attire was a pair of long sleeves, as green as the very grass.
"Who are you," she said, "that sit so late beside my well?" and the children told her their story, how they had first lost the hogs, then their way, and were afraid to go home to the wicked stewards.
"Well," said the lady, "ye are the fairest swineherds that ever came this way. Choose whether ye will go home and keep hogs for Hardhold and Drypenny, or live in the free forest with me."
"We will stay with you," said the children, "for we like not keeping swine. Besides, our fathers went through this forest, and we may meet them some day coming home."
While they spoke, the lady slipped her holly branch through the ivy, as if it had been a key—presently a door opened in the oak, and there was a fair house. The windows were of rock crystal, but they could not be seen from without. The walls and floor were covered with thick green moss, as soft as velvet. There were low seats and a round table, vessels of carved wood, a hearth inlaid with curious stones, an oven, and a store chamber for provisions against the winter. When they stepped in, the lady said:
"A hundred years have I lived here, and my name is Lady Greensleeves. No friend or servant have I had except my dwarf Corner, who comes to me at the end of harvest with his handmill, his pannier, and his axe: with these he grinds the nuts, and gathers the berries, and cleaves the firewood, and blithely we live all the winter. But Corner loves the frost and fears the sun, and when the topmost boughs begin to bud, he returns to his country far in the north, so I am lonely in the summer time."
By this discourse the children saw how welcome they were. Lady Greensleeves gave them deer's milk and cakes of nut-flour, and soft green moss to sleep on; and they forgot all their troubles, the wicked stewards, and the straying swine. Early in the morning a troop of does came to be milked, fairies brought flowers and birds brought berries, to show Lady Greensleeves what had bloomed and ripened. She taught the children to make cheese of the does' milk, and wine of the wood-berries. She showed them the stores of honey which wild bees had made, and left in hollow trees, the rarest plants of the forest, and the herbs that made all its creatures tame.
All that summer Woodwender and Loveleaves lived with her in the great oak-tree, free from toil and care; and the children would have been happy but they could hear no tidings of their fathers. At last the leaves began to fade, and the flowers to fall; Lady Greensleeves said that Corner was coming; and one moonlight night she heaped sticks on the fire, and set her door open, when Woodwender and Loveleaves were going to sleep, saying she expected some old friends to tell her the news of the forest.
Loveleaves was not quite so curious as her father, the Lord of the White Castle: but she kept awake to see what would happen, and terribly frightened the little girl was when in walked a great brown bear.
"Good-evening, lady," said the bear.
"Good-evening, bear," said Lady Greensleeves. "What is the news in your neighbourhood?"
"Not much," said the bear; "only the fawns are growing very cunning—one can't catch above three in a day."
"That's bad news," said Lady Greensleeves; and immediately in walked a great wildcat.
"Good-evening, lady," said the cat.
"Good-evening, cat," said Lady Greensleeves. "What is the news in your neighbourhood?"
"Not much," said the cat; "only the birds are growing very plentiful—it is not worth one's while to catch them."
"That's good news," said Lady Greensleeves; and in flew a great black raven.
"Good-evening, lady," said the raven.
"Good-evening, raven," said Lady Greensleeves. "What is the news in your neighbourhood?"
"Not much," said the raven; "only in a hundred years or so we shall be very genteel and private—the trees will be so thick."
"How is that?" said Lady Greensleeves.
"Oh!" said the raven, "have you not heard how the king of the forest fairies laid a spell on two noble lords, who were travelling through his dominions to see the old woman that weaves her own hair? They had thinned his oaks every year cutting firewood for the poor: so the king met them in the likeness of a hunter, and asked them to drink out of his oaken goblet, because the day was warm; and when the two lords drank, they forgot their lands and their tenants, their castles and their children, and minded nothing in all this world but the planting of acorns, which they do day and night, by the power of the spell, in the heart of the forest, and will never cease till some one makes them pause in their work before the sun sets, and then the spell will be broken."
"Ah!" said Lady Greensleeves, "he is a great prince, that king of the forest fairies; and there is worse work in the world than planting acorns."
Soon after, the bear, the cat, and the raven bade Lady Greensleeves good-night. She closed the door, put out the light, and went to sleep on the soft moss as usual.
In the morning Loveleaves told Woodwender what she had heard, and they went to Lady Greensleeves where she milked the does, and said:
"We heard what the raven told last night, and we know the two lords are our fathers: tell us how the spell may be broken!"
"I fear the king of the forest fairies," said Lady Greensleeves, "because I live here alone, and have no friend but my dwarf Corner; but I will tell you what you may do. At the end of the path which leads from this dell turn your faces to the north, and you will find a narrow way sprinkled over with black feathers—keep that path, no matter how it winds, and it will lead you straight to the ravens' neighbourhood, where you will find your fathers planting acorns under the forest trees. Watch till the sun is near setting, and tell them the most wonderful things you know to make them forget their work; but be sure to tell nothing but truth, and drink nothing but running water, or you will fall into the power of the fairy king."
The children thanked her for this good counsel. She packed up cakes and cheese for them in a bag of woven grass, and they soon found the narrow way sprinkled over with black feathers. It was very long, and wound through the thick trees in so many circles that the children were often weary, and sat down to rest. When the night came, they found a mossy hollow in the trunk of an old tree, where they laid themselves down, and slept all the summer night—for Woodwender and Loveleaves never feared the forest. So they went, eating their cakes and cheese when they were hungry, drinking from the running stream, and sleeping in the hollow trees, till on the evening of the seventh day they came into the ravens' neighbourhood.
The tall trees were laden with nests and black with ravens. There was nothing to be heard but continual cawing; and in a great opening where the oaks grew thinnest, the children saw their own fathers busy planting acorns. Each lord had on the velvet mantle in which he left his castle, but it was worn to rags with rough work in the forest. Their hair and beards had grown long; their hands were soiled with earth; each had an old wooden spade, and on all sides lay heaps of acorns. The children called them by their names, and ran to kiss them, each saying:—"Dear father, come back to your castle and your people!" but the lords replied:
"We know of no castles and no people. There is nothing in all this world but oak-trees and acorns."
Woodwender and Loveleaves told them of all their former state in vain—nothing would make them pause for a minute: so the poor children first sat down and cried, and then slept on the cold grass, for the sun set, and the lords worked on. When they awoke it was broad day; Woodwender cheered up his friend, saying:—"We are hungry, and there are still two cakes in the bag, let us share one of them—who knows but something may happen?"
So they divided the cake, and ran to the lords, saying: "Dear fathers, eat with us"; but the lords said:
"There is no use for meat or drink. Let us plant our acorns."
Loveleaves and Woodwender sat down, and ate that cake in great sorrow. When they had finished, both went to a stream hard by, and began to drink the clear water with a large acorn shell; and as they drank there came through the oaks a gay young hunter, his mantle was green as the grass; about his neck there hung a crystal bugle, and in his hand he carried a huge oaken goblet, carved with flowers and leaves, and rimmed with crystal. Up to the brim it was filled with milk, on which the rich cream floated; and as the hunter came near, he said: "Fair children, leave that muddy water, and come and drink with me;" but Woodwender and Loveleaves answered:
"Thanks, good hunter; but we have promised to drink nothing but running water." Still the hunter came nearer with his goblet, saying:
"The water is foul: it may do for swineherds and woodcutters, but not for such fair children as you. Tell me, are you not the children of mighty kings? Were you not reared in palaces?" But the boy and girl answered him:
"No: we were reared in castles, and are the children of yonder lords; tell us how the spell that is upon them may be broken!" and immediately the hunter turned from them with an angry look, poured out the milk upon the ground, and went away with his empty goblet.
Loveleaves and Woodwender were sorry to see the rich cream spilled, but they remembered Lady Greensleeves' warning, and seeing they could do no better, each got a withered branch and began to help the lords, scratching up the ground with the sharp end, and planting acorns; but their fathers took no notice of them, nor all that they could say; and when the sun grew warm at noon, they went again to drink at the running stream. Then there came through the oaks another hunter, older than the first, and clothed in yellow; about his neck there hung a silver bugle, and in his hand he carried an oaken goblet, carved with leaves and fruit, rimmed with silver, and filled with mead to the brim. This hunter also asked them to drink, told them the stream was full of frogs, and asked them if they were not a young prince and princess dwelling in the woods for their pleasure? but when Woodwender and Loveleaves answered as before:—"We have promised to drink only running water, and are the children of yonder lords: tell us how the spell may be broken!"—he turned from them with an angry look, poured out the mead, and went his way.
All that afternoon the children worked beside their fathers, planting acorns with the withered branches; but the lords would mind neither them nor their words. And when the evening drew near they were very hungry; so the children divided their last cake, and when no persuasion would make the lords eat with them, they went to the banks of the stream, and began to eat and drink, though their hearts were heavy.
The sun was getting low, and the ravens were coming home to their nests in the high trees; but one, that seemed old and weary, alighted near them to drink at the stream. As they ate the raven lingered, and picked up the small crumbs that fell.
"Friend," said Loveleaves, "this raven is surely hungry; let us give it a little bit, though it is our last cake."
Woodwender agreed, and each gave a bit to the raven; but its great bill finished the morsels in a moment, and hopping nearer, it looked them in the face by turns.
"The poor raven is still hungry," said Woodwender, and he gave it another bit. When that was gobbled, it came to Loveleaves, who gave it a bit too, and so on till the raven had eaten the whole of their last cake.
"Well," said Woodwender, "at least, we can have a drink." But as they stooped to the water, there came through the oaks another hunter, older than the last, and clothed in scarlet; about his neck there hung a golden bugle, and in his hand he carried a huge oaken goblet, carved with ears of corn and clusters of grapes, rimmed with gold, and filled to the brim with wine. He also said:
"Leave this muddy water, and drink with me. It is full of toads, and not fit for such fair children. Surely ye are from fairyland, and were reared in its queen's palace!" But the children said:
"We will drink nothing but this water, and yonder lords are our fathers: tell us how the spell may be broken!" And the hunter turned from them with an angry look, poured out the wine on the grass, and went his way. When he was gone, the old raven looked up into their faces, and said:
"I have eaten your last cake, and I will tell you how the spell may be broken. Yonder is the sun, going down behind yon western trees. Before it sets, go to the lords, and tell them how their stewards used you, and made you herd hogs for Hardhold and Drypenny. When you see them listening, catch up their wooden spades, and keep them if you can till the sun goes down."
Woodwender and Loveleaves thanked the raven, and where it flew they never stopped to see, but running to the lords began to tell as they were bidden. At first the lords would not listen, but as the children related how they had been made to sleep on straw, how they had been sent to herd hogs in the wild pasture, and what trouble they had with the unruly swine, the acorn planting grew slower, and at last they dropped their spades. Then Woodwender, catching up his father's spade, ran to the stream and threw it in. Loveleaves did the same for the Lord of the White Castle. That moment the sun disappeared behind the western oaks, and the lords stood up, looking, like men just awoke, on the forest, on the sky, and on their children.
So this strange story has ended, for Woodwender and Loveleaves went home rejoicing with their fathers. Each lord returned to his castle, and all their tenants made merry. The fine toys and the silk clothes, the flower-gardens and the best chambers, were taken from Hardhold and Drypenny, for the lords' children got them again; and the wicked stewards, with their cross boy and girl, were sent to herd swine, and live in huts in the wild pasture, which everybody said became them better. The Lord of the White Castle never again wished to see the old woman that wove her own hair, and the Lord of the Grey Castle continued to be his friend. As for Woodwender and Loveleaves they met with no more misfortunes, but grew up, and were married, and inherited the two castles and the broad lands of their fathers. Nor did they forget the lonely Lady Greensleeves, for it was known in the east country that she and her dwarf Corner always came to feast with them in the Christmas time, and at midsummer they always went to live with her in the great oak in the forest."