Once upon a time there was a forest, and in this forest there lived a brown man.  The man had not always been brown, but living in the forest had made him so.  The brown man had not always lived in the forest, but during the time that he had lived there, he had made himself a part of it.  His skin was brown from working in the sun in his small vegetable gardens scattered here and there among the surrounding trees, wherever he could find a large enough clearing.  Where he could not find a clearing, the trees had very kindly permitted him to make one.  In return, he cared for the trees as well as his vegetable gardens, and he took as little meat as he needed to manage on, using the whole animal whenever he caught one.  The brown man’s clothes were also brown, stained with a combination of mud from the forest floor and certain plants that grew here and there among the trees.  Sometimes, he also used the bark of the trees themselves.  This also helped to keep the moths at bay.   The brown man’s hair was long and shaggy, as was his beard.  Both were tawny with hints of red and gold, and his eyes shone clear blue from his sun browned face.

The brown man lived alone and far from people by his own choice.  As a young man, he had lived among people.  He had eaten and drunk, loved and laughed, worked and played among other people.  He had eventually done all of these things with one very special person.  She had taken his heart, and then she took his joy, by smashing his heart open on the cobbles of the street.  So the brown man had picked up the pieces of his heart, and forsworn people.  He had packed his meagre possessions into a small cart (with his heart wrapped in a small cloth in his pocket), and he had left the town where he grew up for a small cave in the deep woods.  He did not look back.

His first winter in the woods was very hard.  Somehow, he kept warm and fed, and when the spring arrived, and new green shoots began to show, his heart began to heal; just a little.  All through that spring and summer, he worked hard on his gardens.  He extended the cave, so that by the end of the summer, he had a house built into the side of the rock, using the cave as a storage room at the back.  During the summer, he had gained enough courage to take the few coins he had saved and some crude yet beautiful utensils he had carved from the wood of the cleared trees, and took them to the market in the nearest village to sell.  It was overwhelming for him to be among so many people after so many months alone.  But he managed.  With the coins he saved and the money he made, he bought supplies.  He also bought some chickens and a nanny goat, and took them all back to his house in the woods.  Though it was a long trek, the brown man did not want to stay in the house overnight, so it was a long way past the middle of the night before he made his way home.

The next day, he set about widening the large clearing in front of his home into a meadow for the goats to live in.  He made sure that the chickens knew he had food for them, and crossed his fingers before setting them free to roam as they would.  To his relief, they stayed close by and began laying eggs in sheltered places for him.  The goat too decided that she liked this place she had been brought to and stayed.

The final thing the brown man did that year was to build a beehive.  It stood empty for some time, until the brown man began to despair that bees would ever pass by.  One day in late summer, though, the brown man was working in one of his gardens when he heard a low and unmistakeable hum.  He straightened his back and saw the sky darken as a large swarm of bees approached.  Instantly, the brown man shouted loud to the queen bee, inviting her majesty and her subjects to come and stay with him.  The queen bee was intrigued, and so came down to investigate this creature that was larger than her, less hairy, but almost the same colour.  They spoke for a while and, after investigating the hive, the queen bee decided that it was suitable for she and her subjects to reside in.  So they moved in, and their rent was to be the excess honey that they made, to bring a little sweetness to the brown man’s life.

Once the brown man had his goat, his chickens and his bees, his second winter in the woods was easier.   He piled brushwood up around the beehive, to help keep the bees warm, and brought the chickens and the goat inside with him when the winter was deathly cold (on the understanding that the chickens and the goat did not raid the store cave and ruin the winter supplies.

As there was little to do in the winter, the brown man spent much of his time carving, making arrows for his bow, and improving the house set into the rock face.  By the end of winter, he had a very comfortable home, was a very proficient fletcher, and had many beautiful carvings to trade for coin and supplies.

The brown man began to love his life in the woods.  At first, his move there had been one of necessity.  But by the second spring, when the world was yellow and white and bright acid green, he took out his heart from the small carved box he had made for it and looked at it in the clean bright sunlight.  All of the pieces were there, and some of them were beginning to stick together, but it was still a long way from healed.  So he would leave it in the warm sunshine every day, in the hope that it would heal a little more.  By the end of that summer, his heart was looking much better, but the healing still had a little way to go.  So he put it back into its box, tucked it in a corner on a high shelf, and made the house cosy for the coming winter.

The winter was bad.  It was long and wet and cold and dark.  The brown man had made a mistake when he stored some of his supplies, so when he came to use one sack of food in the very deepest, darkest part of the winter, he found it to be spoiled.  The winter was lean after that.  Not as lean as the first, but lean enough.

The following spring was a long time in coming, so when it did finally arrive, the forest rejoiced in a riot of colour and birdsong.  The brown man rejoiced with it.  His heart felt much lighter when he took the box down from the high shelf.  Blowing the dust from it, he opened the lid and looked at his heart again.  It was all once again in one piece.  True, there were still small openings that had yet to close completely, and it was an odd shape from all of the scar tissue where it had knitted itself back together.  But it was together, and the brown man smiled.  He continued to leave it in the sunshine, in the hope that the sun could perhaps erase some of the scarring and make it look a little more normal.

Despite the awful winter, the brown man had still found time for his carving and arrow making, and so had lots of wares to sell when he headed to the market.

It seemed that his work had grown in fame since he had last been to the market.  As he set up his stall, several people greeted him and asked after his health.  He found himself in the unfamiliar position of having to converse with people.  Living so far into the forest, the only time he spoke was to the chickens and the goat and to the bees when sadness or joy troubled his poor healing heart.  His voice was therefore a little rusty to begin with.  By the time he had finished setting up his stall, however, and his neighbour in the market had bought him a pot of good brown ale, the brown man found conversation much easier.   He even shared a joke with several of the stallholders.

He sold all of his carvings and arrows, that day, and several people asked him if he had more.  Some even tried to buy commissions.  The brown man was very flattered by this, but humbly explained that this was only a hobby, and he had so much work to do that he would not have time until the winter.  Many people left with promises to return the following spring to buy his wares again, and the brown man was very flattered.

Spirits high, purse full, and heart very nearly healed, the brown man decided to accept the invitation of his neighbour to eat a meal in the nearby inn, and to stay the night should he become too merry to walk all the way back to his house in the forest that night.  He had a good meal, and enough ale to make him merry, and he enjoyed the company of his fellow market traders.  As they were all relaxing and smoking pipes and talking after their meal, the brown man saw a young woman come hurrying into the inn from outside, and disappearing through the door to the kitchen.  She had beautiful long russet hair which swung in a plait almost to her shapely waist.  The brown man’s breath caught for a moment, and he felt his scarred and still not completely healed heart miss a beat in its box on the shelf in the house in the forest.  He wondered who she was.

He did not have to wonder long, however, as the young woman emerged from the kitchens tying an apron around her curves, and the innkeeper’s wife walked out behind her.  The resemblance was unmistakeable.

As the innkeeper’s daughter began to clear the tables, the brown man asked one of his companions about her, how she was not married and still waiting tables for her father.  He received a sad story in return.  It seemed that some time ago, the inn had played host to an extremely truculent and curmudgeonly old man.  Nothing was good enough for him, and despite how the innkeeper, his wife and their daughter tried, they could not make him happy.  The night he stayed, he drank enough ale to fell and ox and, as a result, felt extremely ill the next day.  He had insisted that the meat the innkeeper served him was off, and so he cursed the innkeeper’s daughter in revenge.  No- one in the village knew what the curse entailed.  All they knew was that from dawn to dusk, the innkeeper’s daughter was not to be found.  All knew about the curse, so no young man would court her, in case he became contaminated with the curse, too.

The brown man found this strange, and sad, and curious.  However, he was too polite to ask any further of his companions, the innkeeper or his wife.  And certainly not of his daughter.  As the evening wore on, the brown man continued to enjoy himself, and to talk to his companions, and to watch the innkeeper’s daughter who, he was delighted and somewhat discomfited to discover, watched him right back.

When he awoke in his comfortable bed in the inn the next morning, the brown man found that his head was not nearly as sore as he had expected it to be, considering that he had spent the previous night drinking, but had not done that previously for well over two years.  Still – he drank lots of water, chewed willow bark, and made his way down to the common room to eat breakfast and be on his way.  The innkeeper’s daughter, of course, was not in evidence, and the brown man found that this saddened him more than he would have expected.

When he returned to his house in the forest, the goat, the chickens and the bees all greeted him heartily, and demanded to know where he had been for so long.  He told them of his market success, and of his night in the inn, and they were happy for him, that he was perhaps learning to enjoy the company of other people again.  Only the bees were worried, for it was only the bees that he told of the innkeeper’s daughter and his sadness that she had not been there when he left.

As it turned out, the brown man did not have to do as much that spring and summer, and so he had more time to spend carving and fletching.  The memory of the previous winter’s shortages were still heavy on his mind, so he resolved to make enough things to sell that he could go to the market once again, in order to by a few extra supplies and some better storage containers.

So it was that on a golden autumn day, he was once again setting out his stall at the market.  People were surprised and mostly delighted to see him back so soon, and his work fetched as high a price as it did in the spring.  This time, he agreed to take commissions and need no persuasion to stay at the inn overnight again.  Indeed, it was part of his intention to stay at the inn again, though he guarded that intention carefully even from himself, his scarred heart still knew that somewhere far inside there was a hope that he may see the innkeeper’s daughter again.

And so he did.  Not long after the sun had set deep red through the chill autumn air, the innkeeper’s daughter came hurrying in, bringing the smell of bonfire smoke and the promise of frost with her.  The brown man did not hear her enter, but he caught the smells of the forest in this unfamiliar setting, and his eyes immediately found her.  She caught his gaze, blushed, smiled a small smile, and hurried into the kitchen.

All evening, it seemed that the innkeeper’s daughter avoided their table whenever she could.  This puzzled the brown man, especially given the glances she kept casting his way.  But he thought that she must have a reason and speculated that she may be shy.  He again found himself more disappointed than he thought he should be, so tried to brush the feeling aside.  When he awoke in the morning she was, as before, nowhere to be found.  He returned to his house in the forest and prepared for the coming winter.

The winter was cold again, but this time it was dry.  Day after day of clear blue skies and night after night of blazing stars and hoar frosts hardened the ground to iron.  The forest creatures hid themselves away to preserve their warmth, and so the brown man had little luck hunting.  He had plenty of supplies, but it was all vegetable food.  He began to crave red meat as one possessed by the spirit of a wolf.  He knew that he could survive the winter on what he had, but it did not stop him craving.

One fine morning, he set out on what he was sure would be another fruitless hunt when, not fifty paces beyond the meadow, he spied something through the trees.  It was a deer with red-brown fur, just lying on the ground.  His heat leapt as he imagined steaks and stews, rugs and sinews, tools and glue and more steaks and stews.  Creeping closer though, to get a better look at the animal, and a better shot if necessary, he noticed several things.  First, he noticed that the deer was alive.  Second, he noticed that it was not lying, but sitting awkwardly with one leg splayed out in front, and that the splayed leg was undeniably injured.

The brown man sighed.  Yes, he craved meat, but he craved meat that he had caught fairly (or as fairly as he could manage, given he had no natural weapons and the ones he could make really gave him somewhat of an advantage.).  A deer that could hear and run was one thing, but a deer that was injured?  That awakened his paradoxical need to help, whether he would normally consider the animal to be food or not.  Defeated by his own compassion, he went and fetched his small handcart because, strong as he was, he could not carry an injured doe all the way back to his house without injuring her more.

The doe was peculiarly docile as he took her back to his house.  He assumed that she was in shock, so he put her in the cave with the goat and the chickens for company, made her comfortable on a pile of fresh straw, bound her injured leg, and then left her to be quiet for a while.  He did not dare go out hunting now, in case the doe came out of her stupor and became distressed, so he built the fire up and sat in his chair nearby to carve.

Every now and again, he would glance up, but it seemed the doe had gone to sleep.  At first, the brown man was unsure if she had died of her injuries, but he saw her flank rise and fall, and concluded that she was merely asleep.  Thus, the day passed away.  At some point, the calm crackling and heat of the fire also lulled the brown man into sleep.  When he awoke, it was just after sunset, and the room was dark save the glow from the embers of the fire.  He glanced over to where the doe had lain, and rubbed his sleep troubled eyes.  When he looked again, he determined that he was not dreaming, and that the doe no longer looked like a doe.  Where the doe had been was a naked young woman.  She lay with her back to him, but he recognised the long russet hair shrouding her back like a cloak.  The firelight made it even ruddier and it shone like burnished copper.  As he stared, the innkeeper’s daughter sighed in her sleep and rolled over.  Unfortunately, this jostled her injured arm, and she woke with a moan.  Immediately, she sat up, and then hunched her body with a yelp of pain.  This jolted the brown man from his gaze at her fair and freckled curves, and he leapt from his chair scattering wood shavings in order to fetch a blanket so she may cover herself.

Blushing furiously, she thanked him for his kindness and apologised for her imposition.  The brown man would hear nothing of it, and solicitously offered the red woman clothes and food, which she managed to accept with grace and dignity which belied her recent nakedness.

Suitably clothed, she sat at his table and ate his vegetable stew.  They talked long into the night, and delighted in each other’s wits and philosophies.  They laughed a very great deal.

It was far into the night, and both were yawning when the brown man offered to take the red woman home the following day.  She thanked him for his offer, but begged to be allowed to impose on his hospitality a while longer, until her arm healed.  The brown man was, of course, delighted, but was puzzled.  The red woman explained that her curse compelled her to remain in the forest by day, and as her father had little use for her anyway, she would not be welcome at the inn whilst she had only one arm.

The brown man was shocked and angered by this, but he kept himself as calm as he could.  However, his anger made him bold enough to ask why her parents could not care for their only daughter.

The red woman replied that for certain, her mother would care for her, but that her father would make this impossible, as he blamed her for the curse laid on her by the curmudgeon.

The brown man asked how this could be, and was aghast as the red woman related the true nature of the curse.

The red woman’s father had always been disappointed in the fact that he had no sons to take over the running of the inn, only a single daughter.  He decided that the only way the red girl would be any use to him was if he sold her as a bride to some rich man who would not only take away this useless girl, but pay her father a lot of money for the privilege.  Having made enquiries, the innkeeper selected a suitable candidate and offered his daughter to him.  The candidate was the curmudgeon.  The innkeeper had, however, neglected to tell the red girl of his plan so when the curmudgeon turned up demanding that she pack her bags and be away the girl was, of course, horrified.  She refused to marry the curmudgeon, and there was a huge argument about it.  The red girl ran away into the forest so she could not be compelled to go with the curmudgeon and her father plied the curmudgeon with alcohol to soften the blow of rejection.  Sadly, however, the curmudgeon was a mean drunk, and so he cursed the red girl.  Now she was a woman, yet no-one would have her, and her father was stuck with her for the foreseeable future.

She looked so sad that the brown man moved around the table and gathered her into his arms, trying to shield her from the memory of her father’s callousness, and her own indignity and rejection.  He wished aloud that there was something he could do to break the foul curse.

The red woman laughed through her tears and said there was only one thing that could break the curse.  She had to eat the heart of a man whilst he still lived, and watched.

She felt the brown man stiffen, and then felt rejection once more as he released her and turned away.  She sat back in her chair and wept afresh.

Through her tears, she saw the brown man place something on the table in front of her.  It was a dusty box.  She stifled her sobs and wiped her eyes, to look into his face and try to decipher this odd gesture.

Not breaking her gaze, he reached out, lifted the lid, and said, “Eat, for it is freely given.  It will be tough and stringy, for it is full of scars, and has done me little good.  Maybe it will do more for you.”

The red woman reached into the box and took out the brown man’s heart.  Her eyes streaming with a new kind of tears, she smiled and took her first bite.

As she did so, the brown man felt a beat in his chest, and he smiled too.

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