"There's a girl in the forest," Mother says and Rapunzel listens, wide-eyed and warm as she tucks the blankets up to her chin and presses a kiss to her hair. "She has skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and eyes black as ebony, and if you ever leave this tower, she'll gobble you up."
Once upon a time, there was a young princess with skin pale as moonlight and hair black as midnight who loved the forest that surrounded the castle. It stretched far off into the North, and countless fathoms to the West, and she would walk for hours down long-forgotten paths that bloomed with bright flowers as she skipped along, past waterfalls and ancient trees and fairy circles that no one else had ever seen. She knew the trees as well as any bird, and the lakes as well as any fish, and the tracks as well as any huntsman, and she knew the forest would always protect her.
The people of the castle warned her to stay inside, that the forest was full of hideous animals and dangerous people and trees that moved when you weren't looking, but she knew best; the trees would lead her to a pond where the fish leapt out of the water to greet her, and the ugly men who tried to follow her were lead deep in the forest and were never seen again. Travellers and tradesmen who tried to take shortcuts through the woods would emerge weeks later, thin and shaking, and only the most weathered hunters would dare to venture beyond the first lines of creaking trees.
The princess’s mother fell ill in the winter of the her eighth year, and was dead by the summer of her ninth, and after the funeral she ran past her father's cold stance and out in the forest, where the birds cried sorrowful songs and the trees bent near with weeping branches and rasping comfort. She flung herself into their embrace, curling up between the roots of an ancient oak and cried without end, until she finally fell into an exhausted sleep and was silent.
While the quiet blue night seeped in with long fingers, the castle guards swept the forest with torches and dogs and they found her sleeping soundly on a bed of moss and under a blanket of woven vines, her black dress muddy and ruined. The path back to the castle was wide and clear and painted with moonlight as the leader of the guards carefully picked her up and cradled her in his arms, and the nighthawks called a warning as the princess was carried away. She stirred, watching the trees creaking with patient restraint, and knew the forest would always protect her.
"The forest is the border between two kingdoms, and all manner of bandits, rogues and monsters lurk between the trees. Don't leave this tower, dear, and you'll be safe with me."
The matrons tutted over the princess's tattered dresses and stained feet, tough and nimble from racing through the forest, playing chasing games with the wolves and hide and seek with the deer. Still, the princess grew up to be beautiful; pale from the constant shade of the trees and graceful from walking along thin branches and light from skipping over roots. Her father bargained with her to still attend her lessons, so she was duly well-mannered and knew how to curtsey with grace and smile with perfect sweetness.
In the autumn of her fifteenth year, her father married a widowed noble woman from a neighbouring kingdom, who had travelled through the woods with a golden charm that protected her from evil, for she had heard the stories. The new Queen had long dark hair and a cold smile and would watch the princess with a considering gaze, as she skipped in from the woods with muddy legs and twigs in her hair. The Queen, with no children of her own, gave her a beautiful clockwork bird that sang with a sweet ringing voice, but the princess said she preferred real birds and refused to touch it. She gave her silk threads and a tambour frame that had been passed down through her family for generations, but even as the princess bore the pricks of the needle without flinching she said she preferred real flowers, and abandoned it on a windowsill. She gave her a delicately beaded dress made of imported silks and precious stones, and, although the princess thanked her sweetly, the dress was swiftly ruined and the laces cut after a day in the forest, and the Queen despaired.
In the spring of the princess's eighteenth year, on the eve of her birthday, the Queen gave her a magnificent tiara and the princess smiled sweetly and held out her hands to accept it – but the Queen tried to place it carefully on the princess’s head, and with a snarl the princess flinched away, narrowed her eyes and growled with bared teeth and the Queen fled the room in terror. Shutting herself in her chambers, the Queen wrung her hands and paced the floor, fearing that the princess must have been infected with something feral; that something wild from the forest had wrapped itself around her heart, and so she ordered her most trusted huntsman to follow her into the woods.
The huntsman had grown up on the edge of the forest, and knew it better than any other hunter in the kingdom; he knew how it shifted when you turned your back and the hungry animals and the bloodthirsty trees, and he carefully followed her tracks before the forest could sweep them away. He chopped through the vines that sprung up suddenly and the branches that blocked his way and the brambles that tried to wrap around his throat, until he found himself on the edge of a clearing, and the princess was sitting neatly in the centre with her back to him - surely safe in the knowledge that the forest would protect her.
On her left, a wolf was sat with its head tucked under her hand, and on her right was a small tree covered in apples, which she picked with a deft hand, and as the wind rippled the tree seemed to be ever-overflowing with fruit. When the huntsman saw how the wolves loved her and the forest fed her, he knew the Queen was right: that the princess was a creature of the forest, like the dwarves and fey and those misshapen things that peered from the shadows, and that she could not return to the castle lest she bring all manner of the wild woods in with her.
He crept forwards into the clearing, his axe in one hand and his dagger in the other. In an instant the wolf sprang to its feet with a thunderous growl and turned to face him, baring its teeth in warning as the princess ate her apple with fastidious serenity, licking the juice from her fingers. With a snarl the wolf leapt, and the huntsman drove his dagger into the wolf’s throat, and it fell to the side with a silent cry. The apple tree stirred in the wind, a dry rustle before it burst into vines and the huntsman sliced them down with his blade until he reached the base of the tree, and he severed it from its roots with a single blow.
Finally he turned to the princess, and she looked at him with such dark eyes and sharp teeth that he swung the axe into her chest without hesitation, and with his dagger he cut out her heart so the Queen could see the corruption of her blood and know that the princess was truly dead. He poured water over his scarlet hands and cleaned his blades on the grass, and carefully wrapped up the heart in a hardened pouch before he fought his way back through the vicious trees and hurried to the safety of the castle.
The birds screamed as the princess died, broken on the forest floor; but as she lay bleeding, her eyes white as snow and her skin as cold as winter, her blood turned to vines and, in the cavity of her chest, the forest grew her a new heart.
"Rapunzel, my love, you must stay with me, or all the terrors out there in the forest will take what's left of your pretty little face and spit you out", Mother says, her thumb carefully smoothing down the length of Rapunzel’s scarred cheek. "Who else would care for someone who looked like you, dear? You couldn't possibly survive out there. Stay with mummy."
The princess was said to eat diamonds, and she tamed the wild dwarves that roamed the ancient mines to find them for her. She lived in the caves, or the old cottage, or up in the tops of the trees where (it was said) she would creep along the branches and drop down like a spider to twist off your head. She was said to be seen riding on the back of a wolf during a full moon, and that you could hear the birds screaming on the eve of her birthday every year. She was said to have wrapped the castle up in vines and that she pulled the palace apart with the flick of her wrist, but no one could say they ever saw her again.
They did say a prince once rode into the forest on a hunt, surrounded by courtiers and hounds, and they followed a wide track deep into the woods to the base of an ancient oak tree. The wild princess was sleeping among the roots, her skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as night, and the prince fell desperately in love with her cold beauty. He knelt by her side and cupped her cheek in his warm hand, and in a flash her teeth sank into his neck and her dwarves, snapping and snarling, drove the rest of his retinue away, and as she licked her red lips his blood turned to vines.
They say he returned to his palace with a red cloak and cold, dark eyes, and as the streets ran with blood the forest devoured his kingdom.
"Oh dear, another accident? You are so clumsy, Rapunzel, what am I to do with you? Of course your hair doesn't work on your silly little injuries, darling. Having all that power and complaining that you can't use it to fix your own vanity? I'm very disappointed, dear, I never thought you could be so selfish."
The birds call, harsh and squawking and to the villagers it sounds like a warning but to the forest it means food.
Deep in the forest, a boy with golden hair and a wooden sword leaps over a fallen branch and tumbles into a clearing.
"Are you lost, little prince?" a soft voice asks, and he spins on the spot to see a pale woman sitting with her legs folded underneath her, petting a large dog that sits close by her side. She doesn't look up as he plants his feet down and crosses his arms.
"No," he says, firmly. "I'm exploring."
"How delightful," she says, carding her long fingers through the dog's fur. "Isn't it dangerous out here?"
"Not for me. When I'm older I'm going to be a knight and slay all the monsters in the forest and rescue the fair maiden in the tower!" He swings his sword in an unbalanced arc, and stabs at the air.
"And who's going to save you?" she asks sweetly, and lifts her head to meet his eye.
"It's just those wretched birds again, dear. Nothing to worry your pretty little head over. Help me find a vase to put these in; I spent so long picking them just for you. I'd be heartbroken if they withered away."
"But, mother--" Rapunzel starts towards the window, half-stumbling over the loop of her hair that snakes along the floor, but then Mother shrieks horribly and she whirls around sharply.
"What is that? How did it get in here? Kill it!" Mother screams, holding a large pot in one hand and dropping the flowers from the other as a bruised chameleon skitters across the floor. With a flick of her wrist she has her dagger off her belt and sailing across the room, and there's a heavy thunk as the lizard skids into the wall and the knife slices past him, burying itself into the skirting board.
"No!" Rapunzel cries, flinging herself across the room to snatch him up and cradle him to her chest. His tail hangs, half-severed, and Mother stares in wide-eyed shock as Rapunzel starts to wind her hair around his wound.
"Darling, what are you - oh, don't be stupid, your gift is far too precious to waste on such a silly little thing. Why would you even do that?"
"Mother," Rapunzel says, low and dangerous, and she sets the creature gently on the floor. The rope of her hair twists as she steps forward, a silky rustle like a breeze whipping through the still tower. "We need to talk."
"Hmm? Do speak up, dear, you're mumbling," Mother says, turning away to scoop up the bedraggled flowers and shove them into the vase.
Rapunzel tugs at a length of hair that hangs down from a rafter, and further along a rope slips down and drapes itself over Mother's shoulders, curling around her neck.
"What on-" Mother says, her fingers tangling in the strands as she tries to brush it away with one hand - but the rope holds fast, and the vase hits the floor with a splintering crash. "Rapunzel! Stop this immediately!"
"Once upon a time, there was girl who grew up in a tower, who never saw anyone but her mother and was told awful tales about the things that hid in the forest," Rapunzel says, but Mother isn't quite listening. Her hands crack as her skin wrinkles and sags and decays, and Rapunzel takes a step closer. "Who had a very special gift and was never allowed to use it on anyone but her mother."
Mother tries to speak, but it comes out in a dusty sigh. "And the girl did everything she could to make her happy, and she was good and kind and dutiful but the forest whispered to her, and she knew her mother was a horrible liar who wanted to keep this entirely for herself." She tugs again, and Mother's eyes roll back in her head as her cheeks shrivel, her fingers withering to bones and disappearing into the thick of her hair.
"But Mother didn't know everything," Rapunzel says, and Mother crumbles to dust.
"Hi," Rapunzel says, and the princess looks up with black eyes and pale cheeks and a smile that doesn't move. Rapunzel smiles back, wide and open and delighted with the way the forest bends to let her pass.
"Hello," the princess says, and her ruby lips curl to flash her sharp teeth.
"I knew I'd find you here. My mother told me about you," Rapunzel says, and her hair snakes its way through the trees as she lightly steps closer, the dry leaves crunching under her bare feet.
"I've been waiting for you," the princess says, extending a pale arm to invite her closer, and Rapunzel skips over bones and apple cores and when the birds start to sing it sounds like fanfare.
The edge of the village is quiet in the lingering dusk, as a young girl fidgets by the side of her house and stares out into the shadows of the trees. The rooks call with wooden shrieks as her mother takes her hand and pulls her inside, shutting the door firmly behind them.
"Don't go into the woods, my love," her mother says, as she tucks her blankets up to her chin and kisses her forehead. "Because that's where the wild women live, and if they ever catch you, they’ll gobble you up.”