Deer Daughter - Clodagh O Connor

She had never known freedom like this.


Once there lived a king whose only daughter was as precious to him as all the gold in his kingdom. Her mother had died when she was young, leaving the king sorrowing and broken-hearted.  His only joy was in watching his child as she grew more and more like her mother. The king attended to his duties and eventually married once more, but the new queen was jealous of the love her husband had for his daughter.

“She must marry,” the queen insisted.

“She is too young,” protested her father, “and, besides, who could look after her and care for her as I do?”

“If I can ensure that her prince will be as kind and loving as you are, will you let her marry?” asked the queen.

“If you can promise that, then I will allow suitors to come for her,” said the king with a heavy heart, for he knew that a princess must marry for the sake of the kingdom.

The queen knew of a wizard among the king’s advisors and she asked him to cast an enchantment on the girl. “When a suitor approaches her, if he is not worthy, let her turn into an ugly hag,” the queen commanded. She had studied witchcraft herself and knew that a transformation spell such as this would have lasting effects. The king’s lovely daughter would age and wither with each change.

The wizard was reluctant to obey, but he knew the queen could cast him from the court with a word, so he agreed. The spell needed the agreement of the princess, so one morning he came to her as she walked in her garden.  She often walked there, loving the fragrance of the flowers and being in the open air. The maze of box-hedges, where she could hide from the servants, gave her a brief illusion of freedom. Her long red hair was loose upon her shoulders and she seemed to the wizard like a young doe, trapped in a cage.

“My lady, the queen has commanded that I cast a spell upon you to save you from unworthy suitors,” said the wizard. The young girl was well aware that the queen had no love for her.
“What manner of spell is this to be?” she demanded.The wizard explained the plan and the girl frowned.“Will I change back to myself afterwards?”

The wizard hesitated, “Magic is a powerful thing, princess,” he said, “Each time you change, you will look and feel a little older, I fear. But once a good man comes by, there need be no more changing.”

The princess thought for a while. She knew there would be suitors, much as she disliked the prospect. Perhaps this spell would be a way of delaying her marriage; she hadn’t seen many good men among the princes of the neighboring kingdoms.

“I must ask my father for advice”, she declared. The wizard thought quickly, he knew the queen would find a way to get rid of him if word of this plan reached the king’s ears.

“My lady, perhaps I can suggest an alternative plan? How would it be if you were to turn into a young doe, should your suitor prove unworthy?”

“A deer!” said the girl, her face lighting up at the thought, “That would be a wonderful thing. Yes, I agree.”

The wizard, heaving a sigh of relief, began to incant the spell.

Sometime later the queen arranged for suitors to come to the palace. She told the king that she would oversee the meetings and he agreed.  The queen led the first suitor to the princess’s garden. He had no sooner caught a glimpse of red hair behind the tall box-hedges when out bounded a beautiful young doe. They stared at each other for a moment and the doe turned and leapt, showing a copper- red tail as she bounded through the garden.

The prince turned to the queen, who recovered enough breath to say, “The princess must be indisposed, that was her pet doe that she keeps in the garden”.  “Perhaps her highness will come to my palace the next time, but you can tell her from me that she need not bring her pet, unless it is on a plate,” the prince said, snapping his heels and bowing stiffly to the queen.

The queen summoned the wizard and he came to her chamber dreading her wrath, but, to his surprise, she smiled at him. “You have surpassed yourself,” she said, “Now all we have to do is cut a hole in the hedges of the garden and let her escape.”

“B..b..but,” stuttered the wizard, “She will be lost in the forest and prey to wolves or hunters”

“Indeed,” said the queen, with quiet satisfaction.

The queen brought several suitors to the garden and each time the girl transformed into a deer. The spell’s after-effects deepened with each change. The princess became nervous and shy, often jumping as people approached. Her father, noticing these changes, came to talk to her. She gazed at him with her deep brown eyes, which seemed darker of late. Her hair hung down, browner now with a flash of red here and there.

“My daughter,” he began…

”No father, I am quite well,” she said, “I admit I do not like these suitors calling upon me, but I know it is my duty to wed. I know my step-mother will not offer my hand to an unsuitable man.”

She could not tell him about the spell, for she felt she was deceiving him by chasing away the suitors. The king sensed that there was something deeper troubling his daughter, and he resolved to watch the next meeting in the garden. He was beginning to suspect that his new wife did not have her step-daughter’s interests at heart.
The king had a window that overlooked the princess’s garden – he often observed her fondly as she sat or walked there. He settled himself on the balcony to await the visit of the newest suitor. His daughter was in the garden, but did not seem ready to present herself – she was hidden from the entrance, waiting behind a hedge. The king heard the voice of his queen extolling the beauty and shyness of the princess to the prince who was visiting. As they approached the garden entrance, the king glanced back to where his daughter had been a moment before.

There, to his amazement, was a beautiful doe, quivering and ready to spring. He let out a surprised shout and the deer gazed up; their eyes met and he saw his daughter in that instant. She bounded away, her red tail flashing; found a gap in the hedge and vanished into the forest.

The king whirled around and called for his guards and his horse.

“Arrest the queen,” he yelled and galloped away on the horse through the forest.  The wood was dense and travelling on horseback was difficult. There was no sign of the doe or of his daughter. As night fell the king returned to the palace, exhausted and in despair. He turned his fury on the queen and locked her up in a dungeon. He questioned the wizard who said “The spell will not reverse unless she comes back to the palace gardens.”

The young doe ran and exulted in her running. She had never known freedom like this. Soon the palace and her memories of it were far behind her. As night began to fall she slowed, her need to find water and food taking over from her urge to run. She lapped at a stream and nibbled the bark from a young tree, curled up on the grass and slept. In the morning she woke to the sound of others like her and, lowering her nose to the ground, approached the herd, who took her in as one of their own.

Many years passed and the king in his sorrow searched for his missing daughter. The hunting of deer in the kingdom was banned on pain of death. Throughout the land, deer became less wary of men, until the people grumbled as the animals invaded farmlands and destroyed crops and grazing. Many live does were captured and brought to the king for inspection, but never did one change back into his beloved daughter.

In the forest lived a woodcutter who loved the deer, despite their destruction of young trees. He would often sit outside his cottage and watch as the does suckled their young and the antlered stags bellowed. One morning, through a gently lifting mist, he spotted a young doe. She approached timidly, but with curiosity, her deep brown eyes meeting his. He reached out his hand and, as he touched her muzzle, she transformed into a young woman. She fell to the ground as her legs gave way beneath her. She was beautiful; her long brown-red hair covered her, almost to her feet. On the ground beside her lay a deer pelt, with a tail of red fur. The woodcutter wrapped her in it and carried her inside.

The girl slept for a long time. When she awoke, he gave her a bowl of milk, and she lapped at it. She did not speak, but she smiled at him. Over the next few days he gave her morsels of fruit and vegetables and she began to talk – haltingly at first, but then pouring out words as if trying to relieve the silence of many years. The princess had finally met a worthy man. They lived together in happiness in the forest for many years, and if the man occasionally noticed that his wife and the deerskin hearthrug were missing, he knew better than to comment. She needed her freedom.

One morning he was awoken by the crashing noise of a chase through the forest. He leaped out of bed and saw that the girl was gone. Opening the door he realised that a hunt was in progress. The deer that bounded through his open door was sweating and wild-eyed; as he reached out to sooth her she changed and the deer skin slid to the floor. The heart of the girl was still deer and she hid in the farthest, darkest, corner of the cottage as the hunters came crashing through.

They stopped and stared at the deerskin on the floor. The head huntsman spotted the distinctive red flash on the skin and turned to the woodcutter.

“You killed a deer – you have killed our princess!”

His blade plunged into the heart of the woodcutter. A wordless scream came from the corner of the cottage and a white flash became a blur of brown and red as the deer bounded out of the cottage into the deep woods.
Clodagh O Connor is an engineer, an avid reader and aspiring writer. She lives in Dublin, Ireland with her husband and 2 sons.
You can follow her on Twitter @iamagnat

Cover Layout: Amanda Bergloff

Thanks for reading and share your thoughts with Clodagh about her story in the comments section. We'd love to hear from you!
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Comments

  1. Didn't see the ending coming... It reminds me of some of Madame d'Aulnoy's stories.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She sounds interesting, I will peruse her stories. Thank you.

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    2. Gripping and compelling. Very well-written

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