The girl is the princess of Dream Castle, and today she has slipped away from the high, stately chamber where her father, the king, and her mother, the queen, sit on golden chairs, with scepter and orb, to rule their people. She wishes to be alone and free, and has come to the flowering meadow to play. The meadow has always been her playground.
The princess is small and slim, still a child. She sits there in a gown whiter than white, made of silk and satin and muslin as thin as gauze.
Princess Cottongrass—that is what they call her.
She combs her hair with her small, thin fingers, and smiles at the shining strands. An elk snuffs and stalks past. She lifts her eyes.
“Oh, who are you?” “
I am Longleg Leap. What do they call you?”
“I am Princess Cottongrass.” She lifts the crown from the meadow to show that it is so.
The elk stops to look at the princess long and searchingly, then lowers its head. “You are beautiful, little one.”
The princess rises and moves closer. She leans towards the elk’s trembling muzzle and strokes it gently. “How big and stately you are. And you have a crown, too. Let me come with you. Let me sit behind your neck, and then carry me out into life.”
The elk hesitates. “The world is big and cold, little child, and you are so small. The world is full of evil and wickedness, and it will hurt you.”
“No, no. I am young and warm. I have warmth enough for everyone. I am small and good, and want to share the good I have.”
“Princess, the forest is dark and the roads are dangerous.”
“But you are with me. You are great and strong, and can easily defend us both.”
The elk tosses its head and shakes its mighty crown of horns. Its eyes look fiery. The princess claps her small hands. “Good, good. But you are too tall—bend down so that I can climb up.” Obediently, the elk lies down and soon the princess is sitting securely on its back. “I am ready, and now you must show me the world.”
It rises slowly, afraid of unseating the little one. “Hold on tight to my horns.” And it sets off with leaps and bounds. The princess has never had more fun. There are so many new and beautiful things to see. She has never been beyond the meadow at Dream Castle before, and now they are running over hill and dale, over plains and mountains.
“Where are you taking me?” she asks.
“To Forest Moss,” Leap answers. “I live there. No one comes there and it is a long way off.”
Evening is coming and the princess is hungry and sleepy.
“Are you changing your mind already?” teases the elk. “It’s too late to turn around. But don’t be afraid. Wonderful berries in the marsh where I live. You can eat them.”
They travel a while, then the forest begins to thin, and the princess looks out over a mile-long marsh, where tufts of sedge come together in soft hollows and hillocks, and where the little stunted bushes on the bank haven’t the courage to follow.
“Here we are,” says Leap, and bends down so that the princess can dismount. “Now we shall have supper.”
Immediately the princess forgets all about sleep and begins to jump lightly from tuft to tuft, just like Leap, to pick the delicious big berries. She and Longleg Leap share them delightedly.
Leap says, “We must hurry on before it gets too dark,” and once again Princess Cottongrass climbs on to his broad back. Leap sets off, surefooted, across the marsh, stepping confidently on the tuft as if he knows they will hold him. After all, he was born there.
“Who is that dancing there?” asks the princess.
“They are the elves. But be careful of them. They seem sweet and friendly, but never trust them. Remember what I tell you: don’t speak to them, but hold tight on my horns and pretend you don’t notice them.”
Yes, the princess promises, she will.
But the elves have already caught sight of them. They come forward and circle around and dance up and down in front of the elk, floating tantalizingly close to the little princess. But remembering what Leap has just told her, she clings to his horns with all his might.
“Who are you, who are you?” ask the elves.
Hundreds of questions are all around, and the princess feels them like the cold breath of the wind, but she does not answer. Then the tiny elves, in their white veils, become bolder. They tug at her dress and her long yellow hair. Leap snorts and begins to run. Suddenly the princess realizes that the golden crown on her head is slipping, and she is afraid it will fall off—imagine what Father-king and Mother-queen, who gave it to her, would say—and she forgets what Leap told her and calls to the elves, at the same time letting go one hand to clasp her crown. At that moment the elves have power over her—not altogether, because she still clings to the elk’s horn with one hand, but with joyous mocking laughter they snatch the shining crown from her head and float away over the marsh.
“Oh, my crown, my crown,” moans Princess Cottongrass.
“Why didn’t you obey me?” Leap scolds her. “You have only yourself to blame. Probably you will never get your golden crown back, but you are lucky it was not worse.”
Yet the princess cannot imagine anything that is worse than what has just happened.
Leap walks on, and soon she spies a clump of small trees on an island in the middle of the marsh.
“Here is where I live,” says Leap. “This is where we shall sleep.”
Soon they are there. The low hill rises above the marsh, and it is dry and delightful among the fir trees and pines. The princess kisses her dear friend Leap good-night, undresses, and hangs her gown neatly on a branch. She lies down and is soon asleep, with the long-legged elk to stand guard over her. It is almost night, and a few small stars are twinkling in the sky.
Next morning the princess is awakened by the soft touch of the elk’s muzzle on her forehrad. She jumps up quickly, stretches naked in the golden-red morning light, and then collects to dew drops to drink in her hands. A small chain, with a golden heart on it is hanging from her neck and catches the sunlight like fire.
“Today I will go bare,” she exclaims. “I will carry my dress in front of me and then you will carry me on your back and show me more of the world.”
“Yes,” says the elk, unable to deny her anything. It had been awake all night watching over the strange, white little girl on the ground, and that morning there had been tears in its eyes. It did not understand why, except it felt autumn approaching and was seized by a longing to do battle and a desire not to be alone anymore.
Suddenly it dashes away into the forest. The fair-haired princess finds it very difficult to hold on. Branches whip her face and shoulders, and the little golden heart dances on its chain.
But before long, Leap calms down and slackens his pace. Now they are traveling through a large, strange forest. The long branches of the firs are covered with hanging moss, the tree roots bend like snakes and large, lichen-covered boulders seem to threaten them from the side of the path. The princess has never seen such a queer place before.
“What is that moving deep in the woods?” she asks. “I think I see long green hair and a pair of white arms waving to me.”
“It is the witch of the woods,” says Leap. “Answer her politely, but by no means ask her for anything; and whatever you do, hold tight to my horns.”
Yes, the princess promises, she will hold on tight.
Now the witch glides closer. She does not want to show herself entirely; she always hides half way behind a tree. Curiously and slyly she peers at the elk and the girl. The princess scarcely dares look that way; but she can tell that the witch has icy green eyes and a mouth red as blood.
Then the witch begins to slither from tree to tree, following the elk as it runs. She knows Leap well, but is puzzled by the little white one with the golden hair.
Suddenly she calls, “What is your name?”
“I am Princess Cottongrass, of Dream Castle.” The girl answers shyly, taking care not to ask the witch’s name. Of course, she knows who it is.
“What are you carrying in front of you?” the witch asks.
“It is my finest gown,” replies the princess, with a little more courage.
“Oh, let me see it,” the witch begs.
Of course she may, and the princess lets go with one hand to show the witch her white dress. She should never have done so, for in a trice the witch has snatched the dress and disappeared into the forest.
“Why did you let go of my horns?” says Leap. “If you had let go with both hands, you would have had to follow the witch, and probably have never come back.”
“But my dress, my dress,” sobs Princess Cottongrass.
But after awhile, she forgets it, and the day passes, and that sleeps under the fir trees with Leap standing quietly beside her to keep watch. When she wakes in the morning, the elk is gone. “Leap, Longleg Leap, where are you?” she calls fearfully, and jumps up. Here he comes, breathing heavily, through the undergrowth. He has been on top of a hill, looking east, sniffing the air, and he has scented something. What? He cannot tell, but his coat is wet and his legs are trembling.
He seems to want to move on, and bends down to let the princess climb on his back. Then they are gone in a rush, galloping east. He hardly hears when she calls to him, and rarely answers. As if in a fever he breaks through the tangled forest at a furious rate.
“Where are we going?” asks Princess Cottongrass.
“To the pool,” is the answer. “Deep in the forest is a pool, and that is where I go when autumn is coming. No person has ever been there, but you shall see it.”
Abruptly the tree trunks open up, and here is the water, shining brown-black with flecks of greenish gold.
“Hold on tight,” Leap warns. “There is danger under the water. Watch your golden heart.”
“Yes, what strange water,” says the princess, bending forward to look more closely—but, oh dear, at that moment the chain with the golden heart slips over her head and drops into the pool.
“Oh, my heart, the golden heart that my mother gave me the day I was born. Oh, what shall I do?”
She is quite inconsolable. She stares at the water and then begins to wander off over the tussocks to look for her heart.
“Come,” says Leap, “It is dangerous for you here. Looking for one thing, you will forget everything else.”
But the princess wants to stay, she must find her heart.
“Go, my friend. Let me sit here alone. I know I shall find the heart.” She flings her arms about his bent head, kisses it, and strokes it softly. Then, small and slim and undressed, she goes and sit down on a grassy hillock.
For a long time the elk stands quite still and looks at the small girl. But when she no longer seems to notice that he is there, he turns and disappears with hesitant steps into the forest.
Many years have passed. Still Princess Cottongrass sits and looks wonderingly into the water for her heart. She is no longer a little girl. Instead, a slender plant, crowned with white cotton, stands leaning over the edge of the pool. Now and then the elk returns, stops, and looks at it tenderly. Only he knows that this is the princess from Dream Castle. Perhaps she nods and smiles, for he is an old friend, but she does not want to follow him back; she cannot follow anymore, as long as she is under the spell. The spell lies in the pool. Far, far under the water lies a lost heart.