There was once a maid who travelled with her lord’s retinue through a great forest, and when they were deep in the woods and far from any town or village, their train was beset by robbers. The lord and all his retinue were slaughtered, and all he’d had was plundered or destroyed. Only the maid, who had jumped from the wagon and hidden herself between the trees, was left alive.
She fled the road, hearing the death-cries of her companions behind her, and when she heard them no more she looked about herself and saw that she was lost. There was no one who lived in that forest, and no way she could find her way out of it; and when she had wandered for some time she at last gave up hope and sat down weeping, resting her back against a tree. There was some slight comfort to be found in its strength against her back, and so she remained there until evening fell.
A little while later a little white dove flew to her hand, carrying in its beak a tiny golden key. It laid the key into her palm and spoke to her: “In yonder tree you’ll find a keyhole; unlock it, and you’ll find food enough that you need fear no more hunger.”
In wonder, she did as it was said, and there within the tree she found a bowl with milk and soft white bread. She ate until her belly was full; and all would have been well, then, if not for her weariness: for she had only bare earth to sleep on.
Then the dove flew to her hand again, holding in its beak another tiny key. “In yonder tree you’ll find a bed,” it said, and indeed it was so, and she slept that night safe and warm in the tree’s great embrace.
When morning came the dove flew to her once more, and brought her yet another golden key. “In yonder tree you’ll find fresh clothes,” it said: and there within the tree were dresses stitched with gold and jewels, and as the maid dressed herself she felt finer than a princess.
There she lived for some time, then, in quiet solitude, and the dove bethought her every need. She soon grew to love the little bird: and so it was that when it came to her, one day, and asked whether she would do what was in her power to help it, she answered gladly.
“Some distance from here there is a little house in the wood,” said the dove: “I’ll show you were it lies. The old woman who lives there is a witch: speak no word to her, whatever she says, whatever she does. Go on through the house, and through the door at her right hand: there you’ll find a table covered in rings of every sort, all glittering with jewels. Leave them there, and find only the plain ring between them; and when you have found it, bring it to me as quickly as you can.”
“I will do as you ask,” said the girl, and followed the little dove thither.
When she opened the door of the house she found an old woman sitting at the hearth, who rose at once to greet her. “Good day, my child,” said the old woman; but she did not answer, and strode on towards the door at her right hand. The old woman clutched at her, pulled at her skirt, saying, “What are you doing? – this is my house; none may enter it without my leave –” but still the girl walked on, and did not answer.
Beyond the door she found hundreds of rings, thousands of rings, all glittering and glistening from every corner of the chamber. She sifted through them as quickly and carefully as she could, but all in vain: the one she sought was not among it.
From the corner of her eye she saw the old woman, stealing past with a birdcage in her hand. Wordlessly she took it from her, and opened it: inside it was a bird, and in its beak it held a ring that was plain and unadorned.
She took it at once and ran from the house, deep into the forest, thinking that the white dove would fly to greet her. But it did not come; and so at last she stopped to rest, leaning back against a tree, and taking comfort in its strength behind her.
As she stood there the tree seemed to warm, to soften. Its branches twined around her, embracing her, and then became arms: and when she turned to look the tree had become a woman, who drew her close and kissed her. “You freed me from the witch’s spell, my love,” she said: “I was cursed to take the form of a tree from dusk to dawn and dawn to dusk, and only for a few hours each day could I fly free in the shape of a white dove; but while the witch held the ring I could not become myself again.”
She was the daughter of a king, and all her servants and retinue who had been trees beside her were freed now too from the enchantment; and so they rode back to her realm together, and the king’s daughter married the maiden, and they lived happily to the end of their days.