Carolyn Oliver — “The Forester’s Three Daughters”

The traveler, smelling faintly of boiled eggs and strongly of sweat, arrived at dusk, ensuring that the inhabitants of the small village nestled against the side of the mountain spent the whole of the night worrying his warning like a sore spot on a tooth. They sent him to the house of the forester and her three daughters, because, they said among themselves, the forester’s son had died in the summer fever, and so she had an extra room. Unspoken, it was agreed that no one wanted the man and his news too close. The forester’s house was at the edge of the village, shaded by the borders of the deep

The forester and her daughters welcomed the man with a basin of rosemary-scented water, fresh clothes, and a hot meal. Exhausted, the man retreated to his bed after a few mouthfuls of food, and fewer words.

“Eat,” the forester commanded her daughters after he departed. “For the days ahead will be long.”

“So we’re to kill the dragon, then?” asked the middle daughter.

The forester looked up from her bowl of mushroom stew. “Of course.”

The four women finished their food and ale in silence. The eldest daughter got up to make tea, and the others cleared away the dishes, scrubbing them over-hard with sand until their palms and fingers glowed red.

They returned to the table to find their mother making notes on a large map, yellowed and soft with age. Beside her on the bench were three cloth rucksacks. Long into the night, they plotted their route and packed supplies.

When the traveler woke in the morning, the forester’s daughters were gone.


On the morning of the third day, the sisters reached a small village the traveler had warned them about. The houses were hung with pennants, the beasts garlanded with flowers and herbs, the children draped in colorful robes. The elders welcomed them to the feast heartily, in the old tradition, forgoing questions until after the cakes had been eaten and the second-best casks of wine had been breached.

“Where do you hail from?” asked one.

“From the East,” answered the eldest sister.

“And where are you going?” asked another.

“To the West,” answered the middle sister.

“And why do you travel during the harvest?” asked a third.

“To slay the dragon that is coming,” answered the youngest sister.

At this, the assembled company hissed, and parents sent their children away from
the tables.

“There is no dragon,” an old man with crumbs in his beard told them sternly.

“Only ancient tales and exaggerations invented to frighten the gullible and foment

“Nevertheless, that is our purpose,” said the middle sister, eyeing a young man who seemed overly fond of his dagger.

Whispers sprang up around them. “Shouldn’t be here.” “They’re out of their senses.” “Shouldn’t be allowed to speak.” “Keep them away from the children.” “Only safe place for them’s far away from here.” The wave of voices crested, threatening to crash over the three women.

“Have you ever heard the tale of Zora and her seven lives?” asked the eldest sister.

At the sound of her voice, mellifluous and warm, elegant as a gilded palace and comfortable as home, the assembled villagers went silent. She spoke on and on, casting the net of the tale about them in a dozen different voices all unmistakably her own.

When she finished, those who weren’t overcome with weeping pressed coins and food into her hands, and the forester’s daughters recommenced their journey in peace, though quickly.



Three days later, the sisters spied across a wide plain a town bristling with armed men guarding its stone walls. The villagers were grim-faced and soft-spoken, the children and women at work fletching arrows, sharpening steels, and drawing water from the wells. Still, the sisters were offered a place near the hearth in the largest house, and ale and bread and cheese were set before them. When they had finished their repast, an old man asked, “Where do you come from?”

“From the East,” answered the eldest sister.

“And where are you going?”

“To the West,” answered the middle sister.

“Why do you travel alone, when dangers lurk in the dark?”

“To slay the dragon that is coming,” answered the youngest sister.

At this, the assembled men—for the women had not paused in their labors to take refreshment—laughed loud and long. “Three women, to kill a dragon?” wheezed a burly farmer, his sword catching the light of the fire. “You’d be better off here with us. The men in this village are strong, and we will be armed even better by the time the dragon arrives.”

“And what of the those between your town and the dragon?” asked the middle sister. She’d been sketching on the table’s surface with a piece of charcoal from the hearth’s edge. When she breathed over the drawing, the figures shivered and rose: adults and children buffeted by the passage of a dragon ten times their size. The dragon swerved in midair and rolled its sinuous heads, choosing targets, some of them quite small indeed.

The men bowed their heads and said nothing more as the forester’s daughters stood and made ready to resume their journey.


On the ninth day, the sisters emerged from an uncanny forest where the trees stood watchful and all the scrabblings and snufflings of its creatures had stilled. In the valley before them lay a city, its parapets intact but scorched, its gates left open as if by a careless youth.

They pressed on. Within the walls, the only sound that greeted them was the breeze, sulfur-heavy, stirring dead leaves and rubbish. In the middle of the city, they found a well whose water was still fresh, and drank their fill.

A man’s voice, whittled thin with hunger and fear, called to them from across the narrow street.

“Where do you come from?”

“From the East,” answered the eldest sister.

“And where are you going?” asked another voice behind them.

“To the West,” answered the middle sister.

“Why do you travel that way when safety lies behind you?” asked a third man.

“To slay the dragon that is coming,” answered the youngest sister.

In the curdling silence the sisters saw that a dozen men, lean and rough, had emerged from the shadows to circle them. The men took turns drawing draughts from the well. The water ran down their chins, slow as blood.

“The dragon has already come,” said the first man. “In the night it burned our crops and our beautiful orchards. It carried off our beasts and flamed our walls in warning.”

The second man, who might have been handsome once, spoke. “First it took all the travelers and traders from distant lands. Then the poor and the sick. Then our wives and daughters. And last night it took our sons.”

“Took, or was given?” asked the youngest sister.

“Give and take mean nothing to the dead.” He raised his hand; the men drew their blades and fitted arrows to their bows.

“Perhaps not,” said the youngest sister, “but you’ll find out for certain tonight unless you have a new offering for the dragon. I understand they prefer their prey alive and squirming.”

The men looked at each other, calculating, and then shrugged. They led the sisters to the nearest west-facing postern and barred the gates behind them. A moment later muffled thuds and the clanging of weapons on rock reached the sisters’ ears. The elder sisters turned to the younger, questions in their eyes. She smiled.

“After I drank, I improved their well water. A gift, that they might wake to a different world.”


Dragons, particularly those with an unpredictable number of heads, prefer darkness, and thus it is best to confront them in the light. Outside the city walls, the eldest sister hummed to herself, the youngest sister stirred herbs into her flask and drank, and the middle sister took up a charred branch and began to sketch rapidly in the dust at their feet. Bee after bee, came to life when she blew over them, three times the size of those their mother kept and gray as the charcoal that sketched their outlines. Then came a dozen bats the size of wolves, blinking in the sun, and seven ravens, each as large as a plough horse.

Trailing the gray-black swarm of flying things, the sisters walked through the ravaged orchards and passed over scorched fields strewn with bones, until they stood before a great chasm in the earth. The ground about them pulsed with the dragon’s snores, and the air smelled so foul their hearts nearly quailed.

With a gentle word the second sister sent her bats into the darkness. The dragon stirred, and in seconds they found themselves watching its menacing bulk spiraling into the sky, the bats biting at its tail. The scrape of its scales was the sound of screaming. Then the eldest sister began to sing, raising her voice until it echoed back from the city behind them. The dragon’s many heads stilled and turned to her, its eyes glittering with desire, and it drifted on outspread wings down, down, down, hovering a sapling’s length above the ground. But one head shook off the sound of her voice and sent a jet of fire roiling toward the three women. The eldest sister fell to the ground, spitting blood and gasping.

Then the second sister, tears in her eyes, sent her ravens and gray-black bees forward with a flick of her wrist. The bees burrowed under the dragon’s scales and stung it to madness, while the ravens set about pecking and clawing at the monster’s opalescent eyes. But still one of the dragon’s heads remained unscathed and sent a stream of scorching acid toward the sisters. The second sister fell to the ground, seeking for her sisters with her hands, for her eyes were no more.

“Dragon!” shouted the third sister, her voice trembling with rage and sorrow. The beast turned its ravaged heads toward her, tearing its gaze from her wounded sisters, beating its wings to ward off the ravens and snapping at the bees embedded in its flesh. “Dragon,” she called, “Take me and spare my sisters.”

The beast had no intention of stopping after just one morsel, but it pleased itself with the notion of toying with her. So it settled to the ground and with a flick of its serrated tongue snapped off the youngest sister’s right arm. She fell next to her sisters, stanching the flow of blood from her wound by pressing her side to the ground.

The dragon swallowed her limb whole. Immediately, its two remaining eyes fluttered in confusion. It choked and coughed, writhing in pain, but could not beat its great wings fast enough to launch its bulk from the ground.

And then it began to spew the contents of its guts through its mouths: the mangled forms of the city’s unwanted inhabitants, coated in slime and filth. With each heave the monster diminished, its burnished scales dimming from gold to bronze to pewter, until in one last gasp it disintegrated into ash that the wind whispered away into nothing.


After she had healed all the dragon’s victims, the youngest sister found that she had no herbs or salves left to cure herself or her siblings. But those they had saved treated the forester’s daughters with great kindness. They were given the best rooms in the city—the men having been locked in the keep—and their wounds tended with care. The ravens and bats flew far afield to bring provisions to the recovering city, and the bees arranged themselves in specially built hives. Before the first snows came the sisters were toasted with new mead on the eve of their journey home.

One sunlit morning they found their mother in the willow copse, teaching the traveler how to put the bees to sleep for the winter. The forester’s face lit with joy at the approach of her daughters, though later she wept in secret for the costs they had endured.

The eldest daughter never spoke again, but wrote down her tales and songs, which were treasured in her own hand by the village for many generations, thanks to the quality of the paper pulped from the trees at its borders.

The middle daughter no longer sketched or drew, but became the finest woodworker in that country. Her ornate beds were passed down from mother to daughter, and more than one person said her sculptures seemed to move in the fiery blaze of sunset.

The youngest daughter, who had been the midwife’s assistant, became the village’s chief healer, and once her brother (formerly the traveler) fitted her with a marvelous wooden arm, folk came from miles around to beg for her skills in surgery.

All three were the pride of the village for the rest of their lives, and their renown traveled so far that they were showered with invitations and gifts in gratitude for their deeds. Thus they saw something of the world beyond the borders of their own country, but always they were glad to return to the village nestled against the side of the mountain, to walk its deep woods and take comfort in the solitude of its hidden glades.

And as for the forester: she tended the trees until she lay down among them to rest, her valiant children aglow with love at her side.

Carolyn Oliver’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in, The South Carolina Review, Day One, Tin House’s Open Bar, Pulp Literature, matchbook, and elsewhere. A graduate of The Ohio State University and Boston University, she lives in Massachusetts with her family. Links to more of her writing can be found at