A long time ago, deep in the old forest, there was a small village. The villagers lived a simple life. The men set off in the early morning to do their daily labors, the women stayed home to cook and clean, and the children spent their days playing and exploring the forest. Though many of the villagers were quite content with their simple lives, one was not.
Young Hans was a boy of only ten. Though his life was comfortable, he found the monotony of the small village quite boring. Hans was a very naughty boy, and would often play tricks to amuse himself throughout the day. While other children played in the river, he would steal their shoes and hide them in hollow logs. While his mother tended to dinner, he would unravel her yarn or make a mess of the firewood. Though Hans enjoyed these tricks very much, nothing gave him more joy than telling a good fib.
Hans loved to tell lies more than anything. He often spent hours sitting around and coming up with clever lies to tell the villagers. Though coming up with the lie was half the fun, the real fun was when somebody believed him. To see the baker rush outside in a panic because he believed a horse was eating his wheat, or watch another child get scolded by his parents because he dirtied his clothes searching the muck for treasure, these were the things that gave him true joy.
Hans was often scolded by his parents because of this. At least once a day, a villager would come to their home and complain about the naughty thing Hans had done. His mother always chastised him greatly.
"Young Hans, a lie is a terrible thing. A bad lie can hurt people," she warned. "If you don't stop now, then one day your lies and tricks will come back to haunt you."
Of course, Hans did not heed his mother's warnings. As soon as she left he would scoff and shake his head.
"A bad lie can hurt people!" He laughed. "What a ridiculous thing to say. Lies are only words. How could some simple words ever cause anyone harm?"
So Hans continued with his naughty lies. For a while. However, he quickly realized there was a problem with telling lies so often. Soon, no one in the village would believe a word he said! The tailor would shoo Hans from his shop as soon as he set foot inside, the woodsman wouldn't even look in his direction as he pulled his wood-cart home in the evenings, and the children refused to play with him for fear his lies would get them into trouble. Life became quite boring and Hans didn't know what to do.
One evening, he sat on a stump in the forest, stewing in his bad fortune. He huffed and groaned and pouted for hours.
"Oh, what terrible luck!" He cried. "Not a soul in the village listens to me anymore. I can't even trick the dullest of my playmates. How wretched my life is! To have so many wonderful, clever lies to tell and no one to believe them."
In his fit, Hans began to weep bitterly. As he did, he heard a small chuckle from the forest. Hans turned towards the sound angrily.
"Who would dare be so cruel as to laugh at my misfortune?!" He demanded.
From behind a tree stepped a small boy. He was a meek and pale thing, probably no older than Hans. Hans glared at the young boy.
"You! Haven't you heard it's rude to laugh at those who suffer?"
The boy only smiled. "But I couldn't help but laugh. I've never seen a baby wail the way you did."
Hans balled his fists angrily and stood to leave. The small boy rushed over and tried to stop him.
"Wait, wait!" The boy pleaded. "Please, don't go. I need help."
"Why should I help you when you've been so unkind to me?" Hans complained.
The boy looked down sheepishly. "I'm sorry for upsetting you, but I need your help. My mother and I live deep in the woods. I wandered too far from home and lost my way. Mother always said if I was lost, to find the nearby village and she would come that next morning to find me. You must be from there, right? Which way is the village?"
The very nerve! To treat him so rudely then immediately ask for help. Hans was about to reject the boy outright when, suddenly, he had an idea. A smile spread across Hans' face. He reached out and threw his arm around the boy's shoulder as if they were the best of friends. Hans laughed heartily.
"Why, you're right. I am from the village," Hans said cheerfully. "I would be happy to tell you the way."
The boy perked up immediately. "Really? You mean it?"
"Of course!" Hans pointed to a nearby path. "Follow this path for a while and you should be there by sundown."
"Oh, thank you!" The boy cried. "You're very kind. I'm so sorry for being rude earlier."
Hans laughed again. He slapped the boy on the back in a friendly way. The meek boy stumbled a bit.
"Don't give it a second thought! After all, what's a small joke between friends?" Hans said, shrugging. "You go ahead. I was going to stay out a while more. In fact, let my mother know I'll be home if you see her."
"I will! Again, thank you!"
The boy hurried down the path. Hans tried his very best to keep a straight face until the boy disappeared. A few minutes later, Hans burst into a fit of laughter. He laughed, and jumped around, and made faces towards the path the boy had taken.
"Ha! What a foolish boy!" Hans chuckled. "That will teach him to laugh at others' misfortunes. We'll see how funny he thinks it is when he's trapped in the woods all night."
Hans basked in the joy of his trickery a while longer before heading back home. Hans' only sorrow was that he would not be able to see the boy's face later when he finally realized he'd been fooled. He imagined the boy's pathetic, crying face as the night got darker and darker. How funny it would be to see him sniveling inside a hollowed log, begging for his mother. Then who would be the baby?
Hans went to bed that night feeling quite content. He had almost forgotten how fun it was to tell fibs. He even hoped he might see the boy again someday. Maybe he could play another trick on him.
Hans slept well and woke up quite early the next morning. His mother was very surprised to see Hans in good spirits after so many days of him sulking. Indeed, Hans was in a very good mood. He hummed cheerfully while he ate his porridge. Afterward, he walked around the village with a bounce in his step and greeted others merrily when he saw them.
A sudden wail of agony pierced through the quiet air of the village. Hans glanced towards the village square and saw a crowd forming there. He hurried over, worming his way through the sea of legs until he could see a bit.
In front of the woodsman's home, a woman with pale skin and raven hair was on her knees sobbing heavily. Occasionally, she would reach down and lovingly touch something in front of her before breaking into tears again. Hans couldn't see what was on the ground, so he pushed forward a little more. Slowly, the thing before her came into view. A cold sickness filled Hans as he saw what it was.
It was the meek boy from the forest. His eyes were closed, his lips were pale blue, his chest did not move a bit from where he lay on the ground. Hans jumped as the woman suddenly wailed again. She reached down and clutched the still child to her chest, tears streaming down her face.
"Such a miserable sight," Hans heard one of the women in the crowd whisper.
"I couldn't imagine the pain," another responded.
"Did you hear what happened?" A man murmured. "The woodsman found him clinging to life at the edge of the village this morning. All the boy managed to say before he passed on was that 'he'd been tricked.' Simply dreadful."
Though the villagers did their best to be quiet, the grieving woman heard them. At the mention of her son, her head snapped up. Her eyes burned with rage.
"A trick? A trick?!" She shrieked. The crowd all backed away at the fury in her voice. "This is no trick! My son is dead!"
Dark clouds suddenly gathered in the sky. Though it was the summer months, a chilling wind swept through the village. The crowd fell silent. Shadows seemed to creep from their corners and surround the woman. The crowd fell silent all at once. No one said a word, but everyone knew. This was no ordinary woman. This was a witch.
"Now," she spoke in a low voice, laying her son back on the ground gently, "you will present to me this 'trickster' so he can pay for what he's done."
The crowd didn't speak, but their eyes shifted nervously. At the mention of the word, "trickster" everyone knew at once who the culprit might bed. Hans shivered in his place, unable to move. All of the villagers noticed. So did the witch.
As she stepped forward, the crowd shrunk away, leaving poor Hans abandoned in the center. Even his own parents could do nothing but cringe away and silently sob as the witch approached him. She leaned down and stared into his eyes.
"Are you the one who killed my sweet boy?" Her voice was gentle, but her eyes flickered with anger.
"I-I didn't. I mean, I didn't mean to. I was only playing a trick on him," Hans could barely whisper.
She reached out and grabbed his chin with her fingers. Though her grip was gentle, the coldness of her skin stung him.
"And what a trick you played," she said. "You led a sickly boy astray in the forest and left him there to die."
She turned his head until he was looking at the child's corpse. Hans gulped as he saw it, her grip making it impossible for him to look away.
"Does this still seem a funny trick?" She asked.
Hans shook his head no. The witch let him go. He trembled in place. The witch reached into a pouch on her hip and pulled from it a small item. It almost looked like a stone, except that it was shiny and pure black.
"Open your mouth," the witch ordered.
Though Hans knew he shouldn't, he felt unable to disobey her orders. He opened his mouth and she placed the stone inside.
A second later, the world seemed to spin. His vision went black and he fell to the ground. When he opened his eyes again, he was staring up at the sky. The black clouds had disappeared and the midday sun shone down to greet him. As he sat up, several of the villagers shrieked in fear, his mother fainted on the spot, and the witch smiled at him.
But she smiled at him from across the square. Hans glanced next to her, only to see his own body lying on the ground. He gasped and looked down at his hands. Pale, slender fingers greeted him, and the clothes he now wore didn't resemble his own. There was no denying, he was in the body of the dead boy.
The witch, still smiling, walked over and extended her hand to him. He took it and stood unsteadily. She reached out and patted his hair. Her eyes were sad, but content.
"Let's go home, Quincy."
Hans was dumbstruck. He opened and closed his mouth several times before he could make words come out.
The witch put her hand over his mouth to silence him. Fear filled his body. However, after a moment, she moved her hand from his mouth and began to stroke his hair again.
"You like telling lies? Well, now you get to tell one every day. You're my son now," she said firmly. "Do you understand?"
Hans couldn't speak. He could only nod. The witch smiled as he did.
"Good. Now, let's go home, Quincy. I have to start supper."
The witch took his hand and started leading him from the village. As he did he glanced back at the crowd. The villagers looked at him with a mixture of fear and pity. His father was on his knees now, his face bare of expression as he watched them leave. His mother was still collapsed on the ground. As Hans looked at her, her warning echoed in his head.
Young Hans, a lie is a terrible thing. A bad lie can hurt people. If you don't stop now, then one day your lies and tricks will come back to haunt you.
Indeed, they had. An icy hand squeezed his own. He glanced up at the witch. She smiled down at him lovingly. Like a mother.
This was his greatest lie. The lie he had created through his own foolishness and malice. The lie he could not escape. The lie that was now his life.