The House of Dreams

by Craig Saunders

 

The essence of dreams, the stark reality that makes the mind doubt what is real and what is not, is the suspension of disbelief. For a time, most often whilst asleep but sometimes while the dreamer sits with a mug of ale, or a glass of fine wine, time is forgotten and a moment can seem drawn long and pulled out of shape. With a smoke wheel burning, a man might hallucinate and see his lost wife, a child he never had, or in a darker moment his own death come to him with a blade in hand and steely teeth bared in a snarl.

Perhaps, you might think, a dream will come true. A daydream, holding the local barmaid’s full breast in one hand while your wife is forgotten. A dream of a young princess, sullied by your attentions in a deserted hallway, hallowed ground of royalty and your body tense with excitement while you imagine your hands drifting over forbidden flesh… even the evil have daydreams.

But daydreams our not our concern for they do not come true.

Daydreams, sweet dreams. These are not our dreams. Our dreams lurk in the night. They haunt the sullen hours when the moon does not shine and we forget that starlight comes from other suns than ours.

Ours are the dreams that another gives us… the sneak illusions of the vampire… the befuddled mind… the glamour that covers the approaching stench of decay.

The nightmare. That is our province tonight.

* * * * *

Shawford Crale knelt on the hard floor and took a fine brush and palette from his manservant. His servant stood ready behind his master holding a lamp for better light while Crale painted. He began with a circle. It was a perfect circle, drawn by hand.

He painted a pattern of intricate design within the circle.

An hour later and dusk had fled.

“Night comes, my lord.”

“I feel it, too. It is time. I must begin the incantations. You know what to do.”

“A courtesan, this time?”

“No, I have a taste for the seedy tonight. A wench, I think. One that nobody will miss.”

“As you will,” said the manservant. He turned without a further word and left the dining hall.

Shawford Crale sprinkled sand on the design to dry the paint. Then he placed a chair within the circle and took a sip from the wine glass that was beside him on the cold stone floor. He took a steadying breath and began to chant. It was not easy, conjuring demons, and they were ever hungry. But he paid the price in blood and they were sated.

The rewards, though… they were considerable. His returning youth and newfound wealth that came with the foreknowledge to play the markets. He was fast becoming an immensely wealthy man. A man to be reckoned with, even though Ulbridge was just a small town… one day it would be bigger. Perhaps he would even take to the wider world.

The price? Blood. As always.

But never his.

* * * * *

A cockerel crowed the evening call over Ulbridge, signalling nightfall, if not bedtime for some. On the King’s Row sots walked wearily from their daytime lives to drown their sorrows in their cups. Wives wiped evening meals from careless children’s mouths. Careless children pulled their covers high, snuggled into their pallets and straw mattresses. Horsehair, for the few.

On Sunday Street in the Pauper’s Green a small child pulled a rare book from under her covers and brought her candle closer to the bed. She had read the story cover to cover since her mother bought her the book. She knew they could ill afford books, but she loved her mother for the expense and the thought. It was the most beautiful story she had ever read.

It was called a “fairytale”, her mother had told her. There was a lord in it, and he took a pauper’s widow for his wife, and her daughter for his own.

It was her favourite story, but this night she felt restless.

The front door closed quietly as her mother left her once again for the night. The little girl wished her mother safe from harm.

Her mother joined her neighbour. Together they walked the streets. They walked from Sunday Street along the canal, hitching their skirts high as they stepped over a puddle on the canal way. They would be hitching their skirts aplenty tonight.

A short walk later, a kiss for good luck, and Ellisindre stood alone under a lamplight. It was early yet, for a courtesan. But she had no illusions. She was no lord’s filly, bought with a ruby and a smile. She would not be spending the night perfumed and drunk on fine wines. She was a common whore. A penny and she would perform, for the fat and toothless, for the rough and shy. For old men angry with their dirks for their rusty steel, young men drunk in their cups thinking of their wives in distant cities or perhaps a lazy walk away on a different street.

A man walked by and she swung her hips to one side and pulled her skirt to show an ankle.

“’Tis early yet, love,” said the man with a kind smile, unusual for most. “Perhaps later, if I have the time.”

She smiled back and shrugged sadly. He moved on and the street fell quiet. It was too early for most gents, but she worked a full night. She was no stranger to hard work. And it was hard work. But she could earn no more working the fields or sweeping the Thane’s manor. Pulling mugs of ale for the drunk? No longer. Perhaps, had her life taken a different turn… but not now. Not now they knew her for what she was.

And what of her, when she grew too old to turn an eye with her ankle and too old to turn a trick?

Another man walked past and ignored her a little too forcibly. Too good for her, he thought, now he was sober. But she was a good judge. He’d be back after he’d sunk a few and was perhaps one or two to the good.

She shivered and pulled her shawl ’round her neck tighter. She could drop it an inch or two when the next gent came a-by, but she felt the chill more than usual tonight. She looked up through the lamplight to gauge the stars, but there was naught to see but a low bank of clouds moving down. Fine luck and an ill night for work. Fog rolling down from the sky and in from the lakes. A dangerous night for a girl on the streets.

And a poor one for working. She could hardly bark her wares out loud on the street. Fog would hide her from her gents and dampen their ardour. No one wanted to be out in the fog. Men were a superstitious lot. Creatures prowled the night in the fog. It bred stories like a man bred children.

It was coming in fast. Coming down the street. A dark, starless night and damp fog a-rolling.

Madal’s horns, an ill night for her kind of work.

The taverns down the street were growing in noise. On a night like tonight she wished she could afford to give a percentage of her takings on a license. Then she could work the back rooms of the taverns. Work in comfort… well, at least the warm. But she could not afford a groat, let alone a penny.

An hour passed slowly, muffled carousing coming from down the street and across the cobblestones. Occasionally she heard a boot heel walking unevenly through the deadening fog, a gent passing by on the other side of the canal, unaware of her and another penny passing her by.

Each time she heard footsteps in the distance she cursed her luck.

Her little girl was sickening. The priest could do little and her daughter shrivelled in the light, becoming a creature of the dark like her. She had tried all that she could think of and it had availed her little. The poor child withered like a dry shrub, like she had at the age of thirty after she had birthed the child and her no-good husband had sold her to the street for a mercenary’s life on the border and, no doubt, a stream of women he could buy for a penny and feel no guilt about.

She turned tricks for a penny and her husband was off paying others a penny for what she had given him for free.

Useless bastard. She could ill afford to lose the business. If he’d paid her a penny for all the times she’d spread her legs for free…

Well. Perhaps her daughter would not have sickened the way she had. Perhaps she had some unheard of pox she’d passed to her daughter. There was more guilt in her head than she knew.

In many ways she was a simple woman. She’d paid the priest with all she had to offer. Every penny she had, and then with every ounce of her flesh. And still her daughter sickened. He came back still, but she was simple, not stupid. He didn’t come back for her daughter but for her.

If he knew the sickness was in her, too, perhaps he would be a little less eager.

She sighed and puffed in the chill air, fog swirling around her breath. Her hair was damp and lank on her cheeks. All that time curling it as was the fashion among the high-class courtesans. Who did she think she was?

A waste of time, she thought, as the sounds of a horse clopping along the cobbled streets came to her. Some lord slumming it tonight, she thought… the horse came nearer, its location unclear in the fog. She could not tell how near or far it was. She chanced to hope… perhaps the lord would pass her way and throw her a silver for a roll along the canal bank.

Fog curled in the murk and a black horse came into view.

Ellisindre forced a smile onto her pale face and pushed her hip out, her hand resting on the swell, her skirt hitched.

The rider came close and looked down at her. His cloak was dark and hung loose over the horse’s flanks. His head was covered by a low hat, the brim pulled down to hide his eyes.

A fine cloak, she calculated. A silver, at least.

“Good evening, my lord. A sad night to be alone, for sure…”

“Save your wiles, my love. My master requires a woman’s company tonight, and you will suffice. A gold piece for the journey, and one for the work.”

Two gold!

“I’m game. To where, my lord?”

“Just a squire, whore. I’ve no time for your games. Get astride the horse and shut your mouth. You can open it later for my master if you like, but I’ll not suffer you to sully me. Come or as not, it makes no difference to me.”

He held out his hand.

She was no stranger to men with ire at her, for what she never knew. Perhaps they hated her for what she was. Mayhap they hated her for what they were.

She did not care. For two gold he could call her all the names under the moon. She took his hand and pulled herself up.

* * * * *

On Sunday Street the little girl wheezed and coughed. She put her book down and listened in the night. In the distance she heard a horse clipping down the street… two streets over, she judged. Riding heavy.

She did not know how she knew these things she did. She was more awake this night than she had ever been when she had known the kiss of the sun.

She worried for her mother. She worried for herself. No longer could she take the sun. Her hands were weak but her eyes were strong. Even in the flickering candlelight she could make out the picture that hung on the wall, hung there by the priest. The priest who had used her mother in the other room while she was supposed to sleep.

She did not know how she felt about that. But she could feel something… something indefinable. A pull. She’d felt it for about a week now. She didn’t know what it was.

Tonight it was strong. The night was calling her.

The horse’s hooves clapped on the stone perhaps two streets over. For some reason she felt she should see what the ruckus was. She’d never seen a horse. Her mother wouldn’t be back until the dawn’s first light… she’d never know.

The little girl pulled open the window and hied herself over the windowsill into the night. Her bare feet slapped on the uneven stone and she walked slowly toward the sound of the trotting horse.

Reveling in the smells of the night and the smooth refreshing feel of the silken fog on her skin, she roamed the night. She walked by a man taking a piss in the canal, the steady splash beside her. She was silent for a moment, then passed on. In the fog, she was invisible.

And free. Finally free of the confines of her room. She was enjoying herself. She marked her route and decided immediately that she would do this every night while her mother worked the streets. Perhaps she would find a purse or a gem… yes! She would search the streets for a gem… just like in her book.

It was her favourite book. In her book a little girl found a gem. Her mother took it from her and gave it to a lord… the lord had lost the gem, of course. By chance they fell in love and the lord took the little girl and the mother and they became his family… they were happy…

It was just a story though, she thought, and her mood nearly dropped. But the night was magical. It was a night for a little girl to dream.

* * * * *

Ellisindre dismounted ungracefully and put her feet on the solid ground. Her rump was sore from the ride.

Not for the first time.

The squire had not spoken a word to her, but now he tossed her a gold coin which she snatched from the air and tucked away in her skirt with a smooth, practiced movement.

He slid from the horse and took her elbow.

“Come, my lord awaits. His ardour is rare and he is impatient when the mood is upon him. Do not keep him waiting.”

She said nothing but allowed herself to be led by the arm toward a grand door. She could see little else of the house but she got the sense that it was a large estate. They had passed the last house a few minutes ago, and headed through iron wrought gates onto a long paved road with carmillion blossoms on either side, their night blooms full and fragrant.

The squire pushed open the door with one hand and guided her through perhaps a little roughly, but some of his rudeness seemed to have left him.

“Through the door to the right. My master waits in the dining room.”

She nodded and walked, brushing her damp hair away from her face. She put a smile on and tried to hide her disquiet. She felt more than out of place. The house was grand and full of artefacts. She was pleased that the squire had trusted her to walk through such riches without trying to plunder the hall and escape before he could find her.

Somehow she had the impression, though, that she would not get far.

She walked into the dining room and a small gasp escaped her lips. It was immense. But she was here to work, not gawp, and her gent was watching.

She pushed her bosom out to its full advantage and walked toward the man seated at the end of a long table who was smiling at her. She watched his eyes. They seemed black at this distance.

“Please, my lady. Take the seat at the end. I presumed you would be hungry at this hour and have taken the liberty of having a small repast prepared for you.”

“My lord, such kindness!” she exclaimed breathlessly, pouting.

“For such a beautiful lady… I would go to the ends of the earth.”

Oh, she thought, at least he made the pretense of charm.

“Might I have the pleasure of a name?” he enquired solicitously.

“Ellisindre, lord.”

“And I am Shawford Crale, my lady. Now we are friends. Please,” he waved a hand.

She sat where he indicated, at the foot of the long table. She watched him over the candlesticks… gold, if she was not mistaken. The table, too, was the finest. It seemed to be made of some stone she did not recognize but it had the solidity of stone, even if it was finely polished and seemed to have flecks of gold within it.

She happened to glance down and saw a strange design drawn below her chair. She pulled the chair in and returned her gaze to the man at the head of the table.

He was watching her like a hawk. His eyes had not left her since she had entered the dining hall. She tried to regain her composure and keep a smile on her face, even though her heart pounded in her chest.

The gent clapped his hands and a bent old man entered bearing a tray of delicacies, which the old man placed before Ellisindre.

“Please, business can wait. You must be hungry…”

She tried to pick but the food was delicious. There were sea oysters and plums, a fine strong cheese and a salty hunk of fish which she tore into. The servant returned and filled a glass with a deep red wine which she sampled and then gulped.

It was a meal like she had never imagined. The flavours exploded in her mouth and she used the napkin to wipe the juices from her lips between mouthfuls, until she forgot all efforts at deportment and set to with a passion.

The man seemed content to watch her eat. She watched him from under the cover of her hair which fell over her eyes, wondering that such a fine man could show one such as her such courtesy, a simple woman who made men happy when she could for a pretty.

He smiled at her and motioned for her to continue eating.

She gladly obliged, until she could eat no more.

“Thank you, my lord. It was a meal like no other. It was the best I have ever had. I have no doubt, you too, will be the best…”

The man laughed and his long salt and pepper hair fell across his eyes.

“My dear lady, you are the sweetest thing. Please, allow me to pour you some more wine… then, perhaps, we can get down to the business of the night.”

She smiled coquettishly at him and put a hand to her breast.

He approached with a bottle of the fine wine in his hand. His other was hidden behind his back. Ordinarily it would have troubled her, but she was utterly disarmed and not a little drunk.

* * * * *

The little girl had taken a while to find the horse. It had fallen silent some time ago, but for some reason her senses seemed more alive than they had ever been. She could smell it in the night, now approaching midnight by her inexperienced reckoning.

She stepped up to the horse and it whinnied at her and sniffed her hand. She stroked its nose and whispered gently to it, calming the beast.

It was a beautiful creature. So large she could barely reach its soft nose even though it craned its head down for her attentions.

Through the fog she heard her mother’s voice, startling her.

What was her mother doing here, in a lord’s manor?

Tonight was turning into some kind of adventure… perhaps her mother had met a lord… and they had fallen in love! Tomorrow they would come for her on this beautiful horse and they would all ride across the downs!

A mystery to be solved. She crept on stealthy feet closer to the voices and peered through a misted window.

* * * * *

“So, my dear. To business? Shall we?”

“Where do you want me, my lord? What do you wish?”

“You look beautiful just where you are… no, no, stay seated,” he said, coming to stand behind her.

She had been mesmerized by his walk. He was a solid man, well built and of middle years. He seemed confident… and more handsome than most of the gents she had known.

His hand touched her shoulder and she sighed. His hands were warm, her shoulder cold. Always cold.

“Such a beautiful neck, my lovely,” he said, and caressed her gently. She felt herself warming to him, a sudden rush of blood. Her mind swam from the wine and his hands were so soft.

She didn’t feel the knife that sliced through her neck. She was only aware of the blood when she felt its warmth flooding down the front of her dress.

She tried to scream at the sight of all the blood but only a drowning gurgle came from her slit throat.

Shawford Crale turned suddenly as a scream of rage rent the night from outside the window, bringing the knife to bear. Then the window shattered and Ellisindre’s daughter flew across the room… it was a leap no mortal could have made.

Ellisindre heard a startled cry escape the lips of her murderer and then the man was thrown across the table. Her daughter jumped on top of him and like a nightmare she was at his throat, tearing it open with her teeth. Tearing his flesh and drinking his blood.

She drank, Ellisindre aware only dimly of the slurping, gurgling noises coming from the table… then she felt flesh held against her lips.

“Drink, Mother. Drink.”

She could do little else. She drank. The blood from his throat mixed with her own and came out through the hole in her throat… then the hole was closed and she was drinking the pumping warmth from the man down into her full belly. But his blood warmed her through like the food had not. Her throat felt better. The stinging pain subsided and her head cleared.

Her daughter dropped Shawford Crale back onto the table, and for a moment Ellisindre marvelled at the strength it must have taken for her little girl to hold the man for her.

But she was no longer the weak little girl who had been wasting in her room this last month. Her cheeks were ruddy again and her flesh full and plump.

“I understand the sickness now, Mother,” said her daughter. “I feel it. I feel the life pulsing through me. Do you?”

Shawford Crale’s blood trickled out from his torn neck, staining the light marble crimson.

Ellisindre nodded and took her daughter in her arms. Tears dripped and mixed with the blood on her breast.

“I understand now, sweetheart, but my god, how I wish I did not.”

“Don’t weep, Mother. I dreamt of this day. That my father would be a lord! That you would be his wife and you would no longer have to haunt the night for a penny.”

“But you killed him.”

“No, Mother. I don’t think so,” said the little girl, new and frightening wisdom in her voice. “I understand. He will be your husband. We have given him life! You will rule him and this house. I read it in a book, Mother. The book you gave to me.”

“This is no fairytale, daughter of my heart.”

“But if we let it, it could be,” her daughter said, her eyes pleading.

Shawford Crale’s blood dried. Ellisindre sat watching, her daughter eager on her lap, as the master of the house’s throat slowly healed.

By morning the hole had closed. A new day dawned with dreams fulfilled and hearts full of hope.

* * * * *

And so, just like in the fairytales, a kiss brought the lord back to life, and they all lived happily ever after.

Dreams do come true.

And so, in the still dark hours of the night, do nightmares.

 

The Witch’s Cauldron

by Craig Saunders

 

“Father, why are you so afraid of witches?” asked the small boy, his face red from the glow of the evening fire. Sparks crackled and glowing embers blew high on the wind.

“I am not afraid of them, child, I am in awe,” said his father, after quiet deliberation.

“Tell me why,” the child pestered him, with a child’s lack of sensibilities.

“Very well, son, I will tell you, but you shall not sleep this night.”

“Then tell me why,” asked the child.

“Then, if you insist, tell you I will.”

And so, he told him the story his father had told him.

* * * * *

In the darkness within the Pale Forest, there lurked a witch. The town folk from nearby Cadrean called on her with their various ailments, some embarrassing, most not. She wasn’t well loved—it’s difficult to love a witch. She was given to cackling for no reason. Witches don’t laugh like ordinary folk.

You can’t have a man witch either, it has to be a woman. Perhaps the midwifery involved makes it important to be a woman. Men aren’t given to delivering babies. Leastways, not around Kilondor.

Kilondor was the region of sunshine. Vast flat planes that cast no shadow were the perfect breeding grounds for horses, and the Thane of Kilondor was rich from this natural wealth. The region had no gold but everybody, all the other Thanes of course, needed horses. The Thane was a kind man, called Dandred by all who loved him. His wife was well known throughout the region for her alms. A kindly family, they were the most popular rulers in all of Faerdom.

Faerdom itself was a pretty isle, located in the middle of the Grateful Seas. The ships that sailed to and fro were often lost in the storms that plagued the seas around it, making invasion all but impossible. Trade with the other lands was sparse. Peace had reigned for three hundred years.

But the witch, I was telling you about the witch. The witch now, she was a different breed to the other people of Faerdom. The people of Cadrean called her friend though, despite her fey nature. They were not prone to superstition, like the other regions throughout the lands. The flat planes of Kilondor bred plain folk. They had no time for superstition. Birthing foals was taxing enough on the brain without filling it with nonsense and having that to cope with as well.

The witch had no warts. She didn’t wear a funny hat. She did have three nipples but no one ever saw any of them so she could keep that to herself. The people of Kilondor were none too good at counting either, so if any of them noticed the extra finger she bore on each hand they said nothing of it. What business was it of theirs anyway?

The witch had a name. She didn’t use it often. She hadn’t forgotten her name but everyone just called her the witch of Pale Forest. She didn’t have much to her name and wandered mainly, not making a home. If pushed she would have said that the Pale Forest was her home. It welcomed her like it welcomed no other. There was no other person in all of Faerdom who would have been welcome in the Pale Forest. It was a murky, foreboding forest, full of demons and ghosts. Only those truly desperate came to seek out the witch of Pale Forest.

One day the Thane of Dandred rode into the forest. He had a fretful look about him. His horse, at least seventeen hands high (the Thane could count) bore him swiftly past the town of Cadrean, leaving whispers in his wake. What was the Thane doing out here? And alone? He goes into the Pale Forest! He seeks the witch! The people of Cadrean had made gossip a hobby and before long the whole town knew the Thane had ridden into the Pale Forest alone. He could only be seeking the witch. The gossip mongers whispered themselves hoarse mulling the problem over. What could be so wrong for the Thane that he had to seek the witch out? Surely a man like the Thane had everything that he could need.

The Thane was unaware of the stir his passing had caused. He rode on, ever slower as the thickets and brush closed in on him. The deeper into the forest he went the thicker the undergrowth became. Soon he was forced to dismount and lead his ashen horse behind him. Before long he would be forced to draw his sword to hack at the branches that obscured his path, but he was loath to do so. The witch’s wrath would be great indeed were he to cut back any of her beloved forest. He felt a wary misgiving at being in the forest at all. He had heard stories of the witch, a cold hard woman. Were it not for the direst need he wouldn’t be here at all. But his wife was with child and she had been bleeding for a whole day now. None of the physicians of the realm could do anything for her. They had all been called. There was nothing left but to call on the witch.

The witch saw Dandred’s approach. She watched with interest as he drew closer to where she sat by the bole of a tree. She knew what he wanted. But she was loath to leave her forest. She got up.

“Ho,” she called to him. “What brings the Thane to visit an old lady in the woods?”

The relief of finding her almost outweighed the dread the Thane felt. The witch always extracted her price. From those that couldn’t pay it was often just a lamb, or a carrot, or a turnip for her stew. For those that could the price was always higher.

“I come to beg your aid, mistress.”

The Thane bowed low as he said this, holding his sword back against his leg lest it clatter in an ungainly manner.

“Mistress, is it? Your need must be dire indeed.”

The Thane stood up straight and said to the witch, “I come not for me. I come for my wife. She is with child but she has been bleeding. I need you to come and help her. If you will.”

“I will come, Dandred the Kind. But for you there will be a higher tithe. You are by all accounts a rich man.”

“Any sum that I can pay will be yours. I only beg of you come quickly.”

“The price is more than horses, my good man. I will let you know the price when the deed is done.”

“And that sounds fair, mistress.”

“Less of the mistress. I will meet you at your home.”

“But it is urgent.”

“I will meet you there. I can travel with haste if I need to.”

“Very well.” The Thane bowed low and led his horse from the forest. The forest closed in behind him as he walked. The light grew steadily until he emerged by the town of Cadrean. The people had all come out to watch him pass. None spoke to him, out of respect, but all wondered what the price would be.

The Thane galloped as fast as he could back to his home, a large wooden house on the outskirts of Cadrean. His horse was sweating by the time it got him back, and there, on the front step, stood the witch, waiting for him.

“I have been waiting for you,” she called out to him as he approached. She was not out of breath, Dandred noted, even as he wondered why she would be. She had arrived by magic, not by fleetness of foot, or he was a fool. And he considered himself no fool.

The witch of the Pale Forest wore a dark cloak about her person that looked too warm for the sun high in the sky. Winter had long since passed and spring was on its way to summer. The Thane didn’t wonder about the cloak. It was too heavy but a witch’s business was her own affair.

“Then come inside with all haste. My wife sickens while we talk.”

The Thane thrust the door open and took the steps two at a time. The witch followed quietly behind.

At the top of the stairs there was a door leading to the bed chambers. The Thane held the door open for the witch and she entered, spreading her cloak wide to reveal a coat holding assorted implements of what looked like torture. There were calipers and scalpels, small vials of disgusting looking preparations, scissors and tongs, and wickedly curved needle of bone. She took off her cloak and the coat underneath fair shimmered with the silvery glint of hideous devices. She laid her cloak on a chair and turned to the Thane.

“Leave me with her.”

“But she is my wife.”

“I work alone. That you must have heard.”

The Thane looked longingly at his wife, where she lay on the bed, bleeding out in quiet misery. For those that have ever seen a child birthed, they will know that until the baby is safely in his mother’s arms there is nothing but misery and a gnawing fear, hope abandoned until the deed is done. Rare is the birth that starts in joy, although to be fair to mother nature the act preceding is often done with a hint of a smile, and perhaps a cheery slap on the behind. But this was childbirth, and it was another matter all together. The love that Dandred’s wife felt for him was all but forgotten in her pain, and by then there was little in her face but forlorn hope, and not a little fear.

“Very well. Do what you must, but save my wife,” implored the Thane.

“I will do what I can, though I promise nothing,” said the witch testily.

She ushered the Thane to the door and closed it behind her.

The Thane paced up and down the hallway outside his bedchambers. His leather boots clacked on the wooden floor and he could hear nothing from inside. He put his ear against the door but could discern not even a groan from the chamber.

An hour passed, and then two, but fear of the witch, and fear for his wife, and their unborn child, unmanned him. He was loath to enter the bedchamber, and whatever horrors were there. He could not face it. He would not.

Then, just as he was beginning to convince himself that his wife must have died inside, he heard the first gasp of a wail, then, the wail that followed it. He burst inside to find his wife sitting up, the blood covering the whole of the bed, and an infant, tiny, held in the witch’s arms.

“Out man! I have not finished yet! Your wife still bleeds from the inside. Out I say!”

Before a smile could reach his lips; a baby son! he worried for his wife. Reluctantly he shut the door on the witch and his pale wife, and thought about his son. It was his first son, and he knew he would love him all the more. But not should he lose his wife. That would be a pain unbearable.

He waited and waited. The only sound from inside the room was the wailing of the child. The child cried incessantly and he wanted to go in to give it a father’s comfort, to hold him in his arms. He wanted to hold them both in his arms but the witch had told him to stay outside so he stayed.

Eventually the witch came out holding his baby in her arms. She smiled sadly at him.

“Is she alright?” the Thane asked, holding his arms out to take his baby son.

“She is sleeping. She has lost much blood but I think she will live. The sheets will need changing when she wakes and I will return in a ten day to remove the stitches I have placed inside her. She will live, I think.”

“Thank you! You have saved both their lives and saved my only son.”

“It was not for nothing. There is the payment.”

“What payment could you ask? All my wealth would not be enough for all you have given me this day,” the Thane said gratefully, an almost childish grin on his face.

“That will not be necessary. I ask only this: that you make me the finest cauldron, with your own hands. That is the price. And I give you this advice. The next time you ask for my assistance, I beg of you do not ask. The price that time would be too high for even you to pay. Remember this. Do not ask again or you will weep tears for a lifetime.”

But the Thane was so happy that day that he paid no heed to the witch’s warning.

After a ten day, the Thane had delivered to the witch a cauldron of the finest making. Together, working with the blacksmith, he had wrought a fine cauldron from the finest iron, and emblazoned upon it his own crest of a dancing horse. The cauldron was delivered and the Thane thought nothing more of it.

* * * * *

Ten years passed as though in a dream. The Thane brought his son up to be a good man. He loved his wife and son all the more for nearly having lost them, and the Thane was a happy man. His people loved him and the Thane became, if anything, even kinder to them. His council was wise and the decisions he made were for the good of the people, never for himself.

One day his wife spoke softly to him in the bed chamber.

“I am with child again,” she said, and the Thane thought his heart would burst with happiness. For all the time he had spent loving his wife and son he had dearly wanted another child.

But for both of them there was a hint of fear. They tried to ignore it, as couples are wont to do, but it festered within, until they could not lay side by side anymore. The Thane took to leaving his wife alone at nights, and often sat reading to his son, even after the boy had fallen asleep. He almost forgot the gift given to him. But by then, he had forgotten much.

Months passed and the Thane watched his wife grow large with child.

Then, on the ninth month, when his wife was about to go into labour, a messenger came riding in.

“My lord, you must come quick. I fear there has been a terrible tragedy. It is your son, Theodric. He has fallen from his horse.”

Loath to leave his wife as she was soon to go into labour, he mounted his own horse. Sick with worry he rode out to the plains, where he found his son, head bandaged and feverish. His horsemen surrounded the young heir on a litter.

“He is unconscious, my lord. He fell while riding this morning. I rode as hard as I could to find you. I cannot make him wake.”

The Thane did not know what to do. He could not leave his wife for long.

“Bring my son back home,” he said, sorrow breaking his once strong voice.

He had an idea then, and perhaps the idea had been there all along. No one but the Thane, and the gods if they are truly wise, will ever know. There is one more person who knew, and she knew from the very beginning, from the day Theodric was born. She was the one who handed the mewling babe back into his mother’s arms.

Dandred understood what he must do. He would find the witch.

Mere hours passed before the horsemen returned home with the boy. Theodric was arranged in his bed, where he shook from fever, and the Thane’s wife entered labour for the second time in her young life. The finest physicians could find no physical malady with his son and told those waiting that his time was short. It looked as though Theodric had been doomed to death, from the day he was born.

The Thane, furious that this should come to pass on that day, which should have been full of love and joy, did the only thing he could think to do. He left his family alone, and with tears of sadness wetting his face, and sorrow clouding his heart, rode out to the Pale Forest.

For hours, he rode, mind blank with grief for his young son, who he had nearly lost so long ago.

His back was sore when he arrived, and unconsciously he knuckled the small area above his rump as he led his stallion deeper into the forbidding forest. The sunlight seemed to fade from up above, and just as he thought he would never find the witch in time, there she was, waiting for him upon a fallen tree, a deer on her right, eating berries from her hand.

The cauldron he had made for her sat beside her feet.

Before he could speak she bade him dismount.

“My Lord. I told you once. I beg of you not to ask me.”

“My son lies dying. I need your skills. You must save him.”

“I cannot. I fear what affects him is beyond even my skills to heal.”

“There must be something you can do.”

“The price is too high.”

“I will pay any price.”

“Truly? There are some prices too high for even a man of your wealth to pay.”

“I will pay any price.”

“Then take this to the side of your wife. I will meet you there.”

The Thane rode on, holding the cauldron to one side.

When he reached his home, as before, the witch was waiting at the doorstep for him.

“The price always comes after the deed. You know this. I beg you one last time, do not ask this of me.”

“I ask and you must save my son. You are born to serve those in need, are you not?”

“I am, my lord.” The witch looked at him with the heaviest sadness he had ever seen in her eyes. “Take me to your son.”

“He is upstairs.”

“Your second son. I must see him first.”

The Thane thought it strange but allowed the witch her whims. “Very well. I will take you to my son.”

He led her upstairs to his bedchamber. His wife was sitting up on the bed. Her belly was large with child and from the bed he could tell that the child would be coming soon.

“You must leave me with your wife. The price, I fear, will be too high for you, but I will save your son, as you have asked.”

He laid his cauldron down beside her.

With the door shut the Thane prowled the hallway as he had ten years before. No sounds came from within. He waited for the sound of his mewling baby—a second son! Joy tempered with fear for his first son. All his love had been invested in his first son. He could not die now. He would not allow it.

The first breath hitched, and then it finally came, a great yowling cry, one that brought happiness to his heart, if only for a moment. This time he knew better than to barge in. The witch would call him when she was ready.

The bawling stopped after too short a time. The silence came as suddenly as the sound.

Dandred was worried that he could hear nothing. He waited outside for an hour and the only sound to come from within was a steady chanting. Darkness settled into the house, and the Thane felt a deep chill following in the gloom.

Eventually, the witch emerged, her face grey with strain.

“It is done. Take me to your son.”

“Where is my son?”

“I will show him to you after I have saved your Theodric.” She held a bubbling cauldron by her side.

He took her down the hall to where his first son was laid up. He was sweating with the fever and mumbling. His bandaged head was soaked through and bloody.

The witch knelt beside him and took a ladle from the bubbling cauldron. She gently placed the ladle to the young boy’s lips and bade him drink. Even in his unconscious state the boy drank heartily. He drank the whole ladleful and then to the Thane’s surprise his eyes opened.

“Theodric!” cried the Thane in joy. “You are awake!”

“Father! I had the most terrible dream.”

“No more dreams now my boy. You must rest.”

The boy smiled and lay back down.

“I cannot thank you enough, witch of the Pale Forest. Your price. Name anything.”

“The price has already been paid.”

The Thane looked confused for a second. Until he looked down into the cauldron. It was still bubbling. There, in the murk, bobbed something small, cherubic. It turned its head toward him, and recognition of his deeds came too late.

Dandred put his head in his hands and howled his anguish to the night.

The witch watched him with tears in her eyes, but her tears had fallen long ago. Some people are sad because they know too much, some are sad because others know too little. Witches know both kinds of sorrow.

* * * * *

“That’s a horrible story! I shan’t sleep tonight,” the boy asserted.

“As it should be son, as it should be. Now you know. That is the reason most people fear witches. One small part of us, which we do not wish to acknowledge, knows the truth. No matter what we do, or what we learn, or how much we are blinded by love, know this, child: witches are wiser than any man.”

“Well, now I know why I should be afraid of witches.”

“Don’t fear them, child. Instead, pity them. That, I think, would be more fitting.”

With that, the boy’s father kissed the child on the cheek, and tucked his cloak around him, proof against the chill growing on the air. But he was a kind man. He built up the fire in the clearing, and left it burning against the night, and all that lived within.