“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.