The Third Witch– a Tuesday Tale

From Barbara Leonie Picard’s The Faun and the Woodcutter’s Daughter.

A young king, lost in a forest, found his way to a cottage in forest’s heart.  The three women who received him had matching golden eyes. Scoffing away the idea of money, they told him he could work for his bed and board.  Each of the next few days the task he was set to took the entire day and all of his strength, so he was compelled to stay the next night, repeating the cycle.

Each day he survived (each task put him in mortal danger) one of the older women was gone, until only the youngest and most beautiful remained.

Smitten, the king asked her to return with him and be his queen. She warned him that she was a true witch, and would not care for him in the least. In fact, she told him, she could not even grow to care for him, for her heart was made of stone, and if it ever softened enough to love, it would break, killing her.

The young king heard all this, but was confident he had enough love for them both.  His only request for her was to refrain from practicing her magic while she lived with him, for he disliked the dark arts intensely, fearing their wickedness.  The young witch agreed to this and became his bride.

There were a number of times over the succeeding years when the husband’s resistance to magic was tested. His wife would approach him, reminding him she held a simple solution, if he would only ask. Horrified, he always refused, even when it meant a drawn-out war, and, later, the death of his beloved brother. The witch, in her turn, was not offended or put out by his refusals. She only offered because it was courteous, then watched impassively as he endured the costs of living without magic.

However, despite the king’s heartbreaking resistance to the solutions offered by his wife, the rumor that she was a true witch continued to grow, making the kingdom afraid. The day came when the people stormed the castle demanding the witch, and the soldiers did nothing to stop them.  Seeing the king ready to throw his life away in defense of his beloved queen, his own bodyguard subdued him and held him back as she was taken from him, telling him it was for his own protection.

The king, no longer fearing the darkness as much as he feared for his wife’s safety, called to her to do whatever she needed to in order to escape. The queen only laughed– unafraid. Knowing her own power the threats of the crowd meant nothing.

As they carried her to the burning place, the queen calmly considered how best to make her escape.  A lioness, to rend some and frighten the rest? A bird, to soar above their angry reach?

But as she considered a string of creative options, the result became obvious:  The kingdom’s accusation would be confirmed that the queen was a witch, and that the king had concealed it.  Her transformation would be the proof that destroyed him, the proof that caused his own people to turn against him.

The witch realized she didn’t want her husband to be hurt. She realized that she cared for him. Even loved him. At that moment her heart of stone cracked, and she died.  But there was such a look about her in death that the very people who had been ready to burn her felt ashamed.  There were whispered questions from those who saw her face. Murmurs rippled, questioning whether she had really been an angel, after all.

And the place where she was to have have been burned in disgrace became instead a burial mound that was held in honor for generations afterward.

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