It is the nature of princes to go on quests, but this particular prince seemed more resigned than excited when he rode into the village square. He dismounted in front of the well and looked around, taking in the faces of the villagers looking up from tasks or out from windows. Conversation trailed off as we, in our turn, took in his velvet doublet and well-cobbled, nearly clean boots, now picking up mud left from a week of afternoon showers.
"Is this Forked Pine?" One of the women nodded in the affirmative, and the prince went on. "Where can I find the old witch's cottage?"
This got sideways glances and not a few looks at Thomas the draper, who had been the lord's forester some dozen or fifteen years ago, and lived hard by the witch's land at the time. Wil and I had come too late to hear the story firsthand, but gossip around the village said he'd sold his daughter for an herb to get his wife through the birth.
Of course, gossip also said they'd lost three babes before that, so the village's sympathies were with him; he hadn't known he was giving a live child over to be eaten. And the witch would have found a way to get the babe regardless; hadn't the one before her lured children in with a house made to look like gingerbread? He'd done well enough to keep his daughters safe as long as he had; it was the witch who called the youngest girl to her, when he would not give over the oldest for her supper.
"Best leave the witch well alone, my lord," the smith said finally. "She's a terror to the children, right enough, but we've had naught to do with her these past fifteen years and more, and she's left us alone in return. Mayhap the next bargain she drives will be a harder one."
"The witch is still alive?"
"Aye, and well, last we saw of her, for all that she's an old woman."
The prince considered that, then shrugged as if to say it was no matter. "It is not her I am looking for, but a kinswoman, sister to my father the king. Point me the way to her cottage, and if the witch truly does live, I will see that she does not trouble the village again."
Everyone turned to their neighbor, murmuring questions and speculation. We had seen the witch only at a distance since Thomas's daughter had vanished, some said eaten, some said locked inside the tower to be fattened up. The latter claimed that they could hear her singing on sunny afternoons, and it was true that someone in that tower sang whenever the window was open – and it would not have surprised me to know that she sang when it was closed as well. But it had always intrigued me that this girl, supposedly held against her will, should sing in such dire captivity.
"There is a gold piece in it," the prince said finally, when no one stepped forward. "I need no guide; simply point me to the path and the coin is yours."
"No path through a witch's forest ever led straight, my lord, and her tower is not exactly the cottage you name it," I said, stepping forward. "If you permit, I will take you within sight of her walls."
The prince began to question me almost as soon as the trees closed in behind us. I answered as best I could, somewhat hampered by having only lived in the village perhaps four or five years – long enough for Wil to feel safe in leaving me behind to take our goods to market, but short enough that I was strictly ordered to be on my best behavior. And so I stopped where the witch's stone walls showed through the trees, and only pointed him to where he might lift the seemingly impenetrable vines to find the path that led up to the witch's front door.
But I climbed a tree when he had gone, and watched.
The girl was singing in the window when the prince approached, and he must have liked what he heard, for he circled the tower to look up at her. She paid him no heed, being occupied with an embroidery frame, and he said nothing to get her attention until he had looked his fill. Then he stepped back, out of sight around the tower's curve, and pilfered flowers from the witch's garden until he held a passable bouquet.
It didn't fool her; I could see in the widening of her eyes that she knew exactly where those flowers had come from. But I could also see the look that a girl gets when she's seen a boy to her liking; and I have to admit, he is a handsome young prince.
If a bit foolish. "Aunt Gretel, I have come to rescue you from the witch's cottage!"
"My father did not tell me you were so young, or so fair; but I will rescue you all the faster for that! Only tell me where the door to this tower is, for the path leads to a blank wall."
"I'm not your aunt!"
"You're not? My father is Hansel, the--"
"You're probably older than I am!"
"I admit the thought crossed my mind, but –"
"And how are you going to rescue anyone from a tower when you can't even find the door?"
"I don't suppose you could give me a hint, fair Gretel?"
"No, and my name isn't Gretel!"
"Not even a small one? And your name; I would be delighted to know your name."
"No!" But she paused, in slight confusion, as if she hadn't meant to deny him quite so vehemently, and added, "But you could tell me yours."
It took him a day to coax her name from her, and another week to learn the secret of the tower – if anything can be said to be a secret when it has to be yelled down from the window to the garden. But I was the only one present, and though I saw her lower the charms bound into a rope the color of her hair, I cannot remember which one opened the tower's secret door and which would have sent him into an endless sleep.
Or even if the secret was truly in the charms, for she met him at the door, and might easily have opened it herself.
Some say the witch knew all along, and was only waiting to catch them in the act. I think, rather, that it came as a surprise; she had been to the same fair that Wil took our goods to – Wil saw her there, selling herbs and vegetables from her garden – and returned late in the afternoon, nearly two days after Wil, for Wil rode and the witch walked. The lovers were in the tower with the window closed, and I had nearly decided to give up my perch in the tree and go do my afternoon chores when the old woman pulled her small handcart up to the gate.
She could not have been inside long enough to say three sentences when the young fool of a prince leapt through a different window, thankfully closer to the ground, and landed in the beautiful rosebush that climbed the east side of the tower. He tangled his sword as well as his feet, and I thought for some moments that he had stabbed himself, there was so much blood on his face.
The girl must have thought so too, for she took one look and screamed. It was the witch who kept her from throwing herself after her prince, who held her while I got him upright and called to her that he was alive, and who finally gave the poor girl a sleeping-draught while we did what we could for the prince's eyes. I cannot think what he was intending – whether he thought he would leap down to confront the witch, not knowing she was already in the tower, or whether he did know, and perhaps intended a daring escape. Either way, it was ill-conceived.
But I think perhaps that part of the blame lies with the king, sending such a son out on a quest without putting any sense into his head. Any child knows it is foolish to jump from a tower window, or to court the daughter of a witch.
And she truly is a witch, for I saw her mix a paste for the prince's eyelids, and within a week he could see just as if he had not jumped into her prize long-thorned roses. By the end of the month, he had collected the witch's daughter from the forester's cottage, where she had fled when she woke from the sleeping-draught, and they were married in state at his father's castle.
That, too, I watched myself, from the ground this time, with an elderly woman on my arm; and I saw the look on the queen's face when she saw her son's proclaimed witch, and how quickly it eclipsed the expression on the king's face when he thought he might have recognized his sister in the witch's stooped form. But no soldiers came to the witch's tower, and the king did.
Whatever may have been said was said without me, for I was at home with the chores and not up in the tree; but it is in my mind that the witch lived out her days easier once the royal carriage began to travel regularly through our forest. And it is said that on fine clear days when the window is open, you can still hear singing from the tower; and if you ask the witch for an herb to ease child-birth, she will give it to you, and ask nothing in return.