The Wolf and The Witch

It was a bright and sunny day with scarcely a cloud to be seen in the sky. As Tome and Arthur walked along the well-trodden path across the fields into onto a broad grassy plain, they told each other more about themselves. For Arthur’s part, he told Tome about the farm on which he lived, and Mum and Dad worked. He told him about the crops they grew and especially about the golden corn. Tome was particularly interested in the scarecrow and wanted to know what it was for.

“Why to scare off the crows of course and stop them eating the corn,” answered the boy. He then had to explain what crows were, for Tome had never heard of them either.

“Oh,” said Tome, they sound like Cawcroaks to me. But I still don’t see why you need a scarecrow, or should I say a scarecroak?” They both laughed at the weak joke and then Tome went on. “Why don’t you cast a fright spell?”

“A fright spell? What’s a fright spell?”

“A spell to frighten something away, of course. You write the name of the thing you want to scare on a piece of paper and bury it by the light of the moon in the place you want to frighten it away from. It’s foolproof.”

“Sounds like it would have to be magic but that’s impossible,” said Arthur. “There’s no such thing as magic.”

Tome looked astonished. “Impossible? Magic impossible? Don’t you have magic where you come from?”

“Of course not. There’s no such thing. My Dad told me, and he should know because he used to be a scientist.”

After Arthur had explained what a scientist was, Tome shook his head in disbelief.

“You certainly come from a strange place,” he told Arthur. “Machines, is that what you called them, do all the work without a horse to pull them? If that’s not magic, then I don’t know what is!”

As they walked the man and the boy swapped stories about their respective worlds and lives. It was difficult to tell who had the most problem believing what the other had to say.

Tome told Arthur that Gwen and himself were farmers and they had lived in these hills all their lives.

“If you are a farmer,” said Arthur, “why do you carry that big sword?”

Tome smiled and pulled the sword from the sheath on his back.

“Not for fighting, if that’s what you think. This sword belonged to my father and before that to his father. It has been in our family for generations going back through the mists of time. When I was young, younger even than you, my father and grandfather used to tell me it was magical and had special powers. They were teasing, of course, but at the time I believed them. I carry it now only to rescue boys from Crusher trees”, he concluded with a grin.

Arthur would have liked to know more about the sword and its history but had to answer Tome’s questions about his own history instead. He decided to save his own questions for later.

Around lunchtime, the path started to climb up a small hill. Tome told Arthur that this was merely a foothill and that the old woman’s cave was much higher up. This was confirmed when they reached the ridgeline. Arthur had been hoping this would be the top, but now he could see more hills rising high above them, and far beyond them there were grey mountains. His spirits fell.

“I know it looks bad now,” said Tome, “but before you know it, the climb will be behind us, and we will be at the old woman’s cave. In the meantime, let’s rest awhile, and have some lunch.”

Sitting down on the grass, Tome unslung the knapsacks that Gwen had given them for the journey and undid the straps. Inside, wrapped in paper was a delicious choice of homemade bread, cheese and small pies, which Tome shared out between them. When they had finished eating, Tome pulled a flagon of honey wine from the pack which they used to wash down the food.

Arthur decided that he had never tasted anything so good and drank a bit too much. His Mum and Dad didn’t let him drink wine at home, and when he stood up, he realised why. His legs felt quite wobbly, and it took a few moments before he got his balance. He resolved to drink a bit less next time.

After lunch, they walked for several hours, climbing ever higher into the hills and it was late afternoon when they heard voices up ahead. Tome motioned to Arthur to crouch down and be quiet. He then crawled forward to the next crest before laying there, watching what was happening on the other side. After a while, he crawled back to where Arthur was hiding behind a rock.

“What is it?”, whispered Arthur.

“Trappers. Looks like they’ve caught a wolf, poor thing. They probably wouldn’t attack us, but I would rather avoid them if we can. No point in taking unnecessary chances.

After a while, the voices stopped, and Tome again crept forward to the crest to look over. When he was satisfied that the trappers had left, he called on Arthur to join him.

“What did they want with the wolf,” asked Arthur innocently.

“They wanted her fur for clothes. There’s some in the city that will pay handsomely for a wolf-fur coat. For myself, I much prefer to see the wolf wearing it herself rather than on the back of some fancy lady. Still, it’s none of my business so long as they don’t interfere with me or mine.

After their unwanted break, the pair carried on along the path, and Arthur looked the other way as they passed the stripped carcass of the unfortunate animal. They hadn’t gone far when they heard something moving in the bushes, making a weak whining noise. Holding out an arm to halt Arthur, Tome drew his long sword and moved cautiously forward. Suddenly, he leapt into the undergrowth and, after a brief struggle, re-emerged with a furry bundle clasped securely by the loose skin at the back of its neck.

Arthur leaned forward to see what it was. “Oh my,” he exclaimed, “It’s a puppy!”

“Not a puppy, boy. A wolf cub. That poor animal back there was probably his mother. Those greedy trappers have killed two animals this day, for this cub is too young to survive on his own.

Arthur felt a catch in his throat. “Please, please, Tome,” he pleaded. Can’t we take him with us? He can share my food, and I promise to take care of him. Please!”

“Oh yes, and what happens when you go back to your own home? I don’t expect your mother will let you keep a wolf in the house. No, best that I just kill it now. It’s the kindest way to spare him suffering.” He started to raise his sword again, but before he could lift it fully, Arthur grabbed his arm.

“Please, at least give him a chance. Let him go,” he begged.

Seeing the desperation in the boy’s face, Tome relented. He didn’t really have the heart to strike down a defenceless animal anyway.

“Oh, very well. I’ll let the pup live. But we can’t take it with us. He will have to find his own way in the world. Maybe another wolf mother will take pity on him.” With that, he sheathed his sword, put down the cub and strode away. Arthur looked down at the orphaned cub and said a little prayer for its survival before reluctantly following Tome.

He was thankful that they hadn’t killed the cub but sad that he was not allowed to take it with them either. As he followed Tome along the path, he secretly took bits of food from his own knapsack and dropped them on the floor behind him. Maybe the cub would find the food and survive until he could find a new mum.

As night fell, they made camp in a hollow between the hills. Tome showed Arthur how to collect wood, making sure only to select dry twigs and fallen branches. Once they had enough of a pile to last the night, Tome taught him how to set and light a fire in a depression encircled by stones, so it wouldn’t spread.

“We must keep the fire going all night,” he explained. “It will scare away wild animals as well as keeping us warm.”

As stars appeared in the night sky, Arthur crawled beneath the blanket that Tome gave him. It had been a long tiring day, and soon enough, he was fast asleep. After topping up the fire with logs from their pile, Tome too lay down and slept.

Neither the man nor the boy was awake when the enormous python came out from behind some boulders, slithering across the clearing towards them. Pythons aren’t venomous, but they do have a vicious bite and are large enough to swallow a whole sheep. A small boy would make a nice snack. What’s more, while Tome was right about most animals being afraid of fire, snakes are an exception. Pythons actively seek out warmth, and this one was no exception.

The snake silently glided across the clearing, and within moments was mere centimetres from the sleeping Arthur. Its forked tongue flickered in out and out, tasting the scent of the boy. Then its mouth opened wider than you would believe possible and swept forward towards the exposed throat.

There was a blur of grey, and the python bowled over and over before coming to a stop in a frenzy of thrashing coils. It reared upwards on its tail, clamped its jaws about its assailant, and with a mighty shrug, hurled its attacker against the rocks where it lay still and unmoving.

Before it could move in for the kill, Tome was on his feet, sword in hand. With one mighty swipe, he separated the snakes head from its body.

“What happened,” asked Arthur waking up and seeing the dead snake.

“I was careless,” replied Tome, kneeling to wipe his bloodied sword on the grass. I forgot snakes plague these hills. This one crept up while we were asleep. It was about to have you for supper when your friend there attacked it. He saved your life.

Arthur looked across to where Tome was pointing and saw the still body of the cub.

“My wolf! Is he dead? Please say he’s not. Help him, Tome. Please!

Tome bent down beside the stricken creature and examined the cub. “No, he’s not dead, but he’s not far from it, either.”

“Help him! We can’t let him die now!

“I can’t help him,” said Tome with a sad sigh. “He is hurt beyond my skills. But perhaps the old woman can. It’s not far now. We will take him to her and see what can be done.”

With that, he picked up the little cub and cradled the body in his arms, instructing Arthur to put out the fire and pack up the camp. Then, together, they set off up the path to the witch’s cave.

With Tome carrying the stricken wolf cub in his arms, the two companions made their way up the steepening trail towards a cliff face. They arrived just as the rays of dawn crept over the jagged heights. Tome pointed to a cave set into the cliff wall, about fifty metres from the trail.

“There,” he said, is the home of Ganieda, “whom we call the old woman.”

Arthur pressed eagerly forward; his fear of witches now forgotten in his haste to get help for the cub. A small fire burned at the cave entrance and above it, a pot hung on a spit. Arthur drew back slightly imagining some evil potion designed to turn unwanted visitors into frogs or lizards. He started to take a step back, but then he remembered the cub and taking a deep breath, followed Tome up to the entrance. Tome halted by the bubbling pot and called out.

“Ganieda! Come out. It’s me, Tome, and a friend. We have need of your skills.”

Arthur peered from behind Tome’s back, terrified at the thought of who or what, might appear from the cave. A shadow moved within the darkness and slowly took on human as the witch appeared. Arthur steeled himself for the worst but in the event was surprised to see that Ganieda looked perfectly normal. No pointed hat, no broomstick. Merely a kindly looking old lady with white hair and dressed in white robes. Why it could have been his granny! The old woman smiled as she saw the surprise on the boy’s face.

“Well, what did you expect?” she asked. “Not all witches are evil, you know, spending their time in turning boys into frogs or worse.”

Arthur gasped. It was as if she had been reading his mind. Before he could apologise, she went on.

“I knew of your coming, Tome. My friends from beyond forewarned me that you carried a wounded creature needing aid. Bring him over here by the fire, and we will see what we can do. I have already prepared potions.

Tome laid the cub by her feet and stepped back. Ganieda examined the cub and then taking up a wooden ladle filled it from the pot. Next, she held up the cub’s head and carefully poured the foul-smelling liquid down its throat. Almost instantly, small animal stirred and opened his eyes. In less than a minute, he was up on his feet and looking around, as though he had never been hurt at all. Arthur was amazed at the transformation. Ganieda must be a powerful witch indeed and certainly not evil. Perhaps she could help him find his way home after all.

After Ganieda fed them a breakfast of porridge and sweet tea, Tome explained the prime purpose of their visit. He told her how he had found Arthur and what Arthur had told him about the cornfield and the scarecrow. He also recounted that he and Gwen had agreed to bring the boy to the old woman to ask for her advice. Considering the way that she had already known that they were coming, even to the extent of preparing medicine for the cub, Arthur thought the explanation unnecessary. Still, he waited patiently for Ganieda’s reply.

The witch pondered for a few minutes before rising to pour them more tea.

“I am afraid that it is not as easy as finding a rainbow and climbing down,” she began. “Arthur was obviously sent here for a reason, and before he can return to his home, he must complete his mission.”

Arthur’s heart fell. Ganieda recognised his despair at once, and before he could start to cry, she laid her hands on his shoulders.

“But do not despair, child. There are powers afoot in this world, both for good and evil. They are more than a little interested in this affair, and you will find both friends and enemies along your way. Friends like Tome and this little wolf who now licks your hand. You will also need to be on your guard against those who would do you harm. Much depends on you completing your mission.

“What exactly is the mission?” asked Tome. And how can a mere boy make a difference in the affairs of the world?”

“Alas I do not know all yet. My friends have told me that the boy must travel far and bring back that which was hidden by the ‘King before the Fall’. What’s more, you must go along as his guardian and protector. You must go now, not even returning to your farm. Time is of the essence.”

Tome looked aghast. “But I can’t,” he protested. “There is much work to be done on the farm. And what about Gwen? I can’t just desert her and run off on some wild quest.”

“Hush,” said the witch. “Worry not about your farm. Others will take care of it. This mission is far more important than a single harvest, for if Arthur should fail, there will be no harvests for anyone ever again. The world will enter a dark time from which it may never recover. Even now, the dark forces assemble.”

As she spoke, she cocked her head to one side, as if listening to unspoken voices.

“As for Gwen, arrangements are already underway, and friends hurry to her side and protection. For she has a vital role to play. You will see her again before this is over. But the spirits forbid me from saying more of Gwen’s task at this time.

Tome seemed strangely subdued, his shoulders falling in a gesture of resignation. “Very well, Ganieda. I am only a simple farmer, and it is not my place to resist the will of the powers. Tell me what we must do.”

“First, you must make your way over the hills to the port of Camaaloth on the West Coast. There you must seek out a certain man who will tell you more. I do not know his name.

“Then how will we recognise him.”

“You must seek the living rose that that does not grow in soil. When you find it, you will also find your contact. You will then be told what you need to know.”

“But that’s impossible,” cried Tome. “How can a rose grow if it is not rooted in the soil. This is a fool’s errand.”

“Hush, hush. Do you question my wisdom? No, I thought not. What you need to know will be revealed to you when the time is right. Now you must leave upon your quest for I sense that enemies have already found your trail. Go now with all haste! I will delay them for as long as I am able, but you must leave at once. You must reach Camaaloth before they catch you, or all will be lost before it has begun.”

Tome argued that if enemies were near, then he was not the sort to leave an old woman unprotected. He would stay and fight.

Ganieda smiled. “Do not fear for me. I may be old, but I have ways to protect myself beyond your comprehension. I also have other friends I can call to my aid. I will be safe. You must protect the boy.

So, after replenishing their packs from Ganieda’s well-stocked stores, Tome and Arthur set off to climb the cliff. Close behind them, much to Arthur’s delight, came the cub, nimbly jumping from ledge to ledge. He seemed to have found his new family. Arthur decided to call him Wolf for no better reason than that was what he was, albeit a small one.

As they reached the plateau at the top of the cliffs above Ganieda’s cave, Arthur looked back at the way they had come. On the plains far below, he could see a cloud of dust moving against the wind.

“Riders,” said Tome. “Probably the enemies Ganieda warned us about. I hope she can slow them down. If not, then do not fear. I have my sword and my strength, Come, let’s make haste.

Arthur hoped Tome was as confident as he sounded. For himself, he was terrified.