Once upon a time there was a king. He was a young king, only just thirty-three summers, and he ruled a small, quiet kingdom that saw no greater trouble than the occasional band of thieves or a wizard whose spells went out of control.
The king’s parents died when he was very young, leaving him with not just a kingdom to rule, but two brothers to care for and raise. He tried his best, the young king, but being little more than a boy himself he did not know much about raising other boys.
His brothers grew up healthy and handsome, but also selfish and ungrateful. Though all in the kingdom knew the young king was not at fault, he blamed himself for every wrong committed by his brothers. Determined that they should learn the ways of the world once and for all, and gain the honor and pride they lacked, he arranged for a grand festival to be held over two days.
Then he told his brothers that they must over the course of those two days choose a spouse, a new life, and learn something from them, or he would cast them out of the kingdom. Angrily the brothers protested, but the king remained firm: marriage or exile.
Two nights before the ball, the brothers slipped from the palace and crept into the woods. They were a treacherous place, the woods, long known as the Laughing Forest for the spirits who dwelled there and laughed and chuckled and snickered in the moments before they tormented their victims.
Pale moonlight offered just enough light to tease, leaving the brothers to trip and tumble as they journeyed. They wended their way along a path that seemed to change whenever they took their eyes from it to gaze into the surrounding forest. Every sound made them jump, made their breath catch, as they waited for the sound of the spirits’ terrible laughter.
But only silence accompanied them through the twisted forest, until at length yellow-orange light drew them to the glade which they sought: the home of the Witch of the Woods. The air smelled sweet, like candy or fresh gingerbread, and the brothers remembered again all the tales of the witch who could provide anything a person desired–for a price.
Reaching the cottage, the brothers knocked on the door. It was opened a moment later by a tall, spindly man with short, spiky red hair, sun-dark, freckled skin, and hazel eyes. He was, the brothers also noted, neither handsome nor ugly, but quite homely.
“May I help you?” the witch asked.
“You need to fix our predicament,” said the first brother, whose name was Timlin.
The witch sneered at them. “I don’t need to do anything. I don’t take orders from anyone. Not even royalty,” he added when the second brother, Ranlin, tried to protest. “If you want to ask for my help, certainly you may. But you’ll not get it by ordering me about.”
The brothers glared at the witch, but the witch only continued to scowl right back.
“We’ll pay you, of course,” Ranlin finally said. “If that’s what’s got you in a snit.”
The witch heaved a sigh and muttered something about brats, but then said more clearly, “I do not accept conventional means of payment. If you do not agree to my terms then you do not get the spell you desire. If all you have to offer me is gold, then you may leave.”
“We’ll give you whatever you want,” Timlin snapped. “As you already know, we’re royalty. We can give you anything.”
“Being royalty does not grant the power to give anything. I assure you that though I be a humble witch, living alone in the woods, I have more to offer than either of you. Come inside then, but do not think to cheat or harm me or the spells you desire will work against you rather than for you.”
The brothers motioned impatiently, and Timlin said, “Yes, yes. Can we just get on with it?”
The witch pursed his lips, but nodded and motioned for them to sit at the large table that took up the center of the room. Many bottles, boxes, bowls, and other such items were scattered across it, filled with all manner of magical ingredients. A book took up one corner, a stack of more near it. The room smelled of wood smoke and pungent herbs.
When they had taken their seats, the witch stood on the other side of the table and folded his arms across his chest. Though he was so homely looking, and wore only faded breeches and a heavily-patched shirt, something about him made the brothers suddenly nervous.
But when he continued to scowl at them, waiting and waiting, Ranlin finally said, “Our odious brother is forcing us to marry else he will cast us from the kingdom. We want spells to ensure that we get ideal spouses, so he does not try to force us to marry the people he wants.”
“I see,” the witch said. “Ideal for whom?”
Timlin cast him a look of great annoyance. “For us, of course, you halfwit. Who else?”
“Who else indeed,” the witch murmured, but unfolded his arms and nodded. “Very well, then. If you desire spouses who suit you, then you shall have them. I will deliver the spell to you the first day of the festival. By the end of the third night, you will each have found the spouse for whom you are most suited. As to payment…”
“We aren’t paying you anything until we know the spells have worked,” Ranlin said.
The witch gave him a cold look. “My spells never fail. Payment is due when the spells are given to you, and my payment is this: you will make me your guest at the festival. You will dance with me, you will sit beside me at dinner and speak with me, you will provide me with all that I require to enjoy the ball as your guest. Trivial things for two princes to provide. Do we have a bargain?”
“Yes, yes,” the brothers chorused impatiently. “If that is all you want, then you shall have it.”
“Very well, then,” the witch said. “The bargain is struck. Tell me, then, what it is you love best in all the world?” They stared at him blankly, and the witch prodded, “What is your favorite thing to do? What would you do all the day long if you were permitted?”
“I enjoy the hunt,” Timlin said. “I want to bring down the greatest beast ever to walk the land.”
Ranlin sneered at his brother’s words and said, “Music. There is no finer thing that listening to golden voices sing sweetly to me all the day long.”
“Very well,” said the witch. “Now you may go. I will make your spells and you’ll have them two days hence. Remember my warnings.”
Nodding, the brothers hastened away back to the palace and the warm safety of their soft beds.
Two days passed swiftly by as the whirlwind preparations consumed everyone. The king, seeing the good cheer of his brothers, thought them finally excited by the opportunity being given them and allowed himself some excitement as well.
But as the day of the festival arrived a witch presented himself at the palace and announced he was a guest of Their Royal Highnesses. The princes agreed to see him, grimacing all the while, receiving him in the smallest, darkest parlor in the palace, so seldom used it was covered with dust.
The witch held out two necklaces, and the brothers saw they were bone charms strung on leather cord. Peasant jewelry, nothing at all what princes would wear. “Your spells,” the witch said. “They are called Charms of Destiny, and they will give you what you seek. Wear them at all times, and the spouse for whom you are meant will be drawn to you, bound to you eternally.”
“Can you not give us a potion or some such?” Timlin asked, eyeing the charm distastefully.
“No,” the witch snapped. “You want this particular spell; this is how you get it. Be warned, though, Your Highnesses. There is no undoing this spell, or avoiding the spell running its course once you put the charms around your necks. The moment the charms are in place they will seek out that which suits you and bind you to it forever. It cannot be stopped once started, and only greater—darker, forbidden—magic can undo it.”
Timlin sighed. “Yes, witch. We get it. That is what we want—spouses suited to us, not suited to our brother’s whim. I just do not see why the spell must take on this particular appearance.”
“Never fear, you are free to hide them beneath your clothes. Now for your end of the bargain.”
“Yes, yes,” Ranlin said. “We will send someone to see to what you require immediately.” They left without another word, leaving the witch to wait.
A short time later, two guards stepped into the parlor and grabbed hold of the witch. They dragged him through the halls of the palace, into the servants’ spaces, then out into the back where they threw him out. “Never darken the palace again, witch, or it is the executioner to whom you will answer for your dark deeds.”
The witch watched them go, angry and sad, the clothes he had taken such pains to clean and patch covered in mud and muck, his carefully polish boots ruined. Slowly standing up, he cleaned off what mud he could and strode back into the palace.
Many tried to stop him, but all fell away either from the look in his eye or the twitch of his fingers as though he were about to cast some terrible spell.
The witch turned and saw a man who could only be the king, and his cheeks went scarlet to see so handsome a man. He felt all the more acutely his own sorry state, and nearly forsook his entire goal—but a bargain was a bargain, and he had felt it when the brothers put on the charms. Lifting his chin, he said, “Your Majesty, I have come to collect the payment owed me by your brothers. They wear my spells, but they tried to have me thrown out rather than pay their debt.”
“What?” the king said, and turned to one of his servants. “Tell my brothers to attend me in my chambers immediately. You, come with me.” He marched off and the witch hastened after him.
In the king’s private chambers, his two brothers waited with sour looks upon their faces. Taking a seat before an enormous window, sunshine spilling over him, the king said, “What is the meaning of this? Did you pay this witch for spells?”
The brothers said nothing, and the king sighed. “Witch, what spells did they purchase, and what compensation is owed you?”
“In exchange for two Charms of Destiny, I asked to be treated as their guest for the whole of the festival: to be dressed suitably, to dance with them, to eat and converse at the banquets.”
“That is an easy price to pay, and I am ashamed they tried to cheat you,” the king replied. “It shall be paid. You two had best stay out of my sight as much as possible. I am ashamed not just by your attempts to use magic as an easy way to meet my demands, but by your attempts to avoid paying the debt you owe. Let us hope you do learn something from all this. Get out.”
The brothers fled, red-faced with fury and humiliation. The king again offered his apologies, and summoned a servant. “See that this man is treated as our honored guest, and given every luxury. What is your name, witch?”
“Anson, Your Majesty. Thank you.”
“Enjoy the festival, Master Anson,” the king replied, and with a fleeting, polite smile left Anson to the care of the servant.
Bowing, the servant murmured, “This way, Master Anson,” and led him through the halls of the palace to a beautiful room easily twice the size of Anson’s cottage. In short order, the servant arranged for a bath and food, and by the time Anson was done the servant had summoned tailors and seamstresses and piles and piles of clothes to adjust.
When they were finally done, Anson looked in a large mirror set out for him and scarcely recognized the reflection that stared back at him. The boring face was still the same, the hair still hopelessly bright and already trying to turn messy again, but he did not look like a witch who lived alone in the woods with only his old horse and a few thieving rabbits in the garden to call friend.
Maybe, just maybe, he would enjoy himself at the festival after all.
“Thank you,” he said to all the servants who had aided him. “I appreciate all you have done for me.”
“It is our pleasure to serve the king and all his honored guests,” said the servant the king had ordered assist him.
“I am grateful,” Anson said, and let them go to attend duties more important than dressing up a silly witch.
As ready as he could expect, Anson left his room and wandered the halls of the palace until he found the garden where all were gathered for an afternoon garden party. Many looked at him, and Anson smiled shyly whenever one chanced to catch his gaze, but in reply they only turned away and whispered to one another. His smiles faded away as he caught the words ‘witch’ and ‘curse’ and others far more unpleasant.
Taking a glass of pale pink wine from a table laden with food and drink, Anson stood at the edge of a dance floor that had been arranged in the middle of the garden. Lords and ladies twirled in elegant display to the sweet music filling the air. It reminded Anson of days long past, when his mother had hummed those same tunes, occasionally singing, as she taught him to dance and they twirled about their little cottage.
He looked around the garden and eventually spied the terrible two tucked away out of sight of the king in a corner. They saw him and hastened away, casting dark looks over their shoulders, and Anson tried not to be disappointed. It was not as though either of them would have made a pleasant dance partner. Sipping at his wine, Anson looked around for someone else who might not mind dancing with him, but wherever he looked gazes turned hastily away.
When his glass was empty, he returned it to the table and decided that a walk would be better than lingering at the edge of the dance floor like a hopeless idiot. Turning away from the table, he collided smartly with a dark blue velvet jacket. Looking up, he immediately flushed as he stared into the dark blue eyes of the king. “My apologies, Your Majesty.”
“No need,” the king said. “I believe you were owed a dance, and my worthless brothers have scampered off. Come.” He smiled pleasantly and extended a hand, and Anson took it before he let his nerves convince him to refuse.
Whispers rose and then abruptly died as the king escorted him to the dance floor. Anson had dreamed a thousand dance as he lay alone in his bed at night. He had day dreamed a thousand more while toiling over his table bringing dreams and wishes to life for others. Not even his most extravagant fantasies compared to dancing with the king, who danced with grace and elegance, talked and charmed throughout, and acted as though Anson were in fact a dear friend and they had danced so countless times.
When they finally stopped, and the king left him back at the refreshment table, Anson felt bereft. He stared after the king as long as he could, then took another glass of wine and drank it more hastily than was wise.
He could feel the stares of the others, but still no one else approached him. Retreating to a corner, Anson ignored them all in favor of reliving his dance with the king over and over. And if he pretended that the king had danced because he had wanted to, and not to pay a price, well what harm was there in that?
By the time dinner came, Anson was starving and anxious and lightheaded from too much wine. Again he hung back, uncertain what to do, where to go when there were so many tables and people who followed rules Anson had never learned.
A servant appeared at his elbow, however, and with a quietly murmured, “This way, Master Anson,” led him to the table where the king sat.
The king smile in greeting. “My brothers are still missing, but I am certain that comes as no surprise to you. Please, do sit, and I will do my best to entertain you in their place.”
“It is not your place to pay their price, Your Majesty,” Anson replied as he sat down. “I am sorry you are burdened by their debts.”
The king laughed. “If you are a burden, then I wish more of their debts were like you, Master Anson. Now eat, please. I will make you known to our fellow dining companions, and they will be only too happy to regale a new face with their old stories.”
To Anson’s surprise, the lords and ladies did seem eager to talk and talk and talk, until he was quite overwhelmed with wine and words. It was the most fun he had ever had in his life, and though he had little to say himself, Anson lapped up everything that was said to him and tucked it all away to enjoy again later in his cottage.
Dinner was nearing its end when there came a loud roar from the far side of the room, and a great and terrible beast with dark fur and enormous horns filled the doorway. It wrapped one massive paw around Timlin, who screamed and tried to struggle free.
“Guard!” the king bellowed, as all the lords, ladies, and servants fled with terrified screams.
“No!” Anson cried out as the guards appeared. “You must halt. It is the Charm of Destiny which has brought the beast.”
The king rounded on him, eyes blazing with fury as he snatched the witch close. “What have you done to my brother?”
“Only what he asked for,” Anson said, hurt that he was so mistrusted, though he conceded the king had a right to be angry. Honestly, it was not as though he was unused to such reactions. “Your brother loves only the hunt, and wants nothing more than to bring down the greatest of beasts. Instead, he has been captured by the beast. See how the charm binds them together.”
Obediently looking, the king stared tight-lipped as the beast cradled his brother close and rumbled in a way reminiscent of a purr. Timlin, pale and shaking, glared hatefully across the room at Anson. “Witch!” he bellowed. “How dare you do this to me!”
“The spouse for whom he is most suited,” Anson repeated. “The charm has spoken.”
The king let him go, laughing softly. “So be it. Timlin, I accept your choice of spouse. You’re dismissed.”
Growling in satisfaction, the beast carried Timlin away.
“Will he be all right?” the king asked. “Please tell me I have not sent my brother off to be harmed or lost.”
“They are suited, and assuming your brother can learn and grow up…” Anson shrugged. “I make the spells, but I have little control over them. But he’ll be safe, and possibly even happy someday.”
The king finally let him go. “What is in store for Ranlin?”
“I know not, only that it will suit,” Anson said with a smile he could not quite contain. “I feel it when the spells takes hold, but until then I know as little as they.”
“Very well,” the king said with a sigh. “The hour is late, and the festival effectively over for the night. Good night, witch.”
“Goodnight, Your Majesty” Anson replied, but the king had already turned away. A servant appeared to guide Anson back to his room, and exhausted from the long day, Anson fell quickly asleep and into dreams of dancing.
The next morning, the castle was all but vibrating with gossip of Timlin carried off by a beast with the king’s blessing. Ranlin was nowhere to be found, and Anson quickly grew tired of the way people stared at him even more blatantly than they had before.
The second day of the ball included a tournament, with all manner of performances and even a great joust. Anson remembered his mother’s stories of such things: the parades and banners, the knights in their gleaming armor and bright, colorful tunics.
Anson was escorted to sit in the king’s private box, and tried not to notice that save for servants they were completely alone. “Are you enjoying the ball?” the king asked.
“Yes, Majesty. Thank you again for—”
“No need,” the king said, and smiled at him. “Who do you think will win the joust?”
Anson blinked at him, then looked over the contenders. “I’m sure I couldn’t say. I’ve never seen a joust and know nothing of those involved.”
The king laughed. “Well, take a look and pick. It’s all in fun. Give a token to your champion if you’re inclined; they’re good luck.” He winked, but was kept from saying anything further as a servant ghosted in to murmur something in his ear.
Leaving him in peace, Anson turned his full attention to the jousters. There were ten in all, with seemingly ever available cover on display amongst them. In the end, he decided on a knight much younger than the rest, dressed in simple green and gold, hanging back from the others and with no token to his name but a rose pinned to the front of his tunic.
“Have you made your choice?” the king asked, making him jump.
“Uh—yes,” Anson said, and indicated the knight in green.
The king seemed surprised. “A good choice, but he’s young and new and easy to overlook.” Gesturing to a servant down below, the king had the knight brought. “Your token, then, Master Anson.”
Not knowing what else to offer, taking his cue from what the other knights wore, Anson removed a bracelet he was wearing and handed it to the knight. “Good luck.”
Grinning brightly, the young man gave an awkward half-bow from his horse, then rode off.
When the jousting began, Anson quickly found himself caught up in the excitement, cheering and screaming and protesting along with everyone else, and he cheered loudest of all when his chosen knight took round after round—and finally secured the grand prize.
After he had claimed his prize, the knight rode up and handed back the token, along with part of the coin he had won. “Thank you for the faith, good sir.” He kissed each of Anson’s cheeks, then rode off again to where a little girl stood waiting eagerly. A sister, Anson surmised, and smiled.
“Well done,” the king said, gripping his shoulder. “Now I think it is time to eat.”
They had scarcely settled into their meal when Ranlin came darting in, face red and furious. He yanked Anson from his seat and shook him hard. “What is the meaning of this, witch?” he demanded. “I said I loved music! What have you done to me?”
“What are you talking about?” the king demanded, as the rest of the room fell silent. He rose and pulled Anson free, shoving his brother back and warning him to stay away with a look.
Anson watched, unsurprised, as a beautiful woman entered the room and walked over to Ranlin, standing still and quiet by his side.
“Mute,” Anson said softly. “A man who hears, but never truly listens except to the sound of his own voice, is most suited to one who cannot speak at all.”
Beside him, the king laughed softly. “Yes, indeed. Ranlin, I accept your choice in spouse. What did you think would happen when you tried to cheat my orders by using magic? Be off with you, and show some kindness to the bride destiny chose.”
Ranlin looked ready to hit them, but in the end only snarled and reluctantly gave his arm to the woman, who took it after glaring briefly at him, and together they left the room.
“You are quite the witch,” the king said. “I hope that they will learn from your workings all that I could never manage to teach them.”
Anson shook his head. “I only gave them what they asked for, Your Majesty.”
“Well done, I say. Now, let us enjoy this fine meal.”
The meal proved very fine indeed, and Anson grew flustered as more and more people spoke with him, asked him questions. Servants refilled his glass again and again, so that by the time dinner ended and everyone adjourned to the grand ballroom for the closing dance of the festivities, his head felt as though it floated and he could not stop smiling.
When a beautiful woman asked him to dance, Anson at first thought she was speaking to someone else. But she laughed and took his hand, and when she had finished a man approached. Two dances became four became many, until Anson was quite breathless and in need of more wine.
It was the king who found him on the balcony, enjoying the cool air and the sweet scents wafting up from the gardens. “You look as though you have been having a very fine time tonight,” the king said warmly. “I am glad.”
“I’ve had a wonderful evening, thank you, Your Majesty. You’ve been most generous, and I shall treasure that generosity always.”
The king smiled and offered his arm. “Shall we enjoy the last dance, Master Anson?”
“I would be honored, Majesty,” Anson replied, and laughed in delight as they twirled around the dance floor. The king smelled like honey and citrus, a bit of sweat from their exertions in the crowded room. The candlelight made his dark gold hair seem almost to glow, and there was a small smudge of a birthmark on his jaw that Anson longed to kiss.
He supposed if he was going to dream, he may as well make it as hopeless as possible. What was the point, after all, in dreaming small? If he held on a touch too long as the music died, he doubted anyone noticed.
“You dance wonderfully,” the king said with a boyish smile. “Truly, I wish all my debts were so pleasant to repay.”
The words were a knife, a hard cold reminder that Anson was the only one caught in a dream. The king had no reason to dance with him a second time, and he had stupidly thought maybe the king wanted to dance with him, but Anson should have known better. Stupid, to let his flights of fancy mingle with reality.
“Thank you again, Your Majesty,” he said, and tried to summon a smile, but felt it falter. He saw the king’s smile fall away, but could not bear to wait to hear what he said next. “The debt is paid in full, and I wish you and your brothers every joy. Goodnight and farewell.”
He fled the ballroom, ran through the castle back up to the room allotted him for the festival. After the soft silks and linens and velvets he had been given to wear, his rough homespun scratched and itched. But the clothes were familiar, safe, and a sorely needed reminder that he did not belong in the palace.
Unable to stomach the thought of going back through the palace, being seen by everyone now he was once more boring and ugly, he climbed out his window and down the stones of the palace wall, creeping across the lawn until he at least reached the familiarity of the dark woods.
Three days passed in quiet misery, as he toiled preparing tonics and balms and creams to sell in the village on the other side of the woods. When he heard a horse, Anson sighed, wondering who had come and what spell they would require.
When the inevitable knock came, Anson drew a deep breath and let it out on a ragged sigh. Shoving his hair from his face, he went to the door and yanked it open—and stared, mouth gaping.
“May I come in?”
“Y-your Majesty?” Anson hastily stepped back, making room for him to enter. “Um. Is something amiss with your brothers?”
“No,” the king replied. “My brothers are, I presume, doing quite well and getting what they deserve. I did not come to speak of them. I came because I find I am quite in need of something.”
The words churned like spoiled food in Anson’s stomach. “What is it you need, Your Majesty?”
“My name is Thane, and I find myself quite in need of a witch.”
Anson stared at him, blinked. “Well, I am a witch, Your Majesty.”
“Thane,” Anson dutifully repeated, wanting suddenly to smack him though he could not say why. “What do you need of me?”
Drawing closer, forcing Anson to stumble back until he collided with his work table, Thane reached up to cup his chin, giving Anson no choice but to look at him. He stared at Anson for what seemed an eternity, then slowly let go. “I wanted to apologize for my last words. I meant them in jest. I by no means thought that I was only paying a debt in dancing with you that second time. It was purely for the pleasure.”
“Um—oh,” Anson said, too startled to think of anything intelligent to say. “I—” he flushed and looked down. “I am glad you did not feel obliged,” he finally said softly.
Thane forced his head back up and said softly, “I say again that I find myself quite in need of a witch.”
Anson swallowed. “And as I said, I am a witch. But you’ll have to be more specific. What need do you have of me?”
“Many,” Thane murmured, and kissed him.