Year of the Witch: The Witch and her Servants

This is a Russian fairy tale taken from what has to be one of the most beautiful books I own, a gilded 2014 Barnes and Noble hardback edition of Fairy Tales From Around the World by Andrew Lang. It’s so pretty I feel nervous about opening it. I have not read much Andrew Lang before and am unfamiliar with this particular fairy tale but it looks to be a long one, so get comfy and we’ll get started.

It begins with a king who has three sons: Szabo, Warza and Iwanich. This king owns beautiful gardens and extensive orchards, but while he is out walking one day with his sons, they come across a stretch of wasteland where three trees stand flourishing in isolation. Surprised at their father’s sorrowful reaction, the princes ask what is wrong and unlock a Backstory.

When the princes’ grandfather was on the throne, a great magician gifted him with a seed that – according to him – would grow into three glorious trees. On the old king’s deathbed, he commanded his son to plant the seed, which he duly did. The king ascended to the throne at the age of twenty; when he was twenty-five, the trees bore their first fruit, and what fruit it was. The gardeners were given strict orders to guard the trees, for a condition of harvest was that if one unripe apple was picked then all the rest of the crop would be ruined. The king was so desperate for a taste that he dreamed of it. Yet despite the vigilance of the gardeners, the entire harvest was stolen before the king could have so much as one bite.

He decided to disregard the magician’s instructions the next year and had all the fruit picked before it could ripen, but the apple he ate was bitter and the rest of the fruit rotted within a day. After that, the king threw himself into planning security arrangements, but no matter how trusted and watchful the guards, the fruit was always stolen by mysterious forces. By the present day, the king has just given up. This, then, is why the sight of the fruit trees is depressing for him.

His eldest son volunteers to guard the fruit trees himself. Fired up with determination, he climbs one of the trees, settles in for a night of constant vigilance and…topples into a deep sleep. The same thing happens the next year when Prince Warza tries his luck. Which leaves Iwanich, the youngest brother by a significant margin. He too climbs a tree and waits, watching by moonlight for some sign of robbers.

What he sees is a white bird like a swan, sinking gently onto his chest. The prince grapples with it, catching hold of its wings, and it transforms into a beautiful young woman. Her name is Militza and she tells Iwanich, with great dignity, that he need not fear her. The magician who gave the seed had no rights to it in the first place – he stole it off Militza’s mother, sending her to a premature grave, so in another deathbed promise Militza vowed to strip the trees of their harvest every year. Having been caught in the act, she is apparently no longer obligated to keep to her promise and spends the rest of the night in conversation with an increasingly besotted Iwanich. Near dawn she casually reveals that there is another magic force governing her life: a witch is in possession of a lock of her hair and will take it badly if Militza blows her off to stay with Iwanich.

Militza is, by the way, the kind of person who refers to herself in the third person. She gives Iwanich a diamond ring and tells him, “Keep this ring in memory of Militza, and think of her sometimes if you never see her again. But if your love is really true, come and find me in my own kingdom.” The ring will guide him there. With a goodbye kiss to the prince’s forehead, Militza vanishes.

The last thing on Iwanich’s mind right now is the state of the harvest, but yay, it’s lasted the night unmolested for the first time ever and everyone who is not languishing after a beautiful swan enchantress lady is over the moon about it. The king swallows Iwanich’s vague story about fighting a wasp all night and goes bouncing off to order celebratory feasts. While his father is busy with the glorious fruit, Iwanich fills his pockets with money, steals a fast horse from the stables and takes off.

At first the worried king ransacks the land for a sign of his son, but after six months Iwanich is presumed dead and at the end of a year, he’s more or less been forgotten. Which says horrible things about his family, but Iwanich himself is fine. While the kingdom’s still on red alert looking for him, he’s come to a vast forest. He is about to start down the only visible path when a voice calls out to him, demanding to know what he’s up to.

The voice belongs to a thin, ragged-looking man sitting at the roots of an oak tree. He has upsetting things to say about the forest, namely that it is full of terrifying creatures. “If I were to cut you and your horse up into tiny morsels and throw them to the beasts,” he says, “there wouldn’t be one bit for each hundred of them.” Which isn’t at all a horrifying thing to say! The prince, we are told, is‘rather taken aback’ but is reassured by the shimmer of his ring. If it still urges him on, he must be going the right way. He’s about take off down the path when the old man shrieks at him to come back. If Iwanich is really set on risking life and limb in the forest, the old man will provide a little assistance. He gives Iwanich a bag of bread crumbs and a live hare. When the wild beasts inevitably descend, Iwanich must distract them with the bread and the hare in order to flee for his own life. Also, the old man insists he leave his horse behind, because there is no way he’s getting through the dense undergrowth on horseback.

Upon entering the forest, Iwanich soon finds himself surrounded by a tiger, a wolf, a bear and an enormous snake – all of whom are really into bread, but even more into chasing hares. Iwanich seizes the opportunity to bolt away himself, following the light of his ring through the forest. But he is not left alone for long. He is soon approached by a very small man with crooked legs, prickles like a hedgehog growing all over his skin and a beard so long he’s split it in half and is using the two ends as leashes for the pair of lions accompanying him. He wants to know if Iwanich is the one who just fed his ‘body-guard’, and if so, Iwanich may choose a reward for his kindness.

Iwanich just wants to make it through the forest in one piece, so the little man deputises a lion to watch over him. Beyond the little man’s lands lie a palace; when Iwanich reaches that point, he’s on his own, lest the lion fall into the hands of an enemy. I like this man and I like his priorities.

By nightfall, Iwanich reaches the edge of the forest. On the other side of the treeline is a great plain and on it, the promised palace glinting in the distance. Iwanich thanks the lion politely and heads off on his own. Early the next day, he reaches the palace and just walks in, wandering about for some time like a lost moth, before coming across a beautiful garden and a group of beautiful girls weaving flower wreaths. The prince sees Militza and greets her exuberantly; she is equally delighted to see him, introducing him to her companions as her fiance. She’s not wasting any time either – before you know it, they are married and getting straight into the happy ever after.

Except, it’s not quite so simple as that. Three months of marital bliss later, Militza is invited to visit her aunt and settles it that she will be gone for seven days. In her absence, Iwanich has the keys to her palace in his keeping. “Only one thing I beg and beseech you,” Miltiza says before she leaves, “do not open the little iron door in the north tower, which is closed with seven locks and seven bolts; for it you do, we shall both suffer for it.”

Guess what Iwanich suddenly desperately wants to do. It’s like no one’s learned a thing about human nature since the Pandora days.

By the third day, Iwanich cannot resist the gravitational pull of his curiosity any longer and has to take a look. Whereupon he has a serious Bluebeard’s castle moment. Inside the forbidden room a cauldron of boiling pitch is hung above a fire, and chained inside the cauldron is a man, screaming in agony.

When the man begs for water, Iwanich hurries to his aid without a second thought because he is a good person and this whole situation would be deeply disturbing to anyone. In an instant, however, there is a terrible crash and the palace disappears, leaving the prince abandoned in a wasteland.

Stunned and despairing, he starts walking for lack of anything else to do and eventually comes upon a little hut. The geography of fairy tales demands that this place belong to none other than the old man who warned Iwanich about the perils of the forest. He gives the prince shelter overnight and in the morning Iwanich pulls himself together, enquiring if the old man knows where he might find work.

Unfortunately the only person in these parts who is hiring is the witch Corva. She lives in a grim-looking little black house with an iron door and two cobwebbed windows. She’s also into traditional witch exterior decorating – which is to say, the house is surrounded by a fence of spikes, each of which is impaled with a man’s skull. Nevertheless, Iwanich walks up to the door and knocks.

The witch is seated inside by the fire. She promptly agrees to take Iwanich on as her servant and leads him deeper into the house, to a stable where two black horses are kept. Iwanich’s work is to lead mare and foal to the fields each day, and if he manages the task for a year he may name his own wages; but if the horses escape him, Iwanich’s head will be used to decorate the spiked fence.

Iwanich is so deep in his own problems that he barely even acknowledges the threat. And at first the job goes well. The horses do not attempt to bolt; the witch treats him kindly and feeds him well. One day, while the horses are grazing near the banks of the river, Iwanich sees a stranded fish and returns it to the water. The fish offers him a reward, but Iwanich waves this off like the sweetheart that he is and the fish instead insists he takes a scale from its body, so that he may call on it should he ever need help. Another day, Iwanich rescues an eagle from a flock of ravens and is given a feather so that he can call on the bird as well. Then he finds a fox in a farmer’s trap and by freeing it, adds to his collection of favours with a couple of hairs from its tail.

Time passes. The year is nearly up when Iwanich notices the witch sneaking into her own stable and slips after her to eavesdrop. She is ordering her horses to hide themselves in the river when Iwanich takes them out the next day, or else she’ll beat them bloody. Despite his best intentions to keep watch and prevent the horses obeying this order, Iwanich is sent to sleep by the witch’s magic and awakens alone. While he’s visualising his head on a spike, he remembers the fish and hurries to throw its scale in the river. The fish obligingly creates a wave that sends the horses fleeing onto the bank.

The witch is not happy. Her next plan is that the horses must hide themselves in the clouds, but Iwanich has an answer for that too: by blowing the eagle’s feather into the air, he calls on its help to drive his charges out of the sky. The poor horses are furiously berated when Iwanich brings them back to their mistress. Tomorrow is the last day of Iwanich’s employment and the witch is determined to cheat him out of his wages. She instructs the horses to hide in the king’s hen-house, but who better to find them there than a fox? Iwanich throws the tail hairs on a fire and calls his friend to help. By sneaking into the hen-house and rousing the horses to make a ruckus, the fox draws the attention of the royal henwives, who promptly send the horses packing. Iwanich happily leads them home.

While he is riding across the heath, the mare abruptly speaks. “You are the first person who has ever succeeded in outwitting the old witch Corva, and now you may ask what reward you like for your service,” she observes. “If you promise never to betray me I will give you a piece of advice which you will do well to follow.”

Iwanich promises. The mare tells him to name her foal as his reward, for it has powers of astonishing speed. And probably also because the witch is a horrible person to live with, so the prospect of escape must look pretty good. Certainly, Corva does not want to give the foal away, but once she sees that it is inevitable, she throws her own advice into the bargain. She explains that the man in the cauldron of boiling pitch was none other than a powerful magician who used his freedom to kidnap Miltiza and steal her palace for good measure. Apparently he can only be defeated by Iwanich and is so alarmed at the prospect that he’s set spies on the prince to report his every move. To speak a word to him will be to fall into his power; the only way to defeat him, Corva says, is to grab him by the beard and yank him to the ground.

Iwanich thanks the witch and rides away. It is a very, very short trip, the foal being every bit as swift as promised. Iwanich is brought straight to the magician, who is travelling with friends in a carriage drawn by owls. The magician assumes good cheer and greets Iwanich with a cry of “Thrice my benefactor!”, but Iwanich is having none of it and throws him to the ground, whereupon his horse stamps the man to death. Which, wow. Harsh country around here.

The magician’s death restores Iwanich to the palace and Militza to Iwanich’s arms, and they get back to their happily ever after, this time in possession of a superpowered murder horse. I suppose there are worse people to have that kind of power than Iwanich, who is a darling, but I don’t know about Militza. If I were Corva, I’d be keeping a very close eye on her.

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