Ever since the death of my mother at the hands of the vermin scourging our land, my father, King Stephen, had been beside himself with grief. He locked himself in the palace’s tallest tower, refusing all but the barest amount of food and water, proclaiming that his beloved kingdom was lost and he along with it.
I wasn’t that ready to completely give up hope. I was determined to find the way to rid our land of the infestation and see my father healthy again.
I left the castle in the dead of night on hunting parties, for that was when the corpses were out doing hunting of their own. My party was small, only two or three men rode with me each night. My intention was to scout out where the unmentionables were hiding, discover if they kept camp, and try to ascertain if there was a possibility of launching a full attack.
One night I became separated from my party. We were hunting in the thickest, most dangerous section of the woods, and had split apart to cover more ground.
I heard a sound. It was only a small snap, but my ears were instantaneously tuned in to the direction of the sound. I dismounted my trusted dark steed, Sampson, in order to proceed in silence. There was another snap and the sound of slow shuffling footsteps. Sampson startled and ran into the dark of the trees.
“Fine steed, indeed,” I muttered under my breath. I drew my sword and prepared myself for what was about to come out of the thicket.
A few moments passed and the shuffling grew nearer. I could hear a distinctive rattling breath, and my skin began to crawl at the thought of what was coming my way.
“Aww, Prince Philip, I was wondering when you would find your way to my humble little home.”
A woman who looked to be as old as time itself emerged from the darkness. She was covered in a thick green cloak, with her long hooked nose barely peeking out from under the hood.
I was too stunned to speak.
“Come with me, Your Highness,” she beckoned, and then turned to shuffle back into the darkness.
Curious, I followed her into the thicket, passing through brambles that tore at my already fraying coat. Finally we came to a clearing, with a squat little hut built in the center. A thin trickle of smoke escaped the stone chimney piece, which beckoned me into the cozy interior of her home.
The old woman went to the fireplace and gave a few stirs in the huge black pot that sat over the fire. She looked back at me, assessing my appearance from top to bottom, gave a little grunt, and began to mutter to herself as she drug a flat bowl from the shelf above the fire and proceeded to ladle a large scoop of the liquid into the bowl. I could not understand what she was saying.
“Please, you don’t need to feed me,” I tried to say, but she just waved me off, and carried the flat bowl over to her dusty table. I hoped that she didn’t intend for me to actually eat what was in the bowl. It was a muddy brown color, and had a foul sort of smell.
The old woman placed the bowl firmly on the table top, and rotated it a few times. She seemed dissatisfied, so she grunted again and shuffled over to her cupboard and pulled out a few bottles of strange-looking ingredients. I looked on with horror as she proceeded to dump what looked like a healthy dose of hairy black spider legs and emptied another bottle of something that resembled some sort of squishy eyeballs into the steaming bowl of liquid. Good gracious, she couldn’t expect me to stomach this concoction!
The woman gave the bowl a swirl, dabbed her finger at it tentatively, and then gasped a raspy intake of air.
“What? What is it?” I asked, stepping reluctantly forward.
Just then the door was flung open with a crash and three of the undead vermin started to shuffle into the single room of the hut. I swung around, pulling my sword from its sheath as I moved, but the old woman was even faster than I. Raising a bony finger, she pointed at the first walking corpse and chanted something under her breath. It immediately froze in place and stood silent. She pointed at the other two and they likewise froze. Then, with a sudden swish of her arm there was a deafening crack and the three corpses crumbled to the dirt-packed ground, now only a pile of bones and ash.
I stood there dumbfounded.
“You’re a…a witch!” I finally croaked, stepping back involuntarily.
“What?” she squawked. “Of course I am, boy! How else could I live this long out here in the wilds!” The old woman shook her head, muttering to herself as she turned back to the bowl of stinking brown goop on the table. “I thought you might have a little more brains in that head of yours. They don’t make royalty like they used to…”
“There now, there’s no need to insult me!” I exclaimed, stepping closer to the steaming bowl again. “You just took me off guard, is all.”
The witch took a twisted twig and poked at the ingredients of the bowl again. Finally, with a satisfied sigh she said, “Ahh, yes. Now I see.”
“What? What do you see?”
“The secret to your success,” she answered in a low, crackling voice. Turning toward me, she leaned in and whispered, “You want to learn how to rid this land of these foul creatures, don’t you?”
“Yes!” I retorted, surprised. “Yes, more than anything!”
“Very well.” The old woman looked back into the bowl, directing her gaze into its murky darkness. Her eyes seemed to glaze over as she proceeded to talk, as though in a chant.
“To free the land of death and decay, there is one who can inspire the way.
Find the one with the bow of gold, her arrows are true, brave and bold.
Attempt it alone and you shall fail, but together your strength shall prevail.
Victorious conquerors for your land, united together, hand in hand.”