King Roswald was a ruler thought both fine and fair,
ruling with a gentle voice, wise laws, and firm hands.
He had guided his kingdom through turmoil with care
until it had become the happiest realm in the Northlands.
Roswald had three sons, all likewise full of virtue,
and they were good to their widower father and king,
and moreover were dedicated to their people, too,
seeing to their needs in every trifling thing.
But then came a day when Roswald was not himself
and his sons watched him with chagrined dismay
as their father nodded his head, as if to some unseen elf;
his usually keen mind simply drifting away.
Roswald’s eyes were puffy and wreathed in dark rings
as his bearded chin hung low upon his robed chest.
Soon he began to snore, and all three lordlings
became concerned with their father’s want of rest.
“Father,” said his eldest son, after court had ended,
“What is the matter? Are you yet well?”
His father only chuckled. “I am merely winded,”
he said, “but for reasons I cannot tell.”
This was passing strange to his sons
and so they pressed their reticent king,
insisting their father give further reasons
as to why he should believe such a thing.
“Alas, nay,” his father said with a sigh.
“It is not a proper thing to share among others.”
When they insisted again, the king gave reply,
“It is no matter to you, or any others.”
They tried to think no more of it that day,
concluding that it was likely an aberration
and that their father deserved his secrets, anyway,
since he was otherwise forthright when ruling their nation.
But the next morning the king nodded and slumped
upon his throne like a puppet unstrung of strings
or a straw-gutted scarecrow unceremoniously dumped
before the people who awaited his rulings.
They adjourned court early, the king thereafter retiring
to his lonely bedchamber, for much needed sleep.
Meanwhile, his sons met together, concerned and conspiring
to safeguard their father in his fortress keep.
“He needs rest,” the eldest, Ferdinand, said,
and his two younger brothers agreed.
“No one should bother him as he lay abed
or we will have them promptly pilloried.”
So they set guards at every level of the king’s tower—
two to a story, and ten at the bottom floor—
and the brothers themselves stayed up every hour
just outside their father’s bedchamber door.
It was in the witching hours that there stirred
noises from the other side of the door,
echoes abounding wherein there could be heard
high pitched laughter, thunderous hooves, and more.
“Something assails father!” the brothers cried,
pushing upon the door to shove it hence,
but the door was heavy, swinging slowly aside
to reveal a bedchamber fallen to silence.
The bedchamber was empty, the king gone,
and the only clues they had, had been the din
of a horse and a woman whose cackles echoed on
in the brothers’ heads, like an eerie song of sin.
“A witch has taken him!” said Adalbert, the youngest son.
“She used black magic to spirit him to her grotto.
We must rescue him ere she boil him in her cauldron!”
He then said, “Save one, save all!”, the family motto.
Knights were sent forth anon, and also squires,
and all who could look for their abducted king.
Hounds sniffed through woods, fields, and mires,
searching near every standing stone, cave, and fairy ring.
They searched all night and day for their lord,
from sunup to sundown, nary an eye idling
as the whole kingdom feared something untoward
had befallen their most beloved idol king.
But it was the maid, who, tidying the king’s room,
was startled unto fright as she began to sort his bed
and suddenly found a form laying in the evening gloom
with a slanted crown upon his disheveled head.
Her scream rallied the searchers to the tower
for it was a clarion call to wake the very dead,
and so it woke the king, too, who at that late hour
rose with a smile and a yawn and asked to be fed.
“It is not worth so much fuss,” he said lightly
as his sons berated him in a private interview.
“I just so happen to be given to walks, nightly,
and must have escaped notice passing through.”
“We did not see nor hear you open the door once!”
said Adalbert in dismay. “We were awake all night!”
“That is wholly true,” said Ferdinand, whose forbearance
was giving way to his youngest brother’s fright.
The two brothers were distraught by their sire,
but Raginald, the middle son, was more like his mother
and, so, was wise in remembering lessons taught by her
before she had died giving birth to his younger brother.
“Truth,” he said, “is as the chimera in hiding.
To glimpse only one part is to misperceive the sum.”
He then bid his two brothers to the castle’s side wing
and up another tower, overlooking the atrium.
That night the brothers stood upon the tower,
watching the king’s balcony for any malfeasent.
Then, beneath the moon and at nearly the same hour
as yesterday’s abduction, they heard her descent.
It was a witch floating across the air,
laughing wildly as she straddled her broom
with a cackle that froze the blood, her hair
floating all around her in a silver bloom.
To the brothers’ surprise, their father beckoned
as she floated toward him, raising his arms
out to her as if in welcome, which they all reckoned
to be an effect of her spells,and so raised the alarms.
But they were powerless to stop her that night
and she again transformed their beloved father
into a horse, a stallion with a coat so pale white
that it shone like foam upon the tidal water.
She threw over him a bridle and mounted his back,
then took hold of his reins, kicking his flanks.
He neighed and reared and bolted— clackity clackity clack—
across the stone balcony and up the airy banks.
The witch and the king rode across the starlit night,
she laughing and he snorting, moving with such speed
that they soon twinkled, like a star, and passed from sight,
the three brothers feeling at a loss and in great need.
“Steel weapons will not do against a sorceress,”
Ferdinand said. “For they exist like dreaming mists
untouched by blade or arrow, their flesh more or less
invincible with the aid of their magical catalysts.”
So the brothers sought the help of wizards ,
stationing them around their father’s tower.
When the witch came, the wizards wove
into a spell of protection to repel the witch’s power.
The witch was undeterred, passing easily through
their barrier as if it was nought but clear air,
thereupon transforming King Roswald anew
into a stallion which she rode away from there.
Adalbert cried out. “Why torment our father so?!
He is a justly ruler who has done well by everyone!”
Ferdinand shook his head and said, “I do not know,
but we will need stronger aid to defeat this witch, anon.”
They sent a formal message to Midland
upon the midnight wings of their fastest raven,
seeking the help of the Apprentice, Edmund,
who was heir to the powers of the Allmaster, Avon.
Edmund arrived later that day,
opening a portal directly to the castle
and stepping through without pomp or display,
wanting neither hullabaloo or hassle.
Edmund had brown hair hardly fetching
and a rose-embroidered tunic that hung slackly.
He was not impressive, this young man retching
as he stepped through a portal that shimmered blackly.
More surprising than Edmund’s underwhelming presence
was the goblin girl that accompanied him from the South;
green like plant shoots, hair white like plant roots, a nose whence
like a long taproot hung over her sharp-toothed mouth.
The brothers greeted Edmund in hopeful gratitude,
promising riches and glory and so much more,
but he waved away such things with a friendly attitude,
saying aid was reward itself enough in this chore.
“Master Avon has always been proud of your line,”
Edmund said, “and particularly proud of your king.
If it saves this goodly kingdom, then the duty is mine
to save your father.” Forthwith, he began planning.
Edmund was shown to the king, the latter
being yet asleep from a long night of riding.
It seemed to Edmund that this magical matter
was strange for reasons that the king was hiding.
“I sense no magic worked upon him,” Edmund said.
He turned toward Tangleroot, motioning her to his side
to sense what she could from the Northland King in his bed.
The elf grinned. “He seems happy after his wild ride.”
Edmund nodded. “There is more to this than it seems.
And less to it, too. I cannot say the proportion, at this time,
but we will stay here and guard the king as he dreams
and catch this witch when she once again attempts her crime.”
“Some horses like the bit and the bridle,” Tangleroot said,
cackling loudly. Her impudence irritated the youngest son.
Adalbert clenched his fist as his face brightened red.
“If you would mock him, then I would ask you to have done!”
Tangleroot was unconcerned, as all goblins were
when threatened by a human of any standing or rank.
She grinned her sharp-toothed grin in answer,
thorns growing from her green skin; nose to toes, flank to flank.
“That is enough!” Edmund said, interceding in the spat.
“Tangleroot, please behave yourself, abide, surcease,
or a whole kingdom could be thrown to turmoil, and that
is not why we are here. Master Avon entrusted us. Please!”
Tangleroot only laughed harder, hugging her thorny self
while Adalbert’s scowl darkened like a thunderhead
at the impish behavior of the Unseelie elf.
“This is no way to speak of the Northland King,” he said.
Edmund frowned in thought, his brow lined
with confusion. “Why is it that he refused to tell
anyone of his curse?” he asked. Ferdinand opined,
“We thought it perchance an effect of the spell.”
That night Edmund and Tangleroot kept watch together
within the King’s tower, alongside the brothers three,
and it was a silent night, starry and bright, the weather
clear as the witch’s laughter once again rang wild and free.
King Roswald, hitherto reposed in his deep sleep,
suddenly rose from his bed, as if at command by
the Witch’s laugh as she approached his towering keep—
he welcomed her as she descended from the sky.
“Sweet Hepsiba!” the King called. “Beware!”
The Witch was undeterred, waving her hands
and flaring flames in a roaring circle to scare
the band of people trying to stop her commands.
But before the Witch could transform the King,
Edmund wove a spell of binding, encirling her brow
with laced hemlock-and-hawthorn, that red-and-white ring
stopping the flow of the All Ways through her somehow.
“Enough!” Roswald bellowed. “Let her go! Now!”
Dumbstruck though the guards were, they obeyed,
unbinding the witch from her chains and freeing her brow
from the circlet of holly, just as their King bade.
They then hurried away from her, fearing they, too,
would be transformed into animals for a night,
or, worse, cooked in her cauldron as a stew
to be served to her coven beneath the moonlight.
The Witch freed, King Roswald addressed his heirs,
about his relationship with Hepsiba, from the start.
He spoke to them with open and honest fatherly airs
so they knew he was speaking from the heart.
“She helps me forget who I must daily be,
what I must do, for a time,” he said with a sigh,
“helping free me from my shackles of duty
and giving me some respite, ere I die.”
“I have had nothing but power my entire life,” the King said,
“and while I have always borne it as my duty and birthright
I sometimes feel its keen weight upon my wearied head.”
He motioned for the witch and she joined him at his side.
“I met Hepsiba while out on a restive walk,
looking to escape from the discomfort of my throne.
I saw her picking herbs, and, so, I stopped to talk.”
His voice assumed a very light, pleasant tone.
“As it so happened, she was not my subject— not at all!
She was a sorceress who owed no one her loyalty,
and, so, being her own queen, she invited me into her hall
where she treated me as a guest, but not as royalty.”
“But the transformations!” Ferdinand exclaimed.
“Father, you cannot insist that you were not under her spell!”
His father shook his head. “The spell she cast cannot be named—
it is different than love, and lust; it is neither, but just as well.”
“What we do is our own concern,” he continued.
“I do not expect any of you to really understand,
but, in time, Ferdinand, you will when you have been imbued
with the powers, and the shackles, of this land.”
“Since your mother died, I have devoted myself to rule—
rule of the kingdom, of myself, of all that I can see,
and sometimes I have to indulge my inner fool
or die of this weight which I bear incessantly.
“And so my mistress Hepsiba takes my reins
and frees me by taking control as my bridle bride.
Nor does she care for power or other earthly gains,
only taking pleasure, together, in our nightly ride.”
“But father!” exclaimed Raginald, “this is humiliating!
We cannot abide it” His father fixed upon him a knowing stare,
neither dismissive nor sympathetic, for a while waiting
before speaking. “Humiliating to me or to you, my heir?”
“I feel no shame in the pact we have,” he explained.
“If you do, then that is your own problem to amend.
For in all other things I am a dutiful king, and greatly pained,
and ask for little but privacy until my eventual end.”
Tangleroot grinned sharply and nudged Edmund
who, realizing he was not needed in this situation,
opened a portal and left, the brothers still stunned
that their father should continue, despite his station.
As for King Roswald and Hepsibah, the bridle bride,
they carried on until their final days came, hot to trot
in this strange, but satisfying way, each night’s ride
something done without caring of what others thought.