Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, a young king married a young queen. While their parents had arranged their marriage, the king and queen soon fell deeply in love. At court, all the lords and ladies were charmed by the love the two beautiful young people felt for each other. The two were never apart and were usually within arms’ reach of each other.
Then one day, a young woman arrived at court. She performed magic tricks, she danced, she sang, she charmed everyone around her. Never had the lords and ladies been so entertained. All except the young queen. Something about the sorceress bothered her.
“It is not real magic, though,” the young king said to his queen when she questioned the wisdom of allowing a sorceress to live with them. “It’s all tricks. But she does them so cleverly.” But the young queen was not so sure. She would often notice the sorceress staring at her with a strange, hungry smile. And whenever she came close to the other woman, all the young queen could smell was salt air.
While the sorceress was not especially beautiful, nor was she kind at all, many of the men and some of the women, were in her thrall. Everywhere she went, she was surrounded. They gave her gifts of jewels and fine clothes until she looked quite the lady and not at all the vagabond entertainer who had first come to court.
Gradually, the young king joined the throng of admirers. He was no longer always sure to be within arms’ reach of his young wife. At first, the queen did not like this and she would try to stay near him. But she did not like to spend her days following her husband following the sorceress. So, gradually, the young queen found other things to do with her days. She read books. She learned how to fence and how to ride astride a horse instead of side saddle. She spoke with her husband’s advisors since someone had to manage the kingdom.
The sorceress left one night. Her rooms were empty. All of the fine goods she’d been given were gone. It would have taken a cart to haul all her possessions away, but none of the horses or carts was missing.
For weeks after, many of the lords and some of the ladies were laid low with grief. No one dressed brightly. No one smiled or laughed or sang. The young queen was surrounded by sad faces.
The young king would sit on the parapets, sighing. “Don’t you find life here very dull?” he would ask his queen.
“No. I’m so busy,” the young queen would say. And she would tell her husband about how she passed her days. But he was not interested. He would look at the horizon and sigh.
Finally, the young queen was able to convince the young king to go riding with his brothers along the coast. She spoke of the beauty of the sea and how much he would enjoy the ride. He agreed to go.
She hoped her husband would come back to her.
The brothers returned several weeks later. The king was not with them. They told the young queen that they had taken their brother to the highest cliff along the seashore so he could admire the view of the ocean and sky meeting each other in the distance.
He had smiled at them. And then he had dove into the sea. A great fish had come up out of the water and had swallowed him whole. “A pike. With huge teeth. After, it rose up out of the water and opened its mouth. We could see our brother, so far down. And he looked so happy.”
The king’s advisors wrung their hands and said nothing could be done. They passed the crown to the next brother. But he was very young and inexperienced. He had never expected to be king and so had not prepared himself. He often asked the young queen for help.
Late one night, the young queen disguised herself as a maid and left the court. She went to an old witch in the woods. None of the king’s men knew what to do. So she would ask a woman.
“You can get him back. If you want,” the old woman said to the young queen.
“Of course, I want to bring him back. I love him!” the young queen cried.
The old woman snorted. “They always say that. But does he love you? You can’t steal what someone gives willingly.”
“He loves me! He was enchanted. They all were!”
The young queen begged the old woman to tell her how to rescue her husband. She promised to pay the old woman any price. The old woman asked for five years of the young queen’s life. The young queen gave it. She was young. She could live a long time. Five years were as nothing to the absence of her husband.
She returned to the court and told the new king she was going to rescue his brother. The new king asked her not to go. But she would not listen. She dressed herself as soldier and took the best horse from the stables. With her sword at her side, she was ready for battle.
When she reached the highest cliff at the seashore, the young queen got down from her horse and she waited for the tide to come in. She waited a long time.
Close to night, the water finally came as close as it would to the cliff’s edge. The young queen walked to the edge and she whistled the tune the old witch taught her. She waited. In the distance, she thought she could see a darker shape moving among the waves. The shape came closer.
It was a large pike. It smiled at the young queen and showed its pointed teeth. Then it leaped onto the cliff’s edge beside the young queen.
The fish became the sorceress so quickly, the young queen hardly knew how the transformation had happened. But when the sorceress smiled, she still had her pike teeth.
The young queen took her sword from its sheath and rested the blade’s edge against the sorceress’s throat. The sorceress laughed.
“Why are you here girl?” the sorceress asked.
“Give me back my love,” the young queen said. “Or I will cut your throat.”
The sorceress smiled even wider. Water streamed from her hair and her dress shimmered like fish scales.
“You won’t. Threats won’t work. You know this. What did you bring me?”
The young queen let her sword fall to the ground. She looked at the ground. She wanted to hurt the sorceress, but she was afraid that would hurt her husband. She called the horse over and reached into the saddle bag.
“I give you every jewel he ever gave me,” she said. “Each one, a token of his love for me.”
The sorceress took the jewels from the young queen and put them on. Her neck was covered with necklaces, bracelets ran up her arms to her elbows, every finger wore several rings. She lifted a crown onto her wet hair.
“And?” the sorceress asked.
The queen bit her lip. Finally, she slipped her wedding ring off and handed it to the sorceress.
“Where is he?” the queen asked.
The sorceress smiled and opened her mouth wide. Far down the sorceress’s throat, past her pointed teeth, the queen could see her husband. He was smiling.
“I’m here to bring you home,” the queen shouted to her husband. He frowned.
“But I don’t want to go. I am happy here,” he said.
“No. You’ve been enchanted. The old witch in the woods told me how to break the spell. I’ve given the sorceress every token of your love you’ve ever given me. You’re free now.”
“But I haven’t been enchanted. I chose to go to her,” he said.
The sorceress snapped her teeth shut. “I cannot take what is not willingly given,” she said. “But I can give him back to you. You have made a fair exchange.”
The young queen picked up her sword. She looked at her hand, now free of the ring she had worn.
She sheathed the sword and mounted her horse.
“Keep him. He no longer has my love,” she said and rode away. The sorceress laughed and laughed and when the young queen looked over her shoulder, she saw the sorceress dive into the water.
The young queen returned to court and became the new king’s most valued advisor and strongest warrior. No one saw the young king or the sorceress again.