In a small village deep in the hills lived a shepherd and his wife. Quite late in life the wife gave birth to a son, to their mutual joy. Although he was an only child and doted on by his parents, the boy grew into a handsome, carefree and obliging lad. In time he began to accompany his father into the hills to learn the art of shepherding for there was never any doubt that, one day, his father would retire and the lad would inherit his flock.
The boy was diligent and hard-working. He applied himself to learning the ways of sheep, coming to know each one by the sound of its voice and caring for them as if they were members of his own family. His father was well pleased and, in due course, passed responsibility for the flock over to his son while he spent his days sitting in the sun and conversing with the other old men of the village. So the young man, for that is what he had become, spent his days up in the lonely hills with only the calls of the sheep and the crying of the curlews to break the incessant soughing of the wind in the long grass.
Shepherding is, by its nature, a lonely and mostly monotonous business. To pass the time the young man carved a flute and taught himself to play, taking as his inspiration the sounds of the moors; merry tunes for the days when the sun danced on the swaying grasses, melancholy tunes for when the rain swept across the open land and sombre tunes for the dreary dark days of winter. When he was not playing his flute he would compose poems and songs and when he was not doing that, he practised his wood carving, teasing out fanciful shapes from the small pieces of wood he found here and there. It was not a life that would have suited everyone but the lad knew no other and was content.
One day a new family arrived in the village and the shepherd boy's life was changed forever for the new family boasted a daughter of about the same age as him. As soon as he set eyes upon her, the shepherd boy knew he was in love and that he would, one day, marry this comely maiden. For comely she was in his eyes with dark hair that tumbled in loose waves over her shoulders, bird-like features and bright, dark eyes. Her voice, high and shrill, reminded him of the cries of the plover up on the high moors. He set out to woo her.
Now for all that he was the only child of elderly parents, the shepherd boy was not naïve. His father, despite being of a taciturn nature, had imparted the basic information about relations between men and women and, this being a small village, little went on that was not common knowledge; including rather intimate details of various liaisons between the inhabitants, authorised or otherwise. So the young man was under no illusions as to his eventual goal. In the maid, however, he saw the girl he would marry and was content to bide his time. The maid, while seeming not averse to his advances, was equally content.
Their courtship was slow; frustratingly so for the shepherd lad. He would declaim his latest poem and be rewarded with hot kisses. He gave her trinkets lovingly carved during the long, lonely hours on the moor and was rewarded with a feel of a plump, firm breast. He played her tunes on his flute; tunes to make her feet tap with mirth or eyes cloud over in sorrow and was rewarded with the feel of soft, feminine skin under his work-hardened hands. But, try as he might, the grand prize lay always tantalisingly just beyond his reach. Being in love, he mastered his frustration and wooed her even harder.
One fine day the shepherd boy and his love went walking in the woods. All around the woodland birds trilled and called and sang merrily but the lad hardly noticed for he was abstracted. These several nights he had tossed and turned in his bed unable to sleep. Even his days had been filled with indecision and doubt. Then, the previous night he had awakened from troubled dreams to the sound of an owl hooting in the tall trees at the edge of the village and found he had arrived at a decision. There would be no more wooing. He would cast his fate upon the winds this very day and propose to her.
His preoccupation was not about his decision. He had made his mind up and would accept her reply, be it yea or nay. But, being canny, he was searching for the right place to pose his question, reasoning that the location might well have some influence upon a favourable outcome. They wandered far, much further than was their wont. Finally, just as he was wondering if a place such as he envisaged in his mind's eye existed, they emerged from the trees into a large clearing, at the far end of which was a small castle set upon a low hill. It was the perfect spot.
He pulled her down upon his lap and declared his love for her. She permitted the usual liberties, allowing one hand to caress her plump breasts and the other to slip up under her skirts as far as her knee. These were the furthest liberties she permitted and he took it as a good sign that she had allowed him this far so quickly. The touch of her soft skin on his hands inflamed him until he was so heated he could hardly breathe. The time had come. He slipped to his knees before her and took her hand in his. But, as he opened his mouth to utter the fateful words, a figure stepped from the trees.
As one they swung to watch the figure advance. It was an old woman of frightful aspect. Her iron grey hair was long and straggly, her dark eyes deeply set under beetled brows, her nose and chin long and pointed. The hands that emerged from the sleeves of her black dress were long and bony. She was, beyond any shadow of a doubt, a witch and the owner of the castle on the hill.
"What a pretty sight, a handsome shepherd boy and his comely lass," she cackled. "A fine addition to my collection she shall be."
The shepherd boy tried to stand. Fire was in his eyes. He would protect his love and chase the ugly apparition away but, to his horror, he found he could not move. The girl, equally spellbound, watched aghast. The witch approached and clucked the girl under the chin.
"Oh, yes, such a pretty addition to my collection."
Before the startled girl could move, the witch made a pass with her hands and muttered a spell and the girl was instantly transformed into a bird. Quick as a flash, the witch grabbed the bird and thrust it into a small cage. Cackling with glee she turned and called back over her shoulder,
"Till the prisoner is fast, And her doom is cast, There stay! Oh, stay!
When the charm is around her, And the spell has bound her, Hie away! Oh, away!"
On remarkably spry legs, the wicked witch sped back to her castle. The shepherd boy could only watch in despair. The witch and her prisoner entered the castle and the door swung shut. In that instant, the spell was released and the shepherd boy was free. He promptly fell flat on his face for he had been straining all the while to break the witch's spell.
In a fit of anger and despair, he rushed towards the castle intent on rescuing his love and killing the evil witch. To his horror he found he could approach no nearer than fifty feet. There was no barrier. He did not meet some invisible wall and bash his nose. He was not hurt. It was simply that, at that distance, he would take a step forward and find himself magically back at the edge of the clearing. All the long afternoon he tried to get to the castle until he was utterly weary. As darkness fell he threw himself down where he was and slept the sleep of exhaustion.
In the morning, cold, hunger and a hard bed had cooled his ardour somewhat and returned his reason. The bitter reality was that it was useless trying to assault the castle directly. It was protected by magic and he would have to find some other means, probably magical, of circumventing the witch's spell. He sat on the ground as the day grew brighter around him and his mind was filled with despair.
His first resolve was to return to the village and seek help. However, as he considered the matter more, he realised this was not an option either. It was bad enough that he and his love had been out alone all night but to return without her would be more than his life was worth. With a heart laden with woe, he turned away cursing the witch who had shattered his dreams and destroyed his life and vowing that he would return some day and free his one true love.
He wandered far and wide, turning his hand to any job that offered food in his belly, a roof over his head and some coppers for his purse. Along the way he stayed in cities, towns, villages, farms and lonely cottages. Adventures he had and more than a few, all of them leaving him wiser than before though some of them leaving him poorer. And of everyone he met he enquired if they had heard of the witch of the castle in the clearing. Some shook their heads and looked at him sadly, some scorned him for a fool, some laughed and no few, women in particular, tried to persuade him to abandon his foolish quest. But none had heard of the witch and none knew how to break the enchantment. Those who answered him soberly he thanked gravely, the rest he ignored for he remained true to his vow and steadfast in his determination to free his one true love from the evil enchantment.
Late one day he was sitting in a tavern, drinking a welcome pint of ale after his day's labours when an old man approached him. The man was well above middle years to judge by his white hair and lined face but his wise eyes and brisk step belied his years.
"I hear you are on a quest," the old man said.
"It has been said," the shepherd boy replied.
"I hear further that the quest involves a young maiden who is your true sweetheart."
"That, too, has been said."
"And, moreover, the quest involves a wicked witch who has imprisoned the young maiden."
"You have heard well. What interest, other than mirth in my plight, do you have in me?"
"I may know of a way to resolve your quest."
"That would be a rare and wondrous thing. And what payment would you want for such a valuable service?"
"Payment? Nothing whatsoever, except perhaps a mug of that excellent ale for telling tales is thirsty work."
"An ale you shall have with no demur," the shepherd boy said, signalling the innkeeper. "You will, I hope forgive my natural suspicion but it has been my experience that valuable information is rarely given freely and that the price is often more than was bargained for."
The old man laughed. "What would I ask that you could pay? I am old and have no need of riches and, in truth, you have none to give. Your strong arm and steady hand? Perhaps. But my needs are few and there are plenty here who will hew my wood or mend my roof for the price of a few coppers. In my time I have travelled far and wide and seen many wondrous sights. Now, at the close, I reside here with my memories. For payment, if such it be, all I ask is that you keep me company and listen to an old man's tales of wonder and ply him with pints of good brown ale to slake his thirst for I do not offer you a magic talisman or handy spell. No, I will tell you a tale and if you deem that that tale is relevant to your quest then it is up to you to follow it of your own free will. For myself, I make neither promises nor guarantees."
"Fair enough. Perhaps your words will prove to have value or perhaps not. In truth, even the merest suggestion that my quest is not in vain will be better than I have discovered up to now and, if nothing else, I will be well entertained by your traveller's tale."
"Well and fairly spoken. I see the years of travail and rough toil have dimmed neither your ardour nor your gentle nature. Well, then, to begin..."
And the old man spun a marvellous yarn of his travels when he was many years younger. In due course, he told how he sojourned in a town under the mountains in the employ of the Bouroughmaster as a guard. In that town there was told the tale of a valley high in the mountains; a valley like no other for in it grew a most rare and remarkable flower with shiny purple petals, the colour so deep that men could lose their gaze in it. But it was not just for its colour that the flower was noteworthy, astonishing as it was. The flower was reputed to have a peculiar property and it was for this that men and women alike sought it. The flower was reputed to be the antidote to magic. No spell or wizardry or potion or witchcraft could exist within its ambit. If touched against an enchanted object or person, the layers of enchantment would instantly fall away returning the object or person to its true state.
Upon hearing these words, the young man felt a resonance echo faintly through him as a tolling bell of a distant church. A sense of excitement gripped him for he believed the old man had spoken true. However, he kept his counsel for the moment and let the tale wander to its conclusion.
"A marvellous tale indeed," the shepherd boy applauded when, at last, the old man fell silent. "You have indeed lived a rich and interesting life. These pints of ale I regard as small payment for such an evening's entertainment."
"I am gratified you find my words of some interest for I am regarded in these parts as being somewhat of an eccentric and wordy to boot. Few will listen to me and fewer still willingly."
The shepherd boy paused as if considering his next words. "Tell me ... do you deem the tale of the magical, or perhaps I should say anti-magical, flower to be true?"
"That I know not for I, myself, have never seen one. I do know that the good burgers of the town believed it to be true for men, and women too, believing themselves to be victims of enchantment would set out in search of it. Never, to my knowledge, did they succeed for it was also said that only a seeker with a true heart and honest quest would discover it. Perhaps you are one like that."
"Perhaps. Only time will tell for I am minded to seek this marvellous flower. In all my wanderings and questionings it is the closest I have come to an answer."
"Then I can only wish you good fortune," the old man said, rising to leave.
"Hold one moment. Can you direct me to this town?"
"In general terms, yes. Stop by tomorrow and I will tell you what I know."
The next morning the shepherd boy packed his belongings and took leave of his employer. This latter was sad to see him go for the young man was a conscientious employee and a good worker. But he saw the fey light in the youth's eyes and knew no word he could say would dissuade the youngster from this, in his eyes, foolish quest. So he paid the shepherd boy what he owed him in wages and wished him good fortune and godspeed. The shepherd boy then visited the old man who told him what he knew of the way, which, all in all, was not a great deal. Upon taking his leave, the lad took half his wages and pressed them into the old man's hand.
"For," he said, "if my quest is successful, all the gold in the world would not be payment enough and, if it should fail, you can sup a pint of good brown ale in my memory."
The way to the fabled town was as easy as it was short; which is to say it was neither. But, despite many false trails and perilous adventures, the shepherd boy arrived at the town as the old man had described. There, just as the oldster had said, the townsfolk had a legend of a lost valley wherein grew a fabulous purple flower. Legends and tales there were aplenty but hard facts were few. When asked where the valley was to be found the good burgers shook their heads and sucked their teeth. Some said it was to the East. Some said it was to the West. Some said it was high in the mountains. Others claimed it was of no great height but hidden by many twists and turns.
Realising he would receive no help from the townsfolk, the shepherd boy set off to look for the valley. He searched high and low: he climbed mountain passes so high that the snow stood in them even in the height of summer. He struggled through valleys so deep the noonday sun failed to light their floor. He struggled through dense woods, fought icy torrents, climbed crags of barren rock and battled impenetrable undergrowth. He hunted to the east and to the west but no sign of the legendary valley could he find. Many weeks went by. As time passed, his hopes faded and despair grew. He became convinced the valley was a myth, a legend, a figment of foolish men's imagination and searching for it was a nothing but a fool's errand. He cursed the old man for misleading him and the townsfolk for foisting this fairy tale upon unsuspecting visitors. In black despair, he began to make his way back down the mountains, determined to give up his hopeless quest.
He camped on a grassy knoll at a bend in a small river. For supper he had caught three small fish and they were sizzling merrily over his camp fire. The wind stirred the tops of the tall trees gently and the river gurgled happily over its stony bed. The day had been somewhat grey and overcast but, as he waited for his supper to cook, the clouds parted and a shaft of sunlight illuminated his camping place. At that moment a blackbird alighted on a nearby branch, cocked a beady eye in his direction and gave voice to his trilling call. The shepherd boy laughed aloud for, in that instant, the black despair that had beset him lifted like a veil.
He realised that he had, indeed, been foolish, not for undertaking his quest but for blaming others for its lack of success. The old man had told him precisely the truth — that he had a tale to tell and he gave no guarantees or promises. The townsfolk likewise had told him tales but had offered no sureties. Well he had tried and he had failed. But the failure was his, not that of others. Still, if this avenue was closed, perhaps there would be others. It would take time but he would leave these mountains and seek elsewhere. Somewhere, surely, he would find the answer. Saddened, but with a peaceful heart, he settled down to sleep.