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."
.... There is more of this story ...