The Loyal Tortoise: A Faerie Tale

“They were three months passing through the forest” by Virginia Frances Sterrett. Originally published in Old French Fairy Tales (1920). Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.

Once, in a land of dense forests and flowering meadows surrounded by towering mountains, there lived a King and a Queen who were much loved by their people; for the King was kind and the Queen was strong and they ruled justly and well. And the one who loved them most was the King’s brother, Rhonan, who was both wise and loyal. And Rhonan and all of the people rejoiced when the Queen, after many years of waiting, gave birth to a daughter.

Now it happened that there was a sorceress whose heart was filled with greed and envy. When she saw the beauty and prosperity of the land, and the happiness of the people, and the love of the King and Queen, she desired that all for herself; and, if she could not have those things, then she would destroy them. And so she swept into the land, a storm at her back. With a snap of her fingers, she summoned fierce winds, hurling great rocks and ripping trees from the earth. With a flick of her wrists, she called torrential rains, flooding the rivers and the flowering meadows. With a wave of her hands, she pulled needles of ice from the sky, slaying the cattle and sheep in the fields and forcing the people to flee before her.

The King, who hoped that kindness and compassion would temper the sorceress’ greed, took up his staff and rode out to plead with her.

The sorceress smiled and summoned a bitter wind that froze his tongue in his mouth. The King, mute, staggered back to the castle in failure.

The Queen, who believed that strength was the answer, took up her mighty sword and rode out to meet the sorceress on the back of her fiercest stallion.

The sorceress laughed and called down a punishing rain. She threw the Queen from her horse, trapping her in thick mud. The Queen was forced to abandon her sword and her armor, and return to the castle in failure.

And so the King and the Queen summoned warriors from every corner of the land, warriors by the hundreds and thousands, determined to save their people and slay the sorceress. But wise Rhonan knew that an army alone, no matter its size, could not stop the sorceress. And so he set out for the towering mountains in the west, where the Witch of Tongues and Bones made her home. But the Witch — bones in her hair, a necklace of deer and raven and wolf and nightingale tongues around her throat — preferred the solitude of her mountains, and refused. For three days and three nights, Rhonan pleaded with the Witch, until at last she relented.

“I will not kill the sorceress,” she said, “but I will send her to a place where she will do no more harm.”

Together they traveled east, eventually joining the King and the Queen and their hundreds of warriors in a wide field of bright flowers. And there they met the sorceress in battle. A mighty storm raged around them, lightning burning warriors where they stood, great winds picking them up and hurling them through the air. All seemed lost. But then the Witch pulled the bones from her hair and cast them upon the ground, and they grew into the skeletons of bull and elk, wolf and fox, hawk and eagle. The skeletons charged the sorceress. They tore at her flesh and her hair, distracting her as the King with his staff and the Queen with her sword — brave and foolhardy — fell upon the sorceress.

Bleeding, enraged, the sorceress called down a fury of lightning, killing the King and Queen, burning them to black ash.

Rhonan, his grief a silent scream, ran forward. With a single strike of his sword, he cut the sorceress’ hands from her body.

Her magic lost to her, the sorceress fell to her knees and the storm vanished, blowing away into nothingness.

The Witch pulled the tongue of a raven from the necklace around her throat. Slipping it into her mouth, she sang a corvid song. By the hundreds, ravens and crows and jays descended upon the field. They swarmed around the sorceress where she bled, lifted her up with their beaks and claws, and bore her far, far away. They carried her beyond the western mountains to a poisonous wood. And there they left her, in a tiny meadow, surrounded by trees and grasses and flowers whose touch was deadly. Only within that tiny meadow, barely thirteen steps across, could the sorceress live, trapped, caged with her fury and envy.

Now, you may think that this is the end of the story. That the King and Queen were mourned by the people, and that the little Princess was raised up onto the throne, as is the proper order of things. And that the sorceress lived the rest of her miserable days in that little meadow, all alone. Or even that Rhonan convinced the Witch of Tongues and Bones to remain with him, rather then returning to the solitude of her mountains.

That is not what happened.

The story is not done yet.

Yes, the King and the Queen were rightly mourned by the people, who had loved them fiercely. But the Princess was just a child, too young to rule. And so Rhonan was named Regent in her stead, and he ruled as wisely and justly as any man could. The Witch of Tongues and Bones, tired of the affairs of mortals, plucked a tongue from her necklace, sang a song, and returned to her quiet home on the back of a great eagle.

Years passed, and for the people of the land they were, for the most part, good years. The forests regrew, the rivers returned to their beds, and cattle and sheep filled the fields once again. The little Princess herself grew into a bright and curious young woman, whose kindness and strength were tempered by pragmatism and common sense; she had, after all, been raised on the story of her parents, whose kindness and strength were not enough, and whose ashes fertilized a field of bright flowers.

And as the date of the Princess’ eighteenth birthday approached — when Rhonan would step aside as Regent and the Princess would ascend the throne as Queen — the people one and all were in good spirits. For they had no doubt that the Princess would be as wise and just a ruler as her uncle and her parents before her.

But that was not to be.

The sorceress, caged within that poisonous forest, had nursed her rage and greed. With her teeth, she chewed a small rock into a sharp needle. With her lips and tongue, she wove the grasses of the little meadow into thread. With sweet speech, she coaxed rabbits and squirrels and serpents from the lethal wood. She caught them and killed them and stripped them with her teeth. She ate their flesh raw and, from the bones, crafted new hands. And, with her teeth and her lips and her tongue, she sewed these skeletal hands onto her wrists.

For many years, she could summon only small winds and tiny rain showers. But her rage drove her on and, as the years passed, she regained more and more of her strength and skill — until, at last, she was able to snap her fingers and summon a storm fierce enough to lift her out of the meadow and carry her far across the mountains to the land she still desired.

There, she found the people filling the streets with laughter, eager to watch as the Princess was crowned Queen.

Her rage and envy were so great that the sorceress called forth a storm the likes of which no one had ever seen. Buildings were torn from their foundations. Lightning set the forests and fields aflame. Ice choked the rivers. With every snap of her finger, with every laugh and smile, a stone was ripped away from the castle. Only when it was reduced to rubble, the Princess and Rhonan standing dirty and bloody amidst the ruins, did the sorceress banish her storm.

But only for a moment.

With a giggle, she called a wind that picked up the Princess and carried her far, far away, across the western mountains, to that tiny meadow in the middle of a poisonous wood. With a chortle of glee, she summoned another wind and dug a hole so deep that no sunlight could reach the bottom. There she cast Rhonan, far far deep down.

Then, with a skeletal hand, she took up the crown that was not rightfully hers, set it upon her head, and demanded that the people love her.

Now you may think that is the end of the story. That the sorceress sat triumphant upon her throne, a greedy tyrant, never satisfied. That the Princess remained trapped in the tiny meadow, caged within a lethal wood for the rest of her days. And that Rhonan remained lost at the bottom of a pit so deep that no sunlight could reach the bottom.

That is not what happened.

The story is not done yet.

The Princess was a bright and curious young woman, strong and kind in a way that was her own, not that of her parents. She found the bones and skins scattered by the sorceress, and soon learned to coax animals into the meadow herself. Some she kept for food and some for companionship; others she skinned for clothes and shoes; and the bones of still others she chipped and carved into sharp knives. But though she carefully covered her feet and body, she could not pass through the wood, no matter how many times she tried; for the poison cut through the fur and chilled her skin and she was forced to retreat, time and again, to the safety of the meadow.

As for wise Rhonan, trapped at the bottom of that deep pit: he did not give up hope of seeing his niece again and of killing the sorceress once and for all. With his sword, he began slowly to climb towards the light he could not see. He ate the bugs and spiders and worms that crawled in the dark, and drank the rainwater that fell from the sky so far above.

For a year and a day, he climbed, hacking away at the stone with his sword, digging his fingers and toes into tiny crevices of rock. When at last he reached the surface of the world again, his clothes were in tatters, his beard was long and matted, his hands were curled with pain, and his sword was a dull splinter of metal.

When the sorceress saw him, she laughed. Then she turned her back on him, and floated away on a cold breeze.

The people, too, turned away, their shoulders tight with fear.

And so Rhonan, step by step, made his way across the land to the far western mountains. There, high in the towering peaks, he found the Witch of Tongues and Bones, content in her solitude.

When she saw him in his tattered clothes, his beard long and matted, she asked, “Rhonan, why do you disturb me?”

He told her, then, of the sorceress and what she had done. And he asked the Witch to kill the sorceress, to save the land and its people and restore the Princess to her rightful throne.

But the Witch shook her head and said, “I will not. I must take the bones of that which I kill, and only the bones of four-legged and winged and finned animals may come into my hands. I can show you the way that it may be done, though. But know that there is a price to be paid.”

“Whatever the cost, I will pay it,” Rhonan answered.

And so she sang an eagle’s song, calling the great bird to carry them to the edge of the poisonous wood. She pulled a small tortoise shell from her hair, placed Rhonan’s hands around it, and said, “Take this, for only as a tortoise may you safely cross the forest. When you find the little meadow, have your niece gather up the bits of bone left by the sorceress. Carry her upon your back, out of the woods and back to the castle where the sorceress now rules, unloved and ever-hungry. There, her greed shall be the end of her.

“Know this, though: once you place this shell upon your back, it may never be removed. A tortoise you shall become, and a tortoise you shall remain.”

With only a single nod of his head, Rhonan lifted the little shell and placed it on his back. And the shell grew and grew and grew, and Rhonan bent under its weight. His legs folded and thickened, his neck stretched, and his beard and hair fell away, leaving rough gray skin.

Without a single look back, he set out across the lethal wood. For a year and a day he traveled, step by slow, plodding step. When at last he reached the tiny meadow, barely thirteen steps across, he found his niece dressed in furs and the shreds of her fine silk gown. But when he opened his mouth to call out to her, he discovered that his speech had left him; for his tongue was now that of a tortoise, not a man.

When the Princess saw the tortoise, she welcomed him into the tiny meadow as she had so many other animals. She readied her sharp bone knives, hoping to make a long meal of the tortoise. But when the animal looked at her, she hesitated. And when the tortoise began to circle the little field, pawing at the bits of bone left by the sorceress, she followed him, picking them up one by one and stowing them in a leather pouch. When she had them all, every last piece, the tortoise turned back towards the wood, and then stopped, his head tilted towards her.

Realizing what he intended, the Princess gathered up all of her knives, leather bags of food and rainwater, and thin ropes of sinew. She released the songbirds and frogs who had been her companions, and then she climbed upon the back of the tortoise.

As they set out into the wood, she did not look back.

For a year and a day, they traveled through the forest, one slow step after the other. When the Princess slept, she tied herself to the back of the tortoise with the ropes of sinew, so that she would not fall off as she dreamed. She gathered rain in her leather pouch, and caught birds and squirrels with her sharp bone knives and ate them raw.

When at last they emerged from the poisonous forest, they found the Witch of Tongues and Bones waiting for them, the great eagle at her side, a swarm of ravens and crows and jays gathered around on the rocks.

“Witch,” the Princess called out, “have you come to aid me in my battle against the sorceress?”

“I have not,” the Witch answered. “It was curiosity that drew me. I was uncertain if your loyal uncle would succeed.”

And when the Princess realized that the tortoise was none other than Rhonan, she laughed with joy and threw her arms around his neck. But when the Witch told her that he would remain a tortoise, her laughter turned to tears.

“Can nothing be done?” she asked.

“This is the price that Rhonan paid, and freely.” The Witch tilted her head in thought. “But while I cannot restore his shape, I can restore his speech. His tongue is that of a tortoise. Give him the tongue of another man, and he may speak again.”

The Princess stood, bone knife in hand. “No. Not the tongue of a man.”

The Witch nodded. With a quick slash-slash of the knife, the tortoise tongue was on the necklace around her throat, replaced by the tongue of the Princess.

His speech restored, Rhonan lamented and cursed the Witch, but the Witch merely shrugged.

“There was a price and she paid it freely. Now leave my mountains, and bother me no more.”

So saying, she climbed atop the great eagle and flew away, followed by the swarm of corvids.

And thus the Princess, now mute, and Rhonan, his form still that of a tortoise, made their way over the mountains and east across the land, towards the castle where the sorceress ruled, greedy and unloved. As they walked, the people gathered around them, a few at first, and then more and more: farmers and shepherds, old knights and merchants, brewers and weavers.

From her castle, the sorceress watched them advance, and she laughed. She folded her skeletal hands in her lap, and waited. She ordered that the doors be thrown wide, and that the Princess and her tortoise be allowed to enter.

And so they did, and when it was the tortoise who spoke, the sorceress laughed all the harder, very nearly falling off the throne.

“You have taken that which is not rightfully yours,” Rhonan said. “Leave, or you shall be ended.”

The sorceress lifted her hands and declared, “I shall not.”

But before she could snap her fingers or flick her wrists or wave her hands, the Princess pulled out her leather pouch. She flung it upon the ground, scattering the bits of bone from the tiny meadow in the midst of the poisonous wood. The bones danced across the floor and, one by two by three, began to knit themselves back together. One by two by three, the bones of the sorceress’ hands pulled and twisted and wrenched themselves free, gliding across the floor, knitting themselves whole again. The skeletal rabbits and squirrels and serpents threw themselves upon the sorceress, who raged and shrieked.

And so she died, when the mute Princess drove her sharp bone knife into the sorceress’ greedy, envious heart.

Now you may think that is the end of the story. That the Princess was crowned Queen and restored to her rightful throne, while the people rejoiced and cheered in the streets. That Rhonan, now celebrated far and wide for his loyalty, remained at his niece’s side as her wisest and most trusted advisor. And that the sorceress, unmourned, was tossed down the deep, dark pit, there to feed the bugs and worms and spiders that had never known the warmth of the sun.

And that is what happened.

But the story is not done yet.

For tortoises, as you know, are very long lived. And so Rhonan faithfully served his niece the Queen. And then her son, the King. And then the King who followed him, and then the sisters who ruled together, and the King who followed them. And when at last the old tortoise, his skin gone pale grey and wrinkly, closed his eyes for the last time, the people mourned fiercely. They gathered from every corner of the land, by the hundreds and thousands, filling the streets.

And it is said that, if you looked carefully, you would find among them a witch with bones in her hair and a necklace of tongues around her throat.

[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. Her poems and short stories have been published in a wide variety of venues, a complete list of which can be found at EHS. This story, “The Loyal Tortoise” was inspired by the accompanying image.]